A foothills summer evening, with runners

(August 2020)

I procrastinated too long and the day became too hot for my planned run.  The only thing to do was to wait until evening when things cool down.  So it was nearly sunset when I walked up the hill and began to jog-trot up our little road toward the Snake Trail.  Late summer smoke light:  the Livingstone Range hazy along the horizon and the river already lost in shadow beneath the canyon slope.  The last rays of sun were softened to a rich orange-gold by the smoke of some faraway forest burning in BC and a strange light gilded the hills and fields with a glow that seemed to come from inside the ripening grasses.

Round bales of recently cut hay glimmered in that sideways light, each sending a long shadow across Mowats’ field.  A hawk that was perched on one watched my approach and then launched itself into the sky, silent as if it too felt there was something sacred about the late-summer stillness that ought not be disturbed.

I left the two gates lying rather than close them, as I’d be back soon enough and there were no cows in the coulee.  Vesper sparrows flicked off the barbed wire fence and vanished into the grass as I thudded my way up the edge of the draw to the neighbours’ place.  Thunder, their under-employed border collie, wasn’t waiting to chase me along the fence when I arrived; he was watching a cat and didn’t notice my approach until the last minute.  He’s always a bit conflicted between his compulsion to herd things, me included, and his impulse to be my friend, and his duty to defend the yard.  Today he just looked embarrassed at having been caught unprepared.

Happy little voices as I passed the house; the kids were playing on their backyard trampoline. I don’t know their names but they’ve decided that we are friends. Usually they compete to shout hi at me but this evening they were so absorbed in their play that they didn’t see me at all.  Across the Texas gate and up the last stretch to the Snake Trail, where bindweed flowers blinked from the road edge and a mule deer stood transfixed until the last minute, then bounded down the hill.  And still, everywhere, that magic light and breathless calm that happens only in late summer when the birds have gone quiet and the wind dies down, although it rarely does.

And fiddle music; something unexpected.  Across the coulee I could see Mike’s machine shed, the door half open to let in the cool.  All I could see of Mike was a pair of legs extending out of the shadows, but I could hear him playing a jig.  I never even knew he had a fiddle, let alone that he could spill such perfect music into the heavy quiet of a foothills evening, an unexpected gift of cowboy culture to accompany the crunch of gravel under my feet as I turned onto the Snake Trail and the long hill up to the hobbit house.

The golden light was gone and the fields blue with shadow as I turned and began the long descent back to our cabin.  The trampoline was empty and the kids gone inside, but Thunder was on duty again.  He chased me along the fence until I said hello to him, whereupon he skulked guiltily back to the porch, peering back over his shoulder.  He may never figure this relationship out.

When I stopped to close the gates, bits and pieces of fiddle music still trickled down the coulee.

Through the haze the mountains were a line of dark against a pale yellow glow: Omakai’stoo (Crowsnest Mountain) and the Seven Sisters pulling the shadows up around them as they have done each night for eons.  Secrets everywhere and a sweet cool breeze at last, smelling of hay and gumweed. Crickets cheeping.  An owl.  Then the sound of the river and a light on in the cabin window.

Sometimes one actually aches with gratitude.

The Bighorn year

[From my old journals] 

August 21 and 22, 1981

Sheep scouting – Spray Lakes area

This autumn I was invited again to go out for sheep with Glenn Webber and his uncle George but since the season in that area opens August 24 I couldn’t take the time off, and Rob Harding went in my place.  The season south of the Bow, however, opens on September 2, during my regular days off.  I’d already decided by the beginning of this month to hunt sheep in the Kananaskis in spite of the inevitable competition.

To get an early jump on the hordes I started scouting on the 21st after work.  I found the  Spray Lakes road under construction but managed to pick my way around the worst spots and the heavy equipment to a point near the mouth of the creek that drains from the basin between Mounts Lougheed and Sparrowhawk.  I arrived at 6 PM and parked as far off the roadbed as I could, then set off up the slope with Penny [my springer spaniel], my spotting scope, and my binoculars.  The forest is pine/feathermoss, thick near the road but growing more open higher up.  I cut two or three well-used elk trails and a couple piles of moose droppings. At length, after crossing a little brook and starting up a steep side hill, I saw light through the trees and emerged onto a rubble slope of big jagged talus that spreads down from the ridge that forms the northwest side of the basin.  I glassed the south side of the basin from here and saw only an empty, well-worn trail.

I picked my way up and up and up the rubble to the ridge line which, while still steep, has been used enough by game to be reasonably well-worn. There, in the open spruce and first stand, I got my first view of the upper basin — steep talus slopes grading downward into steep, lush grassland incised with gullies and full of clumps of stunted fir and spruce. A small, lush basin; ideal summer retreat for the discerning sheep.  No sign of sheep, though. The basin is spectacularly walled in by the cliffs of Mounts Lougheed and Sparrowhawk.

I moved up the ridge to a better vantage point where I could see more of the basin and promptly saw sheep — five ewes, two lambs and a yearling ram. They were at the uppermost edge of the steep meadows to the north, feeding and travelling.  They eventually moved into the edge of the talus near a cliff band and bedded down. At one point they stopped and appeared to be looking down into the basin at something but I couldn’t see what.

