08 February 2009


III ) llllllllllll (8 Feb 09)

One of the fringe benefits of getting outside and fully winterized has got to be the effects it has on one’s physical constitution. With the sustained shift in temperature that has so un-seasonally warmed us since the first crescent of this moon appeared, most folks I know have suffered one or more rounds of flu-like cold symptoms, while I (knock on wood) continue to feel great.

Of course, the temperature rise itself is only one feature in a proliferation of odd phenomena of late. There’ve been other atmospheric events to consider. For instance, the morning after my last journal post, as I was driving to work, I noticed that the Sun - which had by that time risen at least forty degrees above the horizon - was moon-white. There wasn’t any visible cloud cover I could attribute this to. My guess is that it resulted from some kind of high-altitude ice-crystal condition. But it was strange. I could look directly at the Sun with no perceivable adverse effect, and photograph it without black-out spots appearing on the exposure.

The night after observing the Sun, I had a dream in which one of my elders came to me with a small pipe, the kind one would use individually to speak with Iihtsipaitapiiyo’p, the source of our life. I woke from this dream and got up to take my dog outside. It was about four o’clock in the morning. Looking toward the north, I saw something very curious... a rope-like strand of brilliant luminescence that wound from the horizon up toward the stars. At the top of this rope, like the head of a spindly-stalked mushroom, sat a large, bulbous form of the same white luminescence. It didn’t look like the aurora, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Around eleven-thirty, earlier that evening, my brother-in-law Joey Blood wrote from Farm Four on his Facebook status, “Looking outside and still wondering what that light across the hill is. Kindy looks like the moon, but it’s not. I’m scard.”

If there was anything to be seriously concerned about though, it didn’t seem to register among the animals. Traveling to and from Red Crow College all week, I encountered the usual array of staggered magpies, ravens, rock doves, ring-necked pheasants, and the occasional prairie falcon. Aapsski, white-face, the snowy owl I’ve been watching, continued to roost on power poles by Rocky Lake. The pale great horned owl of One Spot Road stuck near his young poplar tree in the draw leading toward the Dipping Vat. There were herds of white-tailed deer feeding and sleeping along the coulee rims, and black-tails in the flats down below. During the late afternoons, small flocks of Canada geese could be found in the stubble-fields above the Lethbridge Research Station, preparing to depart for their open-water rendezvous at the river after dusk.

The only shift I noticed in the routines of those around me came just two sleeps ago, as a wall of dark clouds crept down from the mountain slopes. I had taken the Lease Road to work that morning, and found a substantial number of rock doves, horned larks and black-billed magpies coalesced on power-lines at the top of either side of the St. Mary’s River coulee. One Spot Road, in contrast, was abandoned of all but the pale horned owl and a single raven. By afternoon, the temperature outside had dropped, the western wind picked up, and a thick, seamless plane of low-lying grey cloud blanketed the reserve. Driving home beneath this, along the 509, not a single bird could be seen exposed. Not a magpie, nor raven, nor pheasant. Not even Aapsski, though he be feathered to the toes.

When darkness came that evening, so too did the snow... fair-sized flakes falling consistently for several hours. The accumulation had barely begun to mask the earth beneath when I started planning. Winter would be over soon enough, and I still hadn’t really succeeded in doing as I’d promised myself I would, using each fresh snowfall as an opportunity to track the lives of our local coyotes, foxes, badgers, and whoever else might stray into the cold. I went to bed with high hopes.

Unfortunately, the weather retracted its gift as quickly as it had been offered. Yesterday morning brought blue skies and exceptional warmth. By early afternoon, when Piipiiaakii and I finally got geared-up and drove out to the coulee rim, most of the snow had already melted. A small flock of eight Canada geese fed leisurely on a completely exposed stubble-field across the road from us. Between them and the river, only the larger drifts - accumulated during the last moon - remained.

While we may have missed our opportunity to track elusive predators through the snow, this just meant we had an invitation to enter the coulee without any particular agenda, which is my preferred approach anyway. And since I rarely get the chance to visit this area with Piipiiaakii, I let her lead the way. As we started down the slope, I took pictures of the dry winter plants for my phenology students - gumweed to clear the throat, broomweed for fibre, sagebrush to cleanse infections, blue gramma to predict the intensity of the coming winter, yellow salsify if you’re starved enough to eat its disgusting roots, and crested wheatgrass, well... just because. Surveying these plants, I realized that most of my familiarity with them relates only to their potential for human benefit, that I’m lacking an awareness of how they connect with the broader ecosystem.

