high snow winter hangs on in the high country

I could feel the rumble more than I could hear it.

It was low and not very loud, a secondary sound behind the splash of a little meltwater trickle and the chirping of robins. My first thought was that it was coming from a plane passing overhead but it only lasted for about 15 seconds and then it was gone.

I was on Smith-Dorrien Trail, parked at the side of the road photographing water trickling down behind a wall of thin ice on a rock cut. I was sitting as quietly as I could, looking up at the mountains while I recorded video. Ravens flew by overhead and I as I looked up, I heard the rumble.

It had to be an avalanche. And the sound could have come from anywhere.

There is still an amazing amount of snow in the high country. Very few of the mountains along Smith-Dorrien Trail in Peter Lougheed or Spray Lakes Provincial Parks have bare peaks and once you get beyond the relative warmth of the Kananaskis valley, it’s full-on winter up there.

I’ve headed up that way a few times over the last couple of months but I took very few pictures. The snow was so heavy and deep that I couldn’t venture far off the road - and I’m not a skier or snowshoer - and beyond ravens and squirrels, I never saw any wildlife. Not even a car-licking moose.

But Smith-Dorrien is one of my most favourite drives so I decided to give it a shot. It’s May, after all. Should be nice up there.

It was cold, as I expected it to be, at seven in the morning and there was frost on the grass and roadside shrubbery. The few patches of open water on shallow Spillway Lake were covered with overnight ice, the sheets lined with dendritic patterns. The snowy peaks to the south and west were just lighting up as the sun crested the mountains. Robins and geese greeted the day.

Down here in the valley and over along Pocaterra Creek there wasn’t much snow but as I rolled on, it didn’t take long to find it.

I expected there would be some snow up here - it’s May, true, but really, it’s only May - but nowhere near this much. In fact, beyond the road being bare, the valley along Smith-Dorrien Creek and over the summit to Smuts Creek looked pretty much the same as it had when I was up here last at the beginning of March.

The snow was still piled waist-high on the roadsides, creeks were running through tunnels underneath it. Smuts Creek ran like a ribbon through its snowy meadow. Smith-Dorrien trickled along between white walls.

The avalanche chutes coming down the mountainsides were filled with cottage-cheese snow. At a spot where a couple of chutes meet in an open spot along Smith-Dorrien Creek, I could see where several avalanches had swept down from the peaks.

Snow was piled maybe ten metres deep in spots. The tips of spruce trees poked out in places while along the bottom edges they were bent downhill where the flow of snow had stopped. Brush swept up and tumbled along mixed with entire trees uprooted or shorn off by the sliding snow.

It was amazing and more than a little bit frightening to see the base of the avalanche so close. Nothing that draws breath for a living would ever survive such an onslaught. And, looking up at the summit, it was pretty easy to see that it wouldn’t be the last time such a slide happens.

There were visible cracks in the heavy snowpack, the snow below the cracks slowly slipping downward. What it would take to break it loose completely, I couldn’t guess, but it was pretty easy to see that once it did break loose, there was going to be a lot of snow speeding down the mountainside.

I rolled on toward Spray Lakes hoping I might see some critters along the road but given the amount of snow, I was pretty sure they’d all headed down to lower elevations. I did see a coyote when I stopped to take a picture of clouds snagged on the pyramid summit of Mount Assiniboine just visible off to the west but nothing else.

There was less snow down by the lakes but the ice, normally a lovely blue sheath covering the gravel bars and hillocks left exposed as the reservoir is drawn down in anticipation of runoff, was still heavily covered in white. Spurling Creek - my favourite little trickle - was running free but other streams were still ice-encased.

And there was still ice on the lowest of the lakes so I stuck my GoPro underneath for a look. Always fun to do that. I never know what the pictures will look like until I see them later on my computer screen.

But I still wasn’t finding any animals. And, now that it was midday, I didn’t really expect to see any. I turned around and headed back.

But I stopped at the weeping rock wall to shoot the ice. It had coated the whole vertical face and the water sluicing down behind it looked pretty cool. I clamped the camera to the truck window and let it roll.

That’s when I felt the rumble.

The day had warmed up a lot and no doubt started the snow melting. I could see it happening down here along the road so I assumed that, even though it was much colder up high, it must be happening up there, too. Maybe that had triggered a slide.

It only took me a few seconds to realize that the rumble I’d heard and felt wasn’t likely coming from a passing plane. I’d heard and seen avalanches before so, given the brevity of the rumble, I figured that’s what it was. And I remembered the crack I’d seen in the snowpack.

I packed up the camera and headed back down to the avalanche chute.

The crack was still there, the snowpack intact. I parked and looked around, checking the slopes with my long lens to see if any of the many slides looked fresh. I could smell the shattered trees in the avalanche chute now that the air had warmed but I couldn’t find any fresh slides.

I kept looking as I drove slowly back down into the Kananaskis valley but the sound could have come from anywhere, I guess. Still, I kept my eyes on the peaks as I drove on down the valley.

I caught a glimpse of a grizzly as I rolled along and there was a band of bighorn rams along the road. The Columbia ground squirrels were out and about. Guess I was right about the critters heading for the low country. Much easier to flee the snow than fight it. And down here it felt more like May, more like spring.

But up high, it was still one season behind.

Winter in the mountains still keeps rumbling along.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

MAY 9, 2017

Photographed with the Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C.

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