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On The Road with Mike Drew: Clearly impressive summer landscapes

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There’s a line you can see from the north end of the Porcupine Hills.

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It’s a little bit vague but if you know where to look, it’s pretty easy to pick out. It runs from west to east starting around Okotoks and then continuing toward Mossleigh and Herronton along Gladys Ridge before petering out in the Bow River valley, where it runs through the Siksika Nation. In winter and early spring, you can pick it out by the snow cover and the intensity of the chinook winds. In summer, you can tell it by the clouds.

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But you have to have a little bit of elevation to really see it and from where I was on a high ridge in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, it was distinct.

A line of thunderstorms had rumbled through the day before and left the ground wet. The road I was on was drying up but muddy in spots and the moisture rising into the air contributed to the thin mist that surrounded me. The sky above was filled with ragged clouds but the sun was shining through the many gaps between them and the wind was barely more than a breeze.

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The sun finds its way through a gap in the clouds over the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
The sun finds its way through a gap in the clouds over the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But looking north, I could see a definite demarcation between what was around me and what was beyond.

The pastures and farm fields were dark under the shadow cast by the thick clouds above Gladys Ridge and the northern horizon was just a soft blue blur. The clouds immediately to the north of me were lit by the morning sun but it was like the sky was inverted, the bluest part of it underneath the bright clouds and the darkest spots the underside, shadowed parts of the sweep of clouds overhead.

To the north, beyond the line, it was still stormy. Here on the ridge and everywhere to the south, it was continuous clearing sky.

Which made for a nice backdrop for my photos.

I found a lone diamond willow perched right near the top of the ridge on the far side of a pasture. Lining it up between two fenceposts, I aimed the camera and waited a few seconds for a tilting cloud to roll by. Not far from the willow, a big white bull stood alone against the sky. Crows flew around calling and showing off their aerobatic skills with the bright plains below and the dark line of the ridge behind them. Looking to the west, sunlight stretched across a field of bales and then beyond all the way to the mountains, the intensity dulled only slightly by the lingering mist in the air.

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Clouds roll in along the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
Clouds roll in along the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

To the south, pretty much everything was bright. A cut hay field down in Beaver Valley below me lay spread out like a flattened maze, the windrows a soft and sinuous swirl of lines that followed the contours of the land. A quartet of horses grazed on the still-lush late summer grass on the far side of it while puffy clouds moved slowly across the sky overhead.

It was warmer down in the valley, noticeably warmer than on the high ridge or anywhere farther north. Much more humid, too. There must have been a pretty good rainfall overnight, judging by the puddles and mud along the road, and now the sun’s heat was causing the moisture to rise as the air above the ground warmed.

Windrow pattern in a hay field ready for baling along Beaver Valley Road in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
Windrow pattern in a hay field ready for baling along Beaver Valley Road in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I don’t know if there’s any actual correlation but when I stepped from the FJ to shoot pictures of the bees, flies and wasps on a patch of thistles, the insect sounds seemed really loud. I’d heard the buzzing up on the ridge, a combination of crickets, grasshoppers and maybe cicadas, but down here along the creek that runs through Beaver Valley, it was nearly a roar.

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Does humidity affect the transmission of sound? Could be. Or maybe there were just more insects here in the tall grass and among the willows. Very likely. Either way, they were loud.

I have been down this valley many times before but I think this might have been the first time that I’ve ever started at the north end and rolled south. Beaver Valley Road runs through a gap among the ridges of the east side of the Porcupine Hills and more or less follows the creek that trickles along the valley floor. It hooks up with the road to Pine Coulee Reservoir at the south end which, in turn, rolls on south and west into the Willow Creek valley.

Road to the clouds in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
Road to the clouds in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Usually, I’d hit the intersection by Pine Coulee and then turn north onto Beaver Valley Road. But not this time. And it was like a whole new road.

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Funny how that works. You see something from one angle and then you turn around and look again and it’s something brand new.

Like those diamond willows.

I’ve come by this particular group of willows a dozen times before and they have always caught my eye. Unlike farther up on the slopes, instead of being in thick stands, these ones are individuals scattered out in the open along the creek. They’re scraggly things, some sparsely leafed, others dead and tumbled over, and at least one deceased and skeletal but still standing.