When we got to the river-bottom, Piipiiaakii and I stopped at a large boulder to rest and have a cigarette. Two years ago, I’d rucked up the side of the coulee with a heavy slab of rock that fissured off this same boulder, presenting it to Piipiiaakii for use as a base on which to pound the berries and pemmican served at our Beaver ceremonies. I can’t count the number of occasions I’ve sat on this stone chair, or in the sand underneath the nearby poplar tree, looking out over the conjunction of the rivers. On this winter day, the open water here was far larger than it had been when I last visited, but there was still no waterfowl to speak of. We could hear a black-billed magpie giving its double-call from the other side of the river, and watched as two geese flew up the St. Mary’s just above the coulee rim. My unspoken interest was to move downstream from here, winding amidst the willows, increasing our odds at an encounter with the long-eared owl who’d become my white whale of the season. Piipiiaakii, for her part, had other intentions. She wanted to hike upstream along the Old Man, hugging the black coal cliffs, exploring toward the largest of the local beaver lodges, and Akainnaissko proper.

Finishing our cigarettes, she led the way again. Soon we were passing below giant ammonite concretions and delicate earthen spires, roosts of the eagles and doves alike. We were surprised to find the Old Man so low along this stretch. Normally, we’d have been forced to walk on a slant through the dark rubble of the cliff-base. But this afternoon, we had what seemed to be a wide, semi-frozen mudflat exposed. A portion of riverbed, with the occasional boulder jutting out here and there. The iced-over water of the Old Man had withdrawn toward the cutbank of the opposite shore. At least, that’s what our eyes told us. But appearances, and even textures underfoot, can be dangerously deceiving.

Soon Piipiiaakii had wandered out toward the interface of mudflat and river, while I stuck near the cliff, scanning the ground for any small fossils that might have toppled down recently. I’ve been looking for a small in-tact ammonite for a while, a long life iinisskimm or buffalo-stone. As we walked, I began to come across strange puddles in the mud. They looked like sink-holes, odd pockets of trapped water that had thawed in the recent warmth. Or places where boulders had been sitting embedded in ice… wait, where did the boulders go? My eyes focused-in on the nearest puddle. Just then, as if on cue, from somewhere too deep below, a collection of bubbles rose to the surface. I was not looking into a puddle or sink-hole. And whatever I was standing on was certainly no mudflat. It was the Old Man, very cleverly disguised by a thick layer of sediment blown down off the coal cliffs. Dark earth sitting on ice that had been rapidly thawing for more than a week, that was in fact sloppy beneath my feet, like water-lodged mud.

A little stir of panic came over me, the image of Piipiiaakii crashing through one of these weak spots. The current would only have to take her a couple feet downriver, and she’d be trapped for the next half kilometre or more in a deadly underwater darkness beneath earth and ice.

“You’d better come back to the cliff right now,” I called to her, trying to convey urgency without scaring her. “We’ve been walking on the river this whole time. I’m looking down into a deep pool. I can’t even see the bottom.”

“Really?” Piipiiaakii asked, hurrying over, edging a little too near the open water ‘puddles’ for my comfort. She paused to gaze into the depths.

“You’d better just get off the ice right now. I don’t trust it.”

“Oh my god,” she said, the danger of the situation sinking in. “We’re lucky we didn’t fall in.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Now get off the ice already.”

Piipiiaakii came over to the cliff-base and we continued upriver, both of us a little shocked. A few minutes later, we arrived at a spot where the cutbank against the cliff-side was especially steep, and Piipiiaakii said she’d rather return to the forest than try to navigate the slippery mud-slope. I agreed and we went back.

Getting off of the ice brought immediate relief. We stopped again at the large boulder seat to let any residual anxiety drain away, then started into the forest. Almost immediately, we came across an interesting little rodent nest of some kind, set in a hollow knot on the side of an old poplar stump. A perfect mystery. The nest material – poplar chips, bits of chewed-up paper, an unidentified brown fibre, and lots of deer hair – completely plugged the nest entrance. There were a couple tiny, mouse-sized scats stuck to the wood below. I walked a complete circle around the stump, and even shimmied up to the top, trying to find a second entrance. There wasn’t one. Whoever lived here liked to be sealed in.

As we continued moving through the woods, I scanned the trees diligently. Several times I had to pull out my binoculars to convince myself that the odd lumps spotted between forked branches here and there were not owls. It’s surprising how many owl-ish shapes there are among the poplar trees. I also found one tree that was completely misshapen by a Diplodia gall attack. Every branch had several ball-like bulges.

Eventually Piipiiaakii decided to abandon tromping along in the snowy woods, in favour of the river sandbars, where we had to wade through a thick mass of yellow sweetclover, rabbit willow, leafy spurge, and juvenile poplar. Wandering amidst this tangled mess, she brought us to a bit of a deer trail where we found a good number of long Canada goose wing-feathers spread about. Apparently a coyote had dragged one in there off the ice.

