the snow below before the chinook melts it all

The odds had to be very long that I would step in a badger hole.

True, they’re pretty common out on the open prairie and on the edges of fields but given the horizon-pushing size of the southern Alberta landscape you would think that my chances of actually stepping in one would be pretty small.

But nope, I had barely walked a dozen steps toward a patch of barley when suddenly my right foot dropped into space and I listed hard to starboard before crumpling sideways. Luckily, there was a good covering of snow to break my fall.

I was out near Milo on my second day of wandering around the snow-covered hills and valleys east of the city trying to take advantage of the sunshine and warming temperatures to get some pictures of the lovely, snow-covered countryside.

I’d headed north and east, out past Lyalta and into the valley of the Rosebud River. I figured that if I was a little ways beyond the early reach of the incoming chinook I might find a bit of pretty snow.

Now, given all my complaining about the cold of the last month you might think that I would really be looking forward to the temperatures rising. And you would be right.

But I actually kinda like it when the countryside is covered in snow. It’s really quite pretty with the sun shining on it and everything is shades of white and blue. The way those billions of tiny ice crystals kick the sun around is really quite spectacular. And after two winters with barely any snow at all, I was enjoying seeing the plains looking all wintery.

But there was no reason that it had to be so cold. Snow will fall and cover the ground just fine at minus-5C. No need to hang around minus-20C for weeks on end. It’s January and it’s supposed to be cold but it doesn’t have to be that cold.

So as the temperature started to rise I headed out to have a look around before the chinook blew in and started to eat it up.

I hadn't had much luck with snowy owls at the beginning of winter but now I’m seeing them everywhere. I found one staring down at me from a power pole and another just up the road sitting in a field doing an impression of a snow lump. There were two more not much further along and I managed to get a picture of one as it took off. Not a great picture but an inspiring one.

Because it happened that I had my little copter with me. And it was actually warm enough to fly it. I sent it up for a snowy owl’s-eye view of the countryside.

From overhead, rows of round bales looked like something in a confectioner’s shop or the jelly rolls Gramma used to make and dust with icing sugar. Muskrat houses in frozen sloughs looked conical and nearly symmetrical from overhead and I could see where coyotes had trotted by and circumnavigated the houses before moving on.

Tree shadows stretched out long against the snow, the black taking on a cyan hue from the blue sky overhead. A lone poplar cast a shadow in a pasture east of Lyalta, a stand of willow trees decorated a bend in the Rosebud River.

The bends or the river were shadowed as well and they revealed themselves as I sent the little copter higher. Snowy owls like to stick fairly close to the ground so I didn’t go too high but if that’s what they see from maybe a hundred feet off the ground, they must be constantly distracted by the scenery from that elevation. The serpentine bends of the stream were stunning with the winter sun shining down on them.

But unfortunately, I had started too late in the day to linger much longer so I headed past Rockyford to the Chimney Hills for one last flight before the sun went down.

There were horses in the pastures and the lines of grain bins, their gravel footings and harvest debris covered by a blanket of white, looked clean and pristine from overhead. A short-eared owl shook out its feathers as it stared into the setting sun.

I headed out a little earlier the next day, the blue sky of the day before replaced by chinook cloud. Is there any phrase more lovely than “variable chinook cloudiness?” No, there is not.

Rolling east from Aldersyde with a light breeze at my back, I turned south and busted my way through snowdrifts toward Ensign. The chinook was building and the wind was picking up as I rolled south but for some reason, it let up east of Vulcan.

I sent the little copter up again on a deserted road that bisected pastures.

The chinook arch was framing the mountains above the snowy fields but the flat light hid all the lovely convolutions the wind had started to form as it blew the snow around. The momentary lull allowed it to settle but even from above they were hard to see. I hovered the copter and then turned it by degrees to take pictures I would later turn into a panorama of the arch before bringing it down.

I pulled into Vulcan and stopped to abuse the Chinese buffet at Amy’s before continuing on. The temperature rose by at least ten degrees while I was eating. Snow on my bumpers was melting, the ice in my wheel wells dropped like calves from a glacier.

It might sound strange but I was actually hoping it would hold off for a couple more hours. I’d hoped to find some nice, sculpted snow drifts east of town but if the temperature warmed too fast, they’d soften and settle. I scooted east ahead of the chinook.

I’d found a trail where a dozen or so deer had trotted through a field and when I stopped to fly the copter over it, the wind picked up and started to blow the snow around. Down the road there were barley heads waving in the wind with the snow blowing past. I hastened into the field to take some pictures.

And stepped in the badger hole.

My right foot was stuck, my left couldn’t find purchase in the loose snow and I was was forced to roll over and crawl on my belly to get loose. And while doing that, the wind stopped.

Fine. I shot a picture of the barley and drove on.

Afternoon turned to evening, the temperature rose. I found one area of wind-sculpted snow and stopped for an overhead view of a lovely spread of cattle feed in a pasture before the sun began to set.

As it went down, the warm air caused a mirage and the mountains were magnified to Himalayan proportions that filled the western horizon.

The chinook had arrived. The snow was starting to go.

But I’d had my fun out on the snowy land. And I sure ain’t about to complain about a chinook. The snow was pretty but I won’t miss it when it’s gone. And there’s bound to be more to come anyway.

And when that happens, I’ll head out for an owl’s-eye view again.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

JANUARY 17, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, Canon 7D Mark II and DJI Phantom 4

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