I set up the scope and gave the rest of the basin a thorough going-over but finally decided there was no more life there. About 8:15 I got ready to leave and did one last scan with the binoculars. There were the sheep again, only now they were way down in the meadows, feeding and moving.  Something didn’t feel right about them being there, so I set up the scope to look more closely and sure enough, they were a different band.  All rams!

Two were darker than the others and obviously mature.  The remainder were half curls or a bit bigger. I watched the mature rams for a long time and finally decided that one was just legal and the other was about three-quarters curl. After feeding along the meadow a while the biggest one and two other lay down.  I sneaked back behind the ridge and started down but I wasn’t watching behind me and I walked right out in the open. I think that at least a couple of them saw me, although there were a mile away, so I stayed in sight but angling downhill away from them.

I glassed all the visible slopes before I went back into the trees and found two more bunches of sheep on Wind Tower just west of the notch, one of six and the other of five.  I was back at the car at 9:05 with enough light for another half hour of travelling if I’d needed it.

In my notes that evening I said I felt the the sheep might remain there for a few days. However, either I was wrong or there’s another ram herd in the same area because the following day I returned and found rams again, in the next valley to the south.

I parked at 2:35 just north of the creek that drains the south side of Mount Sparrowhawk and headed up through dense timber to where I came out onto a steep rubble slope on bedrock, less coarse than yesterday’s.  I picked my way up this slope through open pine timber to the edge of the open rubble above, then cut over to the edge of the ridge I was climbing.  There I plopped down and began glassing, and promptly found seven rams bedded high in the talus near the ridge line of Sparrowhawk.  The heat haze off the talus was too shimmery for me to make out the horns so I rested and glassed up the rest of the slope, then loaded up my pack and started climbing again.

It was about 3:15 when I first saw them.  At 4 two stood up and all were watching me.  At 4:15 all were moving about and feeding, but no sign that they were concerned about me any more. I almost think Penny’s romping about may have been a sort of reassurance to them.

The ridge I was climbing levelled out and I walked to a saddle overlooking the head of a narrow basin between the main ridge of Sparrowhawk and a spur, which I was on. Here I found several snow fences and, below me, a new weather station. They want to build a ski area here, the jerks.

Moved into loose rubble and picked my way up and around the spur, stopping once to glass the rams from a closer range. One half-curl is very distinctively coloured; very pale and bleached-looking. The two biggest rams appeared just legal. I suspect these were the same sheep as I saw yesterday, but I’m not quite sure.

From the east side of the spur, where I found myself sitting on the rim of a seventy-metre cliff, I had a birds-eye view of of the whole upper basin, a wilderness of rocks and ridges and talus sweeping up to the pinnacles of Mount Sparrowhawk. There were big meadows below me, sweeping down into a shrubby, open-forested creek bottom, but most of the basin looked pretty barren except for way up near the head of it where it looked the like the country at the head of [secret] Creek — all grassy ledges and cliffs and little meadows and lakes.

I glassed the whole thing, resting my eyes now and then, but saw nothing until two small rams from the herd I’d already seen picked their way around the north side of the spur and moved onto the top of the meadows to graze.

I went back to the west side of the ridge and watched the remaining five rams a while, then headed back to my cliff top for one last check. It was 6 PM by now. I thought I’d check the creek flats for elk or deer — and there was another legal ram, picking his way nervously across the valley floor towards my side of the valley. I watched him move, a few steps at a time followed by long waits while he watched and looked ahead of him, about 200 metres up an avalanche gully to where scrubby willows gave way to a little wet green meadow at the base of the talus below me. There he drank, fed for a while, and then bedded down.

Heading back I saw the remaining five rams just starting through the saddle the others had already gone through. They saw me and all stood watching intently as I headed down the snow-fence ridge. They were quite alert and I hope they weren’t too disturbed as they are now near to where they could easily lose themselves into the headwaters of Ribbon Creek or the basins off Mount Buller.

I found a flagged ski run heading back to the road so I followed it down and may or may not have removed all the flagging…

What’s ridiculous is that anyone could look at the dryas/bearberry vegetation and sparse timber of those slopes and tell that this is a wind-blown, low snow-accumulation area useless for high-intensity ski development. I’ll wait a few years and say I told you so — in the meantime I suppose I’ll have to find another sheep hunting area.

August 28, 1981

The plot thickens, the suspense builds, opening day approaches.  This evening’s scouting trip was enough to turn the most hardened sheep hunter into a quivering mass of nerves.

Tuesday I had to go to Pincher so I wasn’t able to go out Monday or Tuesday evening. On Wednesday I was talking to a park warden friend in the Banff office who inadvertently gave me a clue to another area. I went out Wednesday evening to see if my friends were still on Sparrowhawk but since I didn’t leave Banff until six and stopped a few times to glass from the road, I didn’t get going up the hill until after seven. It was hard climbing since I’d made the mistake of eating first, and just as I topped out at the head of the former future ski run onto the open slope facing south, a thunderstorm that had been lurking to the east sent down a sudden shower of sleet. I took shelter next to a stunted pine and glassed all around, including the area my warden friend had suggested.  I could see four sheep feeding there but they were too far away to make out what they were, except that two seemed dark enough to be rams.

After the rain came wind, a howling wind raging down the slopes from the swirling underbelly of the thundercloud. The whole valley was lit with the most intense, pure colours I’ve ever seen, the sky all purple and blue, the lake a glowing blue, the opposite slope intensely green. It was a holy moment: the crazy wind and the glowing colours.

