Mike Drew: 'Come to the dark side, Michael'

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The mosquitos were pretty lethargic.

Sure, they came and buzzed around me as I was lying on the forest floor but the few that landed on me lit on my shirt sleeves or the brim of my hat. A couple of them tried to land on the backs of my hands but a few wrist twists sent them buzzing away.

None of them could be bothered to bite me.

It was that kind of day here in the Sheep River valley.

There was a bit of rain coming down when I left the city, but it wasn’t particularly interesting rain. It was the kind of rain that’s just a bit too heavy to be mist but not heavy enough to keep the wipers on full time. It was just, I dunno, bland. I mean, if it’s gotta rain then, rain.

But as I rolled southwest to the Cross Conservancy and south toward Millarville, the clouds lifted and the rain — drizzle, dribbling dew — quit. The day turned, if not nice, at least tolerable.

That was all that I was hoping for, just a few hours of soft, even light to poke around the hills in. I didn’t need a sunny day. An un-sunny one would do.

Reaching for the light in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were goldfinches around the beaver ponds in the Cross Conservancy, hawks everywhere and tall, green grass in the ditches. I saw a bald eagle just before Black Diamond. A momma mule deer and her triplets stood by a stand of aspens at Turner Valley.

But the light that had looked so nice an hour before was now disappearing. When I’d headed down this way I’d figured on going west along the Sheep River valley to Sandy McNab and Bluerock but as I rounded the curve just beyond Turner Valley, I could see that the clouds were even lower and most of the hilltops were obscured. On top of that, the drizzle had started again. I turned around.

But as I passed back through Turner Valley, I remembered another road that went along the Sheep River. This one, though, was on the south side. The north side of the valley where the highway heads west, the one that usually gets the sun, was dark and obscured with grey mist. So I figured that, since there was going to be scant light anyway, I might as well go to the un-sunny side to see what I could find there.

Fallen trees along a tiny creek allow light into the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun spends more time shining on the south-facing slopes of the land than it does on the north-facing. That’s why, for instance, there are fewer trees and more grass growing on south-facing slopes. Those slopes are drier and warmer and, especially in our part of the world, more often scoured by the prevailing winds.

North-facing slope are much cooler and wetter. They are often thick with trees and the forest floor hosts very few patches of sun-loving grass. The winds coming from the south and southwest blow right over them.

Beyond Turner Valley, the first couple of kilometres of this south-side road wind through open meadows full of tall grass and flowers. The ridge that rises to the south is far enough away that even in the winter, this part of the valley gets plenty of sun. But a couple of bends later, that all changes.

The road cuts over to the base of the ridge and within just a few hundred metres, the grass is gone, the aspen copses have given way to stands of balsam poplar and spruce trees start to rise. Roadside flowers change from smooth aster, yarrow and blanketflower to paintbrush and tall larkspur.

And the temperature drops. The day had already been cool but as I rolled into the darkest part of the un-sunny side of the valley I could feel the chill seep in even with the truck windows rolled up. The drizzle and damp were even more gloomy.

But driving slowly along, there was actually a lot to see.

Baneberries drip with raindrops in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Feathery lichens hung from nearly every branch and bright red baneberries dripping with drizzle shone like stoplights in the forest gloom. Fleabane grew in the ditches, brightening the roadway, while fireweed, a tenacious colonizer, sent up stalks of pink blossoms wherever it could find enough open space.

Huge spruce trees reach for the sun here, today with their tops disappearing into the drizzle. It’s hard to illustrate the scale of these old giants. While not as huge as trees in the West Coast rainforests, the diameter of some of their trunks would come close to equalling the width of my truck.

Lichens drape trees in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And along the edges of the spruce groves, there are big old aspens and balsam poplars, the occasional cottonwood, black spruces in the more open bogs. On the sunny side of the valley there are saskatoons and chokecherries, a few patches of buffaloberry. None of that on the un-sunny side.

Toward the end of the road — it’s a dead-end — the land opens up into meadows where cattle graze and hay is mown. I saw a whitetail buck there that looked back at me from the poplars on the edge of the dark zone. Willows grow out here in the narrow space between the ridges. Stopping at the parking lot where the road meets east edge of the Bluerock Wildland, I wandered into the forest a little ways.

A buck peers through trees on the edge of the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I stopped when I found the deer bones.

Deer bones in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

They’d been there a while judging by the green tinge of moss on them and I thought they looked kinda cool lying there among the strawberry leaves so I flopped down to take a few pictures. Close by was a patch of harebells so I rolled over and photographed them.

Harebells bloom in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Drizzle misted my lens but lying there, I couldn’t be bothered to wipe it off. The mosquitos buzzing slowly around couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything either. Getting to my feet, I wandered over to a fallen tree festooned with lichens. The mosquitos followed for a bit and then gave up.

Lichens grow thick on a fallen tree in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The drizzle quit as I got back in the truck but the clouds got even lower. The hillsides down the road were hazy in the blue mist.

But, to be honest, I kinda liked it. What little light there was cast only the faintest of shadows and the varying shades of green really stood out. Suddenly I saw pictures everywhere.

Unfortunately, most of them were behind huge no-trespassing signs. But I knew I could go at least as far as the fencelines so that’s what I did.

Man, it was dark back in there. But with four decades of learning how to shoot between heartbeats, it worked out pretty well.

Raindrops gather on the microscopic scales of a fungus growing on a fallen tree in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I found all kinds of mushrooms among the mosses and horsetails on the shady forest floor, some tiny and fingernail-sized, others as big as frying pans. I found a fallen log that had what turned out to be a kind of jelly fungus, bright orange and nearly glowing in the soft light and another patch of mushrooms that looked like flaky baked buns.

Orange jelly fungus growing on a fallen tree in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Shaggy mushrooms in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Best of all, though, was the coral fungus. It looked exactly like that, like white coral growing among the green forest-floor mosses and lichens. I’ve seen it before on a few occasions but never one as crystal-like as this. Beautiful.

Coral fungus growing from a fallen tree in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were more glistening baneberries and a few solitary white geraniums heavy with raindrops. Using the little light I’d illuminated the coral fungus with, I aimed it up at larkspur stem so I could see inside the flowers. A little further down the road I found a yellow aster whose stem that had gone through contortions to get the flower head out into the thin light.

White geranium in the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was cow parsnip and, I’m pretty sure, some water hemlock. In some places the ground was covered with strawberry vines, the leaves already starting to turn. Among the big trees, the ground was mostly bare, the shade from their spreading branches holding back what little sunlight the north-facing slope would get.

Cow parsnip on the edge of the dark forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was soaked and muddy as I walked back to the truck, the lenses on both cameras smeared with raindrops I’d tried to wipe off with my damp sleeves. I knew that when I loaded these pictures into my computer I was going to have fun trying to find anything that looked like it was in focus.

But maybe that’s what they should look like. I can shoot sharp and bright on the sunny sides of the valleys pretty much any time. I mean, that’s usually the side I head to.

But today, I chose the un-sunny side. The dark, wet, soft and quiet side. And you know what? It was worth it.

Dirty, damp and tired, I rolled on back home.

Muddy road through the forest in the Sheep River valley west of Turner Valley, Ab., on Monday, August 12, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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