"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle
The geographical elevation of any location plays a pivotal role in all of life. Here, at 1200 metres, as a factor in our climate and growing season (fewer frost-free days, cooler nights), and our weather (warm air aloft can be a good thing), the elevation determines what plants can grow here and thus what animals will survive.
Beyond climate though, and only as a matter of physics, elevation determines the relative size of watercourses. So much of the mighty rivers and so the oceans begin on the tops of the hills. What falls as rain and snow percolates through the flora, and what excess runs through the mosses and seeps below the roots trickles above and below ground, gathering in the low places and gaining volume and momentum as the slope declines. What we call a creek here, at the apex of a high ridge, others might consider a mere trickle; our rivers would barely qualify as streams at lower elevations.
My little creek meanders along and down a natural ravine along the eastern side of Swan Hills: my town. It starts underground, gathering water by the droplet from oozing seepage and dribbling rivulets along and between hillside spurs. It appears and disappears. It divides and reforms. It gushes after the rains and glides during dry spells. It spreads through marshes and fens tangled with willows and swamp spruce, continually filtering its pristine waters through the mosses. In the deepest places it clears away the thin soil and peat and tumbles over fallen branches and the smooth, round rocks that line the subsurface. In the steepest places it cascades over these rocks playfully splashing and gurgling.
Though deserving it may be, my little creek has no name. Humbly nourishing a myriad of plant life including orchids and currants, it pullulates placidly southward where it quietly joins another unnamed course. This stream comes from a slightly higher elevation to the north and east, and it flows west, emptying into the Morse River east of Highway 32. The Morse gushes southeast until it discharges into Freeman River directly south of the second southward crossing on Highway 33 between Trapper Lea’s Cabin and the Centre of Alberta Natural Area. The oxbow-rich and debris-ridden Freeman, with a beautiful shimmer of nutrient rich green, then joins the dark glacier waters of the mighty Athabasca at Fort Assiniboine.
The peaceful shush and gurgle of the waters of my little creek have now been transformed. Each droplet that has not been drunk by a moose or the thirsty roots of a balsam fir or returned to the clouds by evaporation is now in the company of the melted snow and ice from the Athabasca Glacier. They are now part of one of the most ecologically and historically important rivers in Canada, which played an essential part in the early fur trade and the opening up of the north to Europeans. So long before that, the Athabasca River would presumably have been a factor in the distribution of First Nations people after the last Ice Age.
These droplets now travel at breakneck speeds as they race northeast to join with another important river: the historically named Peace, in the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The Slave River is formed from the melded waters and courses north into the Great Slave Lake, where the water from my little creek may rest a while before continuing the northward course as the mighty Mackenzie River. Eventually and finally, barring an earlier loop in the water cycle they may reach every creek’s destination – the ocean. Here, in the Arctic Ocean, our little droplets may circulate year-round under the surface for a while, and then they may rise to the surface to kiss the shores with the tides and to freeze and thaw, evaporate and return to the earth at another place as the seasons dictate.
I sit humbly on the trunk of a fallen spruce beside my little creek on a early June afternoon. It’s barely a stride wide at this point. Tall poplar, spruce and thick willows are all around me, the willow leaves just beginning to unfold; their catkins attracting a few early flies and wasps. I’ve avoided sitting too close to the prickles of a small gooseberry bush and the tiny blossoms of a delicate violet. I can barely hear a fat furry bee as it visits the little yellow anemones abloom all around me.
Nearby in the shade of a circle of pines a fern is teasingly unrolling its fronds. Across the creek I know there’s a lone and vulnerable orchid: a Venus’ Slipper, dancing a quiet, sultry ballet in the breeze. Tenacious horsetails spring up through the mud where the little creek had overflowed its tenuous banks with the snowmelt just weeks before. Above it I drink in the rich greens of the many species of moss that cover the hillside under the towering pine and spruce, pale lichens shining among them. I wonder at the astounding variety and beauty of the plant life around me and I listen to the cheerful melodies of the water and of the birds that are attracted to the stream-sustained deciduous trees. A squirrel chirps from amid a thick fir, possibly concerned that I am a potential danger. And possibly, I am.
Contemplating the awe-inspiring journey of a little drop of rain or melted snowflake I am deeply aware of my dependence on this little trickle of water that I meditate beside and of all those like it. I am struck by the importance and the fragility of their ecosystems. I wonder and worry about what I can do to ensure that this system, this incredibly intricate network of life will endure for my dear grandchildren, and for theirs.
Addendum: Just discovered this great interactive website from the Canadian Geograpic – Explore Canada’s Ocean Watersheds.