When the wind stopped it was growing dusky, but I had gotten so close to the ridge top it seemed a shame not to go the rest of the way. I headed up to the last trees and just as I arrived I saw a sheep bedded on a little green hanging meadow up valley but downslope of where I’d seen them last Saturday.

I tied Penny to my pack and crawled up through the trees to where I could watch them. There were three or four others in sight, my same bunch of rams. Suddenly they started downhill, trotting as if they’d seen some danger. More and more passed through my scope until I realized there were too many.  It turned out my herd of seven plus one had grown to twelve, with three legal rams.

They ran into the bottom of the gully, near the little weather station, then stopped and began to feed. Sort of like a mad dash to the fridge for an evening snack.

It was almost pitch dark but the time Penny and I got back to the road — this time the sheep didn’t see us.

However…the other four kept eating at me. And since there are still three or four evenings before opening day, I decided to go look for them this evening.

I headed out and parked and got underway a good hour earlier than last time. Which was just as well as it was a long hard haul up the slope through a dense jungle of menziesia and rhododendron to the ridge from which I figured I could glass the hidden saddles (new name). At length the trees thinned out enough for me to start glassing the opposite slope where lush green meadows were hung in tatters above an awesomely steep and inaccessible valley side.

No sheep.  I checked the saddles farther along — no sheep there either. Again I glassed across from me and there, on a ridge crest at the top of the most inaccessible saddle of all, was a sheep. I set up the scope. A ram — a big ram. How big I couldn’t see as he was resting on one horn, sleeping.

But then I saw some more sheep to his left a couple hundred yards. Six in all; all rams — and all full curl or slightly less! Big heavy-horned rams.  I might have been in Banff to see sheep like that — I’ve never seen such big rams outside the park so far.

Back to the first ram.  He’d stood up and another full curl ram was with him, but now I could see him better he almost stopped me dead. He’s as big a ram as I’ve ever seen — wide horns, better than full curl, and apparently not broomed.

All of these moved out of sight.  The two went over the far side of their saddle and the six went into a ridged area.  So I looked around some more and there — on the farthest saddle from me — were eight more rams, at least three full-curl and the rest heavy horned enough that I could tell they were all legal even at that distance.

This was not possible.  Sixteen rams, all of them bigger than any sheep hunter less than a mile from a road could hope to see one of in his lifetime.

They’re in an inaccessible area but I think I’ve got it figured out.  After I’d gotten back to the road I travelled around for a while, looking the access situation over, and I may even get a chance at the big one if they don’t wander too far.  Wednesday will tell. But will I be able to get any work done until then?

The most delightful thing about the hidden saddles is that they are totally invisible from the road.  From the road it looks like a solid mountain wall. So only a chosen few should know of the area, I hope.

September 1, 2, 3, 1981

On the evening of the 31st I carried a load of gear up into the basin in which I meant us to camp (us included myself, Mike Dyer who won’t be hunting, and Wayne Smith). I set up camp just inside the trees off a shrub meadow in a depression that receives lots of deadfall from avalanches. From the meadow I could see the open meadows where I first saw sheep when glassing this area on the 26th.  There were none there today, nor behind the cliff toward the saddle to the south when I scouted out there (where the big one was on the 28th).

I scuttled back down to the valley, finding a far easier route down the south slope of a drainage channel — through buffaloberry and wildrye — than the one I had followed up the hill through menziesia.

Mike and I arrived at the Spray Lakes about 10:30 the next morning and saw about six other parties of hunters as we drove to our jumping-off point.  We also stopped long enough to spot four rams at the north end of the range.  It had rained during the night and the clouds were low and broken, covering much of the sky and most of the peaks.

I hauled another load and Mike carried most of the food up. We set up camp, had a bit of lunch, and set out scouting. We headed south to a ridge that comes off the east side of the cliffs, hoping to see up the upper valley. However the angle was wrong to see the parts of the valley I wanted to see, so we headed back to camp. We did see about twenty or so sheep in a basin high up on Mount Lougheed.

Back at camp we were pounded by a rain squall until three.  I had arranged to meet Wayne down at the road at five to guide him up to camp but I was determined to check the upper valley to make sure my rams were still there, in order not to waste opening morning going after them.  So I set off up the gully behind the cliff to the three saddles from where I thought I should be able to see.

It was a long slog but the sheep had worn enough of a trail to make it not too bad.  I bellied over the first saddle and saw nothing. Sheep tracks led across a steep shale slide that funnels down to a cliff between the first two saddles, so I picked my way across, stepping in their prints. Between the next two saddles was an even steeper shale slope, soaked by the rain, where I had to lean to my right and use my hands to stay up.

I crawled to the rim of the third saddle to where I had a panoramic view of the whole upper valley, with a dying glacier at the head, a blue lake cupped below me, and green rocky slopes ahead and to my right. No sheep. I kept hearing rocks clattering ,though, and suspected that the sheep might be below me.  I crawled a couple feet forward and looked up to see, 150 yards away, a young ram staring straight at me.  Two big rams were feeding with their backs to me, moving through a krummholz clump.

I got out of sight quickly and headed back to camp, then down to the road to meet Wayne.  He was an hour late, so I watched the competition, which was all over the roadsides now, glassing and driving and peering furtively at me and one another.

