On The Road: Soft, fluffy snow in Alberta foothills squeaks loudest

For all the sounds propagating through the cold, still air, the best sound was coming from the snow.

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Sounds were carrying so clearly in the cold, still air.

I could hear trucks out on the highway, magpies somewhere off in the trees, a chickadee. A rancher in a tractor had just come by and I could hear the thrum of his tractor’s motor coming from a field just over the hill.

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But the best sound was coming from the snow.

With the sun just starting to break through, its radiant heat was ignoring the cold air and warming the tree branches and fence lines. It wasn’t warm enough to actually melt anything but its heat was enough to loosen the grip of the frost crystals. As they fell and hit the snow they made a soft hissing sound.

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OK, I’ve gotta admit I had a little help hearing that one. I was recording video as it was happening and I had the headphones plugged in to monitor the sound. But it still sounded amazing.

The other sound, though, was completely audible on its own. It was the sound of hooves on snow.

Snow in Alberta foothills
Whitetail deer clean up after the cattle have fed in a field west of Cochrane, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was a line of cattle snaking off across a pasture munching on feed just laid out for them, likely by the rancher that had just passed me. It was easy enough to hear them munching away, the occasional moos and coughs as they chomped.

But it was the squeak of the snow underneath their hooves that carried the most.

I hope you’ll excuse a bit of nerdiness here but I feel the need to explain where the sound was coming from.

So snow is made up from ice crystals that form when moisture in the air condenses and freezes. It’s related to the frost that was hissing down from the trees and fences but the crystals are much smaller, maybe a 10th the size of the frost. And far more numerous. This pasture alone would have held billions of them.

But as dense and uniform as it appeared, the crystals making up that blanket of snow had microscopic spaces between them. And it was the compression of those spaces between the crystals by the hooves of the cattle that made the squeaking sound. Each step they took squished the crystals together and as they made contact and rubbed against each other, sound was produced.

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Snow in Alberta foothills
Crystals in the ranch country west of Cochrane, Alberta, on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Had it been a bit warmer and not the -20C that it was, that sound wouldn’t have happened. The crystals would have been too wet and clumped together, the spaces between them already filled, to make any noise.

But on this morning, everything was perfect and the snow was singing.

Snow was the reason I was out this way. A bunch of it has fallen over the last couple weeks and with all the talk of a coming drought, I was curious just how much of it there was. Obviously, my one-day drive through the foothills and mountains was not going to provide much insight into the actual condition of the Bow River watershed but I wanted to have a look anyway.

So leaving the cattle and squeaky snow behind, I headed toward the Jumpingpound Creek valley.

The snow cover increased quickly as I headed south and gained a bit of elevation. The foothills trees were covered with it, a crowd of blue-grey ghosts on every ridge, and roads where the snowplows hadn’t yet been were axle-deep in white powder.

Snow in Alberta foothills
The snow mists down west of Calgary on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were fresh animal tracks everywhere and I came across deer and a pair of moose. One of them was a male and I could see the nubbins on his head where the antlers had been. Farther out in an open area close to Jumpingpound Creek, a crew of ravens and magpies picked at something hidden among the snow-covered detritus on the ground.

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It was quiet up here, too, though in a different way. The air was calm and I could hear the icy snow ticking as it landed on the truck’s roof and doorframe — and even on my jacket sleeve — but it was less like there was no sound to be heard and more like that whatever sound there was had been muffled to inaudibility.

Definitely no squeaking.

The snow got heavier as I headed west. Up on the flats above the creek valley, it was deep among the trees and out in the areas where the trees had been cut — lots of logging trucks on the road — it looked like it lay knee-deep. The Sibbald Creek valley was lovely in all that fresh whiteness with the willows in the beaver flats blaring bright red while the trees in the hills around them looked dusted with powdered sugar.

The snow that had been coming down in a mist of icy crystals was now turning into a full-on snowstorm. There was still no wind — fortunately — and the flakes were coming thick and fast, making it, in places, hard to see the road. Much like I’d experienced driving in the icy fog a couple weeks ago (I think I’m due for a nice-weather drive) I had to stick to the middle and hope the ditches didn’t jump out and grab me.

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Snow west of Calgary
Splash ice on O’Shaughnessy Falls west of Calgary on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snow backed off again by the time I hit frozen and snow-covered Barrier Lake but as I stopped to photograph little O’Shaughnessy Falls, it ramped up again. I gave some thought to walking into the forest above the falls but one look at that trackless snow made me put the truck into gear and roll on.

It was really hard to gauge how much snow there was on the mountains, mostly because I could barely see them. I could make out Mt. Lorette through the snow but Mt. Kidd was completely socked in. Nakiska had lots once I got close enough to see it but that’s meaningless, given that it’s a ski area with snow guns.

Same with the water flow in the Kananaskis River. On this particular day, it was flowing fairly well. Walking out onto the bridge for a look I could see it flowing through and around and over the top of the ice that had formed around the pilings. The clear water turned the ice underneath a gorgeous shade of green.

But the flow is controlled by releases from the dams upstream. It flows when the flow is needed and that’s about it.

Kananaskis River covered in snow
Flowing water turns the ice green in the Kananaskis River near Nakiska, west of Calgary, on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I kept going farther up the valley but the heavy snowfall and icy road made me pull into the parking lot at Wedge Pond. The snow here was piled as high as the truck’s roof where it had been pushed by plows and it weighed down the branches on the aspens, poplars, pines and spruce around the lot’s edges.

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The snow was knee-deep here and with the slightly warmer air — the temperature had risen by at least 10 degrees — it had lost some of its fluffiness. Here, it sat in clumps on the branches and pushed them downward. I could hear soft whumps as chunks broke loose and fell to the snowy forest floor.

Time to turn around. The visibility was nearly nil and the highway, despite the sanding trucks going by, was icy and not much fun for driving. I found a momma whitetail and her baby on the edge of the forest near the golf course and saw,  fleetingly, a coyote closer to the Nakiska turn. There might have been herds of elk and flocks of eagles and lumbering woolly mammoths down in the valley for all I know. But with the falling snow and my concentration on the slick road, I never would have seen them.

Snow in Alberta foothills
Momma whitetail and her baby forage in the snow in the Kananaskis River valley west of Calgary, on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snow continued to come down as I backtracked over to Sibbald Creek and the Jumpingpound Valley — gravel is so much nicer than icy pavement — but it backed off and finally quit as I rolled through the foothills again.

The cattle were now being fed their evening ration so I stopped to shoot across to a field full of animals around rows of feed. The were cattle there, too, but what I was seeing was a herd of deer. With the parallel lines the deer were nibbling at, their semi-silhouettes made me think of musical notes on a snowy white page. I wonder what their tune would be.

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So did I gain any insight as to snowpack and potential moisture content up in the mountains?

No, not really. I can anecdotally say there is what looks like a lot of snow up there. But I only saw a very small area and thanks, ironically, to the falling snow, I couldn’t see much of the very small area anyway.

But there is snow up there and there will be more to come. Hopefully, in a few more weeks, there will be rain to accompany it. Enough to stave off a drought? Locally, maybe. Throughout the rest of southern Alberta, well, those irrigation reservoirs are mighty low. And the snow I saw isn’t even in their watershed.

So I guess we’ve just got to wait and see.

And maybe while we do and if the conditions are right, we can listen to the snow squeak.

Snow west of Calgary
A slightly mangy moose west of Calgary on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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