11 January 2009


III ) lllllllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s (9 Jan 09)

Yet another blizzard descended on southern Alberta yesterday. Adrienne and I got caught driving in it for about three hours, on our return trip from her rheumatologist up north. This morning, I woke up late as a result of exhaustion, both from the intense road trip and from a subsequent long night of writing, premised on the assumption that the college would be closed in the morning. It wasn’t. When I phoned-in at ten o’clock, the secretaries told me that the roads were passable, and that most of the staff were there, trying to get our regular operations underway. So off I went...

Along the route south through the reserve, I came across a large flock of snow buntings near the buttes, two pheasants perched in a bull-berry bush at lower Standoff, and an immature bald eagle flying low across the highway near Farm Four. My father-in-law has been watching this eagle feeding on road-kill in that area for several days.

I wasn’t long at the college, just a few hours, before the wind picked-up at my window and I began to hear rumours of drifting conditions on the north end. On my way out the door, headed home early again, I noticed that both our resident great horned owls were present in their poplar tree, which to me suggested the wind conditions weren’t going to be all that troubling right away. During the earliest winter moons this season, when my commute involved surveys along the canal system draining from Mookoan Reservoir, I noticed that great horned owls seemed almost always to seek shelter just before and throughout the early phases of heavy wind storms. If our owls at Red Crow weren’t concerned, perhaps I didn’t need to be either.

All the same, I was happy to hit the road early. I wanted to return to the aapsspini rendezvous site on the Old Man River, and attempt to get better footage of the event from a closer vantage. Making my way north through the reserve again, I encountered four ravens (about where the immature eagle had been earlier), more snow bunting flocks, a red-tail hawk gazing from atop a pole at the bottom of the buttes, and five pheasants sitting conspicuously in a stubble-field about half way to the hump.

As soon as I got home, I threw on my snow gear and started making my way down to the river. This time around I was more prepared, carrying both a tripod for the video camera and a cushioned camp-seat that would keep me from losing so much of my body-heat to the ground. I was also a good half-hour earlier than during my previous visit, allowing myself ample time to select a new position from which to observe. I wasn’t going to cross the river again to the wooded island. Two nights ago, as I made my way back over the ice, I heard and felt a dangerous “gulp” beneath me at mid-river, the kind of sound one imagines preceding a sudden drop into icy waters. Then yesterday’s broth winds melted things even more. I wasn’t going to risk it again without at least a few days of serious cold as a buffer, I don’t trust the ice right now.

I walk the old barbwire fence-line again, following it out along a ridge that slowly descends toward the river. Scanning the drainage between my ridge and the next one over, I once again find no deer, no coyotes, no porcupines, not even a black-billed magpie. Nor are there any trails that I can see. This route had certainly changed from last winter, when signs of regular animal traffic were so dense, I’d have to wait for a new-fallen snow if I wanted to try and detect any stories of their activity. Otherwise, it was just a mess of scrambling tracks going every which way.

As I dip down onto the final ridge-point, the entire river comes into view. I can see two mule deer poking around in the forest on the opposite shore. I also notice – with some surprise – that there are no Canada geese at all sitting by the open water cleft upriver. For a brief moment, my heart sinks as I entertain the thought that they may have moved on to another location. But just as I’m considering this, the first six aapsspiniiksi arrive, silently gliding down from the southeast coulee rim. The event is just beginning.

For the next fifteen minutes, I half walk, half jog through the snow, down the remaining stretch of coulee slope and upstream along the ice. I’m breathing hard and sweating when I reach the cutbank where I intend to find a blind among the willows, goldenrod, and chokecherry. There are magpies on the wing, one of them giving a double-call as I arrive. No doubt the magpies are positioning themselves to observe the same event that brought me here. Their hope is that the reunion of geese will incite a successful predatory campaign, initiated by either a coyote or a larger bird, and that they might then steal a share of goose dinner.