By the time I got back to camp with Wayne (who was woefully out of shape) I was thoroughly tired out.  However, I was prevailed upon to brew some coffee and ended up drinking enough that, with my anticipation and nervousness about the competition, I scarcely slept that night.  It rained off and on, and a ground squirrel peeped for half an hour at about 2:30 AM.  A couple pikas called.

I woke just before shooting light — late! — and put the coffee on.  While the others bleared around getting themselves up I stepped out on the meadow and promptly saw two pale sheep — looked like ewes — crossing the meadow high above us.  I told the others and we quickly finished our coffee and set out up the damp valley bottom. 

I looked up again to see if the sheep were visible — and there was a hunter!  He was dressed in red, picking his way along the top of the mountain.  My adrenaline level shot up and I began hiking harder but my lack of sleep and excess of climbing yesterday kept me to a fairly slow pace.

We’d only gone another fifty yards when up ahead of us, in the hollow at the head of our basin, four shots rang out. I was horrified. All my best-laid plans had gone awry; the competition had beaten us in somehow.  I heard someone yell, “I got him!” — but it was just steep enough that I couldn’t hurry to see what had happened.  Up on the meadow a bunch of fifteen or so ewes and lambs were grouped on a rock outcrop, looking down at what I shortly saw to be five legal rams heading up out of our basin.

Three of the rams joined the nursery bunch and they all headed up into the cliffs of the headwall.  The other two stayed hidden in the krummholz halfway up the slope.

As I reached the rim of the upper basin I could see two guys in red, with backpacks, picking their way across the talus to a ram lying below the headwall.  Up in the shale at the head of the gully I’d climbed the previous day there were new tracks gouged in and my heart sank to the ultimate depths as I realized they had gotten “my” ram.

Nothing left to do but keep on going to the three saddles on the forlorn chance that there might still be a straggler left behind.

Mike was a bit below and Wayne about a hundred yards back, but I was too charged with a sense of urgency to let them catch up.  Up the gully I went, picking my way up the rock-studded snow patch to the boulder rubble, then up the rubble to the shale near the head of the gully.  I tried to catch my wind just below the saddle, with the grey cloud growing darker and tangling down the cliffs above, and jacked a shell into the chamber and put on the safety.

I climbed to the saddle and was just about to crouch down and creep over the top when out ran two big rams, fifteen feet from me.  They’d been grazing just over the saddle. I found the front one in the scope and got off a single shot before they disappeared into a cleft between the saddles. I ran a few steps and one came into sight, trotting about thirty yards from me.  The other one was gone, until I saw it lying dead in the bottom of the cleft. I’d got a ram!

I moved back onto the saddle, in case the second ram might stop in gun range until Wayne could catch up.  It ran a few more yards, then stopped uncertainly and stood looking at its dead companion.  Assuming (I guess) that the danger couldn’t be too great since its companion was lying down, the other ram began to graze.

Wayne was way down the slope, a couple hundred feet, and moving pretty slowly. He was wiped. I kept sneaking a look at the ram, then waving at him to hurry, going crazy. Snow flurries kept wisping off the peaks up the valley, with white sheets of sunlight shimmering through. 

Finally Wayne arrived, having dumped his gun and pack to make his climb easier. I gave him my rifle to use and he used my pack as a rest. Through binoculars I could see the ram hunch up at his shot and when it ran out of sight between the second and third saddles I figured we had two dead sheep — 8:30 AM on opening day.

I waited while Wayne went back for his own gun, and then went down to my sheep while he went after his.

Mine was almost full curl on one side but broomed down to 4/5 on the other — 37 1/2 inches and 34 inches with 14 1/2 inch bases. A beautiful ram.  He was right where I’d feared I might drop a sheep, though, on a gully that funnels down to a cliff.  Mike and I tied him to a rock outcrop and got to work cleaning him.  It took almost two hours to get him caped and all boned out, but only about five minutes for word to get around to the ravens that a new smorgasbord had opened in town.

Meanwhile, Wayne had discovered that he had wounded his ram and it had fled into the upper valley. A yearling goat that had been at the tip of the third saddle and had decided that there was too much activity for its liking had also headed up the valley and Wayne found his sheep when the goat paused to sniff at it on a ledge a quarter mile up-valley.

There were three hunters working their way up from the valley when Wayne left his sheep and started back to us to get his knife and tags that he’d forgotten in his abandoned pack [no comment…] By the time he got back to his sheep, one of the other hunters was nearly finished caping it out.

The other hunter evidently sincerely believed that it was his sheep — he had shot at my supposedly-secret herd first thing that morning and said that he had wounded one — so Wayne didn’t argue too much. It was another disappointment for him, after already feeling bad about being out of shape and about having wounded it.

So it appears that the others at the head of the valley had shot at my rams first thing this morning and spooked them through our basin before we got into position. The two we got must have felt that the retreat to the high saddles would be enough to get them out of danger.

Snow flurries had been coming and passing while we boned out my sheep. When Wayne got back we headed down with him carrying the head and cape and Mike and me each carrying half the meat — around sixty or seventy pounds each from the feel of it.  It was a slow arduous trip down.

