into the hills blossoms everywhere in the wonderful porcupine hills

There were a dozen different wildflowers within arm’s reach around me.

Windflowers and cut-leaf anemones, tiny blue-eyed grass blinking upwards, meadow rue, hedysarum, pussytoes, the last wispy seed heads of crocus. There was arnica blooming in the shade beside me.

If I’d flopped on my back, my head would have rested on a spread of strawberry blossoms, northern bedstraw and yarrow. If I’d kicked out my feet I’d have punted a big clump of balsamroot.

I was sitting in the ditch along East Sharples Creek Road high in the Porcupine Hills west of Claresholm. A light wind was blowing, stripping away some of the heat from the bright sun, the sky overhead a milky blue. I could smell the grass crushed beneath my butt along with a hint of wild onion.

The Porcupine Hills are stunning any time of year but right now they just might be at their best. Everything looks so fresh and new on their slopes and summits. The grass is bright green, the new leaves of aspen and poplar shimmer in the breeze. Bright, fresh needles are pushing out of buds on the pines, spruces and Douglas firs.

And the flowers, so many flowers.

That’s why I was sitting in the ditch.

The balsamroot is nearly done for the year, the big yellow blossoms starting to fade and mule-ear leaves starting to droop. But up here along East Sharples there were still a few lively stands of them so I’d stopped for a closer look. The palm-sized flowers have such a nice yellow colour, not as bright as a sunflower or as glowing as the freshly-bloomed arnica close by, but a softer, dark-butter shade that complemented the balsam scent coming off the plants.

Changing lenses, I aimed my camera at the blue-eyed grass - actually a type of iris - and tried to focus on the tiny flowers as they bounced in the wind. Then I shifted my attention to the meadow rue, their subtle, nodding blooms like tiny chandeliers.

Across the road there were a couple more stands of balsamroot angled so that they glowed against the shady background so I stumbled over to check them out. And found the spider.

It was a crab spider, an ambush hunter that sits on flowers to wait for it’s prey. Normally they take on the approximate shade of the flower they’re on to better hide themselves - usually pinkish or a shade of yellow - but this one must have just recently vacated a balsamroot blossom because it really stood out brightly against the reddish hues of the flowerhead it was on.

I could have spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures within a hundred feet of my truck but I wanted to see what the rest of the hills held. I’d already explored up around the south fork of Willow Creek - hit a horse traffic jam back there - and planned to poke around the western slopes so I hopped back in the truck and rolled on.

But not far. Just down the road several flashes of bright orange caught my eye. Wood lilies. Couldn’t pass them by. And as I was photographing them, a golden eagle soared by just above the treetops. Columbia ground squirrels chirped out a warning.

One left turn later, a cow elk watched me from a coulee mouth and less than a kilometre beyond her, a badger had a staring contest with my lens. Hawks overhead, bluebirds and tree swallows lining the fences, it was absolutely glorious.

I rolled down the west side and headed south, making the turn that opens onto the spread of the Waldron Ranch and Oldman River valley. No matter how many times I come around that corner, the view to the south always takes my breath away.

Turning back toward the hills just shy of the Maycroft bridge, I rolled across the grasslands that stretch away from the hills. At Skyline Road, I turned again.

This big spread of fescue grassland lays like a green carpet at this time of year and with the recent rains, it is in its prime. Cattle barely have to move to keep their bellies full and the Columbia and Richardson’s ground squirrels must feel like they’re in heaven. Well, until one of the numerous Swainson’s and redtail hawks comes along. Not to mention the golden and bald eagles. Badgers and coyotes, too.

Now that I think about it, heaven might not be such an appropriate term. But there’s plenty for them to eat.

And plenty of flowers, too.

Big patches of three-flowered avens - prairie smoke -and butte marigolds push their way through the sea of grass. The ditches are lined with hedysarum on various vetches while the coulee slopes are covered with wolf willow - such lovely scent - anemones and wild roses just starting to bloom.

The day had turned even more beautiful as I rolled south, the wind dying down as the afternoon turned to evening. I came across an osprey beside a nest built on a set of moose antlers on a ranch gateway and watched an eagle soar above the Oldman River.

Deer started popping out everywhere.

Mostly mule deer, the seed to be in every pasture, every coulee. There mommas with new babies - so hard to get pictures as they hid quickly - and groups of bachelor bucks that ambled along or lay in the grass and grain fields with just their fuzzy new antlers showing.

Along the river itself, families of geese and ducks paddled along. The cottonwoods and coulees rang with the voices of song sparrows and wrens. In the nearly calm air, the screeches of hawks sounded like they were right beside me.

I pushed on toward Lower Tennessee and Sheep Camp Roads and paused to watch a buffalo bull take a dust bath as tawny new calves bounced around the domestic herd. A bull elk popped out of a coulee and back down again before I could get a picture.

Off to the west, the southern slopes of the Porcupine Hills stood semi-silhouetted against the hazy background, the unusually calm air holding dust from passing vehicles and catching the evening light. A mule deer doe bounced across a fence in front of me.

A day in the Porcupine Hills. It truly doesn’t get any better.

Time to roll on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

JUNE 12, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300, the Sigma 150-600C and the DJI Phantom 4.

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