As I set off for my fourth winter trip to the Prairies, in December 2017, things didn’t look good in terms of snow levels. If you look at that Snow Depth map from the day before I left, the brown area in eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan with no snow was exactly where I was going. I had done a similar trip in December 2016 when there was also very little snow in Saskatchewan, and a bit more in eastern Alberta. Well, there is nothing I can do about it, I thought. I’ll just have to make the best of what is there. I dream about heavy snow and wonderful minimalist images, but sometimes you get just a few centimetres and, still, I think there are interesting images to be made.
I started the trip by flying into Edmonton and picking up a car there. I rented a small SUV, assuming that driving conditions might be tough, but given that there wasn’t much snow, driving conditions were pretty easy the whole time.
I met up with my friend Len Langevin in Red Deer for two days of shooting east and south of the city. This has become a bit of a tradition for us in December - I think this is the 3rd December we've spent at least a little time shooting around central Alberta. Len and I me through Flickr. I know many people have moved on from Flickr, but I still like it, at least in part for the people I've met through it.
Len and I travelled as far east as Drumheller and as far south as Brant (near Vulcan). As with most of the trips I've done to the Prairies since 2013, I have some sites I want to visit (usually grain elevators) that I've scouted online before I arrive. Over 4 1/2 years and some 6 or 7 trips, I've seen many of these spots, but there are always some new ones to visit. This time those were south and east of Calgary - the elevators at Mossleigh, Herronton and Brant. Sometimes those spots produce good images, but very often it's the things I find along the way that produce the best images. I wanted to visit those grain elevators to continue working on my seemingly never-ending grain elevator series but mostly we just drove down random rural roads looking for interesting (minimal, for me) images. We had pretty good weather – around -12 with a few brief snow flurries, and got some good shots.
On December 23, I set out on my own and headed to Drumheller. Though there wasn’t a lot of snow, the badlands around Drumheller were coated with enough snow to make them look stunningly beautiful. As well, there is some lovely rolling landscape south of the city that I wanted to explore. As I came into town, I detoured south to the beautiful old P&H elevator at Sharples which I got to shoot in a brief snowstorm. As I was shooting, a man drove up to check on me. He looked to be in his late 60s and turned out to be the owner of the land (4th generation, he told me, proudly). I’m sure he wanted to check that I wasn’t up to no good, but I started chatting to him, as I always love talking to people who know the history of these places I love to photograph. He had worked at the elevator before it was closed and abandoned in the early 80s, but he'd known the place his whole life. He had been set to 'coopering' at age 11 - cleaning out the train box cars, and sealing them once they were filled with grain. He told me all sorts of stories about the homestead he lived in across the road - like the fact the water now contains so much natural gas you can light it on fire, that the milk cow, Josey, that they used to have was so smart she knew to come in from the fields at 4pm so his mother could milk her and that his great-grandfather bought the land on a 'Pope Lease' after coming back from fighting in WWI.
At this point It was starting to get colder. On December 24, it was around -20, on December 25 it was around -25 and the coldest day of my trip was December 26 when it was -34, with windchills near -40 (which for you Fahrenheit users is where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge!). For the rest of the trip it stayed in the -20s. Overall, out of 8 days, I think we were under an Extreme Cold Alert for 4 days. I had never in my life felt cold like that. It was hard to take the time to compose a good image or even work with a tripod. There is some benefit to that - you have to be quick and instinctual with your photography but there are downsides, too. I see the mistakes I made, shooting too quickly, without taking the time to set up the tripod.
On Christmas Eve, I was joined in Drumheller by Page (James R. Page), another photography friend I’d met through Flickr. We planned to spend a few days in Drumheller and the area around, and then head into Saskatchewan to photograph some of my favourite grain elevators. Despite the bitterly cold temperatures, we had a good time. On our first full day, the coldest one of my trip, we saw an amazing sun pillar over the Red Deer River. That day we spent a couple of hours walking through the Badlands and on the other two days, we shot in the open lands south of Drumheller.
I couldn’t come all the way out to the Prairies and not visit some of my favourite elevators in Saskatchewan, so on my last full day, we headed east to Kindersely to visit the two wonderful elevators at Dankin. As we drove up to them, I could see something was wrong. The Dankin A elevator had been damaged in a storm and lost some of its roof in the 18 months since I saw it last. In just the 4 1/2 years that I have been photographing elevators on the Prairies, many of my favourites have been lost to lightning strikes, demolition or simply to time. That day we drove 4 hours just to see Dankin A and B and I'm glad I did because now that this beauty is open to the elements, I don't think it will be around for long. Dankin A was built in 1927 and closed and abandoned in the 70s. I wonder if it will last until its 100th birthday.
It's so odd, the feeling I've developed for these elevators. As I saw these two in the distance, I felt a joy as if I was seeing old friends, but it was bittersweet, too, because seeing them knocked around like that is heartbreaking. They are still standing but maybe not for as long as I hoped they would be.