I want to stay this way forever.
I’m standing on the crest of a ridge that divides the Rock Creek Drainage from Connelly Creek in the foothills of Southern Alberta. To the east are the forested tops of the Porcupine Hills, their elongated domes look like a pod of humpback whales swimming south. To the north is Chapel Rock and more long, gentle ridgelines, each festooned with spring wildflowers. To the west is the Livingstone Range.
Dark clouds scud across the serrated edge of Centre Peak, the highest point along the Livingstone. Those clouds cast alternating bands of deep shadow and bright, glassy light across the green hills below. Sitting at the foot of those hills is the DU Ranch, caught momentarily in a band of light like a spot light, as if to illuminate the frozen moment in history the place represents.
I want this place to stay this way forever.
For the last four days I’ve been in Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta – Montana border. It’s early June and a late winter has meant the wildflowers are just blooming. Hillsides are starting to glow with Arrowleaf Balsamroot, one of the harbingers of spring along the Eastern Slope and Rocky Mountain Front. Three weeks earlier I stood on a hillside west of Choteau, Montana amid my first Balsamroot of the season. Spring marches north, and I’m following it, photographing its progress, and reveling in its glory.
On my first night in Waterton I dragged my sleeping bag and bivisack out onto the Waterton Front – the narrow strip of land along the eastern edge of the Park where the prairie rises up into gentle swells before being broken by the abrupt rise of Front Range peaks – and spent the night out under the stars. You’re not supposed to bivi just anywhere in Waterton and I wasn’t technically camping because there was very little sleep involved. I set up my camera and for maybe the third time in my life attempted to photograph the dizzying orbit of the heavens. The motion of the stars leaves a thousand streaks across the sky when seen through the viewfinder of my camera over a 45 minute exposure. I’d set the camera up and using my remote control click the shutter release, and then as the stars burnt their trails across the sky, I’d sleep for a few minutes.
In early June the sky is only truly dark for a few hours, from midnight until thee am. I made half a dozen photographs during that time, but the rise and fall of the earth, the gentle glow of setting and rising sun, and the vortex of stars around Polaris, the North Star, left an indelible impression on me. I was up at five, stashing my sleeping bag and making a cup of tea before wandering along the base of Belleview Hill to photograph sunrise. The warm light and nodding Arrowleaf were the perfect start to another day along the Front. By noon I’d photographed a family of foxes and spent an hour wandering the hills east of Sofa Mountain while a Swainson’s Hawk circled overhead, decrying my presence in his domain. I’d encountered Blackfoot prayer flags on the Beebee flats and a black bear munching dandelions in the June sun.
It was a perfect day and I wanted it to last forever.
Spring is like that. After a long hard winter, which we had along the Eastern Slopes and the Rocky Mountain Front, the relief of a warm sunny day, the earth erupting with flowers, makes me never want to leave. I want to lie down on the earth’s broad back and just sink into it.
After leaving Waterton I made my way here, into the gentle dell between ridgelines in the narrowest part of the Rocky Mountains. The foothills here are almost completely without trees, the wind tears at anything that tries to put down roots. But it hasn’t stopped people from trying, and a handful of them have made it work, including three generations of ranchers at the DU Ranch. I have a cold beer with Dan and Puff McKim on the porch of their beautiful home, and Dan shows me around their spread, a place that has been in Puff’s family for 100 years. The DU is so iconic, so perfectly characteristic of our collective impression of what an Alberta ranch should be that the Municipal District of Pincher Creek designated the ranch a Heritage Viewscape in 2008.
Afterwards I walk out the hills to the east of their home and am mesmerized by the glory of the earth and the sky. The vastness of the world and its simple perfection gives a feeling of ease and well being as I stride up the crest of the ridge.
I can’t stay. I have to go home. I miss my family, and there is my job, helping people I love save the places we cherish. I can’t stay, but every time I’ve come here over the last twenty years, I take a little bit of the foothills home with me. The gentle rise and fall of the earth; the sharp edge of mountains to the west and the long flat world to the east; the song of the Meadow Lark, the bright flawlessness of morning. I can’t stay, but these things come with me and as much make up who I am every day as my genetic coding. In doing so they remind me that I never leave anything behind any more. I can leave, but every single place I love and all the cumulative experiences I’ve had in them remain a part of me forever.
Comments are closed.