The Cypress Hills

I long ago lost track of the number of times we escaped the heat and wind of our farm for the cool breeze sighing through the pine trees of Cypress Hills.

For countless generations before us, Cypress Hills was, and continues to be, an oasis, a respite from the heat of the prairies. They were once a common hunting ground for all the Indigenous people who lived around and about – the Blackfoot to the west, the Southern Nakota (Assiniboine) to the east, the Plains Cree to the northeast, the Lakota and Gros Ventre to the south. The Hills teemed with game, they were covered with Lodgepole Pine (the only place east of the Rocky Mountains) used for tipi poles, and they provided a host of plants for food, medicines and dyes. Numerous archaeological sites, some several feet deep going back several thousand years, are scattered throughout the Hills, testimony to their long-term importance.

Twenty thousand years ago, the Cypress Hills were a nunatak – a high ground rising well above the continental glacier that ground its way across the rest of southern Canada. It is the highest point of land between the Labrador peninsula and Banff in the Rocky Mountains – 1392 metres (4567 feet) in Saskatchewan, 1,468 metres (4,816 feet) in Alberta.

So much for Saskatchewan being flat!

You can see the Cypress Hills from the Trans-Canada Highway – a line of distant hills to the south, hazy blue in summer’s heat, shimmering white in winter’s chill. Turn south at Maple Creek and prepare to enter a very different world. The highway rises up and leaves behind the undulating grassy hills of classic ranching country. The air softens and cools. You are surrounded by pines and their scent fills your nostrils and lungs. Welcome to the Cypress Hills.

The Hills extend across the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, hence the name Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. They are not entirely continuous but rather present as three more or less distinct blocks. The Eastern Block is home to Nikaneet Cree First Nation, and the Centre Block is home to Saskatchewan’s part of the interprovincial park. The West Block extends across the Saskatchewan-Alberta Boundary. On the Saskatchewan side are two national historic sites: Fort Walsh, established in 1878 as the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police, and Farwell’s and Solomon’s trading posts, site of the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre of a Nakota village by American wolfers that prompted the formation of the North West Mounted Police. The Alberta side of the West Block is home to Elkwater Lake and townsite.

Our family spent most of our time in the Centre Block, especially at one place on the north edge of the Hills where you can look northward across the prairies below, almost to the North Pole or so it seems. We often drove the gravel trail through “The Gap” between the Centre and West Blocks, and always imagined that the cattle grazing there were, in fact, bison in disguise. The road up (and I do mean “up”) to Fort Walsh is a classic switch-back, worthy of any mountain road.

A “good” portion of the trail to Alberta

It is possible to drive across the border into Alberta’s portion of the West Block but it is not a trail for the faint of heart, or for your usual puddle-jumper. It’s mostly a narrow, rutted and bumpy dirt trail, with trees encroaching onto the roadway. And don’t even think about driving it if it’s rained. But what a thrill!

These last five posts describe only a few of the places I came to know and love when I grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan. I really do recommend you get off the beaten track, head south to highways 13 and 18, and see the Saskatchewan that the Trans-Canada Highway avoids.

Once you’ve done that, I dare you to say that Saskatchewan is flat.

Further reading: The Cypress Hills: The Land and its People by Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner.

A final note:
If you decide to see Saskatchewan (as opposed to drive through it), I recommend you buy a copy of Bob Weber’s book, Saskatchewan History Along the Highway (A traveler’s guide to the fascinating facts, intriguing incidents and lively legends in Saskatchewan’s past). I guarantee you will never again think of Saskatchewan as either “flat” or “boring.”

#SaskatchewanHistory #SaskatchewanIsNotFlat #SouthwesternSaskatchewan #CypressHills #FortWalsh #FarwellsPost #CypressHillsMassacre #MargaretGHanna

Grasslands National Park

It was a bold idea – preserve a portion of Saskatchewan’s native prairie. At first, not many people understood the need. Why, when there is so much of it? they asked.

The fact was, native grassland was rapidly disappearing under the plough, even though much of it was appropriate only for ranching, not farming – poor soil, little rain, rough topography. The few farms established in the far southwest of the province struggled and often failed (read Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow for a first-hand account).