Further along that same trail, as we were just about to enter the more dense willow stands, leaving the tangled sweetclover and spurge behind, Piipiiaakii let me know she was hungry, tired, and ready to head back to the truck. A few years ago, she’d persevered over an almost deadly bout of rheumatoid arthritis, and has been regaining her health ever since. This was the first time she’d been able to make the difficult hike all the way down into this part of the coulee, and she didn’t want to overdo it. There was still a steep ascent yet to come.

I suggested the quickest route out would be to climb the cutbank and walk straight toward the cliffs through the forest. We’d barely entered the trees when I noticed several pairs of long, pointed ears protruding from the brome grass about twenty meters ahead. Piipiiaakii took off her sun-glasses so she could see what I was pointing-out. One after another, fourteen mule deer began to stand up. We stayed our distance and took a few photos, then decided to move wide around the herd, so they wouldn’t scare and be forced to leave their snow-cleared beds. The deer were a little nervous as we began walking, but soon calmed and began to lay back down when they realized we were moving away.

Like other poplar forests along the Old Man River, the trees in this section grow on a base of eroding earth that gets ever finer in grain from the edge of the coulee slopes to where it meets the sandbars, silts, and rounded cobbles of the main riverbed. Seen from above, the forest appears to be comprised of more-or-less evenly distributed trees across an earthen base. But down on the ground one encounters a landscape of several broad and nested lenses, with cutbanks marking transitions between tiers. The spring floods of centuries and millennia have carved and continue to shape these lenses, and with a little inspection one finds that each tier from the river’s edge to the coulee slope is really a micro-environment in itself. Although some are more starkly distinct than others, no two earthen lenses support the same plant life. The poplar forest grows in the middle tiers – not on the plain closest to the steep coulee slope where sagebrush and various grasses predominate, and not on the sands and silts near the riverbed where one finds willows and sweetclover.

There are other places along the Old Man where erosive conditions are such that the poplars grow right up against the cliffs or to the very edge of the cutbanks falling into the river. But in the area Piipiiaakii and I were walking, the trees grow in the middle. And even within this forested section, one finds a few different tiers of land. I’ve not made a close study of the differences between these nested lenses, but there are some things easily gleaned. On the first forested tier rising away from the river sandbars, one finds bullberry growing amidst the poplars. Similarly, in the last forested tier before the rise to the sagebrush flats, there is buckbrush, prickly rose, saskatoon, chokecherry, and older isolated clumps of diamond willow. Between these two zones of forest perimeter is at least one other tier, and possibly two, marked by less defined cutbanks and thick with grass. In all cases, the poplar trees themselves grow most prolific just above and below the transition lines where lenses meet, positioned so their roots can take advantage of the periodic rise and retention of water.

When we encountered the mule deer, Piipiiaakii and I had just entered the first section of poplars off the river sandbars. We walked wide around the herd, and began crossing the forested lenses one after another, patterned as rough lines of trees separated by grassy meadows that bore the decomposing deadwood of the past. We’d almost arrived at the sagebrush flats, passing through the last of the forested tiers, and more specifically walking amidst thick buckbrush just below the final cutbank, when Piipiiaakii stopped and started searching her pockets. She remembered having removed her prescription sunglasses when I first pointed out the deer, and thought she’d put them in one of her jacket pockets. But they weren’t there. We did a quick search around the immediate vicinity, and she checked all over in her clothes and bag. No luck. Eventually, we became resigned to the fact that they’d dropped somewhere along our route through the forest.

By this time, Piipiiaakii was really in need of a break. Her energy was running low. I told her to sit and wait on a fallen log while I attempted to retrace our steps back to where we’d encountered the deer. It was slow going. We hadn’t followed any one defined path, but rather wound our way along various deer trails, some more markedly apparent than others. Even in the forest, most of the snow that had fallen the previous evening was already melted, so there were few places where I could depend on footprints. I had to rely on a kind of intuition, partially informed by the sometimes-deceptive appearance of disturbed grass. At several places, I thought I’d lost the trail, but would eventually come across clear signs again to assure me that I was on track. Whether it was skill or luck, or a combination of the both, the path I retraced did take me right back to where we’d stopped to watch the deer. And the herd was still there, less nervous than before, but obviously curious about my return. In sum, I’d done a decent job tracking. Unfortunately though, I still hadn’t come across any sunglasses.

