06 January 2009

Road Daze

III ) lllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s

With the holiday season drawn to a close at the stroke of Sunday midnight, my daily hikes through the coulees of Sikoohkotoki have, at least for the short-term, been brought to an abrupt halt. That’s what I get for being willing to sublimate my human intuition, giving favour to the mechanical fiction of a circle divided into twelve parts, and dancing with the masses to that hypnotic drone… tick-tock, tick-tock.

Aww, not really. I’ve got it better than that. Worked hard to gain a decent degree of creative control over my life. Unafraid to act subversively when need be. Never set an alarm clock to steal my dreams. Regularly exercise my own discretions. I’m just sore at having to figure out how to balance other responsibilities again. Today, I need to get into the office and settle some matters in preparation for the new semester, which would have started this morning except that most back-roads and driveways on the Blood Reserve are blocked by four-foot snow drifts.

There’s eighty kilometres or more between my house and Red Crow College, which leaves a lot of room to grow in between. Before the snow and ice engulfed everything, my morning drive usually included surveys of Rocky Lake, Long Lake, and the canal that runs from the Waterton Dam, to Mookoan Reservoir, and out through the north end of the reserve. Now most of this route is completely inaccessible for my vehicle, and will remain that way on all but the odd day this season. Of course, this doesn’t leave me without options. There’s still Mookoanssin itself - the Belly Buttes - and the river below. There’s Weasel Fat Flats, One Spot Coulee, the forests of Lower Standoff, the marshlands of Farm Four. Lots of places to choose from. Just not today.

Today, the wind woke up and said something like, “Either you people stay home, or you travel on foot. Go trying to defy your nature, I’ll slap you down.” A lot of folks listened, especially if they didn’t have a choice. I decided to drive the 509.

Okay, it wasn’t a smart choice. Bingo Bridge, over the Old Man River, was a one-lane drift with almost no visibility. You couldn’t slow down or you’d get stuck. But if you went on across, there was no telling what you’d meet in the middle. Luckily, the only thing I encountered was blowing snow. And more blowing snow. And more blowing snow. Eventually, I decided to pull out the video camera and record a three-minute clip of this commute, cranking “Fly” by Black Lodge as background music.

By the time I got to the bend at One Spot Road, I must have been in some kind of snow trance. There was a sensation like the road was moving underneath me, rather than me over it, and as if my truck was hovering a couple inches over the asphalt. I started to feel a little sick to my stomach, and opened a window to get some fresh air. Just then, a small flock of about eight or nine snow buntings moved in a strange kind of up and down ball of slow motion past my windshield, disappearing into the field.

It was the buntings that broke me from my trance. A couple kilometres further down the road, another six or seven passed, faster - initially in a tight, elongated group, then breaking of into little black-and-white, scattering fragments at the fence-line.

Just over the buttes, the blowing snow died down to a surface trickle, wriggling on the road, and I started looking for birds. There was a prairie falcon low overhead at Standoff, then four crows trying unsuccessfully to sit still on some barbwire by the cemetery, and two separate ravens in the air by the defunct Out West gas bar. Finally, turning toward St. Mary’s, I saw a group of six or seven grey partridge fly across the road and land on the ground under a bush in someone’s front yard.

I was so rattled by the drive, I didn’t even pause to notice whether our resident great horned owls were roosted on their poplar at the college. I just went straight in and got to work, and came back out about five hours later, intent on getting home before dark.

I’d been getting updates all afternoon about the road conditions on 509. The most recent was that the graders went through, but the drifts started building right back up again, and that the warm air was fashioning a layer of ice on the highway’s surface. Twice I was advised to try the Spring Coulee road out past the dam on St. Mary’s, then up Highway 5 through Magrath. That’s what I did.

By then, I had my wits about me, and remembered to check on the owl pair. There they were, spaced a few branches apart in their tree. Pulling away from the school, I saw a coyote hunting along the top of the canal, then a squad of eleven grey partridge marching across the gravel road opposite Out West. Despite still-hazardous conditions, I was really scanning the fence posts and electric poles as far to the horizon as I could. I still haven’t come across any snowy owls on the reserve this season, which is strange. What I do see, when I’m almost to the dam, are four sparrow-sized birds passing by my windshield. They’re not buntings, or waxwings, or house sparrows – the little birds I see almost daily on my winter commute. They’re something else. Brown on top, with a very distinct yellow-ish belly. I’ve got a long way to go in learning to pick-out small birds on the fly.

When I cross the dam, there’s a couple guys ice fishing out on the reservoir. But not what I’d expected. There were no shacks set-up, so far as I could see. The two that were there on the ice must have just been short-term visitors.

At Spring Coulee there are a few rock doves in the air, and they remind me of a story that Doug Krystofiak posted to the Albertabird listserv earlier in the afternoon, where he witnessed a raven in Edmonton chasing down and killing a pigeon for food. One of my immediate thoughts, reading this account and scampering to think of reasons why a raven would be so hungry as to hunt for itself, was that I couldn’t recall having seen any road-kill lately. Of course, I hadn’t been driving around all that much in the past few weeks either. But one thought led to another, and pretty soon I was passing Magrath with my eyes trained to the shoulders of the highway, searching for road-kill and daydreaming about finding something big that I could haul down to the river to feed the eagles.

Mesmerized by road-kill meditations, I go into auto-pilot mode and forget to take my eyes off the pavement until I’m almost to Lethbridge, when a plow passes in the other lane and all the snow from the drift it’s been pushing lands on my truck. Only then do I realize how distant I’ve been. Who knows what I might have missed along the way, failing to keep present. The last thing of note I see is a large, dark raptor lumbering away toward the coulees by the airport. Probably a bald eagle, by the way it’s flying. Wide wings slowly pounding the air on the outskirts of the city.