The remaining rams were perched at the crest of the saddle north of camp, peering watchfully in all directions.  Just as we went out of sight somebody on the other side of that saddle fired twice, so there might have been up to five sheep shot opening morning.  I can’t help feeling that’s too heavy a kill, but of course I was partly to blame.

Once we had the sheep down at the road nobody felt like climbing the hill again, so we headed back to Banff to clean up and go to bed early after a supper of tough, chewy sheep.

On Thursday I hiked up at 3PM to camp and packed out the remaining gear.  There were two guys sitting skylined on the saddle to the north and two other hunters picking their way down the edge of our basin. They stopped to visit and told me that all opening week last year there had only been two hunters on the mountain — so it looks like I got there just in time for the last of the good old days.

[editor’s note:  I did indeed.  A couple years later the whole range was included in the new Spray Valley Provincial Park which put it permanently out of bounds for all hunting.  The good thing about that was that it put a final nail in the coffin for plans for a golf resort and ski development in the area. Nobody interviewed the sheep; unlike me, I suspect they fully approved of the change.]

That time I met a malevolent spirit

Written in 2019:

The updates from Parks Canada say that Verdant Creek patrol cabin has burned down.  That’s a sad loss.  Over the years, I spent a few nights in that cabin but one memory has stayed with me vividly for decades.

Back when I was a seasonal park naturalist in Kootenay National Park in the late 1970s, we were encouraged to get out into the park as much as possible to learn about it and develop personal experiences we could share with visitors.  Ian Jack and Larry Halverson encouraged us to hike into the warden cabins on our days off, whenever they weren’t being used operationally.

The hike into Verdant Creek goes over Honeymoon Pass.  Descending from the east side of the pass, the trail angles diagonally down a long avalanche path.  Unlike most other slide paths in the area that tend to be choked with alders and other shrubs this one was quite open — mostly grasses and low greenery.  One summer day in 1976 I was hiking down this slide path when my heart seized up and I stopped dead in my tracks, paralyzed by a feeling of total, abject terror that had come out of nowhere.  It was like those rare nightmares you wake from unable to move.  I looked slowly around; nothing there.  It was a bright sunny morning. Standing immobile, I tried to make sense of the fear: maybe something carnivorous was eying me? But there was no cover anywhere near me.  I remember saying to myself, as much to be reassured by the sound of my voice as anything else: “Something’s going to happen.”

But nothing did. So far as my senses could tell me, I was frozen in fear for no reason at all.  I took a step forward, then another.  The panic began to subside.  A few steps more and it was gone.  I kept looking back and around me as I continued down the slide path but there was nothing there — nothing visible at least.

When I got to Verdant Cabin I dumped my pack, opened the place up, hauled some water and sat down to brew a cup of tea to go with my lunch.  As I waited for the kettle to boil I head the thump of footsteps and, looking through the window, saw a fellow naturalist hiking past.  Not having expected to see anyone else in that valley, I went out and invited him in for tea.  It turned out he was doing a long day hike through the Verdant valley.

Before I could tell him what had happened to me, Jim said, “You know, I just had the strangest experience when I was coming down from Honeymoon Pass.”

It felt suddenly like the hair was standing up on my neck.  “How’s that?” I asked.

“I was just about to go into the trees at the bottom of that open slide path when I just got hit with this feeling of complete terror,” he said.  That would have been about seventy metres farther down the trail from where I’d had my experience.  “I couldn’t see anything there, but it was almost overpowering.”

Neither he nor I experienced anything like that on our way out of the valley later.  I still don’t know what it was.  I’m convinced that it wasn’t my subconscious picking up a nearby predator; it wasn’t the feeling of being watched.  It was an overwhelming sense of imminent doom.  Whatever the case, the cabin might be gone but I still think of Verdant Creek as a haunted valley.  In the aftermath of this summer’s burn it will likely be even more eerie.  I plan to go see once the trail re-opens.

Who Speaks For Running Waters (1988)

[Update, 2022: the Three Rivers Dam was completed the following year and has now been in operation for almost a third of a century. It is heavily silted from upstream erosion and drains down to mud flats for part of each year. Today a different Conservative government plans to open its headwaters to coal strip mining. This essay was originally published in Trout Canada and reprinted in my book Coming West]

I went down to the Bow River often during the strange evenings of my adolescence. It was a place where I could leave self-consciousness and tension behind. The sound of water lapping at the rounded cobbles was rhythmic, soothing and sure. Standing beside the evening river, I watched the rings of rising trout break the reflected light of street lamps.

“Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything,” Henry David Thoreau said. I think he was right. The Bow River helped me through many difficult times. That is the way it is with rivers, with clear flowing waters. They flow quietly through our lives, as constant and reassuring as the changing seasons or the ebb and flow of time.

One evening I drifted a muddler into an eddy at the tail of a long, quiet riffle and hooked a brown trout. The sun had set already. I had planned on this being my last cast but this was a big fish and he was not going to be hurried. He burrowed deep and stayed there, the powerful throbbing of his fight communicating itself up my line, through the rod, into my arm. The water was dark, full of quiet urgency as it slipped past and under the Crowchild bridge. I felt both fascinated by and fearful of the heavy thing alive at the end of my line, unseen beneath the river’s flickering surface.