The Sun is just reaching the horizon, bringing the cliffs upriver into golden relief. I push slowly along the cutbank, watching the geese, waiting for the semblance of agitation that will tell me when I’m near to breaching their comfort zone. When it comes, the six on the ice suddenly stand alert, their heads erect, watching me. If I move any closer right away, they may fly. At this particular spot, there’s nothing to conceal me from the others who’ll be arriving. I just have to trust that, even though I’m out in the open, I’ll still be considered far enough away to be no threat.

I plunk into my little camp chair and set-up the video camera. I’m a bit further out from the open water than I had hoped, but it’ll have to do.

Once everything’s in place, I try to relax. I’m in pretty good physical shape, but the snow has given me a workout. I take off my toque and unzip my jacket, hoping the some of the sweat will evaporate and cool me down. Right about now, I’m wishing the river wasn’t so polluted. I’d love to break a hole in the ice and take a long, quenching swig.

Over then next ten minutes, twenty-eight more geese arrive in two flocks. Some of them take a quick bath in the open water before flying up to land on the ice. They’ve come in quiet, and remain that way until a bald eagle comes soaring high overhead, following the coulee upriver. While the eagle’s in sight, a few of the aapsspiniiksi give a series of excited calls, and then quiet down again.

Another ten minutes pass, the cliffs are no longer illuminated by sunlight, and now there are forty-six geese on the ice. Not nearly the kind of numbers I was seeing yesterday at this phase of dusk. I’m beginning to wonder if some of the geese haven’t relocated downriver, when I notice the eagle has circled back. It makes a half-hearted swoop down below the coulee rim over the geese, only a couple of whom seem to notice. A few seconds later, the eagle drops from the sky, coming to within about fifteen meters of the geese, and then for some reason changes its mind and flies again upriver. It could be that the eagle spotted me watching from the cutbank.

According to the digital readout on my video camera, at thirty minutes into the event I spot another raptor of some sort, smaller than an eagle, shaped somewhat like a falcon. It’s flying below the coulee rim just opposite of my position, but far back into the drainages on the other side of the valley. Even with my field glasses, it’s difficult to get better notes for identification. It’s a dark-grey bird with a conspicuous white spot under each wing, occasionally tucking its pointed wings back at the elbow for a rapid, diving glide. I see this bird for maybe thirty seconds, and it’s gone.

All the while as I sit and wait, I occasionally glance into the chokecherries behind me. There appears to be a black, plastic garbage bag stuck up in the branches, probably blown in by the wind. Then I notice that the bag has begun to climb higher, and that it’s starting to look less like a bag altogether. Leaving my video camera, but taking my SLR, I get up and walk over to investigate. I don’t have to cover more than a third the distance when it becomes obvious that the bag is actually a dark porcupine. It has eaten almost all the bark off this tree and several others nearby, from about four feet off the ground, up toward the ends of the branches. The tree that it’s in is low enough that I’m able to get a couple photographs that don’t look like just a ball of fur in the branches.

Getting up to investigate the porcupine has inspired me with confidence that the geese are none too concerned about my movement, that I could seek out an even closer position. I leave my video camera running where it is, but take my field-glasses, chair, and SLR, and start winding my way through the willows and goldenrods, following an obvious beaver trail. The edge of the cutbank is just thick with brush, there’s nowhere to sit and have a concealed but clear view. But about fifty meters upstream, I find a nice slide that’ll take me down onto the river ice. I move slow, so as not to upset the birds, and take up a new position just under the embankment.

The coulees are really growing dark now, the geese are getting louder as they try to locate and guide new arrivals, and I’m wondering if my video camera will be able to capture enough light (I never switched on the night-vision). I don’t bother walking back over to check on it though, because at this point the event is in full swing. Flock after flock of Canada geese are landing in front of me, and I’m doing my best to make an accurate count. Just as their numbers breach the five-hundred mark, a massive flock descends, and I have to face the fact that there’s no possibility I’ll be able to keep up. All of them are coming not from upriver, as they had two nights ago, but straight down from the fields southeast of the open water, above the cliffs. Watching them drop from that height, wings curled tight to grip the air, legs extended, it almost gives the impression that they’re skiing down the snowy slopes. Only in the final phase of their approach, as they give a few strong wing-strokes to reduce their impact on landing, is the illusion broken.