After a close survey around the matted grass where we’d stood with the deer, I went through the whole tracking exercise again in reverse, and once more came up empty-handed. I half expected to walk over the next rise and find Piipiiaakii wearing her shades, having found them in my absence. But she wasn’t. As we left the woods, passed through the sagebrush flats and began our ascent, she spoke resignedly of how the loss of her sunglasses might be perceived positively – as a toll for some unknown intrusion on a forest-dweller’s life, or as payment for a forthcoming gift. I agreed in principle, but held out some hope of finding them yet.

Before we went to bed last night, I swore I’d be up first thing to trek back into the coulee and retrace our steps once more. But this morning came and went, and by afternoon I was expecting a visit from Pookanaam. Piipiiaakii had gone to play the Sunday poker tournament with her and Jay. They texted me from the casino to let me know they’d be stopping in for a coffee and cake visit afterward. So I waited, not wanting to miss them.

Dusk was approaching when I put my mudding pants on, excused myself early from our visit, and drove back to the coulee rim. On the way down the slope, I took more plant photos – blue gramma, wild onion, salsify, canary grass – and when I reached the edge of the forest I was met by a European starling, the first I’d seen this winter outside of residential areas and golf courses.

Dropping into the first forested tier below the sagebrush flats, I moved through the buckbrush and tried to pick up yesterday’s trail. My immediate interest was in taking another quick look around for the lost sunglasses, even though I didn’t have much confidence I’d find them. The other, equally futile hope I carried rested in the potential for another long-eared owl encounter. Sundown was near, after all.

If I thought yesterday’s attempt at tracking was a challenging intuitive exercise, I had no idea. Not only had there been more snow melt (and an associated disappearance of footprints) this afternoon, but now I felt completely overwhelmed by the dense and undisturbed appearance of the forest grass. Would it be possible to locate and follow yesterday’s trail? And if it were, would I be able to find a little pair of sunglasses amidst all this foliage?

I didn’t have much confidence. I just went to where we’d stopped in the buckbrush yesterday, and did my best from there. I don’t know how often I was on or off our trail, but the route did eventually take me back toward the deer, and they were still in pretty much the same spot. Well, not all of them. Today there were just five, including a young two-point buck. When I got to the matted grass where we’d stopped to watch and photograph them yesterday, I did a thorough search for the glasses and came up with nothing. As I looked around, I could hear aapsspiniiksi – Canada geese – making a raucous on the river, presumably down at the open water by the old beaver lodge.

Just then, a downy woodpecker came swooping toward one of the poplar trees beside me. It landed fairly low, about eye-level on the trunk, and began rooting around in the bark for this and that. I still hadn’t taken a picture of the downy this moon for my phenology course, so I got my camera out and started clicking away. Seeing it there reminded me of the absence of chickadees, who I often see traveling with a downy or two.

While I was busy trying to get a good angle on the woodpecker, who always seems to want to put at least one small twig between us as a shield, the noise from the geese on the river continued to grow, and pretty soon there were flocks passing my position. I diverted my attention away from the downy and started counting. The geese - who were assumedly at the open water by the old beaver lodge - were now flying upriver, probably prompted by a coyote encounter. I count a hundred and forty-four passing, a beautiful sight against the relief of the coulee cliff, its orange earth and white snow colors brought out by the setting light of the sun. More lovely yet, just as the last flock goes calling by, I looked down at the grass by my feet and there were the sunglasses. The proverbial needle in the haystack, and I found them. Pretty damn good.

All happy and proud, because I knew how impressed Piipiiaakii would be with me, I packed the glasses securely away in my camera bag and started walking toward the willow thickets. By that time, the horned owls had woken up and were beginning their duet-serenade, the male singing from my side of the river, the female from the other.

I went to the river’s edge, to the new beaver lodge, and sat there in the sand as dusk transitioned to twilight, and twilight to night. As I sat there, two-hundred and seventy one geese passed overhead, moving upriver, in flocks of various sizes, and three times in advance of pursuing adult bald eagles. Coyotes howled from the coulee slopes. The horned owls continued to serenade one another. Eventually, I started getting cold. I hadn’t dressed well for the night, and decided I’d better start walking again to raise my body temperature.

Heading toward the willow grove, starting my way back toward the coulee slope, I could hear geese gathering by the old beaver lodge downriver. I couldn’t resist. The moon was full, and I just had to go over there, to see them in the night’s cool light, to be a part of their gathering. The sky was brilliant. Orion, the Big Dipper, Jupiter, all of them with their Blackfoot names and stories, so much more meaningful than the detached understanding of them as mere chemical bodies. When I got near the geese, they were already quieting down. Sleeping bodies on the ice, heads tucked back to rest on tailfeathers. The moonlight over the frozen river was amazing. I took out my tilt-shift lens and tried to capture this spectacle as best I could. Satisfied, in love with my beautiful world, I turned to follow a dark route toward home. A trail far too dark....

(to be continued and brought present)