We find ourselves, again, as always at this time of year, tilted away from the sun and shivering in the blue shadows and bleak winds of another winter. Alberta is closer to the north pole than to the equator, which means the cold, the short days and the long dark nights of winter are part of what defines this place.
But so are the chinook arch, the first spring crocus, those brilliant green hills and endless evenings of June, and the smell of curing hay and late-night lights of combines each September. This is not a winter place; this is a place of seasons, and each season is a gift that gives way, in turn, to other gifts. Our seasons define us.
If winter seems hard down in the farmyard or on the street, imagine living on the wind-whipped ridges of the Rocky Mountains.
And so do other things: our provincial symbols, for instance.
As we trim our trees, light our menorahs, burn sweetgrass and prepare feasts to celebrate the year’s end and our home place’s sure tilt back towards the light, what are they doing—the fish, bird and mammal that Albertans have chosen as our provincial symbols?
Our provincial fish is the bull trout, a relatively nondescript native species whose origins here go back to well before the last ice age. Its most striking features are the white leading edges of its fins, often the first thing one sees when searching for them amid water-flicker. Bull trout are predators that grow huge—up to a metre or more long. Their habit of travelling far upstream to spawn in small headwater creeks has startled more than a few September hikers and anglers who never expected to see such monsters there.
It’s winter now, though, and the big bull trout have left those headwaters. They are resting in the bottom of deep river pools, shaded and sheltered by the winter ice above, stirring occasionally to hunt the whitefish and suckers that share their wintering pools. Only their eggs remain in those headwater streams, hidden in the clean gravel where groundwater springs emerge, keeping them from freezing. Bull trout spawn only where they can sense that subterranean flow; they know how to live here.
In the dark of winter, while we ski, snowmobile or hike overhead, those fellow Albertans haunt the soft, dim shadows beneath the river ice.
Those of us who venture out along Alberta’s frozen rivers may not catch a glimpse of a bull trout, but we stand a reasonable chance of an encounter with our provincial bird, the great horned owl. Another predator, this one lives on the same side of the ice as we do. Unlike many other species of bird, great horned owls remain here year-round, spending days perched motionless near the trunk of a tree or in the cranny of a cliff, and then emerging at twilight to hunt voles, hares and squirrels. Winter is a rough time for their prey, but a good season for the hunters. So good, in fact, that the owls will be incubating eggs in a few short weeks and feeding nestlings by late March. By late December their territorial hooting haunts the winter woods.
Some great horned owls live where we do. It’s not uncommon to see them in farm windbreaks and urban neighbourhoods, where they help protect native songbirds by dining on outdoor cats.
Our native mammal, on the other hand—the bighorn sheep—lives where we don’t. If winter seems hard down in the farmyard or on the street, imagine living on the wind-whipped ridges of the Rocky Mountains. That’s where bighorns spend their Christmases, eating dry grass and sleeping in frozen rock talus while bitter winds howl. Winter is a starvation time for sheep and other ungulates; they accumulate fat in the summer and fall and then try to find enough forage through the winter to keep from burning all that fat by spring. In December they are still in good shape, although the rams are worn down from their November rutting season, when they travel constantly from one band of ewes to another. Their real test will come in March and April, when ill-timed rains or hard blizzards can push the weakest members of the herds to starvation.
A bighorn’s winter may seem impossible to us, but it’s all they’ve ever known and to them it’s comfortable and normal. They’re that kind of Albertan.
And we are the kind of Albertans who choose to know ourselves by the bull trout, the great horned owl and the bighorn sheep. As long as they persist, we will know ourselves.
Winter is a hard season; pandemic winters are the worst. With apologies to William Shakespeare, however: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by…” the certain knowledge that we are all in it together; in our Alberta, we have each other.
Happy Solstice, to us and all our relations.
Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage, was released in spring 2021 by RMB.