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Warm Winter Winds & Cold Cruel Lessons

Well, as we rolled into February, old Mother Nature must have realized she had been pretty lax in the month of January with her winter weather here in Southern Alberta and decided to make up for it. I see this cold spell is not just here on the Northern Range but also down south. Texas is getting a cold blast as well!

This giant swing in temperate is nothing new, and living this close to the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, we know any weather we are getting is subject to change without warning. It makes me laugh when I hear someone analyzing a chinook wind as global warming, seeing as they’ve been around long, long before we ever were.

Now for you folks that are not familiar with a chinook wind, it’s a southwest wind we get here in Alberta coming over the mountains. These chinook winds raise the temperature from well below zero to water running everywhere in just a matter of hours.

Photo by Trent Schlamp

Many times I will have gone to bed with the temperature being damn-near arctic to waking up to a southwestern wind that’s strong enough to blow the snow off our hills and warm enough to melt most of the rest. It’s pretty windy in our area, but this is a kind of wind we welcome and appreciate.

But like I said, this sudden change of weather we experience is nothing new and has been going on for millennia. I have a book called “Peter Fidllers Journal,” which is a copy of his diary from 1792 and ‘73 while he was working for the Hudson's Bay Trapping Company. This journal covers his travels from Nothern Central Alberta down to our neck of the woods in the Longview area.

In his journal, he writes about being camped on Pekisko Creek around Christmas time with a warm wind coming out of the southwest, leaving no snow left on the ground. We call this a brown Christmas, as opposed to a white Christmas, and it’s my preference.

Photo by Trent Schlamp

The Native Americans, Blackfoot, were hunting buffalo daily and burning grass to move the herds around to their advantage. The Blackfoot and other Native American tribes set fire to the grasslands for a couple of reasons. One is to improve the grass next year and promote ecologic diversity. And secondly, to move the bison from one area to another more desired area. See, by burning an area in the fall, the bison would be removed from that area seeing as any forage that could be used by the bison during the winter months was now gone. This forced the bison to graze in unburned areas. These could be areas closer to ideal winter campsites and therefore help improve hunting success. The Alberta prairies make for excellent pasture land for grazing animals.

Photo by Palomino Photography

Years later, the white men came to this country where chinook winds got them into a great deal of trouble. The settlers who came during a chinook-abundant year took notice of the abundance of grass in Montana and Southern Alberta and our famous chinook winds doing what they do best, clearing the snow. It appeared to be a cattlemen's paradise. Tons of grass, and when it snows, these warm, almost tropical winds come along and blow it all away! And it was a cattlemen's paradise until 1886-87 when it quickly became a cattlemen’s hell.

Ranchers had been turning an ever-increasing number of cattle out on the open range till it was getting overgrazed. When winter came, it got cold and stayed cold, with plenty of snow on the ground. Unfortunately, that winter, the chinook winds didn’t come, they are never promised, and this created trouble.

Seeing as cattle don’t paw down through the snow to reach grass the way horses and bison do to get to the grass, they starved to death one at a time, by the thousands. An unfortunate slow, cold, and brutal death for any animal to endure. This was the steep learning curve of the early Albertan ranchers.

That winter was the beginning of the end of the open-range ranching system. Ranchers had learned, in the hardest way imaginable, that the chinook winds were not something that could be counted upon and were a pleasant surprise but not a guarantee. So the ranchers began preparing for the cold months in the summer and fall and began putting out feed to get their livestock through the winters.

Now as I sit here writing this letter, I can see a chinook arch forming over the mountains to the west of us. Which tells me a chinook wind is coming out way. It was cold this morning, down around -20C or -4 Fahrenheit.

Photo by Trent Schlamp

That arch tells me I’d better get busy with my outdoor chores before the wind gets too strong and that the temperature is going to rise, and hopefully, it will return to nice warm January weather again.

Chinook winds remind you that no matter how bitter and cold it is, the weather can unexpectedly change in an hour for the better. A good reminder of the spontaneous way that things can take a turn for the better, which we can all use from time to time. Got to love and appreciate a chinook!

Happy, warm trails.


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