On the Road: Misty excursion too far gone, so might as well keep going

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I was beginning to think I’d gone a little bit too far.

Surrounded by a thin blue mist, I was rolling along a pool-table flat expanse of farmland somewhere southeast of Brooks. I’d already crossed the Bow River at Bow City and circumnavigated Lake Newell and now had taken the first paved road I’d come across. I knew Rolling Hills was somewhere up ahead but I didn’t know how far.

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Leaving the house just before 9 a.m., I’d headed south and east into a brilliant, sparkling morning. It was just cool enough that a bit of frost had formed and as I drove east toward Milo, I rolled past snowy fields studded with diamonds, sapphires and rubies as the crystals caught the bright morning sun.

My plan, such as it was, was to see what I could see around McGregor Lake and then continue on toward Lomond. I was hoping I might find a snowy owl along the way, maybe some deer out in the fields but I had no real expectations. It was a glorious morning and that was all I needed.

There was a bit of thin, wispy cloud at Milo but the sky over the vast, frozen expanse of McGregor Lake, right on Milo’s doorstep, was a bright blue. Little huts out on the ice and vehicles parked along the shore showed the presence of fishermen while tracks in the snow around the lake showed the presence of deer, coyotes and gophers.

Gophers?

A gopher — Richardson's ground squirrel — takes in the view in a snowy pasture near Milo, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A gopher — Richardson’s ground squirrel — takes in the view in a snowy pasture near Milo, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Yeah, they’re up. There was one sitting in the snow just east of town, the first one I’ve seen this year. These guys, these Richardson’s ground squirrels, usually head to their burrows in late September and don’t come back above ground until, well, right around now.

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The males are the first to show up to, snow cover or not, and they establish breeding territories. In another couple of weeks, the ladies awaken and nature will take its course.

This wasn’t the earliest in the year I’ve ever seen one — my friend Mike has been seeing them around High River for a couple of weeks now — but this one standing tall on the sparkling snow in the third week of February marks the shortest time between seeing the last one still up and the first one emerging. It has been only seven weeks since I saw the final gopher of 2023 back on Dec. 29.

A gopher hippity-hopping to the next patch of grass west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A gopher hippity-hopping to the next patch of grass west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I continued on east from Milo, happy that the day had started so well, watching the fields for deer and the fences for snowies. Flocks of horned larks were everywhere, flying up from the gravel in front of me and flitting away to the roadsides. I stopped to try for some pictures of them but they are elusive little things. Pretty birds, though.

I was on the top of the ridge that sweeps around the Bow River basin, not far from the Majorville Medicine Wheel, with grain fields and open prairie down below. On a clear day like today, I should have been able to see far to the east. But what I saw instead was a wall of blue mist.

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A horned lark west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A horned lark west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

No big deal, I thought, it’s a bright, sunny day and, sure, it’s a bit chilly at the moment but it’s only 10:30 in the morning. The day will warm up and the mist will disappear. So I kept on rolling.

I stopped to shoot a few pictures of a fence lined with skulls just down the road and then pulled in to circumnavigate Badger Lake to see what I could see. More ice fisherfolk here and a few flocks of partridge that were just as elusive as the larks but beyond that, nothing much.

Skulls line a fence near Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Skulls line a fence near Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Nothing much except mist.

And if anything, it was thicker. The sun was still shining but the blue haze dulled pretty much everything. And reduced visibility overall.

I watched a coyote bound off across the prairie and there were deer down in a low coulee but they were obscured by the mist. I tried for pictures but the long lens made it look even more dense. Still though, I was sure that as the day wore on, the mist would lift.

Looking into the blue mist west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Looking into the blue mist west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was a tiny bit thinner at Bow City. It made the mule deer I found there look bluish when they were backlit but they reverted to their natural browns and creams when they were directly lit by the sun. And they were kind enough to put on a clinic in fence-crossing for me.

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Some jumped over, others crawled under, all made the crossing look easy.

Mule deer demonstrate fence-crossing techniques at Bow City, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Mule deer demonstrate fence-crossing techniques at Bow City, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The mist here by Bow City wasn’t like fog, thick and wet, but more like thin smoke. It was just dense enough to make things look indistinct a kilometre or two away and to obscure the horizon entirely. And it was blue, a thin, milky blue, the colour coming from the clear sky above reflecting off the snow on the ground and scattering through those billions of microscopic water droplets hanging in the air.

Driving through it, there was less of that tunnel feeling you get with fog but more like the frustration of having a dirty windshield that just won’t come clean. And it was persistent.

It was unchanging all the way east from Bow City to Lake Newell and it seemed even thicker over the lake itself. But I did see geese flying around and over at Kinbrook Island Park, there was something even better.

