It really felt like the raven was performing for me.
It was perched at the top of a spruce tree beside the Kananaskis River, flexing its wings every once in a while and then chortling in that strange way that ravens do. Behind it, thin clouds were sailing along on the wind coming over the mountain crest just to the west while the river tinkled along the valley floor.
The raven looked around, up and down the valley and toward the river flowing below, let out a trio of loud croaks, hesitated a few more seconds and then flew off. I tried to follow it with my camera but the memory card had filled up just before the raven took wing. Quickly, I yanked a fresh card out of my pocket, popped out the full card and jammed the new one into the slot.
The raven was long gone by now, of course, but since I had the new card in the camera I checked to see what was on it before erasing it so I could reuse its full 32-gigabyte capacity. Hitting the “play” button, I could see that there were pictures and video from back in October, so I found the “format” option in the camera’s menu and erased the card.
Setting the camera on the passenger seat, I turned the truck around and drove back up to the main road past all the glittering frost on the grass and the tree limbs bowed from the recent snowfall. It all looked a bit different from this angle but I’d already shot it so I rolled on.
Up the road a heavy mule deer buck was nibbling on roadside grass and he paused in his munching to look over at me. Not far from him, I came across a spruce grouse that was picking grit from the pavement. She barely noticed me as I pulled over to take a few pictures.
It was a pretty glorious day, the sun shining brightly, the light breeze bringing some welcome warmth. The snow on the mountains was blindingly bright while the valley was filled with dark spruce and pines that added a nice contrast. On the way up to this point I’d seen ducks foraging on Jumpingpound Creek, whitetail deer along the Sibbald Flats road, bighorn sheep by Barrier Lake and flocks of crossbills that few up in front of the truck everywhere.
The morning had been perfect and now the afternoon was looking even better. Onward.
The road over Highwood Pass officially closes for the season on the first of December but I thought that maybe, what with all the recent snow, it might be closed now. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
So I rolled on. The south-facing side of the road was in bright, warm sunshine while the opposite side was in deep blue shade. Little puffs of snow were blowing off the peaks and spinning away into the cirques and steep valleys up high but down here along the road it was nearly calm.
I came across a spring seep that had partially frozen over but on the side where the water flowed more swiftly, the rock it dribbled over was covered in yellow, green and brown algae. It looked like it had been doused with industrial paint. I’ll bet it would have been sparkling and bright a few months ago but for now it was all earth tones.
But the frost crystals in the Elbow Lake trailhead parking lot were all sparkling and bright right now.
They were on top of the snow that had been plowed up and piled at the lot’s edge but only on the tops of the ones closest to the shady part of the lot. The reason why, I expect, is because the sun’s warmth had caused the top layer of snow to sublimate — melt directly into a vapour, bypassing the liquid stage — but because the air around it was still well below freezing, the water vapour had refrozen almost immediately and formed the crystals.
Doesn’t matter why they were there. What matters is that they were lovely. I flopped down on the snow to photograph them and, being so close, I could hear them tinkle with every little move I made. Kinda magical.
I crossed the pass and rolled down the eastern side, stopping to photograph the amazing folds in the rock of Storm Mountain — love me those thrust-belt formations — and then pulling over beside the newly-born Highwood River. It was deep in the shady part of the valley so the snow took on the tint of the bright blue sky above but the bankside willows and dogwoods were still red and the conifers a dark green.
It was warmer here on the west side of the pass, the sun a bit stronger. I pulled in by the Trout Ponds and aimed my camera up at the arrow-straight lodgepole pines with the sun shining through them and then, a bit further along, swept my lens across the open slopes by Highwood House. There were bighorn sheep up on the hillsides, grazing placidly in the sunshine among the limber pines. Down below, bright green algae undulated in open pools while willows reflected in the still waters adjacent to the Highwood River.
Finally, with the sun about to kiss the horizon, I found a bald eagle perched on a fence line by Eden Valley. Ravens were harassing it, croaking as they flew overhead. Ninety minutes later, pleased with such a lovely day, I was downloading my pictures and videos from the camera cards to my MacBook.
But something was wrong. Fewer than half of them were there.
The raven, the grouse and mule deer. The spring seep, the frost crystals, the bighorns and the eagle were all there but where were the pictures of everything else? I’d shot plenty before the raven, all along Sibbald Flats, the open water on Barrier Lake, that first bunch of sheep along the road, the ice on the river . . .
None of that was there.
There was only one explanation. I’d erased them.
Here’s what I think happened. When I’d run out of card space as I was photographing the raven and quickly changed the card, I must have accidentally put the same card right back into the camera. I played back the pictures already on the card to make sure I could safely erase and reformat it and found old stuff on it but I must not have used this particular card for a while so I didn’t realize that those few old pictures preceded the newer ones.
