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On the Road with Mike Drew: Easy false start on race to spring

On the Road with Mike Drew: Easy false start on race to spring
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I guess I kinda jump the gun a bit when I go looking for signs of spring.

Pretty much as soon as the days start getting noticeably longer, I’m out there scouting for even the slightest indication that winter is on the way out. Come late January and into February, anything that isn’t white or frozen will immediately catch my eye.

Is the moss along that spring creek greener than it has been? I think it is. A bit of brown fur on that jackrabbit? They’ll be shedding that white coat any day now. A robin singing? I must be hallucinating!

But now that March is right on the doorstep, those imaginary signs of spring are starting to become, well, less imaginary.

Seeing bees out and about on a February day isn’t really a sign of spring. Almost any time that the temperature is warm enough, a few of them will stir from their winter torpor and venture out of their hives. But this time, there were more than a few.

A bee has a drink of melting snow west of Parkland, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
A bee has a drink of melting snow west of Parkland, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Gotta admit that the first indication I had that bees were flying around came when they started bouncing off my windshield. Their boxes were out of sight just over the top of the hill in front of me and by the time I saw them, it was like I was driving through a mini hail storm.

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Hundreds of them were buzzing in the air with hundreds more milling around the vent holes on the boxes or crawling thorough the dry grass. The majority of them were on the sunny side of the boxes where the radiant heat from the morning sun raised the temperature even higher than the 5C it already was.

But it was more the sound of the bees than the sight of them that made it all seem so springlike. As I said, a warm day any time in the winter will bring out a few of them but the sound of this many, probably a thousand or more, really made it seem less of a random warm-day occurrence than an actual change-of-season event.

Yeah, I know, jumping the gun again. But there’s no denying that it was a springtime sound.

All calm and clear east of Parkland, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
All calm and clear east of Parkland, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

And it even looked a little spring-ish. Here where I’d found the bees west of Parkland, there were still a few patches of snow — the bees were crawling on them, too — but as I rolled further south, the patches became fewer and farther between. The east side of Pine Coulee Reservoir was mostly bare grass and stubble while to the west, it was mainly the high ridges of the Porcupine Hills that were snow-covered.

Into the nearly snowless Porcupine Hills west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Into the nearly snowless Porcupine Hills west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

True, this isn’t the snowiest country to begin with but the bare grass combined with the high angle of the sun made it feel less like late winter and more like early spring as I drove along. The wind, though, made it feel like a chinook.

It picked up as I rolled south but the day was warm and puddles of melt water shimmered in the sun on the frozen ponds and the bends of Willow Creek. Dozens of geese thronged the sandbars and I could see as they wandered around as I shot my pictures that they were wandering in pairs. They probably do that all year round but the fact that it was so obvious reminded me that nesting time will be here soon.

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Geese along Willow Creek west of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Geese along Willow Creek west of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Speaking of, I’d hoped to find some nesting great horned owls among the cottonwoods and farm windbreaks — most of them have already laid their eggs — and I’m sure I passed a few, but with the wind picking up they were probably hunkered right down. They’re well camouflaged as it is, so when they’re lying flat against the nest, they’re pretty much invisible.

The wind really started hammering south of Claresholm. Coming off the heights of the Porcupine Hills, it picked up speed as it met the open plains below. Geese were bouncing all over the place as they tried to navigate the gusts and though I passed several more bee boxes, the bees seemed to know better than to try to fly in this wind.

Bees grab some fresh air before the wind started to blow west of Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021.
Bees grab some fresh air before the wind started to blow west of Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

I’d really hoped to see gophers out in this open country. They are absolutely up and running around now but, like the nesting owls, they were probably staying as low as they could in the howling wind. The males will be going from den to den looking for receptive females right now but they can do that without their characteristic standing on hind legs and looking around. In this breeze, they’d likely blow over if they tried.

The day was doing its best to turn into just another, typical, winter chinook day but I wasn’t about to let it. Yeah, sure, the wind was gusting up around 80 km/h and making the barbed wire and power lines howl like banshees and laying the yellow grass flat against the ground. And the temperature, now around 10C, was warm but, again, nothing unusual for a chinook.

