September 9, 2014
Back in August I experienced two very different environs in our great province of Alberta. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on both trips, I realise that I’ve had quite the mental journey.
First was a drive north of Cochrane, through Sundre, and into the foothills to the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch. Friend Jim and I have wanted to find and see this place for quite a while. Finally, all our activities aligned so we could get away for a full day together.
I had done some scouting around during the previous few weeks and was lucky enough to meet and talk with a Cochrane area rancher who knew Ya Ha Tinda and rides there often. I asked him if we could actually drive into the ranch or whether one had to ride in on horseback. He explained that the ranch was accessible by car, although the last part of the drive was a narrow, rough road.
On our way into the foothills from Sundre we followed the Red Deer River. This is the river that runs through the ranch and has its source in the mountains of Banff National Park, close to Skoki. At every turn of the river we could see the remnants of devastation from the floods of 2013. The Mountain Aire Lodge, part way to Ya Ha Tinda, was a sorry sight even though it is in a beautiful location. All the relatively new buildings of the lodge were barricaded and lifeless. The river water had risen to flow through the buildings and in some cases, swept away the rock and earth foundations. I can’t imagine the loss that the owners of the place must be experiencing without having it to rent out.
As we drove further into the foothills the road narrowed and the mountains became more noticeable. Finally the narrow valley opened up into a large, flat area with lush grasses for pasturing animals. Looking up the Red Deer River Valley into the mountains, I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of the location. The photo below gives an idea of this scene, but it is one of those images that, on a computer screen or piece of paper, is a meagre representation of the real thing.
We met some interesting people at the end of the road. First, two women on horseback asked if we had ever been there before and, when we said we hadn’t, were keen to tell us about some of the sights and trails around the area. There was a young woman returning to her truck with Montana license plates. We were curious about what someone from Montana was doing in this area. She explained that she was participating in a large study of the east slopes of the Rockies. She was from the University of Missoula and was collecting cameras that she had placed in the woods, earlier in the spring, to monitor animals in the area. She told us she was surprised that the cameras captured the images of so many mountain lions. That little tidbit of information kept us looking over our shoulders as we headed off, down one of the trails. Later, an older couple on horseback stopped to talk for a while as we ate our lunch. They loved the area and travelled with their horses to Ya Ha Tinda from Lloydminster every chance they got during the summer. That is a 500 km drive of six hours, one way! I’m not sure I would want to do that every couple of weeks as they said they did.
A few days later I joined another friend, Terry, and we headed out early in the morning to the East with a goal of visiting Blackfoot Crossing, the Siksika Nation heritage site, and then travel further east to find the Majorville Medicine Wheel.
We left so early that a breakfast stop was needed in Strathmore. Terry recommended the Roadhouse Restaurant, and now that I’ve eaten there I can recommend it too.
Coincidentally, there was a large group of people in the restaurant having breakfast. Amongst them were several people of the Siksika Nation. Terry had been to the Medicine Wheel before, but thought it would be a good idea to get some directions and went over to talk to some of the Siksika people. The fellow he talked with was very helpful and we left with our map marked up showing us where the wheel was located.
The prairie countryside, with many small towns struggling to stay viable, and that ability to constantly stretch our eyeballs as we looked out over the fields and grasslands, all contributed to a shared pleasure between Terry and me. We enjoyed the drive out as we saw the morning-light vistas over the prairies to the East. It certainly was a contrast to the mountain views from Ya Ha Tinda. Different, but nice.
On the way to the heritage site, we looped through Gleichen and Cluny, both bordering the Siksika lands. I have driven the TransCanada highway past those towns all my life, but have never looked in to see what they were like. Gleichen now seems to be a town in decline, whereas Cluny seems to be in better condition with more active stores and services. I have no idea why.
We arrived at the Blackfoot Crossing heritage site mid-morning and spent about and hour touring the displays and watching videos. The place is truly a hidden gem. Being so far off the highway I presume many people can’t be bothered to visit. I guess when I was much younger I wouldn’t have been drawn to learn about the history of the Siksika people as well as other First Nations peoples. Now, at this mature age, I am embarrassed to admit that. I hope our younger generation is more inquisitive than I was.
This history is not just about First Nations, but about all peoples who were part of the history of our country in the West. Oh I know that the Plains of Abraham and Confederation are important to our history, but so are the multiple Riel Rebellions, the Treaties 1 through 10, the influence of the French in the West and the bigoted conflict between Protestant British and French Catholic in this land we live on, west of Manitoba and east of British Columbia. This conflict influenced how the West was settled. These things are more than just a date and record in our history books, but I’m afraid that is all that will exist in the future. My Grandfathers (Blair and Scott) lived in the 1800’s when some of that history was being made. When I consider that now, it makes me sit up and take notice. I wish, in my younger years, I had taken the time, patience, and determination to turn away briefly from my technical, physical world and balance my knowledge with more about Western Canadian history.
