The Dark Days of Autumn

snow, ice, autumn, black and white, prairie, alkaline pond, Alberta, landscape, Dan Jurak,

On a Saturday morning in the middle of October I awoke to a grey and dark day. The forecast had a chance of snow or rain late in the afternoon. The sun wasn’t up yet and I could hear the wind outside rustling the leaves of our two large maple trees in the back.

Normally this would be the kind of day that I would avoid trying to take any pictures. Knowing when the conditions are right for the kind of photography you want to do gets you halfway there. Today was not the day for photos but yet I wanted to get out of the house.

At times the best thing in the world for me is to be outdoors and alone with my thoughts. Today pictures would not be a priority.

At the latitude that I live we are blessed with long, long days in the summer and come autumn the days rapidly shorten until mid December when we have about eight hours of daylight. It was 7:30 am when I left the house and the sun had not yet risen.

One of my earliest memories as a child was driving east of town to see relatives. A huge portion of east central Alberta is probably related to me in some way. My family on both sides emigrated from the Ukraine in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds and settled around Elk Point and Two Hills. How many farms would I drive by today and be related to people that I didn’t know? Probably a lot.

On the way to the relatives I remembered seeing large alkaline lakes from the highway. The shorelines of the lakes were always a bright white or clay colour and for years in the back of my mind I wondered what kind of possibilities they would present.

Today the idea was to see the lakes. It would be lousy for photos because of the sky but still I wanted to get out and I was soon on the highway driving east.

Alone in the car the FM radio was playing ten minutes out of town. Jimi Hendrix was on, playing All Along The Watchtower and my mind went back forty years to memories of driving along this same stretch of road with my brand new 200 mm lens that I had just bought for my Canon Ftb. I was just becoming interested in landscapes and everything was so very new to me.

I could see a very young, very naive Dan driving his van along the backroads of Strathcona county and I laughed to myself when I remembered the photos that I took. Things had changed so much in that time. It only seems like a few years yet it is a few decades. Time has gone by so quickly I thought to myself. That was forty years ago. Where would I be in another forty? Would I live to be over one hundred? Life at times seems so short.

I continued on dreaming while driving and watching the sun slowly rise over the rolling hills of the county. A light fog made the hills look more three dimensional. The sloughs and ponds near the highway were all covered with a thin veneer of ice. Was it that close to winter I thought?

As the FM radio blared out songs and memories from the seventies I continued eastward in to the now risen sun. The traffic was very light this morning. In what seemed like minutes but was actually an hour I was now 100 kms east of town and skiffs of blowing snow appeared on the highway. Soon I could see a snowplough on the highway, blades up. Was he just doing a dry run I thought, getting things check out before snowfall?

Ten minutes later the highway was covered in light ice and blowing snow and I was gripping the steering wheel a little tighter. Paying more attention to the road conditions I missed my turn to the alkaline lakes. I soon found a turn around and now was a good time to see how slippery the road was so with no one behind me I hit the brakes. Yup, that was ice all right as the ABS kicked in and the wheels chattered as I slowed down.

Ten minutes later and I was close the the lakes I had seen in my childhood. The public campground was closed. No access there. I drove around the lake and was disappointed to see that the road never really came close to the lake so an hour and a half from town I decided to take the long and slow way back home, meandering across the counties between Edmonton and myself on roads that I hadn’t travelled before.

It was relaxing to just drive along these gravel roads. The countryside was rolling unlike where I usually take photos and there were ponds everywhere it seemed. As I came upon a large, wide valley I could see an alkaline pond right next to the road and decided to stop and walk the shoreline to see what things were like.

The vehicle thermometer read -1 Celsius and the wind was really blowing hard. I had taken my winter parka not thinking that I would need it but gladly put it on and soon I was by the shoreline. It was cold. Without gloves or mittens my fingers were soon becoming wooden and stiff. Memories of 60 odd winters in Alberta came rushing back. This is what I remember of winter photography. Numbing cold.

The shoreline was a disappointment. It was nothing like what I had hoped. With the snow that had fallen it was either wet dirt or ice. I was hoping for a parched and cracked shoreline. I picked the wrong time of year I thought to myself.

There were some interesting shapes in the snow and ice so I hurriedly took a few different photos before walking back to the Rav. One thing about being far from the city is that everyone is so friendly. As I approached my vehicle a truck drove by with an elderly couple and they waved and smiled at me as I drove by. There would be more of those waves as I continued on my way slowly back home.

