On the Road: Bears roaming, flowers blooming, and no road noise at all

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There was no road noise.

It only lasted for a few minutes but right around 5:45 a.m. at a slough just north of Millarville, I was able to pull over, aim my camera out the window and hear nothing but nature. Redwing blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, swallows, a robin, ducks and coots, splashes and all the other sounds of a slough at sunrise.

And not a single vehicle. No trucks or cars or tractors or planes flying overhead. In fact, there were no geese sounding off either. Maybe they slept in.

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But it didn’t last long. By the time I aimed my camera at a tree swallow perched nearby, the first hum of traffic was reaching me from the big road a kilometre or so away. The geese had woken up, too.

But for 10, maybe 15 minutes, nature’s sunrise symphony played uninterrupted.

Sunrise mammatus clouds near Millarville, Ab., on Wednesday, May 29, 2024.
Sunrise mammatus clouds near Millarville, Ab., on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was on my way up the Sheep River valley to see if I could find a bear. My friend Mike — same name, different guy — had been up to the provincial parks that enclose the Sheep River the week before and found bears grazing on the new grass and dandelions along the road. One, in fact, had put on quite an act for him, doing funny things like popping up on its hind legs or scratching its back on a road sign.

I didn’t expect to be that lucky, of course, but maybe. You never know until you go.

The sunrise had now fizzled behind a bank of mammatus clouds so I stopped to shoot them and then, further west, I woke up a very scruffy coyote. It posed for a second before trotting off. I pulled over again by the Anchor D Ranch. The ranch horses were having their breakfast backdropped by gorgeously green foothills and stands of willows.

A scruffy coyote just woke up west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A scruffy coyote just woke up west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were ducks on the beaver ponds right by the park entrance, a couple of sleepy mallards on a log with teal and buffleheads swimming the calm waters around them. The natural sounds were nice to hear, too, but there was a motor of some sort running over at the ranch and a vehicle coming up the road. Sound really carries, especially on a calm morning.

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Mallard drakes relax on a beaver pond west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Mallard drakes relax on a beaver pond west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was a little past 7 a.m. when I pulled over by Windy Point to look down onto the river. I had half expected it to be running a bit brown from snow melt but no, it was more of a soft green. Too cool in the high country for the melt to really begin, I guess. That, or there was less snow up there than I thought. I hope it’s the former.

Whitetail deer in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Whitetail deer in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were no animals at all along the road until I got closer to the Sheep River Falls. There, a pair of whitetails — mom and a mostly grown fawn — stood nervously while I took their pictures. And up at the end of the road, up where Junction Creek joins the Sheep, a squirrel was really enjoying a breakfast of juniper buds. It was almost smiling as it chowed down.

A squirrel nibbles on juniper buds in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A squirrel nibbles on juniper buds in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I turned around here because, well, that was what the road dictated. And that’s when I found Mike’s bear.

I actually found a band of bighorn sheep first. They came trotting out of the trees, ran onto the road right in front of me and continued on down the pavement before turning off at a steep gravelly hillside close to the river.

Bighorn sheep graze in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Bighorn sheep graze in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I’d been following the sheep and had just begun to speed up again when I saw a dark form at the top of the slope a little ways further on. It was Mike’s bear. Had I been going the breakneck 50 km/h I had been before the sheep, I would have been past the slope and missed it.

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Nearly missed it anyway. It came down the hill fairly quickly so I had to hurry just to get any pictures at all. And then it passed so close to the front of the truck that I lost sight of it before seeing it again as it clambered over the guardrail right by my fender and disappeared into the trees.

I waited for a few minutes to see if it would come out again but, no, it was gone. Mike had captured it performing but all I got was a few shots of it walking down a gravel hill. No circus bear for me.

But at least I got a picture of a bear! Been a long time since I’ve done that. So, semi-satisfied, I turned off the pavement onto the Gorge Creek Trail to see what else I could find.

A pretty blonde black bear in a green meadow in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A pretty blonde black bear in a green meadow in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Everything is so green there now and getting greener. The aspens were sporting bright new nickel-sized leaves while the poplars were still unfurling their sticky green buds. Currants and roses were leafing out while the patches of saskatoons were covered with white blossoms.

But it was the grass that was the most green. It was so tall it nearly hid the Columbia ground squirrels that were munching on it. So lush!

A Columbia ground squirrel nibbles on grass in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A Columbia ground squirrel nibbles on grass in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But it wasn’t tall enough to hide the bear.

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The first one back on the gravel slope had been a dark cinnamon colour, more red than brown, but this one was a honey blonde. I could see it down in the valley below, a bright blob against all that green, face jammed into the new grass and grazing like a cow.

It was big, half again bigger than the first bear and absolutely gorgeous. While black bears are generally, well, black, they also come in different colours like the cinnamon one I’d seen early and this lovely blonde. Out on the west coast, some black bears are even white.

But no matter what colour they are, it’s always thrilling to see a bear.

A pretty blonde black bear chomps on grass in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A pretty blonde black bear chomps on grass in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I left it to graze and continued on up the valley, stopping here and there to shoot pictures of the gorge down below and the lovely trees. At one stop, a chipping sparrow landed on a branch almost close enough to touch. A flicker came in and landed nearby, too.

