in like a lion march means more winter

Looks like my record for the earliest crocus blossoms is going to stay safe.

I set my personal record last year finding one smiling in the sunshine of the side of Tom Campbell’s Hill on March 14. True, last year was exceptionally warm an crocuses, being the survivalists that they are, will bloom at the earliest possible convenience.

Even so, March 14 was the earliest I’ve seen them by quite a considerable margin.

But that ain’t happening this year.

I was thinking about that as I drove through the foothills forest near Water Valley. It had been snowing earlier and it was cold enough that frost crystals were dancing in the air during the brief intervals when the clouds parted enough to let the sun shine on them. Snow was piled up on the sides of the road and it was deep on the frozen beaver meadows and black spruce bogs.

The south-facing hillsides, though, were mostly snow-free and it was those that made me think of the crocuses. Looking at the tawny grass among the bleached trunks of scattered aspens and poplars - even though these hillsides look like that for most of the winter - made me realize that it’s March already. And the crocuses have to at least be thinking about breaking through.

I’d gone that way to look for anything green. Even though it has been cold, the chinooks that have stopped by to tease us have warm things up a bit and now that the hours of daylight are getting back to a reasonable level, I thought I might get lucky.

The first place I headed too was the upper reaches of Dogpound Creek. There’s a few springs that bubble out of the ground up there and a couple of years ago I found a killdeer that staked one of them out for a winter home.

The springs were there, all right, but they were barely visible through the snow. The edges and moss along their banks was green in spots but too far away for even my long lens. No killdeer either.

Another set near Winchell Lake were frozen over and even that tiny creek at the south end of the lake that never freezes was so covered with frost that anything green was obscured.

The creek at the other end of the lake had open water but it was at an angle that made it too dark to see the green algae and aquatic grass I knew was there. I got out my GoPro and painter pole I use to stick the little camera under water but I took one step into the snow and sank knee deep. I decided it wasn’t worth the fight.

But it wasn’t all bad.

I found pussywillows.

Those fuzzy little catkins never disappoint. Truly the first flowers of spring, they puff out as soon as the sun starts staying up into late afternoon. Normally I find them out around the middle of February but this year I never made it to anyplace with the right kind of willows until now. They weren’t out in profusion but they were out. A little bit of a warmup and a few days of bright sun and they’ll really take off.

I rolled on west past Water Valley and found a little group of deer playing “where’s whitetail” among the poplars. Normally I would have tried for a more clear picture of the deer but this time I decided to play along. You may have to look closely to find them.

And I found a momma moose and her calf. I truly find it amazing that these huge animals can survive the winter just nibbling on twigs. And not just survive. That baby couldn’t have been even a year old and it was nearly as big as its mom. Talk about being adapted to an ecosystem, man, moose have it figured out.

Cattle don’t. Without feed they’d likely perish in a winter like this. The wild cattle they’re descended from, the aurochs painted so lovingly on European cave walls, would have just shrugged it off. But these guys, bred to be cared for, wouldn’t stand a chance.

Still, though, it was nice to see them standing so stoically as the snow started to sift down again.

I continued on west and the snow began to fall so I cut north to skirt along the edge of it. Off to the east was the well-named Boggy Lake, a large expanse of marsh and scraggly black spruce, the saddest-looking trees we have.

They’re evergreens but you hardly know it, their spindly trunks stuck with drooping branches, dark lichens covering the clumps of needles. They always look like they’ve either just finished crying or are about to start.

I spotted a single eagle perched on the top of one of the trees with a swirl of ravens and magpies around it. Too far off for a picture and just visible through the mist and snow, the hung there for a moment before flying off. Something must have shuffled off its mortal coil but I couldn't see it.

By now afternoon was on its way to evening. On a sunny day I would have been thrilled to see it so bright at 6 pm but on this day the grey was just simply getting greyer.

My day was done. I found a nifty looking field near Bottrel that looked like a swirling latte and a single stark tree and fenceline that was at least graphically interesting but that was it.

Almost.

Not far from there, the snow starting to fall in earnest, was a group of whitetail deer. The gloom was accumulating and the snow was starting to obscure it all but there was still time for one more game of “where’s whitetail.”

A short one, this time. After just a couple of minutes the deer bounced off into the snow.

Me too.

I didn’t find any crocuses but of course, I never thought I would. But trust me, it won’t be long until I do.

I hope.

Headlights punching holes in the falling snow, I rolled on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

MARCH 5, 2017

Photographed with Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C and Canon 70-300 II.

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