On the Road: Flowers, birds, and a southern Alberta traffic jam

Article content

If I squinted a bit, I could just make out the old grain elevator at Stavely.

It was hazy, the moisture in the air congealing a bit as the sun warmed the valley below me, but it was otherwise clear and I could pick out a few familiar points. The elevator was pretty indistinct and if I hadn’t known it was there, I never would have been able to make it out. Closer, though, I could see the glint of water in the now-full Pine Coulee Reservoir as well as the cliffs and big glacial erratics at Boneyard Coulee.

Advertisement 2

Article content

But it was what was going on even closer to me that really caught my eye. There were folks on horseback down in the valley below me. And they were moving a herd of cattle.

Moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Over the years, the T-shaped line of ridges that run along the north end of the Porcupine Hills has become one of my favourite places to go. Roughly between Nanton and Chain Lakes, they form the high country that you see as you’re rolling south past High River and Cayley past the Mosquito Creek valley and follow you while you make your way down the highway to Parkland and Stavely.

The most northern ridge runs east to west from the high point with the communication tower west of Nanton and continues on all the way to the Willow Creek valley. Most of it is, thankfully, roadless but there are a couple of trails so that’s where I headed first.

I could have chosen better, though.

The road I picked to go up to the ridge runs straight south across a broad valley filled with green pastures, wildflowers and twisty diamond willows. It is a short, steep gorgeous drive. But don’t try it after a rainstorm.

I knew better, I really did, and there was even a sign at the north end of the road stating that it was best in dry weather. But the rain had passed several hours before and I had ground-shredding four-wheel drive. What could go wrong?

Advertisement 3

Article content

Nothing. Unless you try to stop on a slope or accelerate up a steep hill.

Moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Then, you either spin or slide and no matter how many wheels you have driving, you will not go straight. Fortunately, I found a few dry-ish spots to keep me going but I had to pass by dozens of lovely scenes I would have liked to stop and shoot. And with all the dark clouds on the western horizon, I’m pretty glad I did pass them by.

By the time I churned up to the top of the ridge, rain was beginning to spit but at least now I was on gravel instead of mud. So I kept on going.

The valley below me to the south was lush and green with cattle grazing on the ridges and horses in the lower pastures. At a spring seep I caught a glimpse of a brown thrasher flying among the trees — I have no luck getting pictures of those guys — and a bunch of goldfinches. And then, as I stopped to take some pictures back across the valley, I heard bluebirds.

A bit strange with none in sight but I soon figured out that the whispery chirping I heard was coming from a nesting box close by. Babies!

Sure enough, first mom, then dad flew back to the box with beak-fulls of bugs to jam into the waiting mouths. So cool to see.

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

A young bluebird demands more in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A young bluebird demands more in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I turned east now and followed the ridge up toward the summit. A ring-necked duck swam on a pond beside the road and cattle grazed in belly-deep grass around a magnificent diamond willow. I put up my little copter for a look at that stormy sky back to the west but by the time I landed it and rolled on, the storm that had been about to dampen my day had moved off to the northeast. Somebody was going to get wet but it wouldn’t be me.

A ring-necked duck on a pond in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A ring-necked duck on a pond in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sun was pushing through as I stopped to shoot a hawk on a snow fence and a line of buffalo beans along the road. Above me, there were big patches of blue sky and cloud shadows were dappling the green landscape below me to the north.

A redtail hawk on a snow fence in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A redtail hawk on a snow fence in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

To the south, it was bright and sunny. So turning onto Beaver Valley Road, that’s where I headed.

Buffalo beans follow a fence line in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
Buffalo beans follow a fence line in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was now on the long leg of the T, the crossbar ridge behind me. Oxley Creek accompanies the road here as it runs between parallel ridges that taper toward Willow Creek to the south and in between them is some absolutely gorgeous country.

A horse wanders through dandelions west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A horse wanders through dandelions west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I passed horses swishing their tails in pastures full of dandelions and tall grass. Lupines and buffalo beans grew in clumps everywhere. I saw the first of the wild rose blossoms — lots more to come — and deer along the creek bottom.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Lupines and buffalo beans west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
Lupines and buffalo beans west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was warmer here, too, the air humid and scented with chokecherry, crushed grass and wolf willow blossoms. Stopping to sit in the ditch with dandelion seed heads all around me, I could hear sparrows and magpies and starlings and every other bird in the valley chattering away. A Swainson’s hawk flew overhead and let out one of its long, mournful cries.

A wild rose blooms low and out of the wind in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A wild rose blooms low and out of the wind in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back in the truck I rolled on, scanning the fencelines for birds and wildflowers, before heading up to the high country again.

The view from the top of this road is amazing. Though it was hazy, I could make out all kinds of familiar landmarks and I knew that on a more clear day — like in mid-winter — I’d be able to see most of the way to Vulcan, nearly a hundred kilometres to the east.

But there was nothing wrong with the view in front of me now. Down below I could see the valley road I’d just been on and a truck hauling a stock trailer. Cloud shadows ran across the far hills so I set up a camera to do a timelapse of them gliding along.