Ironically, that’s how I make sure I don’t lose pictures. Even after I download the card’s contents, I Ieave the files on the card just in case I have to download them again. And sometimes I do.
But when I put the card in the camera again, I reformat it so I have all the available space. The pictures that had been on it are saved in another spot now so I can safely erase them.
This time, though, I apparently didn’t do that. I mean, I’ve only been shooting with digital cameras for about 25 years. I’ll catch on eventually.
Okay, now what? I had a few pictures I wasn’t completely ashamed of from the second half of my day but nothing from the first half. And I knew I’d had a few decent ones from then, too, but, dammit, they were gone.
There was only one choice. I had to go back.
Wednesday morning I stood with gritted teeth not only because the litre amount was moving at barely half the speed of the dollar amount as I poured more fuel into the truck but because the weather had completely changed. The blue sky and warm sun from the day before were as long gone as my pictures and in their place was cold wind and overcast. Nothing I shot today would look anything like what I’d shot the day before.
So I hoped for snow. It was in the forecast for the foothills so I figured that it might at least provide a bit of relief from the grey sky. Not really expecting much, I rolled west.
Sibbald Flats was obscured in dull, thin mist but the willow flats looked nice with the red willow stems adding a bit of colour to the scene. Fresh snow covered the trees and sifted down from the low clouds to cover the road. And, in truth, the flat light it brought with it really suited the scene.
I found a patch of open water where Sibbald Creek meanders through a patch of perpetually shaded forest and pulled over to the side of the road to photograph it. The flat light left the snow nearly featureless and turned the amber water of the creek nearly black but I could still see what looked like tiny fish dimpling the surface.
And beyond the tinkle of the water and the soft hiss of the falling snow, I could hear a bird. It was as loud as a bluejay but more melodious, kind of a cross between a flicker and a robin. It was a familiar sound but one I hadn’t heard in a long while. And then I saw its source.
A kingfisher. What a kingfisher, a fish-eating bird that should be a thousand kilometres south by now, was doing in the deep forest along tiny Sibbald Creek I have no idea. But there it was.
The snow continued to fall, coating the old poplar leaves at Lusk Creek and obscuring the mountains in the Kananaskis valley. It backed off at Barrier Lake which was, almost miraculously, nearly mirror-flat. There was ice along the edges but the middle was still unfrozen and reflecting the surrounding slopes on its green waters.
Rolling on, I stopped at O’Shaughnessy Falls to photograph the splash ice — it never disappoints — and then continued on toward Nakiska. In this weather, there was no point in rolling all the way to Highwood Pass again and, besides, I liked the pictures I already had from there.
No, I decided that I would go as far as Mount Kidd and then turn around. But as I rounded the curve by Mt. Lorette Ponds, the snow really began to fall.
And it was lovely.
Big flakes came sifting down untroubled by wind gusts and settled thickly on everything they touched. I briefly glimpsed deer among the trees along the road and found a squirrel nibbling on spruce cones in the forest by the golf course.
But the best spot was the parking lot at Wedge Pond.
Parking lot you say? Yes. This one has a pretty good variety of trees and bushes and the pond itself is lovely any time. But the benefit on this day was that I could park there safely and watch as the snowflakes spun down.
They were big and feathery, a lot of them in heavy clumps as big as my thumbnail, and they were coming straight down. They built up and up on the branches until they slid off by their sheer weight in mini avalanches that fell onto branches below. Like back up in Sibbald Flats, I could hear them falling, a steady hiss broken here and there by soft thumps as the branches unloaded.
Willows and poplars stood with piles of flakes on their bare branches while the evergreens carried much heavier weights. One lone pine out in the open looked nearly ready to collapse.
I sat watching the snow fall for a while and then pulled out onto the road to backtrack down the valley and through Sibbald Flats again. The snow had quit by the time I got there and even the overcast was breaking up. I found a flock of Bohemian waxwings that briefly mobbed a patch of ground juniper to gobble up some berries before flying back to roost in the trees and then hit the cold wind again as I turned north to head back to the main road.
Back home, I took the card out of the camera and stuck it in the computer. I knew the pictures would be there but, still, butterflies fluttered until the folder opened up. And when it did, there were 662 individual photos and 53 video files. All there.
I copied them over, pulled the card and set it aside. Even though I knew I could now safely erase it, I left it be. Better safe than, you know.
Will I make that same mistake again, erase the card by accident? Well, yes, I probably will.
But if it means that I’ll have to go back to the same lovely place twice, I guess I’ll just have to suck it up.