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Still, as I kept rolling south, I knew I’d find at least one thing that would indisputably make it feel like an early-spring day.

The end of February is calf-o’clock at Granum Hutterite Colony.

Mommas and new calves in a pasture at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Mommas and new calves in a pasture at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

It has almost become like a pilgrimage for me, driving by the colony’s calving pens at this time of year. For a few weeks beginning in late-February, the momma cows on the colony start to give birth, the ranchers taking advantage of the longer — and hopefully warmer — days to give the calves every opportunity to thrive alongside their mothers.

And there they were, little black and brown bundles of energy out in the pasture with their mommas or staying sheltered from the wind behind the wind-break walls.

Fresh, new baby at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Fresh, new baby at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Wind that was now becoming increasingly stronger.

Most of the time when I show up here, I see gophers running around and at least a couple of eagles waiting to snack on the scraps of the birthing process. But neither of them were around now. I’d seen a couple of eagles out in the fields on the way down but the old cottonwoods and diamond willows where I often see them by the colony’s pens were vacant. Pretty tough to hang onto a perch in 80 km/h gusts.

The wind didn’t seem to bother the cattle much, though. The new mommas licked their babies, the bulls lazed around in the grass, the steers lifted their heads from the straw they were nibbling on to look around curiously.

Pasture pals curious about the new baby at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Pasture pals curious about the new baby at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

And cowboy Jerry Hofer and his dog Bud braved the wind and the blowing dirt as they moved a herd of expectant mommas into the calving pens for the night. Just another day for them.

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Jerry Hofer moves expectant momma cows into the calving pasture at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Jerry Hofer moves expectant momma cows into the calving pasture at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Flying gravel pinged off the FJ’s hood as I continued on, foolishly hoping that a gopher might pop up. I knew they were around but this wind, I tell ya!

Down by another sheltered pasture where I’d hoped to see a few I stopped to scope the grass with my long lens. There were horses there, and donkeys and cattle. But no gophers. They were staying low even though the tall, old poplars slowed the wind down a bunch. Nice light, though. The wind-rippled winter hair on the horses absolutely glowed.

I turned around at the pasture and as I did I saw what looked like smoke off to the southeast. A grass fire? That would be horrific on a windy day like this.

No, it turned out to be a dust storm.

Dust storm from Mud Lake south of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Dust storm from Mud Lake south of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

The wind roaring past Head-Smashed-In was tearing up the dry bottom of Mud Lake and sending it flying toward Saskatchewan. Naturally, I couldn’t resist checking that out so I drove around to the downwind side.

The air was filled with fine silt that got into everything as soon as I stepped from the truck and it made a hissing sound as it blew past. It softened the sun and turned the blue sky grey as waves of it traveled on the gusts. Back across Hwy. 2, I stopped to take a few pictures of horses sheltering in a pasture and the cloud of dirt tearing along the ground.

Horses shelter in a dust storm from Mud Lake south of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Horses shelter in a dust storm from Mud Lake south of Granum, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

Spring-like? No, could happen any time of year. Southern Alberta-like? Definitely.

The wind had backed off by the time I got back up by Claresholm and the chinook clouds had vacated the sky. It was still warm and the wind was low enough that gophers might have braved it but it was now late in the afternoon. Any gopher that had been up would be back in bed by now.

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By Stavely the shadows were getting long and by the time I stopped east of Parkland, cattle were grazing in the last light of day. Golden light glowed in the manes and tails of horses further up in the same pasture and with the window rolled down to take my pictures, I could smell the dust kicked up by their hooves and the dampness of the snow melting in the ditch.

Stoic horses relax as trees break the wind gusts at a pasture near Head-Smashed-In, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Stoic horses relax as trees break the wind gusts at a pasture near Head-Smashed-In, Ab., on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Mike Drew /Postmedia

It smelled, I dunno, maybe a little bit like springtime. I mean, it is getting closer so maybe that’s what the scent meant. But I’ve gotta admit that we’re barely at the beginning of March and, as we all know, winter can come roaring back any time.

So, once again, I guess I’m jumping the gun.

But it won’t be long now until I won’t need to.

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