On The Road with Mike Drew: Perfect January day … in November

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Sitting in the truck by the Bow River with my long lens pointed at the water, I was watching slushy ice float by.

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Geese flew along with frost on their backs. Mist rose and drifted away in the light breeze. Joggers trotted along the pathway, their steaming breath condensing and freezing on their collars and hair.

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Diving ducks like goldeneyes and buffleheads were dodging ice floes as mallards and mergansers winged low over the water, headed upstream. Semi-silhouetted in the sunlit mist on the far bank, geese sat with their heads tucked down by their wings while chickadees — unfazed by anything, these little guys — sang and chittered in the willows close by.

It was actually quite lovely, crisp, cold and wintery. A perfect January day.

Problem is, it ain’t January.

Canada geese fly along the icy Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Canada geese fly along the icy Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

OK, yeah, I know we get cold snaps. Frigid temperatures and heavy snow can happen any time from Thanksgiving onward. But even by southern Alberta standards, this was unexpected, unusual. Extreme.

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Starting the truck to move on, rolling up the windows and cranking the heater, I glanced down at the dash thermometer. It read minus-22 C. It would have been a frigid day even in January.

But it wasn’t January. It was the seventh day of November. January is still two months away.

A chickadee nibbles on something it found on a willow along the Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
A chickadee nibbles on something it found on a willow along the Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I’d spent the first half of the morning shovelling off the latest snowfall — and cursing the fact that the handle on the shovel had broken off on the previous dump — and then debating whether I was going to even bother heading out to look for pictures. The sinus situation that I’d been fighting was finally capitulating but was still annoyingly present and there had been enough snow that I was unsure of rural road conditions.

But I was already dressed for the weather and sufficiently warmed up from shovelling so I figured I’d head down to the Bow to have a look and decide from there. Grabbing my cameras from the house, I walked over to the truck-shaped drift, dug around until I found a door handle and headed out.

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It looked pretty much like I thought it would, ice floes, drifting mist, noisy geese. The ice along the banks hadn’t had a chance to really build up to January levels yet but it was trying pretty hard. The snowfall had stripped all the remaining leaves from the cottonwoods and the bigger trees and left them winter-stark but there were still a few brown and orange ones hanging on the willows. The rose hips were bright red, not yet bleached to orange by the sun, but they were already getting wrinkly from the sudden hard freeze.

Frozen rose hips along the Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Frozen rose hips along the Bow River in Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And the roads weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. The residential areas were a little slick but the highway was OK. And as I headed downstream along the Bow to have a look, I found that the snow cover tapered off a bit and the side roads were passable.

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But that didn’t mean I was going to take any real chances on them. I didn’t even bother going to McKinnon Flats. Though you can get right to the water there, the steep road down to the river would likely have been snow-covered and untracked and I didn’t want to be the first to blaze the trail.

So I kept going east hoping to find an unclogged road that would at least lead me to the edge of the river valley but the few that went that way hadn’t yet been travelled or plowed so, even though the snow wasn’t all that deep and fairly powdery, I passed them by.

Wind-sculpted snowdrift near Carseland, Ab., on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.
Wind-sculpted snowdrift near Carseland, Ab., on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But I finally found one that had been cleared not far from Carseland so I turned and headed toward the valley.

Didn’t make it. The plow had turned around about a hundred metres from the end of the road and I truly didn’t feel like making the short hike — hey, it was cold out there! — so I turned around, too. That’s when I saw the pheasants.

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Pheasants forage in the snow near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Pheasants forage in the snow near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were five of them — four hens and a rooster — and they were on the edge of a field digging in the snow. I fully expected them to take off as I pulled up and began taking pictures but they just kept on digging, scratching away at the snow and dipping their heads into the holes.

The rooster, a young one, I guessed, by the slightly dull colours and short tail, seemed to be having the best luck finding frozen tidbits so one of the females strutted over to dig beside him. But after a few kicks at the snow she decided it would be easier to just stick her head into the rooster’s hole. That did not end well. Don’t think I’ve ever seen an annoyed pheasant before.

A bit of an argument breaks out as pheasants forage in the snow near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
A bit of an argument breaks out as pheasants forage in the snow near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I knew the road down to the Carseland weir wouldn’t be in very good shape but I figured I could get far enough to have a look down into the valley. And what I saw there was kinda shocking.

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The river was almost entirely frozen over, which was unusual enough in itself. I’d expected some ice — I mean, the warmer water upstream in the city was already slushy — but down here the river is bigger and even more powerful. I would have thought that at least the main current would still be open.

But no, there was ice as far as I could see. It was piled up in the bends and water was flowing over it in spots but there were no open runs at all. And I could hear the ice moving, the bergs on the surface grinding against each other as the water jostled them from underneath. It sounded like gravel being poured into a bucket.

Ice jams up the Bow River near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Ice jams up the Bow River near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

OK, now what? There wasn’t much point in continuing down the river. Though it would likely be flowing below the weir, the riverside park — Carseland-Wyndham — would be closed for the season and it was unlikely the side roads in the valley would have been plowed. But I didn’t want to just turn around and go home, either.

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So I headed toward Eagle Lake.