A porcupine snoozes in a Russian olive tree at Kinbrook Island Park near Brooks, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A porcupine snoozes in a Russian olive tree at Kinbrook Island Park near Brooks, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Tired of scouring the landscapes for things I couldn’t see, I stopped to take pictures of a very pretty Russian olive tree by the day-use parking lot. The bark was nice and shaggy and there were broken twigs and leaves sinking into the snow around its base. But as I was taking pictures of the berries, the little olives, I noticed something dark in the upper branches.

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It was a porcupine. And it was sound asleep.

I spent a good 10 minutes hanging around underneath it and taking pictures — I even walked back to the truck to change lenses — and it never moved, never even opened its eyes. But the best part of the whole experience was that I could actually see it.

A young porcupine snoozes in a Russian olive tree at Kinbrook Island Park near Brooks, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A young porcupine snoozes in a Russian olive tree at Kinbrook Island Park near Brooks, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Looking up from underneath, there was nothing but blue sky and a few clouds. The mist was still there but it was much thinner looking straight up than it was looking along the ground.

I left the porky to snooze the day away and continued on, my enthusiasm renewed. But that didn’t last long.

Rolling Hills Reservoir was misted over, the south end of Lake Newell was barely visible. Heading east toward Tilley, still in the vain hope the mist would lift, the native prairie to the north and the start of irrigation country to the south were just blurs of milky blue.

OK, I thought, maybe I’ve gone far enough. So I turned south toward the pretty little town of Rolling Hills where I’d begin to close the circle by turning back west again.

I hadn’t really thought about how far I’d come until I started looking for a sign saying the distance to Rolling Hills. It was down the road somewhere, that much was for sure, and I was going there one way or another. And it was at that point that I glanced at the gas gauge.

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How could I possibly have used over half a tank?? And then I checked the odometer.

Somehow, with all my side-roading and circumnavigating and backtracking, I’d managed to have driven nearly 300 kilometres.

And I was still in the mist. It was getting on toward three in the afternoon and the sky was beginning to cloud over. Even if the mist lifted, the day would stay dull.

It was still sunny by Rolling Hills but by the time I found the gophers, the clouds were rolling in.

A gopher snacks on last year's grass in a pasture west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A gopher snacks on last year’s grass in a pasture west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The little rodents were in a pasture just west of town and they were running all over the place, chirping and scrapping, digging into the snow for grass to eat and just generally enjoying themselves. I know there are folks who don’t like them but I ain’t one of them. I love their antics and especially the way they use their paws-like hands to hold onto their food. So sweet.

But that mist still affected my pictures of them. Like the Bow City mule deer before them, they looked bluish when they were backlit and greyish when the sun popped out. But the most concerning thing about the situation was the time and the truck’s fuel level.

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A gopher gives a yell in a pasture west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
A gopher gives a yell in a pasture west of Rolling Hills, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I left the gophers and continued west until I hit Highway 36 south of Rainier and by then I was down to just over a quarter of a tank. I needed gas but there was nowhere nearby to get it. Brooks was a fair pull to the north but I could easily make it there on what fuel I had. But instead, I opted for Vauxhall. It was half the distance from where I was but even farther from home.

But, I figured, I’d already gone too far. What’s another few kilometres more?

At Vauxhall, I got 30 bucks’ worth of what has to be southern Alberta’s most expensive gas and then started heading back toward home. On the map, it was around 175 kilometres away. But who needs maps when you’ve got over half a tank and a couple of hours of daylight?

Open water on the south end of McGregor Lake west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Open water on the south end of McGregor Lake west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

So I backroaded as the sun dipped and the clouds thickened and then, finally, as the mist thinned north of Enchant, I stopped to take pictures of smoke coming up from a trash fire — hey, I thought it looked cool! — and birds around an old farmhouse. At both spots, coyotes were singing.

The roads were slushy but the air was clear back at Lomond and I found open water at the south end of McGregor Lake just west of there. No birds but still nice to see. And the sun was shining the brightest it had since early that morning out from underneath a cloudy chinook arch. By the time I got over toward Vulcan, though, it was beginning to set.

Whitetail deer bolt north of Vulcan, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Whitetail deer bolt north of Vulcan, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Rosy light spread across the deer-tracked snow in front of me and skimmed the underside of the clouds above as the sun kissed the mountains to the west and dropped below the horizon. And as it did, I glanced down at the odometer.

I’d come just over 500 kilometres to get to this point. And home was another hundred or so kilometres yet.

Sunset north of Vulcan, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Sunset north of Vulcan, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

So had I gone too far? Maybe. Probably. But despite the frustrating mist and the lack of satisfying pictures, it had been a pretty pleasant day.

So sometimes, yeah, going too far means going just far enough.

Snowy roads west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024.
Snowy roads west of Lomond, Ab., on Tuesday, February 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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