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People kept slowing down to look at me.
True, it’s not every day that you see some corpulent senior citizen sitting in a ditch, so I guess I don’t really blame them but still, it was getting kinda annoying.
I had my butt parked in the muck along the road to Highwood Pass at a spot where a spring was gushing water down a slope covered in yellow, orange and green moss. There were flowers growing along the little stream that led away from the base of the slope and some tiny birds — siskins, I think — that were hopping around on the moss.
I had one camera on a tripod in front of me and another on the damp ground by my knee, alternating between photos and video. The flowers were easy to shoot but it seemed like every time the birds got close enough, a vehicle would come by, see me sitting there and slow down for a look. The birds would scatter.
I wasn’t really surprised by any of this. The road to Highwood Pass west of Longview is a justifiably popular one. I had foolishly assumed that it would be less travelled on a Tuesday afternoon but, nope, there was a fairly steady stream of cars, pickups, motorhomes and unnecessarily flatulent motorcycles rumbling by.
It hadn’t been that way six hours before at seven in the morning.
I’d left the city a little after sunrise and driven out through the misty foothills to the valley of the Highwood River west of Longview and Eden Valley. It had obviously rained sometime during the night and there was still water in the low spots on the road but the morning sun was bright and the sky overhead a milky blue. Dewdrops — or maybe leftover raindrops — glistened on the green pastures and sparkled on the groves of aspen.
I was on my way to the summit of the pass but there was plenty of time to do that so at the first place I could pull off the highway to shoot some pictures, I did.
I guess it’s called the Highwood Provincial Recreation Area but really, it’s just a pullout with a few parking spots. Trails angle from there along the Highwood River but the light was so nice down among the trees and shrubs that I didn’t even bother to explore them.
The sun was still low enough in the sky that half of the area was in backlit shade while the other half was bathed in warm morning light. Where the sun found a path through the tangle of growth it lit up the water drops clinging to the aspen leaves and sitting in pools on the clusters of osier dogwood blossoms. The cutleaf anemones — cousins of crocuses — had been pretty beaten up by the rainfall but the drops clung to their flowers, too.
On the sunny side, the wild roses glistened with dew while the silvery leaves of the wolf willows were mercury-bright with dew. They’re still blooming here and the heavenly scent of their tiny yellow blossoms filled the damp air.
The birds were singing their morning songs and they mixed with the roar of the Highwood River that was close by. It was running full and though the water was still quite brown, the level seemed to be dropping. I could see detritus left by the higher water along the banks and gravel bars in the middle. Probably gonna be fishable in a week or so.
Hundreds of geraniums were blooming back closer to the highway, so I lingered around them. They are such gorgeous plants, not just their flowers but their leaves and stems as well. The pink of their petals glowed with the sun behind them and their fuzzy stems caught the light. The leaves were so heavy with droplets that they were drooping but they have such a nice crenellated shape. And, bonus, they turn all kinds of reds and purples in the fall.
I continued on westward but the mist in the valley made me turn south at Highwood House. Knowing that it would be backlit and brilliant against the shadowed ridge to the east, I headed up the Etherington Creek valley with one eye on the road and the other looking for tiny, transient, transilluminated clouds.
And they were everywhere. But man, they were moving fast.
I could see the wisps among the trees as I drove slowly along and by the time I stopped, they were gone. At the gorge where Baril Creek drops into Etherington Creek, there was full-on fog but at least it made a picture. Truth to tell, the video looked way better.
But the sun was getting higher and as it rose it heated the air and that, in turn, caused currents to swirl and lift the mist out of the valley. By the time I hit the bridge over Etherington Creek, it was all gone.
I carried on as far as the upper Cataract Creek valley but the swirling air currents there had turned into a wind so after a few pictures, I turned around and headed back.
And encountered the first real traffic of the day.
I’d only seen a few other vehicles up to that point but I passed at least a dozen coming toward me as I headed down into the Highwood valley. There is a campground at Cataract Creek so that might have been where they were going but it was a surprise to see so many at this time of day.
No matter how often I come up here, I always have to stop and check out the swirling pools on Etherington Creek. They’re not far downstream from the bridge but they’re far enough — and loud enough — that you can sit and watch the water tumble in pseudo-solitude.
The water today was slightly off colour from the rain but it was more clear than the Highwood and looking down into the pools it was easy to visualize the cutthroat trout that I knew had to finning in the roaring current. And as I was thinking about them, a dipper flew by.
