south, west heading down toward waterton lakes national park

The view from the sweeping curve where Blue Trail comes off the McBride Lake ridge and heads down into the Waterton River valley always grabs my breath and tears it away.

You really need to pull off to the side of the road to take it all in. Off to the east you can see the rise of Belly Buttes, the eroded hills on the Kainai First Nation that rise above the confluence of the Waterton and Belly Rivers. To the south, the Milk River Ridge slides down to the St. Mary River valley while just to the southwest Montana’s Napi Peak and Chief Mountain dominate the skyline.

Swing your gaze west and north along the Rocky Mountain Front and you can pick out the Waterton Lakes National Park valley, the drainages of Cottonwood, Dungarvan, Drywood and Yarrow Creeks and, if you roll ahead just a little further past the last rise of the hills, the Livingstone Range and the Crowsnest Pass.

Below you spreads out ranch and farm land with barely a tree to block the view. On this morning the wind was nearly calm but on most days the outflow from the mountain heights to the west sweeps across this open plain unimpeded by foothills. This is where the prairie runs straight into the mountains so abruptly you can almost hear the collision.

Though the collision on this day would have been muffled by all the snow. Here along Blue Trail there was plenty but I could see off toward the mountains that there was much more. Not a surprise with all the snowfall warnings of the previous week but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that much snow on the ground down here.

I rolled on across the Waterton River toward Glenwood. It felt like springtime with the morning sun heating the day. Rolling down the windows as I pulled over again to take some pictures, the rich scents of soil being exposed by the melting snow and cattle and sheep pastures wafted in. The wind hadn’t yet picked up and the sounds of machinery carried through the nearly still air.

There were eagles around. I’d already seen a couple up on the ridge and there were four more along a little creek on the south edge of Glenwood. Two of them were immature bald eagles while the other two were white-headed adults and clearly a pair. I could hear them chirping as they perched next to each other on a bare tree.

Flocks of geese were flying around and I found a bunch of them in a field near Hill Spring. They, along with hundreds of ducks and other birds, spend the winter roosting on the open water of the Waterton River below the Waterton Dam. The air seemed filled with them as they flew around the fields, their honks echoing down the river valley.

The air was crystalline and warm and the red-roofed whiteness of St. Henry’s church really stood out against the blue sky. Perched alone on a hilltop just west of the reservoir, it’s never less than a stirring sight and I find that it’s pretty much impossible to just drive by without taking a picture. Since the wind still hadn’t risen, I launched my little copter.

Looking at the feed from the copter on my phone’s screen I could see that the little church was surrounded by white. The shadows on the mountain peaks and the bare gravel roads offered the only contrast. I could see a lot of snow cover from the ground, of course, but from a mere 30 metres up, the countryside looked absolutely Arctic.

But it was warm and getting warmer. Carrying on south I hit Drywood Creek and nearly got stuck in mud as I pulled over to take a picture. There were mule deer everywhere here, a hundred or more, and I watched a doe try to make her way across a snow covered pasture, her hooves sinking in past the cannon bone with every step.

And I found an interesting phenomenon I’d never really noticed before.

Lines in the snow marked where deer or some other animals had walked by a few days before when the weather was colder and packed down a trail. Now, with the temperatures rising, the loose snow around the trails was settling as it melted while the packed trails, being denser, ended up raised sometimes close to a foot above the surrounding snow. Nerdy, I know, but I found it pretty fascinating.

There were more eagles along the Belly River, some feeding on the ground with an entourage of corvids, others soaring in the freshening wind coming down the Waterton River valley. Most of them were bald eagles but at least one was a golden, it’s bronze shoulders glinting in the sun as it banked and rolled with the wind.

The view of the mountains was spectacular from Mountain View and the calving pastures were bouncing with new babies in the Lee Creek valley by Beazer. Snow drifts were heavy and deep along the coulees - I wouldn't be surprised to find remnants of them still there in June - and horses and other livestock stood out silhouetted against the dazzling sun reflecting off all the bright snow.

But the gophers didn’t let all that snow get get in their way.

I saw the first one flicking its tail in a snowy pasture just out of Beazer and then another that let me get much closer just south of town. I could see where they’d pushed their way up through the snow and then dug down again to get at the grass hidden underneath.

It’s always a thrill to see the first gophers of the year, especially as early as this. It’s meaningless as far as predicting the end of winter or anything like that but that first sight of a Richardson’s ground squirrel always makes me smile.

So does a chinook.

The wind was roaring now but it was so warm that the snow was sticking to the ground instead of blowing around as I rolled back north through Pincher Creek and on toward the Oldman Dam. More deer there and fishermen on the river. Gophers out there too. Eagles huddled in the cottonwoods along the river. Geese and ducks flew out to feed as the giant blades of the wind turbines spun through the air.

Overhead, the chinook arch was building and I stopped to take pictures of cattle silhouetted against it on a ridge. Shafts of light broke through and lit horses in a pasture. I found more mule deer, a herd with one buck that had already shed an antler. Passing Head-Smashed-In, I saw yet another eagle flying along the ridgeline.

Warm light spread across the plains as the sun set. No snow here except in the drifts and, if the warm weather keeps up, there soon won’t be any snow further south either. The gophers will like that. As will the new calves. Spring isn’t here yet. But it’s on its way.

Wind at my back and the sunset reflecting on the snowmelt in the ditch, I headed on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

FEBRUARY 14, 2017

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

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