An old diamond willow and clearing clouds along Beaver Valley Road in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
An old diamond willow and clearing clouds along Beaver Valley Road in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Cattle are often grazing among them and over the years they have polished the trunks of both the living and dead ones as they used them as scratching posts so, up close, they have an interesting patina. I’ve noticed this before, of course, but seeing them from that different angle made them look even more fascinating.

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The road kind of forks a little ways south of the willows, with one track leading straight south and another due east. But a third one runs straight up to the summit of the hills. That’s the one I took.

The view from the top is magnificent, especially looking to the east.

In the foreground, grain fields and grassy hillsides, farther east, Boneyard Coulee. Grain fields stretch out after that toward Stavely, just to the southeast, and Parkland slightly to the north. Haze softened things in the far distance but I could make out the ridge south of Arrowwood probably 60 km away and the rise of land just before McGregor Lake over by Milo.

Shadows moved across the valley below me, the afternoon sun being crossed by clouds building up to the west, while above me, the sky continued to clear. Absolutely stunning.

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To the north, though, it was still cloudy, a dark line still visible on the horizon. And clouds were coming in from the west, too. Back down in the valley, I passed cattle lazing in the yellowing grass and half a dozen Swainson’s hawks circling in the sky or perching on sandstone outcrops. I found a baby Swainson’s that was still hanging around its natal nest. Not quite sure about this flying thing yet, it sat and stared at me with big baby eyes.

A young Swainson’s hawk in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
A young Swainson’s hawk in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Out of the valley now, I continued west along Willow Creek. After seeing Beaver Valley in reverse, I was curious to what I’d see along the Willow Creek valley, too.

There were cattle, of course. This is prime ranch country after all. And plenty of deer. A mulie fawn stopped to stare at me. Hawks, too, one with a gopher it had just caught and flown off with.

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And clouds.

Though the sky was mostly clear — or clearing — above me and to the east, another line of possible thunderstorms was building to the west. For the moment, though, they were quiet, more decorative than menacing.

The valley was bathed in dappled sunlight, the cottonwoods and aspens dark green, the pastures a wash of gold and silver. A ranch truck rolled by as I was flying my tiny — legal — drone over a pasture so I turned the craft and caught it heading toward the mountains.

There were kestrels everywhere in the valley, easily a dozen of them along the road, and they were flying low to pounce on the plentiful grasshoppers. Over toward Chain Lakes, I lucked into an osprey returning to its nest in the rafters of a bridge over Willow Creek with a trout in its claws. The nearly full-grown babies chirped as it approached.

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An osprey returns to its nest with a trout in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
An osprey returns to its nest with a trout in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The clouds were getting ever thicker now, casting dark shadows over the creek valley but here and there, shafts of sunlight broke through. Sometimes they radiated out like fans where the cloud shadows hit the still-lingering mist, other times they stood like bright pillars. With the jumble of dark clouds overhead and the sun on the valley below, it looked almost surreal.

It’s hard to say whether the skies were clearing as I rolled east across the hills toward Williams Coulee or whether the clouds to the west hadn’t quite caught up yet — but the sky was definitely more clear. The Mosquito Creek valley lay lush but dark under cloud shadows from the west but the Swainson’s hawks were screeching against a mostly clear sky above.

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Cattle grazed under a dark sky but patches of sunlight were pushing through as I approached Cayley. And passing across the invisible — imaginary? — line between Okotoks and Gladys Ridge, it was, well, it was even more clear. Beyond that, it was clearing some more.

Cattle graze under gathering clouds in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.
Cattle graze under gathering clouds in the Willow Creek valley in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Alta., on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

OK, so the line had shifted. Instead of east to west, it was now north to south. Cloudy to the west, clear and clearing to the east. And all around that, soft, gorgeous light.

It had been stormy and cloudy and rainy the day before and it looked like it might just do it again. But storms always pass, even the ones that get snagged on imaginary lines. And when they do they leave behind something even better.

Those lovely clearing skies.

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On The Road with Mike Drew: Clearly impressive summer landscapes Source link On The Road with Mike Drew: Clearly impressive summer landscapes

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