The foothills were sparkling with ice.
Unfortunately, so were the roads.
I was two hours into a roll through the foothills looking for ice. Supercooled rain had been falling for most of the morning and it was spontaneously freezing onto everything it touched. Branches, fences, even leaves were coated with glittering ice.
And so were the roads. Traction wasn’t too bad on the flats. Braking distances were longer but, as you well know, if you drive for the conditions you can compensate for that.
No, it was the hills that were the problem.
With the way I usually shoot my pictures — stop, explore, move on — I’m often in my vehicle as I’m photographing things. I see something, I aim the camera at it, hit the thunder button a couple of times and drive on. I never really think about traction because both the Rav and the unstoppable FJ have four-wheel drive, so I know I’ll always be able to get going.
Or maybe I should say usually get going.
Stopping by my favourite beaver pond just beyond the city limits, I aimed my camera at all the ice that was accumulating on the willows and cattails surrounding the pond. It was glittering in the thin light, magnifying the colours of the leaves and twigs it was coating. The weight of it was bending things into lovely curves.
The willows were especially nice as were the saskatoon berries that were still hanging on. Even the dry, brown poplar leaves looked good. And with the freezing rain — more of a mist, really — continuing to fall, the ice was building up even more.
So I idled along up the valley, stopping to take pictures of the ice-covered roadside plants and the shiny trees on the hillsides. Here in the forest, I was surrounded by the hiss of the falling rain and the rattle of frozen leaves and twigs that were breaking off under the weight of the accumulating ice and clattering to the ground.
Even the thinnest, tiniest things were coated in ice. Rose thorns, water hemlock seed heads, elk hair snagged on barbed wire. And the rocks on the gravel road.
The pavement on the way out, yeah, I’d been expecting that to be icy. The gravel, no.
But, oh my, it was.
Stopping part-way up a hill to aim at some icy aspen leaves, I shot my pictures and then stepped on the gas to drive on. The back wheels immediately began to spin. I eased off and tried again. More spinning and, this time, I was also sliding backward down the hill, the heat from the spinning tires melting the ice into a self-perpetuating slick on which even the lugged-out tires of the FJ could find no purchase.
OK, four-wheel drive time. I grabbed the transfer-case lever and locked the wheels and gingerly stepped on the gas once the truck stopped sliding.
All four wheels broke loose and gravel flew but luckily that only lasted a few seconds. Back up on level ground, I shifted out of four-wheel and rolled on … only to have to shift back in at the bottom of the next hill when I tried to back up a bit to get a picture of a whitetail doe down among the icy trees.
Needless to say, I didn’t continue on much further. With the roads like they were and the freezing rain beginning to turn to snow, I figured there wasn’t much sense in risking getting stuck just for a few pictures. So I limited my wandering to a circumnavigation of the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area. After an hour or so of poking around on the side roads and finding so many pretty little things, I headed back to town trying to beat rush hour.
With the ice and the now-falling snow, that would be far more hazardous than anything I’d encounter out there.
The next morning, I woke up to snow. There had been a heavy snowfall warning issued and it was coming down pretty good but, in my optimistic view, it didn’t look like the apocalyptic forecast was justified so I bundled up and headed for the FJ. It was, warning or not, the first real snowfall of the season and I didn’t want to miss it.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, snow is far better to drive on than ice, so once I was off the pavement and had good old gravel under my tires, all was well. In most places, mine were the first tracks and two-wheel drive was enough to push through the snow.
Of which, there was plenty. So once beyond the city, I decided to retrace my route from the day before. And I’m glad I did.
It was still coming down, heavily in places, but not at the rate it had been forecast. Still, there was more than enough to cover the land. And most of the lovely ice formations I’d seen the day before.
They were still there, of course, but most were obscured by the accumulating flakes. Those that weren’t were missing all the autumn-toned backgrounds that made them stand out so well before the snow fell.
But what was lacking in glittering flora was more than made up for by the volume of fauna.
The first deer of the day was a whitetail buck that, uncharacteristically, didn’t go bounding off when I stopped for pictures. Instead, he just idled along, grabbing mouthfuls of frozen fireweed — he really seemed to be enjoying the extra crunch of the snow and ice — and pausing under a clump of diamond willows to have a scratch.
Not much farther along, there was a trio of whitetail does nearly obscured in the falling snow as well as a single doe that stood in the snowy forest at just about the same spot on the hill as I’d spun out on the day before. This time, with minimal spinning, I was able to just pull away after I’d gotten my shots.
Same with the next bunch of deer. These ones were a bit more skittish but backing up to get a better angle was smooth and spin-free. Pulling over with the outside wheels partially in the ditch to let another vehicle pass was no problem, either.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Stopping by a pond to take pictures of a muskrat in the falling snow — I’d found a duck there yesterday — I got a little too close to the cattails and spun out in the mud under the snow. It was worth it, though. The flakes were coming down like feathers.
I’d been seeing rough-legged hawks all day. These guys spend their summers nesting in the north and their winters down here. In fact, they are the only hawks you’ll see here for the next few months other than the occasional redtail that forgot to migrate.
The first one I was able to photograph was in a tree near the Millarville race track and the next was taking off from a snag just as the snow began to hammer down again. In between those two, I found an immature bald eagle looking absolutely miserable.
I did have to four-by-four my way up a steep hill overlooking the Cross Conservancy but it was more out of caution than necessity. When I’d stopped up here the day before, the ice was thick on the road — and everything else — so I figured it would be slippery even with the snow cover.
The frozen leaves I’d seen the day before were snow-covered now but their colours shone through, especially the greens and yellows. A lot of them were bent and nearly broken by the weight of it all but that made them even more interesting. The spruce needles looked like they’d been dipped in confectioner’s sugar.
It was mid-afternoon now and rush hour was once again coming on, so I started heading back to town. But rather than continue to retrace my steps from the day before, I went by a more circuitous route.
Now I was in more open country and the sun was beginning to find cracks in the overcast. It lit up the ice on tall poplars at an acreage and caught the glitter of snow and ice on the far-off hills. And it even managed to put a sparkle on the glassy grass under the snow along the road.
It didn’t last long, though, so by the time I saw the next rough-legged hawk, snow was falling again. It made a nice, soft backdrop as the hawk landed on an icy tree.
And then I saw another rough-leg, this one on a power pole, while close by there were two more, one out in a pasture being harassed by magpies and the other posing for me among icy poplar branches. I believe that one was number 11 of the day.
And there were more deer, too. On a hillside off in the distance, I could see a couple bucks walking along while in a field beside me, a pair of whitetails was trotting over to catch up with their pals along the fence line. In another pasture, a quartet of does was making for the trees so I waited to grab a picture of one of them jumping the pasture fence.
So many deer. I’d seen maybe three the day before while today it was 10 times that many. They’d probably been there all along but they’d blended in with the fall colours. Now, though, all that fresh, white snow had given them away.
Snow that, likely, will soon be gone. The short-term forecast calls for much warmer temperatures while the long-term — depending on where you look — calls for a milder, drier winter.
This, this snow and ice, was just a taste of what’s to come. And I did enjoy going out to play in it. But that’s enough for now.
Fall, you come on back.
Winter, you wait your turn.