As we came out of the Blackfoot Crossing building we looked East to a hilltop where we could see Chief Crowfoot’s grave in the distance. The painted portraits of Crowfoot in the heritage building showed him to be an intelligent looking, handsome man. We weren’t sure how much time it would take to get to the Majorville Medicine Wheel, so we didn’t visit Crowfoot’s grave, but turned south, across the Bow River, following the directions given to us at breakfast.
We had been warned that the road to the East started out as gravel, but after Majorville, it deteriorated into a two-track, dirt road. The warnings were valid. Before we left the gravel road we came across an old country schoolhouse, Liberty School, still standing, unused and lonely, on the plains. It was opened in 1910, but I haven’t been able to find out when it closed. There were farmed fields around the school, but not far away, the natural grassland of the prairies predominated. As we looked out on the landscape Terry said with reflection, “Just imagine being able to look out from here and see herds of buffalo, feeding. That is the way it once was.”
The village of Majorville is no more and only exists on the map. What is there is a boarded up, single-storey building that looked like it served as a store and a home in the past. There were no railways through the town, so it was probably one of those villages that was formed for the convenience of the collection of 160-acre homesteads in the area. Those sorts of villages often had a post office with a small store attached and a garage with a gas pump, but there was nothing left to indicate exactly what services had existed in Majorville in the past.
We left the relative security of the gravel road and started down the rutted track into the unknown, unpopulated countryside. There was one, lone farmhouse we passed and we should have ventured to knock on the door and confirm our directions. Coming to a wye in the dirt track, we took a vote, and headed down the left branch. About ten kilometres later we came to a hill overlooking the Bow River Valley, but no medicine wheel was in sight.
We turned around, retraced our steps, and took the other branch of the wye. About twelve kilometres later we decided we were not in the right place, so, again, retraced our steps back towards the gravel road. This time we did stop in to talk to the farmer in that isolated house and found that we had been on the right track, but should have carried on about three to four kilometres more toward the river.
We talked to the farmer for a short time and found out that he farmed and ranched the land around him. He said the cattle were necessary to offset losses on the grains when the weather didn’t support the growth necessary. He told us this year was terribly dry and he didn’t think he was going to make much off his crops. I thought that this was unfair, as only 90 km to the west of him folks were faced with floods earlier in the summer and still had lots of moisture. What a contrast.
We considered going back out in the fields again, but a nasty looking storm cloud was moving our way and we didn’t want to be caught on that dirt track road as rain turned it into gooey gumbo. However, we did vow to come back and get to the proper site sometime in the future. I am thinking that the land will look a little different in the fall and will be worth another trip.
Later, as I reflected on the two trips, I thought about the transitions of each location over the past couple of centuries. In the mid part of the 20th century, Ya Ha Tinda would have been known by a few locals as well as the Park Wardens, but I doubt there would have been dozens of horse trailers with the horses and owners populating the area. Now it is a practical getaway for those who love the isolation of the country in that area of the province, yet their very presence has removed that previous ‘isolation’. On the other hand, in the same period of time on the prairies, that land was still populated with farmers and ranchers trying to make a go of their dreams to own and mange property. The land was typically homesteaded when the Dominion Lands Act came into being in 1872. That is the act that offered 160 acre tracts of land for $10 to encourage settlement of the West. It was not common knowledge outside Ottawa that the national government’s real goal in settling the West at that time was to keep the Americans from sweeping up from the South and claiming the land as theirs*. The sad thing about this is that the ‘spin doctors’ of the day worked hard at advertising these $10 bargains, stating that the weather in the area was conducive to farming and the soil of the land was rich. Neither of these promotions proved to be universally true. As the families moved off their 160-acre plots for better opportunities in the city, others bought the vacated land and so started the trend to the present day, large farms and ranches. These are now serviced with large machinery and all-terrain vehicles. There were some farmers that were so broken by the land and the weather that they just walked away from their property and homes. That deserted property went back to the Government of Canada to be managed by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration.
There’s also a contrast in how populations have transitioned. Over the past fifty to sixty years the foothills have become more populated, whereas the prairies have become less populated. Further, the people that are filling up the west tend to be much more urban-based than rural-based. I’m not sure that is the best for Western Canada, but that is the way economics is driving us, which probably means the transition is unstoppable.