I recognize that several things are different about the event tonight. The position of where the geese were feeding during the daylight hours has changed, judging from the direction of their arrival. Also, there are no flocks this evening that choose to pass-by this site in preference for whatever awaits downriver. Every goose I see lands right here. Another significant difference is the timing of the event. It’s far darker tonight when the bulk of the geese arrive, and I wonder if this may have anything to do with the appearance of the moon. During my last visit, when the geese arrived just at dusk, the skies were relatively clear, with the moon visible and illuminated the whole while. Tonight, on the other hand, the moon was masked behind cloud-cover at sundown, and only emerged bright and nearly full after the coulee grew dark. This late appearance of the moon seemed to coincide with the mass arrival of geese on the ice.

When my view of the geese eventually becomes strained by darkness of night, I climb back up the cutbank and walk over to disassemble the video equipment. The digital readout indicates that the event has been ongoing for an hour and a half, with most of the geese arriving in the last forty minutes. There are still more coming in, calling loudly back and forth with those on the ice below. I lost count at least a half hour ago, and started estimating. I can say with confidence there are at least a thousand geese huddled around this crag of open water, and perhaps as many as fifteen hundred.

Rather than following my same route home, I decide to climb the adjacent ridge just upriver. I want to see if there’s a good lookout position up there from which to observe the geese departing in the morning, suspecting they won’t allow me to come nearly as close at daybreak. As I ascend up the first slope, I begin to realize how much the wind strength has picked-up in just the couple hours I’ve been out. There are gusts now that force me to struggle a bit to keep my footing. I do, however, find the prefect perch to visit in the future… what we would call ni’tommo, a lone peak. At its apex, just protruding from the snow, I find a small rock cairn, maybe three feet in diameter. I’d never walked this particular ridge before, so the cairn is new to me. But it’s one of several such cairns I know of around this bend of the river, in addition to the large turtle effigy just above, on the coulee rim. The smaller cairns, like the turtle effigy, are sites of offering, but in a somewhat different sense. The turtle indicates that the flats below, now better know as Paradise Canyon, once served as a garden for the growing of sacred tobacco. The turtle itself would weigh-down offerings associated with tobacco growing and harvesting, including the rawhide bowl that the seeds were soaked and fertilized in – painted to represent a turtle’s back, with other animals featured in each panel. The smaller cairns, on the other hand, often marked the site where a warrior fell in battle. There’s a line of such cairns a little ways downriver, following the route of the last significant battle against the Cree in 1871. In this case, the offering is the human body itself, which would be wrapped and placed on scaffolding atop lone peaks along the river, such as this one. There was no selfish attempt, as today, to lock the body away in tombs of metal and stone. Rather, it was given back to feed life.

I continue my ascent, fighting against the wind and blowing snow. When I near the coulee rim, I hear a thousand geese in an uproar far below. I can’t see them, but from their cries I know they are on the wing, moving downriver. No doubt the coyotes stirred them to withdraw. A few minutes later though, I hear at least some (if not all) of the geese circle back and return to the crag of open water. I wonder briefly how many times each night they are provoked to undertake such maneuvers. I say “briefly” because, as I crest the coulee rim, already having climbed for at least a half hour, I’m hit with a powerful and relentless blast of snow that demands my full attention. It’s a difficult struggle the rest of the way home. By the time I reach the house, I’m soaked in sweat, my face feels like it’s been sandblasted, and my eardrums ache from the pounding they’ve received despite being covered under layers of cotton and wool. I’ll have to consider whether I’ll want to make the same round-trip again under threat of winter chinook winds.