foggy east driving in the mist on the snowless plains

I could see from the air that there was no snow anywhere on the plains north of the Red Deer River.

Looking at the feed from my little copter as I flew it above the open country between Cessford and Highway 36, I could see that the grasslands below were snow-free with not even a snowdrift in sight. Ponds were frozen over, sure, and there was a bit of snow still on the ice. But the black dots of cattle were scattered across a landscape that was a carpet of tan, beige and taupe as far as the eye of the copter’s camera could see.

I’d started out under a brightening sky but as I rolled further east the fog that had been dissipating over the city thickened again. By the time I hit the Gleichen turnoff visibility was down to a couple of car-lengths. Cresting the Cluny hill I had to slow down behind a semi that was creeping along with its flashers on, the driver seeming to feel his way through the curtain of mist.

Things improved by Bassano but not by much. Resigned to the fact that it was going to be yet another foggy Tuesday, I turned off the highway and followed the gravel east.

It was actually kind of a pleasant day. Stepping out of the truck to take a few pictures, I could smell damp soil - one of the finest scents there is - and feel the mist on my face. It was cool but not cold, more like an April morning than the third week of February.

I drove on east past Countess and Rosemary and saw new calves in the pastures and whitetail deer that bounced off into the fog as soon as I slowed down. A coyote paused as it hunted in a field but took off like a rocket as soon as I rolled down my window. Coyotes taking off, I understand. They get shot at a lot. But whitetails are just silly.

I found the first nesting owl of the season on the way to Millicent. It was on a nest high in a poplar, hunkered down just on the edge of the fog’s reach. A few kilometres later I found another, this one perched in a tree, but there had to be a nest close by. Great horned owls are the earliest nesters we have around here. They’ll be sitting on eggs while other birds are still courting and flying back north.

Speaking of migration, I found some other birds not far from the second owl. They were red-winged blackbirds. Either they have come back from the south really early or they decided to spend the winter right here. And it wasn’t just a couple of them. There was probably close to a hundred of them.

And I swear I heard a meadowlark. Their song is unmistakeable so unless one of the ubiquitous starlings has learned to mimic the meadowlark’s trill, those guys are back, too. Or maybe stayed over. Unfortunately, I never saw it.

The day was looking up even though the looking was still obscured by fog. As I rolled on east I considered heading to Dinosaur Provincial Park but the badlands look better when you can actually see them. I turned toward Steveville instead.

The road to Cessford crosses the Red Deer River here and there are plenty of badlands to admire to admire right there. I flew my little copter along an isolated section of them by Berry Creek just for fun. But after crossing the river I turned east again to hit the plains. Might be some antelope out there.

There was. I found a little group of about a dozen lazing in the snow-free grass. They got up when I stopped and fluffed out their white butts but they didn’t run off too far. They know they can outrun pretty much anything so they're not easily spooked.

They did go out to the edge of my vision in the fog, though, so I rolled on. I stopped at an old windmill I know and flew my little copter around it. It looked pretty nice from the air, all alone against the vast sea of brown grass. But better as video than as a still photograph.

It was well past noon, now, but the light was exactly the same as it had been all day. Stopping on the bridge over Berry Creek, I aimed the camera at the willows, saskatoons and cottonwoods that grow where the creek meets the Red Deer River. The soft light made their subtle winter colours glow and the ice along the banks had a red tinge from the tea-coloured water of the creek. I caught a brief glimpse of a beaver further downstream but it was too quick for a picture.

Time to head back west.

I stayed on the north side of the Red Deer River valley and followed the gravel back toward the city. Missing a turn - pretty much the only turn out there - I hit a dead-end. And found more antelope.

These ones were just walking along and pretty much ignored me as they ambled through the prairie grass. And when they came to a fence, I got to photograph one of the most unique things about these prairie speedsters.

Antelope are very reluctant to jump. Evolving over thousands of years on the wide-open North American grasslands, they could pretty much just run around any obstacle that got in their way. Jumping over things simply wasn’t necessary so they never really developed the will to do it.

That became obvious as they approached the fence that was in the path of this bunch. Mule deer, whitetails, even elk and moose would simply jump over. Not the antelope. They slowed right down and one by one they dropped to their bellies and wiggled their way under the lowest wire.

Not sure how they would handle it if there was much snow on the ground. I’m sure they’d figure it out. The pair of jackrabbits I saw a little ways down the road didn’t have many options, though. They stuck out pretty starkly with their bright white coats. A passing eagle wouldn’t have a very hard time spotting them.

Might have even been able to pick them out with my little copter but flying about 80 metres up even the few cows scattered about looked like black dots out on that vast, brown carpets of shrubs and grass. There was no snow visible anywhere from that height and the plains receded out of sight into the grey mist that hovered on every horizon.

I landed the copter and rolled on.

There were mule deer in the sand hills just south of the river and they bounced along in the grey light. A herd of elk were grazing not far from them. Wish I could have gotten better pictures of them. And not much further along I found more antelope.

From the ground, I could see no snow anywhere. Will it be a dry spring? Who knows. This is dry country, so maybe.

No matter, this country is beautiful snowy, wet or dry. Or even shrouded in fog.

The day fading from grey to black, I rolled on home.


FEBRUARY 21, 2017

Photographed with DJI Phantom 4, Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C

Created By
mike drew

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