A chipping sparrow in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A chipping sparrow in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

A flock of siskins took off from a little creek trickling into a muddy dip beside the road just as I stopped for a picture. They flew up into the trees close by so I spent a few seconds trying to find them in hopes of a shot. And as I sat there, I heard a metallic banging sound.

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I had heard it earlier, too, as I was photographing the blonde bear, but I’d just assumed some park workers had shown up and started doing something along the road. Hearing it now, I assumed the same thing.

A flicker pauses for a second in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A flicker pauses for a second in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But as I left the siskins behind — couldn’t find them among the branches — and drove on, I heard it again, this time much louder. But where was it coming from? I was in the only vehicle on the road and I’d seen no construction or repair of any kind coming up.

But as I rolled slowly along the sound came again, this time very loud and from behind me. I looked in the mirror to try to see anything that could be the source.

And there it was, a woodpecker — sapsucker, to be exact — with its long toes wrapped around the top edge of a road sign and hammering its beak against the metal. Why, I have no idea, but it was deliberately beating on the metal and ignoring the post made of wood that its beak was designed for.

Making noise just for the joy of it? Sure, why not. I’ve been known to do that myself.

A sapsucker takes a pause after hammering on a road sign in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A sapsucker takes a pause after hammering on a road sign in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I continued back down to the Sheep River hoping to see the first bear again. I didn’t but I did see a couple of young bighorn rams, one of which was packing double ear tags and what looked like a radio collar. Part of a survey of some sort, I guess.

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A bighorn ram with monitoring gear in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A bighorn ram with monitoring gear in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was now past 9 a.m. and the park was starting to get busy. Back at the main road I pulled over to photograph another ram relaxing on a roadside berm and had to wait for a line of vehicles to pass me before I could get back onto the road again.

A young bighorn ram relaxes in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A young bighorn ram relaxes in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The folks in the vehicles turned out to be, according to a kind gentleman I talked to at the Indian Oils parking lot, a group of hikers about to set off on a 10-km ramble. I wished them a safe trek, acknowledged that I would be unlikely to survive such a hike and then wandered off into the woods to search for flowers.

I didn’t have to walk 10 km to find them. More like 10 metres.

A tiny calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A tiny calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I found the first little calypso orchid right next to the parking lot, its tiny pink flower practically glowing against the brown duff and green moss on the forest floor. Looking around, I saw a dozen more.

I love these little things. They are so pretty, so bright and such a joy to see among the trees. But their real beauty shows up when you get close.

Like, really close. I put my macro rig on my camera, set up my pocket video light and flopped on the ground to have a look.

The curving sepals of a tiny calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
The curving sepals of a tiny calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The inside of these flowers is a combination of bright yellow and red while the sepals that surround it are a hot pink. The stem is a bright coral. The only part of the plant that isn’t aglow is the leaf which, at this time of year, is barely visible.

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But like I said, you have to be close. The whole plant is barely a handwidth tall. And the flowers, they’re about the size of a thumbnail.

The yellow stamens of a tiny fingernail-sized calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
The yellow stamens of a tiny fingernail-sized calypso orchid in the pine forest in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Even smaller, though, are the kinnikinnick blossoms. These little vase-shaped guys are less than half the size of the calypsos and they are dwarfed by neighbouring shooting stars and wood violets. Crocuses, of which I only found one still fully intact, are absolute giants compared to them.

Incredibly tiny kinnikinnick flowers in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Incredibly tiny kinnikinnick flowers in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

By now the park was fully awake with cars and SUVs rolling along. The bikers were starting to show up, too, both the pedal and motor variety, the latter either ripping through the curves or cruising along with exhaust pipes flatulating.

It was just after 11 a.m. Might be time to call it a day.

One of the few crocuses still blooming along the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
One of the few crocuses still blooming along the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But there was one more stop I wanted to make.

I don’t usually like going to popular places but since I was close, I decided to stop at Sheep River Falls. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I would rather they weren’t there. And today, luckily, they weren’t. So I parked and made the short hike to the falls.

A male harlequin duck rides the current in the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A male harlequin duck rides the current in the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It is an undeniably beautiful place, well deserving of its popularity, so I started taking pictures and walking down the rock shelf to the base of the falls. Where I saw, to my surprise, a harlequin duck. It was a male in all his bright breeding colours. So handsome.

A male harlequin duck dives into the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
A male harlequin duck dives into the Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I fired off some pictures and then, suddenly, just as I was about to switch to video, my camera quit.

I looked down at it. No malfunction, I had simply run out of storage. Both memory cards had filled, 96 gigabytes of photos and video shot in the previous, what, six hours?

I had no spare card with me so I set the camera aside and just sat there, alone, watching the water churn and tumble over the rock shelf.

Ice behind the crashing water shows up green in Sheep River Falls in Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Ice behind the crashing water shows up green in Sheep River Falls in Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And I listened, too. Out on the highway there would be cars coming by, motorcycles roaring.

But here, wrapped in the spray and the roar of the falls, there was no road noise at all.

Panorama of Sheep River Falls in Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
Panorama of Sheep River Falls in Sheep River in Sheep River Provincial Park west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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