wind worn keho lake can be beautiful, but it depends on the day

The colour in the ice piled along the shores of Keho Lake was crazy.

Deep blues, turquoises, slivers of silver that sparkled with prismatic rainbows as the shards clattered and tinkled on the banks. I was there with my old friend Stu and we could have spent the entire day taking pictures there. But my impatience made us move on.

I know I’d be back, though, and soon. It was too lovely to waste.

And I did go back, just a few days later, with my friend Bayar. He had been presenting a show of his photographs of his native Mongolia at the Mongolian embassy in Ottawa and now he’d stopped in Calgary to visit his family. Bayar and I have explored Mongolia and southern Siberia together a couple of times and I wanted to return a bit of his hospitality by showing him some parts of Alberta he may not otherwise get to see.

So we headed for the ice at Keho Lake.

An irrigation expansion of a natural lake, Keho sits on the plateau between Nobleford and Barons, just before the land slopes away to the Oldman River valley at Lethbridge. It’s one of the first big bodies of water to start to shed its ice in the spring and therefore one of the first places to find the tundra swans and ducks that are migrating north.

It’s a breezy place at the best of times so when the ice starts to break up on the lake, the slabs get pushed toward the northern shores by the wind. They pile up there and spill out onto the banks where the sun makes short work of them. Stu and I hit it just right. Bayar and I caught it as the colour was waning.

Me, I got the best of both visits.

But I never really had a chance to shoot much video. Although it adds an extra dimension to how I record what my eyes see and I thoroughly enjoy shooting and editing it, it also takes a lot of time to do. Because I had Stu with me on the first trip and Bayar on the second, I felt that I shouldn’t make them stand around and wait.

So I decided to make a third trip, alone, to shoot some video.

With Bayar the day before, I’d put up my little copter to shoot some aerials of the ice. The day was nearly calm, the sky scattered with puffy clouds. Soft swells swept through the loose ice along the shore. Beautiful. So I shot a bit of video from the air along with the stills.

Now, on the way back down to do more, I was hoping that the heavy cloud on the horizon would dissipate, that the wind that was shoving the truck around would abate.

The swells that had softly lifted and lowered the loose ice the day before were now white-capped waves. The ice shards that had tinkled and clattered were now being thrown thirty feet onto the shore as the waves crested and crashed into what little ice remained along the banks. Water that had been clear enough to see the rocks a metre below the surface was now a churning mess of mud and ice. The swans that had been swimming out in the open water were all gone, hunkered down in wet spots in fields or on shallow sloughs where they wouldn’t have to deal with the waves.

Gusts were hitting 80 km/hr or more and the sustained winds were strong enough to rock the truck. The copter was going to stay packed up. The one time I tried to set up a tripod, it blew over as soon as I let it go.

The only birds I saw out on the open water were a pair of geese that appeared and disappeared as the waves rose and fell. Judging by the size of the birds, the waves along the north shore had to be close to a metre from trough to crest but the wind was tearing the tops off them so they may have been bigger.

I wasn’t sure I’d get any video at that point but I found that if I used the window mount from inside my truck and angled things just right I could get a few shots. But shooting anything with my big 150-600 zoom was nearly impossible. The gusts just shook everything too much.

It was frustrating but still fascinating.

The ice along the shore was pounded to pieces but in the more sheltered bays it still stayed in the shards I’d seen the days before. The waves were less intense there and the ice rose and fell on the heavy swells of water pushing along underneath.

And the swells had another effect. They sifted the ice shards around so that they formed circles of bigger shards among the smaller ones. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before. Like I said, fascinating.

It was clear enough that I could see the mountains to the west and the chinook clouds snagged on their snowy peaks. There’s nary a hill and barely a tree to slow down the wind and it was coming off the peaks and sweeping to Keho Lake unimpeded. Waterton and Pincher Creek must have been getting slammed.

Even after all these years I still find it amazing how the wind down here works. The juxtaposition of mountains and plains and, yeah, even the Pacific Ocean, make it one of the windiest places on the planet. Move even one of them and things would be completely different. But like the ice melting in spring, I’d likely miss it if it were gone.

I know the kite-surfers would. They were out enjoying the speed the wind provided, skimming across the water and flying into the air as their big kites yanked them along. Looked like a lot of fun.

And the gulls seemed to enjoy it, too. They swept along with the gusts, Franklins, ring-billed and California gulls almost dancing in the wind. On the ground, feeding in the nearby grain fields with the Canada geese, mallards, pintails and widgeon, they probed the muck facing into the wind. When they wanted to take off they simply spread their wings and lifted into the air.

It seemed like a chore for the other birds, though. I saw a few meadowlarks but they basically jumped up, tumbled away and landed in deep grass. Blackbirds just huddled low in the cattails. Even the ducks and geese seemed reluctant to fly.

But I did get one surprise. I found a snowy owl that had just killed a starling, perched on the ice trying to have its meal. Pretty late in the year for one of them to be around here but through my long lens I could see that it was missing an eye. Maybe that explains why it’s still here.

By now the day was winding down and so was the wind. The gusts were barely topping 60 km/hr as I rolled northward. Keho Lake still churned as I watched it turn into a silver slash in my rear-view mirrors but the shallow sloughs north of Barons barely rippled.

I paused to watch the sun set as the tundra swans flew in to settle down for the night. From the shelter of the truck I watched them swoop and drop and let the wind gentle them down onto the water’s surface.

It was altogether lovely. I kinda wished I’d had Bayar and Stu here to enjoy it with me. Next time, boys, next time. Unlike the ice, the swans will be around for a while yet.

Wind-burned and weary, I rolled on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

MARCH 28, 2017

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

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