On the Road: Slush and muck and falling snow

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Why did it have to be so pretty?

Here I was all prepared to snarl and grump my way west into yet another spring snowstorm. But as I got closer to the foothills and the whiter the landscape became, something happened. Pulling off onto a side road to photograph some cows and calves in a snow-covered pasture, I aimed my lens between the branches of the roadside trees and put my eye to the viewfinder.

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To my surprise, it looked, well, pretty.

That’s not to say it wasn’t cold and miserable and felt very wrong for the last day of April but visually, at least, it was kinda nice. The snow was fresh and bright and the way it hung on the branches and fence lines softened all the harsh edges and made everything look so clean. The contrasting reds of the cattle and calves stood out more strongly and the greens of the springtime spruce needles complemented the slight bluish tinge of the fresh snow.

Cattle in the fresh snow west of Calgary, Ab., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.
Cattle in the fresh snow west of Calgary on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Down along Jumpingpound Creek, it was much the same. Snowy, cold, wet and gorgeous. The poplars down here were plastered with wet snow that clung to the branches while the horses in the corral munched their feed. I could hear the water in the creek flowing by and the calls of ravens and magpies filled the air.

Yeah, it wasn’t very spring-like but the beauty of the countryside was undeniable. It made me forget that the month of May was only a few hours away and that we were already a quarter of the way through 2024. So I rolled on, taking it all in with a smile on my face.

Which turned to a grimace as soon as I hit the gravel.

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The blacktop I’d been driving on had been mostly bare. But the gravel, being more of a sponge than the hard pavement, was a mess of melting snow and muck. The truck began to sluice around almost as soon as I hit it, my crappy tires hydroplaning on the gritty slush. But I quickly regained control and slowed down. The road ahead looked horrible. But I rolled on anyway.

Cattle in the snowy countryside west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Cattle in the snowy countryside west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There seemed to be a bit more snow on the ground west of the Jumpingpound and as I drove, more started falling. But there wasn’t any wind yet and every time I stopped I could hear meadowlarks singing. I could also hear the trees.

Or, more specifically, the sound of the heavy, wet snow falling from them. Although it was above zero now, the overnight temperature must have dropped enough to freeze the wet snow to the branches. Now, with the day warming, those frozen bonds were breaking and the ice and snow was falling.

Loudly. It reminded me of gravel being dumped into a bucket. A few smaller branches were coming down with it, too.

A meadowlark sings from a budding poplar west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A meadowlark sings from a budding poplar west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Birds were everywhere. Tree swallows and bluebirds were keeping up their endless squabbling over nesting boxes along the fence lines while flocks of starlings thronged the roadsides to probe for tidbits in the muck. Redtail hawks were flying around and screeching as they passed. And meadowlarks. Out here in the open valley, they were everywhere.

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A tree swallow at a snow-plastered nesting box west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A tree swallow at a snow-plastered nesting box west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But they were easily outnumbered by the robins.

I saw at least a hundred of them over the span of maybe 5 km. They were in every bush and tree, both roadside ditches and especially on the patches of bare ground under the heavy stands of willow. Their soft chirps competed with the trilling meadowlarks to fill the air.

Robins in the snow west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Robins in the snow west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I had hoped to see some swans on the valley ponds but none were there. Geese, of course, and a few coots and ducks but beyond those, nothing rippled their calm waters. Whitetail deer poked around on the snowy slopes beside them while further up the valley the silhouettes of dark cattle dotted the snowy hills.

Whitetail deer forage in the fresh snow west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Whitetail deer forage in the fresh snow west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was a loud crunching and clattering coming from under the truck as I hit the stop sign where the gravel turned to pavement again. But I knew what it was. The sloppy grit on the road had gotten into my brakes and was rubbing on the metal. No big deal, it would go away once I resumed rolling.

And it did. But I knew the brakes would load up again so this time, when I left the pavement at the K-Country gate, I was ready for it. I slowed down, aimed for the cleanest ruts through the snow cover and bounced on. It was still sloppy and gritty but it looked like a snowplow had been  so there was that, at least.

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Much more snow here. It was shin-deep over in the open country along the creek and in the willow-filled valleys while the windrow kicked up by the passing plow was well past knee-high. And then, over by Sibbald Lake, it began to snow.

A junco perches in the falling snow near Jumpingpound Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A junco perches in the falling snow near Jumpingpound Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

At first it came down nicely, soft, fat flakes that drifted like down. I managed to get a picture of a little junco — one of the dozens that had flown up from the road in front of me — perched on a poplar branch as they fell. But those fat flakes turned to hard pellets that clattered on the roof as I drove slowly along the slushy road that led up to the lake.

