missed the meltdown the warmup happened too quickly

I nearly missed the meltdown.

After a week of nasty, cold weather and a winter that felt like it was never going to end - not to mention my equally endless complaining - I was indoors at a bull show and sale in Medicine Hat when somebody turned up the thermostat. It was cold and foggy when my pal Todd and I walked across the snow-covered parking lot to the sale ring but when we walked out just a couple of hours later, the sun was shining and the snow was nearly gone.

Three months of mean and I had missed the moment the frown turned upside down.

But I was determined to see what I could of the change so the next day I headed out toward Mosquito Creek.

There are several branches to this little trickle that runs out of the Porcupine Hills and past the town of Nanton on its way to join the Little Bow River. Its waters eventually end up in the Oldman River which joins the Bow River to form the South Saskatchewan and all those waters flow from there to Hudson Bay. Grizzlies splash in its headwaters. Polar bears splash at its foot. Kinda amazing.

The part I wanted to see was the upper sections of the creek just west of Williams Coulee. The north end of the Porcupine Hills really starts to rise there, the elevations high and the approaches steep. If there was still going to be any snow left to melt, it would be there.

I picked the right place. Sort of. Runoff water was roaring down the creek and spreading out in the willow flats but any snow along the valley was long gone. The water level in the creek, in fact, already appeared to be dropping. There were bits of ice marooned high on the banks and I could see where the water had flattened the grass among the willows before backing off. Gravel bars were starting to reappear.

But it was still pretty cool to see all that chocolaty water tumbling down the stream bed so I put up my little copter for a better look. From the air I could see that the valley was mostly brown grass with just a few recalcitrant snow drifts and spots where seeping springs had laid down a slab of ice left to melt.

But obviously I’d missed the meltdown at the lower elevations. So I headed up higher.

The wind picked up as I rolled through Williams Coulee and out onto the open country just to the west of Nanton. There was an owl nesting in a swaying poplar at Bear Trap Feeders - there’s been one there every spring for at least the last fifteen years and likely many more - and I watched a cock pheasant run along a muddy ditch.

But the wind died almost as quickly as it had risen so I stopped to launch my copter once again.

The little stream I was surveying really only has flowing water during the spring melt or after a heavy rain. Today, it was flowing with water the colour of bock beer, a brown, undulating ribbon snaking through the amber grass. There was a crescent-shaped snow drift right beside the road but that was all the snow there was.

When I’d last passed this way couple of weeks ago the whole pace was shrouded in white. Now I was sweating in the warm sun and trying to keep bees out of my ridiculously long hair.

Again, I could see that the water had been flowing much more heavily and was now dropping. Given how little snow there was left to melt, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was down to just a trickle a few days hence.

Up the road there were cattle splashing through puddles in a pasture and more bees. Mule deer wandered among them. Trucks coming down the gravel road raised clouds of dust that swept away to the east as the wind picked up again.

But the higher I went, the more snow there was until I finally topped out on a tall, wind-swept ridge. The open ridge top was snow-free but the surrounding slopes, especially those on the north-facing sides, were covered with snow. It was colder up here, too, still warm enough to cause a bit of melting but not enough to knock the ice loose on the frozen ponds.

Horses stood stoically letting the wind whip their manes and tails and ripple their long winter hair while mule deer wandered among the stands of aspens and diamond willow. The road was mucky and I had to put the truck in four-wheel drive a couple of times after stopping to take pictures. I rolled back down into the lowlands.

Canada geese were everywhere, almost all of them in pairs. These ones likely stayed here all winter and they’ll be nesting soon, just a little bit ahead of their more migratory cousins. If the weather stays warm and the melt continues they’ll soon be joined by flocks of pintail ducks and tundra swans, the vanguard of the annual northward flow of our feathered friends.

I saw eagles, too, most of them soaring up high, and a gyrfalcon. They are the biggest of all our falcons and winter-time visitors from the far north. This must have been one of the last ones in our area. Of their northern neighbours, the snowy owls and rough-legged hawks, I saw none.

The wind took a right turn as the sun headed westward and the temperature dropped. Not horribly, but enough to make me pull on my gloves and zip up my jacket as I kneeled by the side of the road to shoot a picture of the cloudy sky behind a meltwater pool. Firing up my little copter for one last flight near Pekisko, I ended up cutting the flight short so I could hop back in the truck to warm up.

The little pond I was photographing from the air held an island of blue ice in the middle of its tawny waters, the pond itself a kind of reverse island in a sea of foothills grass. Chinook clouds tumbled over the mountains. There was no snow left to melt.

So I kinda missed the meltdown. I caught a bit of it but it was pretty obvious that while I was hanging out with the bulls in Medicine Hat, the snow in the foothills was disappearing. I headed back toward town.

Stopping to take a picture of whitetail deer bouncing across a muddy field near Okotoks, I looked back at the mountains and saw trails of snow falling from the clouds around their peaks. I might have missed most of the melting out here but there’s still plenty to come.

Another month or so and the meltdown in the mountains will begin. And I’m thinking it’s going to be a big one.

For now though, I melted into the gathering dark and headed on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

MARCH 15, 2017

Photographed with DJI Phantom 4 and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C, Tokina 11-16 and Canon 70-300.

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