Getting back into a toasty warm vehicle I could see how close we were to winter in central Alberta. Out here the smaller ponds were frozen more heavily and there was more snow on the ground.

On the surface things might look quiet and asleep. They aren’t.

Ten minutes later as I turned on the gravel road what I saw surprised me. From near the side of the road and a few hundred yards into the wheat stubble field was a covering of solid white. I rolled my window down and slowed the vehicle as I drove. Hundreds and THOUSANDS of white now geese from the arctic all at once flapped their wings and rose up into the sky. The sound was deafening as the feeding geese flew away from me and settled back down into the same field. I stopped the vehicle and got out not for pictures but just to experience this. Over the course of the next few minutes flock after flock of geese settled into this field. Getting their energy before their next big flight southward. While we will be living through six months of ice and snow these snow geese will be spending winter in the Gulf of Mexico. How wonderful I thought that these families will fly thousands of kilometres south and then north together. It might look to the untrained eye that there is no order to what these birds do. There is order. They do stay together as families during the long flight. Nature is incredible.

I had only driven a few minutes from the snow geese when I came upon another large and frozen pond by the road. There were hills of vegetation that muskrats make during the summer dotted across the ice. On top of one of them was a large bird. Not recognizing it I stopped and soon realized that it was a bald eagle sitting on one of the muskrat heaps. Behind him was a very large raven and in front of the eagle were to smaller magpies. It soon became apparent why the three birds were so close to the eagle as once he became accustomed to me on the road he dropped his head down and pulled at something. In the fall eagles will often find ducks or geese that are sick or wounded from hunters and make a meal of them but it wasn’t a bird I could see as the eagle picked away. It looked like a muskrat. Too small and dark to be a rabbit, duck or goose. That is why the three birds teased at the eagle, trying to get a free meal while the eagle feigned attacking the birds. Too large and slow on the ground the three birds easily stayed out of range of the larger bird.

On I drove and as I did came upon more flocks of snow geese. Every time I would see them they were either feeding in a field or landing where there was open water. Unlike Canada geese these northerners seemed very wary and easily spooked sometimes circling a pond several times before landing.

My mind quickly drifted back to an old photo album full of black and whites. In one of them is a picture of my older sister and I sitting on the steps of our house, each of us holding the tip of a snow goose wing outstretched between us. I was probably four or five years old and to this day remember sitting for the pic. It was a regular thing in autumn for dad to go duck and goose hunting and bringing home the birds for mom to clean. So many memories of biting into shot pellets during dinner. The truth is I never really liked the taste of waterfowl no matter how mom prepared them.

Partridge or pheasant was my choice as a youngster. Like chicken but so much better.

By 2:00 pm I had made my way home, tired from driving but refreshed. The pics? Most of them I will end up deleting because I don’t see any keepers there. Saturday was not a great day for photos but it was a great day to be outside, alive and remembering things that I had not thought of since I was a child.

Winter is coming not just the season of winter but for me. I realize that at 63 I have lived over half of my natural life. Like the the snow geese travelling to warmer climates and the muskrat with the eagle there is a cycle to our lives. We all have a place here and life is too short not to live it to the fullest.

Get out there and enjoy yourself today.

Happy shooting,

Dan

 

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~ by Dan Jurak on October 15, 2017.

4 Responses to “The Dark Days of Autumn”

  1. Nice image. Sometimes the days when we think they are not great for making images give us the best ones. Cheers

  2. Thank you. I needed a photo of some sort to accompany the words. All the best,
    Dan

  3. Dear Dan,

    I started reading your blog about a year ago after looking for new blogs to read. A web search on landscape photography led me here. I always look forward to your thoughtful new posts and wish that more photographers would write from the heart, as you do, about inspiration and the creative process, rather than endless gear reviews or the “top 5 ways to reach the next level.” Your attitude about closely watching and working where you live (instead of going to Iceland…not that there is anything wrong with that!) is especially motivating. Thank you for your wonderful way with words and images!

    -Blake

  4. Hi Blake,
    Thank you so very much for your kind and thoughtful words. For as much as I try to write about photography and how to do something I usually end up writing about what is on my mind instead and hope that what I write about is also how others feel.

    I agree about the click bait articles and you mentioning Iceland also made me chuckle out loud. Iceland is beautiful but if I see another photo of that famous waterfall and pyramid shaped mountain in my life that will be too much. Apparently what is not in most photos is how badly the landscape around the falls is damaged by photographers marching to the same spot again and again.

    Your comment made my day,
    Dan

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