And that’s what I was listening to when I got stuck.

Foolishly, I had gotten too close to the edge of the road and allowed one of my wheels to slip over the edge. No biggie, I was going slowly so I didn’t push in too far. But when I went to back out, the rear wheel also slipped over the edge. The best I could do was move back and forth maybe a foot. Not good.

But as I sat there, a young fellow in a truck came along and immediately stopped to see if he could help. He had a chain we could use to yank me out, so he told me that as soon as he could get his partner on the radio to say that he would be a few minutes late, he went to get it.

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And while I sat there waiting, I remembered the truck had a differential lock that sent power to all four wheels. I’d never had a reason to use it until now so, I thought, why not give it a try.

Thirty seconds later, I was out.

A snow plow had just passed along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A snow plow had just passed along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Now free, I pulled up beside my would-be saviour to thank him for stopping to help and he told me he had just come over the Sibbald Meadows summit and the snow was deep and unplowed. But he also said he’d passed a snowplow coming up the road from the east, so there might be a path through.

I debated for a minute about turning back the way I’d just come but then I thought, nah. After what I’d just been on, what’s one more bad road.

The pavement ended again just a little ways west from there and I could see that a plow had, indeed, carved a path through the snow. But it looked like it had also shoved aside the snow on the road across the Sibbald Creek meadow so I made a turn there to have a look.

Sibbald Creek in the falling snow west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Sibbald Creek in the falling snow west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And once again, despite the nasty roads and the fact it was nearly May, I was struck by how pretty it all was. The snow was still coming down — now back to flakes — but the dark blue waters of Sibbald Creek cut a sinuous path through it. There were little bits of green sedge poking through the snow and red bankside willows reflected on the creek’s surface.

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But it was when I turned around to go back to the main road and stopped on the bridge again to look upstream that the beauty of this snowy spring day really struck me.

A pair of Canada geese on Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A pair of Canada geese on Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

A pair of geese came gliding out of the falling snow along the creek, surrounded by snow-draped willows and pushing a V in the water in front of them. OK, yeah, I don’t care what time of year it is or how much snow has fallen, this was just stunning.

But then another pair of geese came along, a squabble ensued and the first set of geese tried to escape through the deep snow. It was all they could do to get enough speed under them to take off. Geese, I tell ya.

Canada geese try to take off in the deep snow along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Canada geese try to take off in the deep snow along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The road was nothing but slush and mud, but at least I could push my way slowly along. The snow had quit falling for the moment but a bit of wind had come up and it was shaking the accumulated chunks of it from the aspens and poplars along the road. Driving slowly with the windows rolled down, I could hear the thumps.

The beaver ponds at the Sibbald summit didn’t look to be frozen, at least not completely, but so much snow had fallen that the surfaces were a mass of slush. Ducks and geese ploughed their way through it, the geese with much more ease than the ducks, while pairs of smaller buffleheads kept to the few patches of slush-free water.

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A mallard quacks in the slush on a beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A mallard quacks in the slush on a beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I could hear killdeers but couldn’t see them, while little juncos hopped among the drowned tree roots looking for bugs and picking at exposed seed heads sticking up through the snow. A muskrat had a lunch of water plants along the shore.

A muskrat snacks on water plants on a slushy beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A muskrat snacks on water plants on a slushy beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snowplow that had cut a path through this mess was now coming back the other direction, clearing the far side of the road. Once it went by, I continued on down the other side.

A junco looks for bugs on a beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
A junco looks for bugs on a beaver pond at the head of Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

If anything, the road was worse. Not only was it slushy and mucky, the trail on the west side is much steeper and twistier, so the descent was a combination of brake and slide. I made it, though, crossed Lusk Creek and hit the pavement again. At Barrier Lake, I stopped to let the mud and snow drip off.

Snow was falling heavily here, the low, snow-covered lake disappearing into the miasma, the mountains surrounding it invisible among the flakes and clouds. I got out of the truck, walked around and kicked some of the bigger chunks loose and got back in again. Not much point in continuing on into that swirling mess, so I pulled back onto the pavement to head back to town.

Fresh snow and cliffs along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Fresh snow and cliffs along Sibbald Creek west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But when I got to the Sibbald turn again, I stopped. Ahead of me was clear pavement and an easy drive back to town. To the right was slush and muck and falling snow.

But a way more interesting drive. So that’s the direction I turned.

I really wanted to hate the day, to curse the bad roads and snarl at yet another in this endless string of spring snowstorms. But, dammit, I just couldn’t.

Because, in spite of it all, it was just so pretty.

Snow falls on a poplar brach along the Kananaskis River west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
Snow falls on a poplar brach along the Kananaskis River west of Calgary on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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