It perched on a rock and bounced up and down, as they do, and was joined a few seconds later by a second dipper. They were chirping and peeping and seemed a bit annoyed by me.
But as one flew off, I saw why. There was a nest under a rock shelf on the far side of the creek and I had sat down barely 20 ft. from it.
I couldn’t see the nest itself but as I sat there taking photos and video, the dippers flew back and forth with fat grubs that they’d fished from the creek bottom. Very cool to see.
Highwood Pass was beckoning, though, and given the traffic I’d already seen on the Cataract Creek road, I figured I’d better get moving. I hopped in the truck and drove back down to Highwood House and the main highway. But my left turn became a U-turn at the stop sign when I remembered the hummingbirds.
The folks that run the store and gas pumps at Highwood House hang hummingbird feeders under the eaves of the building so, as a result, it’s one of the best places to get a glimpse of the little buzzers. Though they nest and are fairly common throughout the foothills, these itty-bitty birds are nearly impossible to find. With the feeders hanging here to attract them, though, it is almost a certainty that you’ll see them.
And I did. They were all rufous hummingbirds, thumb-sized and flying furiously from their roosts in nearby trees to the feeders where they would hover before landing, take a few sips and buzz off again. Sometimes two of them would arrive at roughly the same time and a buzzing, chirping argument would occur and one would fly off only to return a second later and start the fight again.
The females were a bit less argumentative but the males were downright surly. If they weren’t chasing each other, they’d sit on a twig and flash their gorget — iridescent throat feathers — to let the other hummers know they were around.
Of course, all of these things were happening over the span of maybe three seconds. The fights would be over by the time I raised the camera to my eye and the gorget flashes were even quicker. It also didn’t help that the wind I’d felt at Cataract Creek was now coming down the Highwood valley as well. It made the hummingbird flights even more erratic.
I spent an hour there watching the hummers so by the time I hit the road to the pass again, traffic was building. Every little turnout had a couple of cars parked and though I tried to drive the speed limit, vehicles kept creeping up on me and edging out to pass. I pulled over to give them room to go but now there were more vehicles coming from the west side of the summit and heading eastward.
I lasted until the pullout just before Storm Creek. Parked there watching the cloud shadows move across the forest and peaks above and seeing the sparkle on the nascent Highwood River below was peaceful and relaxing. If you could ignore the hum of tires and the bark of motorcycle exhaust.
I know how this sounds. I know it makes me look like a grumpy old man. Truly, I don’t begrudge anyone heading up this way to enjoy the beauty, the real, true beauty of this place. I mean, that’s the reason I was there myself.
The problem, I guess, is that I remember back 30 years and more ago when it wasn’t like this. I could go anywhere in the foothills or along the eastern slopes and have the place almost entirely to myself.
So that’s why I was getting annoyed when I stopped to take pictures in the ditch back down the road. Even five years ago, I could do this and barely be noticed. Now, a dozen cars had passed by in the 10 minutes I’d been there and every one had slowed to a crawl. One even stopped and the passenger rolled down a window to look. I saw it roll back up as I glanced from the bright red paintbrush that I was photographing in front of me.
It was right around 1:30 in the afternoon when I finished up with the paintbrush and figworts and willows and moss and headed back down the road. I thought about stopping to check on the hummingbirds again but then carried on eastward.
Just beyond Highwood House, I came across a group of very shaggy bighorn ewes and lambs that were licking up minerals from the roadside and stopped for a picture or two. The sheep all but ignored me. I guess that, unlike me, they’re used to being gawked at when they’re hanging out beside the road.
I rolled on down the verdant Highwood valley, past the ranches and rolling hills and sweeps of aspen-filled swales before turning north and crossing the Tongue Creek valley. I stopped on a rise to look back to where I’d been.
Good gawd, this country is beautiful, especially now, all watered and dressed in green. No wonder so many people want to see it. Ha, no wonder I want to see it, too.
I sat there for a few minutes taking pictures and bracing the camera against the doorframe to shoot some video. I could see cattle lazing in the pastures and sunlight glinting off a pond. I could hear frogs close by and a robin singing.
And behind that, the sound of a diesel motor. A truck was coming up the road behind me and behind that, a second one pulling a trailer. Traffic.
I put my own truck in gear. And rolled on.