On the Road: Rivers flowing a bit more freely

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Wally’s Beach was closed.

Eight hours after leaving the house and 230 km of driving to get to where I thought I could shoot a few pictures of the sand piled up on the shores of St. Mary Reservoir, I rattled up the rutted road to the entryway of the little park. And the gate was locked.

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But at least it had been a nice, leisurely trek to get there.

I got out of bed pretty early, as I often do, and had a look out the front door. The sky was still mostly dark but the robins were singing and the sky was beginning to shift from black to blue so I decided to just go ahead and hit the road. By 6 a.m. I was beyond the city limits. By seven, I was watching the just-risen sun light up the underside of the chinook arch at Stavely.

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Looked like it was going to be a lovely day.

The rising sun peeks out from under a cloud at Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
The rising sun peeks out from under a cloud at Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And maybe a bit windy. But as I rolled west toward the Porcupine Hills between Claresholm and Granum, gravel dust from passing vehicles was hanging like fog in the air that had yet to stir. Stopping to photograph horses in a pasture, it was still enough that I could hear their teeth tearing up mouthfuls of the new greenery. The songs of meadowlarks and robins competed with the rumble of traffic rolling down the highway 5 km away.

A meadowlark greets the morning west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
A meadowlark greets the morning west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were flocks of gulls on the move, flying over the fields looking for snacks and splashing around in the meltwater ponds. A school bus rumbled by on its way to take rural kids to class. And I came across some folks clambering around a huge seeding rig on the edge of a fallow field so I stopped to ask if I could take some pictures.

Ring-billed gulls on the edge of a field west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Ring-billed gulls on the edge of a field west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

They turned out to be gentlemen from the nearby Granum Hutterite Colony and they said, sure go ahead. So as soon as they got their massive machinery moving, I put up my little drone to have a look. Those air seeders and crawler tractors are a far cry from the clanking mechanical drills and the flatulent four-cylinder McCormicks and Deeres I remember from my youth.

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Seeding peas on Granum Hutterite Colony land west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Seeding peas on Granum Hutterite Colony land west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I continued on down along the Willow Creek valley and then west into the Porcupine Hills around Head-Smashed-In. Though the wind hadn’t risen to full strength yet, looking south I could see the vanes on the wind turbines near the Oldman Dam spinning and the dust behind vehicles fanning out to the east. And by the time I got down to the reservoir, it was roaring.

Looking toward the mountains from the Porcupine Hills west of Head-Smashed-In, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Looking toward the mountains from the Porcupine Hills west of Head-Smashed-In, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was more water behind the dam than the last time I was here back in December and, though the water level was still well below the end of the boat-launch ramp I was standing on, white-capped waves were crashing higher up on the shoreline. But down at the west end of the reservoir where the Crowsnest, Castle and Oldman Rivers meet, things looked pretty much the same.

The Crowsnest River flows through its old channel in the Oldman Dam reservoir north of Cowley, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
The Crowsnest River flows through its old channel in the Oldman Dam reservoir north of Cowley, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

As I expected them to. Mountain snowmelt hasn’t really started yet so the rivers are still running — mostly — at their winter levels. The Oldman had a bit more volume, though, and it was tearing at the accumulation of silt on the reservoir floor as it slashed along. Chunks nearly the size of my truck fell into the water as I stood watching from the bridge. Things are really going to get interesting with this stuff once spring runoff really hits.

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A chunk of silt collapses into the Oldman River north of Cowley, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
A chunk of silt collapses into the Oldman River north of Cowley, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back below the dry and mineral-streaked spillway the river was running freely and I watched a couple folks launch a drift boat for a fishing float down toward Summerview. The fish are hungry at this time of year so I’m sure they had a great day. As long as they managed to get safely past the island of cobra chickens just downstream. This willow-covered chunk of silt and gravel was covered with nesting Canada geese and they are not known for being very neighbourly.

Nesting geese on an island in the Oldman River below the Oldman Dam north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Nesting geese on an island in the Oldman River below the Oldman Dam north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sun was beginning to find gaps in the chinook clouds as I continued on south and the temperature continued to rise. At Pincher Creek it was in the mid-teens and by the time I stopped to take pictures of yet another seeding rig working the fields over toward Glenwood, it was pushing 20C.

Working the land east of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Working the land east of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The wind was still roaring but I was sorta counting on that. The last time I was at Wally’s Beach on St. Mary Reservoir — now just another half-hour down the road — the sand and silt had been shaped into low dunes with flags of flying grit being blown over them. I wanted to see that again.

How many years had it been since I’d last been there? At least 10, more likely around 15. I’d driven past it a dozen times, the last being only a few months ago, but though I’d poked around the reservoir and downstream along the river a bit, I hadn’t stopped at the beach.

