cold light and colour

The clouds were turning to candy as they passed over the peaks above Smith-Dorrien Creek.

The low winter sun was behind the rocky outcrops but its bright light was catching the clouds as they passed by. For the most part, they were a bright white, just your standard mountain clouds, the kind you see every day making their way from west to east over the continental divide.

But thanks to the angle of the sun and the bitter cold, these clouds changed dramatically as they skirted the ridges above me.

It was cold up here in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and it had been cold all day. Out in the open where the sun was shining, it wasn’t too bad. It was still well below minus-20C but the radiant heat from the sun took a little of the bite away from the cold air and the sunlight on the mountains was lovely.

I had hoped it would be. The sudden drop in temperature made things a little rough for a couple of days and even though the brief fall of snow was nice, it wasn’t particularly inspirational. But it’s amazing how a little bit of sunshine can make even the nastiest days all that much better.

I could see ice fog hanging on the peaks as I headed west. The Bow River valley looked totally socked in. I thought, just for a moment, that I might continue on toward Canmore, maybe look for open water along the Bow and at Gap Lake but the turn to Sibbald Flats sucked me in like it always does.

Not that I mind. Although I come out this way far too often, it’s such a nice drive that it’s just too hard to resist. The mountain views across the Jumpingpound valley, the willow-thronged creek valleys, the always-present chattering of squirrels and chirping of chickadees - even at minus-25C - make every stop a pleasure.

And since there’s so little traffic, I can idle along and take in all the scenery at my leisure.

The air here was vodka-clear, the trees on the hilltops etched against the blue sky, the deer and coyote tracks in the snow like spatters of ink against the bright white.

Passing the frozen beaver ponds and heading down into the Kananaskis Valley, the mountains came into view. Clouds hung on the peaks and the snow covering the scene reflected the blue of the sky above. Ravens flew around, croaking and oblivious to the cold.

Barrier Lake was frozen over. I had hoped there might still be some open water but the cold descended so fast it gobbled it all up. O’Shaughnessy Falls was still flowing but the splash ice was quickly covering it up.

The Kananaskis River itself was still flowing but slushy ice covered most of it. The valley was quiet and seemed to be hunkering low against the cold.

The sky, though, was lively.

Ice crystals hanging in the frigid air caused sundogs, those little chunks of rainbow that form parallel to the sun when it’s cold like this, and as I drove along I could see them wax and wane as the crystals gathered or scattered. The sky itself seemed to stay the same, a constant pastel blue. Away from the sun, the ice crystals were invisible.

They were, however, quite visible around Nakiska. The snow guns were firing full-bore and the mist from them rolled down into the valley. It was quite pretty, actually.

It seemed to fascinate the whitetail deer I saw by the side of the road. When they weren’t staring at me, they were staring at the mountain. The bighorn sheep standing nearby were ignoring both. Except for the ram, of course. He stared straight at me, icicles hanging from his cheeks.

I kept rolling south, pausing for pictures at King Creek - it looked even more spectacular in the crisp, bright light - and then taking a short drive up Smith-Dorrien Trail. I hadn’t planned on going much further but I wanted to see what the valley looked like from the west. I went as far as Black Prince and pulled in to turn around.

The parking lot was just on the edge of the shadow cast by the mountain across the valley and when I looked up to check out the clouds, I got an eyeful of candy.

It was a fluke that I happened to be there at just the right time to see it. The clouds sailing along the ridge were lit perfectly by the sun, passing through my field of vision against a sky dark enough to show the colours but bright enough to make them shine.

It was spectacular.

Clouds are made of water vapour, of course, and rain is just the condensation of that vapour clumped together. But in winter and at high altitudes, that water vapour freezes and the clouds turn into roiling accumulations of prisms.

Prisms that break the white light from the sun into all it’s component colours. That’s what I was watching happen. As the clouds rolled by tumbling along the ridge, the billions of little prisms shifted and changed angles and each time they did, they’s send a different colour of light my direction.

The brightest colours were the reds but there were yellows and purples and bright blues and amazing greens. You don’t often see greens in rainbows - which are just arched versions of what I was seeing - but they are momentarily intense as the clouds passed by.

And thanks to some perfectly angled chutes, the colour sometimes spilled down the mountainsides. More muted, of course, but fascinating to watch the colours tumble downward.

The clouds passed and I headed back up the valley as the sun dipped westward, lighting up the BC side of the divide. Back at Nakiska, I stepped from the truck to photograph the river.

Looking at my phone, I could see that it was now minus-26C and it felt like it. The river flowed below the bridge more slush than water. The half-moon appeared over the snowy peaks to the southeast. The sun itself had settled behind Mount Kidd and the sundogs that followed it split so that one was visible above the river and the other shone bright in a mountain valley to the west.

But within minutes they were gone and the moon was all that was left in the deepening blue of the sky. Th candy clouds were gone. The sundogs had run off. Night and more cold were coming.

But it had still been a brilliant day. Cold, true.

But even the most bitter days are better with a little bit of candy.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

DECEMBER 6, 2016

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mike drew
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