At length the fish turned into the main current, allowing the force of the river to help as it headed downstream, away from the pull. Unable to resist, I followed, obeying the pressure of fish and river, hands shaking at the thought of my leader separating. Its side broke the surface of the river and a tail splashed; then the fish was deep again, holding behind a slab of old sidewalk that city crews had dumped there. I held the pressure on. Nothing happened. The river lapped and chuckled as it always had, going somewhere else, letting me know that this was just between me and the fish.

More pressure, more resistance; then the fish gave a little. It was too dark to see into the water, but street light flickers showed the line of water behind my leader, and the bulges and swirls where the old trout struggled just below the surface. He ran again, held, then slid almost unresisting to the shallows where I dragged him, suddenly, from the secret water to the grass. Before he could flop back in, I pounced on him and subdued him with a stone.

The river flowed on through the night as I sat beside my victim and tried to fathom why I felt so moved by the night and the river and the trout that lay beside me in the grass, the chill of the water still on him.

That evening, in some way that I still cannot explain, remains in my memory as a pivotal event that helped me clarify my self, and my relation to the world. Perhaps it suffices to say that sometimes experience becomes parable. In any case, I can say now without embarrassment that I love the Bow River. It may seem a little alien: the thought of loving something you cannot hold, that is not human, that lacks the awareness to return that love. Yet I cannot look at the Bow River now without remembering countless things that, over the years, have become part of who I am. The late night struggle with the old brown trout. Evenings spent watching the passing water and wondering what was to become of my life. Canoeing in an October snowstorm with my wife-to-be. Obeying my two-year-old son’s orders to bring him more rocks to throw.

Everyone has a river in their life. For me it was the Bow River, a few blocks from the family home in Calgary. For some friends of mine it is the Oldman, sliding peacefully past the garden their grandfather first dug sometime in the late 1800s. Kids dream dreams by their rivers. Fishermen cast flies upon them. Canoeists float along them. We build our homes near rivers. We walk with our lovers along their banks.

I remember canoeing the Oldman one day several years ago, slipping quietly from riffle to riffle as farms and river bottom pastures slid past. To me, this was all a new landscape; to others it was the home river, deeply familiar. I floated past buildings that had been put up a century ago, fences that showed signs of frequent repairs, old trees surrounding older houses, and pools where generations of anglers had fished. It occurred to me then that this river, which I was only discovering now for the first time, was part of the fabric and definition of countless people’s lives. Farm kids had grown up here with the sounds and rhythms of the Oldman River worn deep into their hearts. Fishermen had developed that strange, jealous affection we all know so well for secret holes and favourite lies.

Every river in Alberta is like that. Each river has its own alumni whose lives will never be the same again, once the rhythm and magic of running waters have touched them.

Although we are a river people, the West’s wealth is limited when it comes to rivers. Our rivers are the more precious and beautiful for their rarity. We don’t need many to value them for what they are. As Roderick Haig-Brown said: “I have known very few rivers thoroughly and intimately. There is not time . . .  .”

My rivers are the Bow and the Oldman, the Maligne, Ram and Elbow, a few lesser streams, and that is all. My friends have their rivers. There are rivers I have never seen. They belong to others.

These are our rivers, and we are theirs. We can live away from them for long periods, just knowing they are there. Losing one, however, can feel like losing an arm, a child, or a much-loved parent.

The Oldman, for instance: the provincial government is going to flood it. Many of us still cannot really come to terms with that idea. Miles of river will soon be gone, forever, always. The rest will change, its wild vitality replaced by calculated artifice as computers determine how much flow it will have from one day to the next.

A part of me, and a part of many other Albertans, will be lost when the Alberta government closes the gate on the Three Rivers Dam. Little pieces of countless peoples’ lives died when the government filled the Dickson reservoir on the Red Deer, and the Bighorn reservoir on the North Saskatchewan. The Bow River may be dammed again soon. Each dam stops the laughter of the water, buries favourite trout pools, and erases the scenes and sounds that define somebody’s memories of their life and home.

Rearranging Creation is easy when you see rivers as lines on maps, and consider them merely to be water resources. That is why the West’s free flowing rivers are in trouble.

Damming rivers is sometimes presented as an essential matter of economics. The government’s own numbers, however, have proved that the Dickson, Three Rivers and Milk River dams are all money-losers. Besides, money is not the issue. Our lives, and the quality of our lives, is what our rivers are all about.

It is our government that is building the Three Rivers Dam on the Oldman. In a democratic country we elect governments to help arrange society in the ways that best satisfy our idea of a fair and rational civilization. Governments change as our needs and values change because they know they must respond to our wishes if they hope to survive. That is the theory.

A democratic government exists to serve the people who elect it. So how does the resignation with which we sit back and let economists and politicians who know little about the real value of our rivers build dams and reservoirs we neither want nor need, relate to our privilege of living in a democratic society?

I don’t know. I do know that when the part of me that is the Oldman River disappears at last beneath the muddy waters of a wind-scoured irrigation reservoir, I will be a little less whole. The province of my birth will be a little less like home. I also know that I will have gone down kicking. The government has no doubts about where I stand; many of my letters reside in their files.

I guess few others bothered writing. The dam is going up.

I once heard that politicians work on the basis that one letter represents the wishes of a thousand voters. When I contemplate the fact that Alberta’s living rivers are at the heart of what makes our lives rich, and that the sound of running water echoes in the hearts of we who have chosen to make our homes here, I cannot help feeling that we have failed ourselves. I remember the words of British Columbia poet David Zieroth, anguished over the possible fate of his own home river, the upper Columbia:

“…And when I ask you

where are your friends

. there is only silence.