It wasn’t that far from where I was and when I’d last been there on a glorious, summer-like October day way back about, I dunno, three weeks ago, it had been teeming with ducks, swans and geese. Maybe, unlikely but maybe, there might be a patch or two of open water with a few birds hanging around.

The east-west roads weren’t too bad but the north-south ones were partially drifted over. And some of the drifts were kinda nice. I do like how they look, the snow piled and twisted by the wind, sculpted into all kinds of swirly shapes, so I stopped by a couple that partially covered the road.

Drifted snow covers a road near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Drifted snow covers a road near Carseland, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Luckily, the cold air kept the snow soft so I was able to push my way through the edges of the drifts. Had they been hardened by a bit of melt I’d probably have gotten stuck.

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Eagle Lake was frozen solid as were Namaka and Stobart Lakes. Not much of a surprise there. But there were geese flying around and quite a lot of them so I kept going to see if I could find out where they were coming from.

Frigid pigeons on a grain bin north of Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Frigid pigeons on a grain bin north of Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snow cover evened out as I headed further east, just deep enough to cover the barley and wheat stubble in the fields, not quite enough to top the canola stalks. I passed flocks of pigeons huddled on grain bins and pecking around wind-scoured patches of ground. And it seemed like every kilometre I drove had at least one flock of partridge scrounging at the roadside.

Grey partridge take flight near Namaka, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Grey partridge take flight near Namaka, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

For the most part they just ran into the deeper snow in the ditches and ducked down but sometimes they’d take off and fly beside the truck, giving me the opportunity to grab a picture. That was how I noticed a momma whitetail and her fawn by an old homestead. I was driving beside a partridge flock with the window rolled down when I saw her standing there and staring at me. I had a good 30 seconds of looking at her through the long lens before she and the baby bolted.

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Momma whitetail and a baby by a homestead near Chancellor, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Momma whitetail and a baby by a homestead near Chancellor, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But partridge weren’t the only flocks I saw.

Squadrons of little horned larks were even more common and they took off and wheeled through the cold air everywhere. They stick around all year but in the warm months they scatter to nest and raise their broods before flocking up again when the weather turns colder.

And it was definitely colder. I was out by Chancellor now, nearly to Hussar, and despite the bright sun, the temperature on my dash now read minus-24 C, a drop of another two degrees since I left the city.

But, and I hate to admit it, I was actually enjoying being out driving around in the cold.

A horned lark hunts for seeds near Chancellor, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
A horned lark hunts for seeds near Chancellor, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snow was fresh and even, covering everything in a soft blanket of white. The sky overhead was so blue it was nearly black while along the horizon it was a pale cyan. Low spots held patches of thin mist. It was, dammit, pretty nice.

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But pretty cold, too. And it wasn’t letting up.

Stepping out of the truck to wade through the soft snow at the roadside to shoot a wind turbine against the cobalt sky, my beard frosted over in a matter of just a few minutes. And then, further down the road, I had to get out and chip ice away from the edges of the side windows. Powdery snow tossed up by the tires had melted against the warm glass and then frozen into the window seals so thickly that the glass was stuck and I couldn’t roll them down.

Drifted snow and a wind turbine north of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Drifted snow and a wind turbine north of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But life went on as usual beyond my little mobile bubble of warmth. There were deer in the fields and cattle idling in the pastures. Though I did see one cow who looked pretty miserable with a snow and frost-caked muzzle.

A cow with its face covered in snow and frozen breath east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
A cow with its face covered in snow and frozen breath east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Horned larks and flocks of partridge — where did they all come from? — were everywhere and skeins of geese were flying overhead. I could hear them every time I stopped and rolled down the windows.

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And I found a short-eared owl. First time I’ve seen one of these cute little guys in a very long time. I’d been watching for snowy owls as I drove along but, despite the weather, it’s still just a bit early for them. No matter, I’ll take a shortie any time.

A short-eared owl east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
A short-eared owl east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Speaking of shorties, that’s what the hours of daylight have become so I began making my way city-ward again. I cut south a bit past Makepeace and then turned west along the Crowfoot Creek valley. The late afternoon sun skimmed across the snow, gilding the stubble showing through and catching a trio of mule deer that posed with the snow-covered Wintering Hills on the far horizon.

Sunset catches mule deer in a field near Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Sunset catches mule deer in a field near Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Down the road a pair of pheasants spun away into a blue-shadowed coulee and a herd of mule deer walked along the edge of a drifted-over irrigation ditch. There were more partridge right near them, these ones hunkered down in the snow. And in the glare of the setting sun, a pair of mulie does and a fawn.

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They were surrounded by a soft golden mist, their exhalations hanging in the still air around their faces. Despite the cold, the light looked warm, inviting almost. When they turned to trot over to the rest of the herd close by, their hooves kicked up little clouds of snow that sparkled in the amber light.

Sunset catches mule deer in a field near Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Sunset catches mule deer in a field near Gleichen, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was absolutely lovely, a perfect way to end a cold January day.

But it ain’t January. It’s November. The beginning of November. Just the seventh day of November. It is still officially fall.

But this is southern Alberta and as we know all too well, our weather has little respect for the calendar.

So I guess it is what it is. Fall is done.

And winter is here.

Mule deer in the Crowfoot Creek valley north of Cluny, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
Mule deer in the Crowfoot Creek valley north of Cluny, Ab., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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