A truck pulls a stock trailer up Beaver Valley Road west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
A truck pulls a stock trailer up Beaver Valley Road west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And while that ran, I got down on the ground to explore.

There were low roses blooming along with bunches of vetches. The crocuses were long done but their anemone cousins were just coming into bloom. Wild blue flax bounced in the breeze and there were hare bells.

Advertisement 6

Article content

Wild roses just starting to bloom in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Wild roses just starting to bloom in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Caterpillars, too. Lots of tent caterpillars. They were clustered on the roses and other hard-stemmed shrubs. They can really make a mess of foliage but they are fascinating to see.

Tent caterpillars swarm a wild rose in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024.
Tent caterpillars swarm a wild rose in the Porcupine Hills west of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I crawled around on top of the ridge for half an hour as the timelapse did its thing and then packed up to head back down the road. Got about a hundred metres.

Far below me, a little knot of cattle and horsemen was coming up the same road I was on. Cool, I love southern Alberta traffic jams like these, so I took a couple of pictures from up on the hill and then headed down toward them.

It’s not difficult to make your way through a herd as long as you take it slow so I eased my way between the beeves and stopped to take a few pictures. I thought at first that they were headed up the ridge but they turned and headed across the grassland to the north.

A southern Alberta traffic jam, moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
A southern Alberta traffic jam, moving cattle down the road to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Quickly, I jumped out of the truck and asked if I could fly my drone over them. Sure, they said, go right ahead.

Keeping in mind that animals can sometimes get a little spooked by one of these buzzing machines, I kept off to the side or behind them as they moved along. Glad I did.

Advertisement 7

Article content

From the air I could see the cloud shadows on the green slopes and the big, ragged clouds beyond them to the west. The cattle, the riders and the dogs were tiny but distinct, dwarfed by the landscape around them but looking so much a part of the scene.

The riders kept pushing the cattle northward up the green valley and they were nearly a kilometre away when I turned the drone around and flew it back. Drone in hand, I climbed back into the truck and rolled on down the road.

Moving cattle to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Moving cattle to pasture in the Oxley Creek valley west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was late afternoon now but, with still another five hours to sunset, I decided to keep on going down the valley to Willow Creek Provincial Park.

Tucked into an S-curve in the creek valley, the park sits about 20 kilometres due west of Stavely, just south of Pine Coulee Reservoir. The last time I was here back about six weeks ago, it had been cold and miserable, the trees mostly leafless and barely a flower in sight. Now, though, everything was green, the leaves on the cottonwoods were rattling in the breeze and birdsong, even more than back up Beaver Valley, filled the air.

Cottonwood fluff was swirling around, drifts of it piled up against tree trunks and snagging in spider webs. Bank swallows swooped around, some snagging bugs to feed on, others filling their beaks with mud to repair their conical adobe nests.

Advertisement 8

Article content

There were buffalo beans along the trails and clematis among the saskatoons and chokecherries. Up on the flats above the creek, cinquefoil, flax and blanketflower were beginning to bloom. And down along the creek, roses and wolf willow.

Wild flax blooms in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Wild flax blooms in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The scent was heavenly. A few of the chokecherries were still blooming and that sweet scent helped to cut the intensity of the wolf willows. I tell ya, if science could figure out how those tiny yellow blossoms produce such a powerful smell, we could quit trying to crack nuclear fusion.

Tiny, sweet-smelling wolf willow blossoms in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Tiny, sweet-smelling wolf willow blossoms in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The roses weren’t nearly as intense but, man, they eclipsed the wolf willows in beauty. They were just starting to bloom, each thicket of them decorated with a few pink blossoms opening up among dozens more buds. I’m guessing that by the time you read this, they will almost all be in bloom. Gorgeousness overload!

A wild rose blossom opens up in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
A wild rose blossom opens up in Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back out of the valley the wind was beginning to howl and storm clouds were piling up over the hills. I could see rain falling back over in Beaver Valley and it wouldn’t be long before it got to me, too. I stopped for a minute to take pictures of the clouds over the thankfully now-full Pine Coulee Reservoir and then again by a slough a little further up the road where a dozen kingbirds were catching bugs. They are crazy hard to photograph, those guys.

Advertisement 9

Article content

An eastern kingbird flies up to catch bugs against a storm-darkened sky west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
An eastern kingbird flies up to catch bugs against a storm-darkened sky west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Twenty minutes later, the rain hit and the wind started howling. By the time I got to Nanton, the wipers could barely keep the windshield clear. Behind me, the Porcupine Hills were completely obscured. That road I’d slid and spun on earlier would be nothing but a waterslide now.

But the rest of the day had been spectacular, cruising the ridges and idling down the Beaver Valley Road, all the flowers and birds. And running into that southern Alberta traffic jam. Thank you again, gentlemen, for letting me fly around you!

Storm clouds over Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Storm clouds over Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Yeah, a pretty great day.

I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again.

I love southern Alberta!

Storm clouds over Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Storm clouds over Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Article content