It is the sound of the mountains coming down

with their creeks, coming down through the ice.

It is the sound of men fighting, men

failing to fight, and men

passing . . . “

Jack, Jim and the jailing of the elk

In 1997 I pitched the idea of a book on elk, deer and other ungulates to Stephen Hutchings, my publisher at the time with the now defunct Altitude Books.  My stock must have been pretty high with him because he not only gave me a contract, but he included a travel budget so that I could interview experts across the west.  With that cheque in the bank, Gail and I bundled up the kids and camping gear  and headed off on a road trip that took us from Montana and Wyoming through Colorado and Utah and back.  It was a memorable experience, not least for the inspiring biologists and conservationists I got to meet.  I was actually a bit star-struck and terrified half the time, but I pulled it off.

Sadly, the book didn’t do well.  It came out as Altitude was crashing towards bankruptcy and both the production quality and marketing effort fell short.  But researching and writing it was wonderful.

In Missoula I met a very fine gentleman named Jim Posewitz who had been an inspiration to me ever since I’d been introduced to his book on hunting ethics, Beyond Fair Chase (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2707069-beyond-fair-chase).  I told him it should be mandatory reading for hunters and he assured me that, at least in Montana at the time, it was; a copy went to every newly licensed hunter.  Jim came across as a sensitive and deeply thoughtful man with a gentle sense of humour and a generous spirit. He had founded Orion, the Hunters Institute, to promote both ethical hunting standards and principled wildlife management.  He believed hunting should always bring out the best in both humans and our prey, not the worst; that hunting is not automatically synonymous with conservation, but that it should be.

When I mentioned that I would be interviewing Jack Ward Thomas the next day (at the time, arguably the leading authority on elk biology and management on the continent) Jim chuckled and told me:

“Jack Ward Thomas is the reason I got into this whole thing in the first place.  It was in 1985 at the North American Wildlife Congress in Boston, and he stood up in front of the whole conference of wildlife officials from across the country and floated the idea that we should start dealing with elk as a commodity in order to get more budgetary attention.  And not one person in the whole room stood up at a mike and seriously challenged that idea.

“That night I got up at 3 AM because I couldn’t get to sleep for thinking about how much this troubled me, and I opened a book I’d brought along — Speaking for Nature, by Paul Brooks — and started reading about how early American thinkers had debated ideas about public ownership and control of wildlife in the Boston Commons.  And here I was only three blocks from there in a motel.

“So later I wrote my first letter to Jack and I began by claiming a mutual friend “whose favourite way of tormenting me is to forward copies of your papers.” And he wrote back a very gracious letter acknowledging the legitimacy of my views and then went on to tell me that what I really needed to do was to get out on the stump and get more people to hear this.”

When I met Jack the following day, he was as gracious as Jim had described him.  He had a courtly, Texan collegiality but came across somewhat less humble than Jim had.  At that time he occupied a wildlife management chair endowed to the University of Montana by the Boone and Crockett Club.  His task, as he explained it to me, was to take on a few doctoral students each year and try to remediate their undergraduate training.  “We keep saying that wildlife management is 95% people and 5% biology but universities train biologists 95% biology and 5% people.  So I try to fix that.”  And based on some of the graduates he turned out, he did.

Unfortunately for North American elk, some of those who were in that conference audience back in 1985, the one both Jim and Jack had participated in, went back to their states and provinces and acted on Jack’s advice: they commodified elk.  Commercial elk farming exploded across the continent in the late twentieth century.  Not just for meat and velvet sales, but for the corrupt and degrading practice of “high fence hunting” —shooting captive-raised elk that had been bred and fed to produce big antlers.  It’s illegal in Alberta but you can buy a canned hunt in Saskatchewan and the bull you assassinate might well have been raised here and trucked across the provincial border just to feed your fantasy of being a real trophy hunter.  But you won’t be; you’ll just be someone who went to a wildlife brothel.  Game farming, and its resultant long-distance transport of elk, is directly responsible for the spread of chronic wasting disease across the continent — a disease for which there is no cure, that is always fatal, and has now spread into wild deer across most of Alberta.  Commodification of wildlife has been, and continues to be, a root cause of some of our greatest conservation disasters.

Fortunately for Montana, Jim went back from that conference with a renewed sense of mission.  It’s largely due to his advocacy, and the network of wildlife conservationists with whom he allied himself (including my good friend Dave Stalling who still lives in Missoula), that Montana remains free of elk farms and elk feeding stations.  They fought against the current and won.

Unfortunately for Montana, however, CWD spreads across state borders once it infects wild herds.  It’s arrived there now in spite of those who worked with such success to keep that state’s wildlife populations wild and healthy.

Jack Ward Thomas died in 2016.  Jim Posewitz died in 2020.  They were both conservation giants and I’m glad I got to meet them, however briefly. Their legacies live on but so, of course, do the conservation challenges that inspired — and sometimes confounded — them. They both did the best they could, and it was a lot.  But where commodification of wildlife is concerned, Jim was the one who was right. That’s because he always put principle ahead of pragmatism.

Which is why, of the two of them, he’s the one I would most hate to see forgotten.