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The heat of the day was wonderful, such a nice change from the cycle of snow and cold of the last month, and I drove east across the Kainai Nation from Glenwood toward the St. Mary Dam with the windows rolled down. The snow-covered mountains behind me and to the south shimmered in the heat ripples coming off the fields and pastures as I passed and the meltwater ponds reflected the streaking chinook clouds and blue sky above.

Greening landscape in the Porcupine Hills north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Greening landscape in the Porcupine Hills north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

At the dam, waves slapped against the reinforcing rocks but it was easy to see the water level was way down. Like back at the Oldman, bare dirt lined the shores and boat-launch ramps were marooned high above water line. The spillway, of course, was dry and though I tried to get down to the river below the dam for a look, the gate to the access road was locked.

Which turned out to be an unrecognized harbinger for Wally’s Beach.

Very low water in St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Very low water in St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I took the second road to the west after crossing the dam and bounced along the washboarded gravel. Little swirls of dust kicked up by the chinook gusts met me as I rattled along and at the turn toward the beach, an actual little twister spun up and sent dust and loose straw clattering across my hood.

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This was what I was hoping for. If the low dunes I expected to see were there, the swirling grit and debris being thrown around by the wind would look very cool. Pausing for a moment to change lenses so I wouldn’t have to do it out in the dust, I continued down the rutted access road.

I needn’t have bothered to be so cautious. The gate was closed and locked.

Needless to say, I hadn’t expected this. In hindsight, though, maybe I should have. It is just the middle of April, after all, hardly peak tourist season. And the last time I’d been there it was the middle of summer. In fact, had I done even the bare minimum of research, I would have found out the opening date was May 1.

But, honestly, it just never occurred to me that the area would be closed.

The water level has risen a bit the Oldman Dam reservoir north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
The water level has risen a bit at the Oldman Dam reservoir north of Pincher Creek, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

OK, sure, I could have just parked and walked in but finding the gate locked after an admittedly lovely 230-km drive, I was annoyed. So, spitefully, I turned around and left.

But I still wanted to get down to the lake so I kept rolling toward Raley and the reservoir’s west end. It had been even longer since I’d been there but maybe I could find some kind of access.

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And as I drove along, I was pleasantly surprised to see a little band of antelope. They were in a field not very far from the beach access road, just relaxing in the stubble and soaking up the warm sun.

A little bunch of antelope relax in a field near St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
A little bunch of antelope relax in a field near St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Though they aren’t very common here, the rolling plains of southern Alberta, even this close to the mountains, are a part of their ancestral home range. And there are several bands of them up on the Milk River Ridge not too far to the south from here. It wouldn’t be much of a trek for them to show up in this field.

But no matter what the reason, it was so nice to see them.

I was on the south side of the reservoir now and heading west I could see the mostly dry lakebed getting closer to the road. And it was at its closest point right next to the West Raley Hutterite Colony.

Very low water in St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Very low water in St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

A dirt trail looked like it would get me even closer so I pulled into the colony to ask permission to do a little light trespassing. A courteous gentleman relayed my request to the farm boss who said sure, go ahead. Five minutes later I was on a cutbank above the shore.

There were no dunes here — didn’t really expect any at this end — but plenty of sandy shore. I could see the lines where the water levels had been, their spacings getting closer together as they descended from the crumbling banks in front of me down to the silty water in the lake. The fella I’d talked to at the colony told me the level had been even lower the week before but, like the Oldman River to the north, the St. Mary River was flowing a little bit more freely now from its headwaters across the border in Montana. It will take a long while, though, before it is anywhere near full again.

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Sheep bones beside St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Sheep bones beside St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Thwarted at the beach, I’d at least made it to the shore but now it was time to start heading back. I would have liked to stick around for a bit, maybe even wait for sunset, but there was yet another snowstorm on the way. The day had been lovely and warm but I could already see the sky to the north beginning to darken.

But I didn’t rush. The abandoned Raley elevator — over 100 years old and looking every minute of it — was just too photogenic to pass right by. And the Oldman River at Fort Macleod was looking particularly clear and sparkly. We’ll see what it looks like in another month or so once all that loose silt in the dam gets stirred back into the rising water. Hopefully it won’t get too nasty.

The old Alberta Pacific grain elevator at Raley, near St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
The old Alberta Pacific grain elevator at Raley, near St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And I made one more stop at a meltwater pond east of Claresholm. It was dark to the north but here the chinook clouds reflected on the pond’s mirror surface. There was a snowstorm coming but for the moment, all was calm.

Chinook clouds over St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Chinook clouds over St. Mary Reservoir west of Spring Coulee, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I wondered, as I sat there listening to the gulls and meadowlarks, what it might be like at Wally’s Beach at this same moment. Definitely had to use my imagination for that since, ya know, I never got to see it.

But I will. It might not be for a while but I’ll head back down to Wally’s Beach again.

And next time, that gate had better be open!

The latest blast of winter begins to move in over an ephemeral pond east of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
The latest blast of winter begins to move in over an ephemeral pond east of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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