Gratitude for 2021

Gratitude for 2021

I never saw a mammoth or the great herds of bison that sang across the ancient plains. I should have liked to have sat beside a campfire of mesquite and oak with Aldo Leopold and planned the next day’s search for whitetails and turkeys under a sky where the stars did not move. I would have liked to have exchanged letters with Anne Frank or seen the first sails appear over the Atlantic skyline while passenger pigeons passed overhead. We are granted only the years in which we live; those other years were for others.

Even in the years granted me, there are possibilities unrealized, things that didn’t happen. And that’s okay. My woulda-coulda-shoulda file is bursting at the seams. But every failure, loss and mistake is wrapped in a glowing aura of gratitude because I was alive to experience them. Love that ended was, nonetheless, love experienced. Before it flared out and was past, its brilliance filled my soul. Roads not ventured down nonetheless beckoned and their possibilities awoke imaginings that made me richer for having considered them. Even though I turned away. Mistakes and sins shame me when the black dog comes hunting, but at other times I remind myself that they were gifts that helped make me who I am; and that is someone at least marginally better today than the version who made those stumbles.

This is the time when we open a new calendar full of blank pages that will, soon enough, be filled in with the next moments of a life that flickered into being like magic, in one small corner of the vastness of an unimaginable Universe, on one brief segment of a ribbon of Time that extends back to — and forward to — Eternity. On the only small planet of which we know where there is a thing called Life that resists entropy, that expands, that changes and renews itself in ever more elaborate ways. Where lives like ours are even a possibility, in the echoing vastness of the cosmos.

So I look back at 2021 and it almost takes my breath away: I was alive during a pandemic and shared that story which, if nothing else, pulled us together in mutual experience and reminded us, in a humbling and maddening way, that we are biological organisms; part of Nature; subject to the phenomena that all species must submit to as part of the price of admission to this thing called life. I wasn’t given the chance to test my spirit against war — and the world has known horrible wars, wars fought with swords and poisonous gases and bombs — or to stand against the charge of great predators holding only a stone-tipped weapon, or to negotiate great treaties or persevere through profound tragedies. But I am here for covid. I’m grateful that. This one is ours to live — not to survive, but to live.

I was alive on a planet whose weather came unstuck, and I sweated through this year’s hot summer and huddled indoors rather than breathe the smoke pouring in across the Rockies from forests burning where my neighbours live. I was alive, so I could smell that smoke and feel that frustration and be angry and confounded by the failure of my generation to rise to the challenge of suppressing our energy hunger, our impulse to take more than this planet can afford. I was here. In all the vast sea of possibilities of time and space, I was here. In 2021. I was part of that story. Because I was alive, it was part of my story. It still is.

I watched a son marry, and welcomed a daughter into our family. I visited a grandson — another miracle emerging out of time and space — and saw how another son had enriched our family by the choices he has made and the family members he has embraced. I saved dozens of emails from a daughter who turns experience into laughter: first hers; then Gail’s and mine. Where does laughter come from? Who knows? But it erupted frequently in 2021, like a miracle. It is a miracle. Like life. So is sorrow, and there was some of that too.

Most nights in 2021 I fell asleep listening to the breathing of a living soul, mother of my children, keeper of my conscience, in the quiet of the night as the world turned slowly through the sky, pulling another sunrise out of the stillness, while our hearts pulsed blood through bodies that did not die. And so each morning I woke again into the possibilities and hopes of another day, shared with someone who chooses to link our stories so that they are almost one. And some of those days were good and some were awful, but they were gifts I had not earned and they were mine.

I might never have existed. The fact that I do is, to me, a miracle — a strange and inexplicable thing. I breathe in air that arose over far oceans and was carried to me by great clouds that sometimes spill lightning and rain, and sometimes blow down trees or chase fire across the land. I breathed out into that air, and my sighs became part of the world; part of other people’s breath, part of what keeps eagles aloft and trees whispering and grass pollinated. I ate food that was once living things and it came to life again in me. I ran and walked and spent rather too much time just sitting. But even sitting is living; sometimes while sitting I learned things that amazed me; other times I wrote things that found their way into other minds. We share pandemics, and weather, and air, and ideas.

And stories. What a story 2021 was. What stories — because we all live our own stories even if we blinked into existence on the same planet to share the same days. We are different but together. We should be breathless in amazement at the simple richness of that idea. Of that truth.

So I’m grateful for 2021. It was a year of living intensely, even if it was also a year of frustrations, setbacks, angst and annoyances. It was as unlikely as every other year we’ve ever lived, because they all were unlikely. We are given the times and the places we are given simply to be alive in, and the magic is simply that we are.

May we live no less intensely in 2022, whatever it might bring. Events are just events. The gift we are given is to live them, on this fecund planet, in shared experience with every other living thing. We are sensate. We are real. How utterly strange, when one really thinks about it. And we are together, with a whole new year stretching out ahead of us. Think of the possibilities!

A life isn’t many things and, too often, isn’t all we might have hoped for or could have accomplished. But it’s life. It renews itself until it doesn’t. I’m grateful for 2021 because I was given life to experience it. Many weren’t. I’m also grateful for the fact that my subscription hasn’t yet expired. Can’t wait to see what the next issue holds.

It was a very good year. And another one is coming. It will be a good one too because we will live it. And that is simply a gift beyond imagining.