The idea of a national park was proposed in 1956 by the Saskatchewan Natural History Society (now Nature Saskatchewan). Nine years later, a study identified the region from Val Marie to Killdeer as the ideal location. In 1975, the provincial and federal governments formalized an agreement to create the park, and held a series of meetings with residents to discuss it.

Not everyone was in favour. There is a long-standing suspicion of government’s intent in that part of the province. But slowly, people were won over, especially when they learned that the government would not expropriate land (their biggest concern) but rather purchase it on a willing-seller, willing-buyer approach.

Welcome to Grasslands National Park. A place sculpted by ice and water. A place of grass and wind. Of hills and ravines and wide open spaces. Of prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets. Of bison and coyotes. Of badlands and dinosaurs. Of history, both Indigenous and European. Of pitch black night skies strewn with countless stars.

Its centre is the Frenchman River valley, a broad gash across the landscape through which the little Frenchman River lazily meanders. The river wasn’t always small. Fourteen thousand years ago, it was a raging torrent, draining the meltwater from nearby glaciers southward into the Missouri River, gouging a broad deep valley that only later, after the glaciers retreated far to the north, filled in with silt to reach its current depth.

People have lived on the hills overlooking the Frenchman River valley from the beginning of time. Parks Canada archaeologists recorded hundred of Indigenous sites – tipi rings, bison kill sites, and numerous enigmatic features – strung out almost continuously over the north bank of the valley. Ranchers moved in beginning in the 1860s and established the huge and fabled ranches that stretched across most of southwestern Saskatchewan: the N–N, the 76, and the Turkey Track. The disastrous winter of 1906-07 – a winter of many blizzards and no chinooks – killed most of the herds and put an end to those ranches. (Again, read Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow to learn how bad it was.)

Now, it is a place to come and contemplate how small we really are in this huge landscape. As you walk among tipi rings, or watch prairie dogs gambol about in their “towns,” or camp under the darkest of skies filled with the most brilliant of stars, often times all you can hear is the wind sighing through the grass, or the “skree” of a hawk flying overhead, or perhaps only the blood pulsing through your head.

It’s how the grasslands used to be.

Note: if you want to learn more about the ranching history of Grasslands National Park, I suggest you read The Grasslanders: Ranch Stories from Grasslands National Park, by Thelma Poirier.

Note #2: The masthead photograph is taken at Grasslands National Park.

#GrasslandsNationalPark #SaskatchewanHistory #SouthwesternSaskatchewan #RanchingHistory #IndigenousHistory #SaskatchewanLandscape #SaskatchewanNotFlat #MargaretGHanna

Wood Mountain Uplands, Part 2

The Wood Mountain Uplands, south of the village of Wood Mountain

Nestled in the heart of the Wood Mountain Uplands, amidst the hills and ravines, is the village of Wood Mountain. Not much is left of it but that’s not where the action is. For that, you have to drive 8 km south on Hwy 18 where you’ll find Wood Mountain Regional Park, Camp Woodboia (operated by the United Church of Canada), the Wood Mountain NWMP Post, the Rodeo and Ranch Museum, the only Lakota reserve in Saskatchewan and, last but not least, the Wood Mountain Stampede.

This complex of history and activities sits in a shallow “bowl” surrounded by hills, ravines and trees with a permanent, spring-fed creek trickling through the middle. The Metis wintered here. The Lakota took refuge here. The Boundary Commission had a depot and storehouse here which proved a life-saver for the starving North West Mounted Police on their westward march. And now we come here to rest, relax, rejuvenate and learn.

Wood Mountain Regional Park.
This is the perfect place to camp for a couple of days while you explore everything the area has to offer (even St. Victor Petroglyphs, last week’s post, is accessible from here). The campground offers some full-service and electric-only sites as well as many non-serviced sites. It can be full, especially at Stampede time. In addition to a picnic area and playground, it also manages the swimming pool, much improved and expanded since my day.

The Post, ca 1900 (Photo credit: Moose Jaw Public Library, Archives Dept.)

Wood Mountain Post Provincial Historic Site:
The Canadian Government formed the North West Mounted Police in 1873 after a group of drunken American wolfers massacred a band of Assiniboine camped outside Farwell’s post in the Cypress Hills. The first contingent of the Mounties marched west in 1874 and established a post here that year at the Boundary Commission’s depot.

The Wood Mountain post was never permanent. After one year of operation, it was closed when the NWMP built Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was reopened when the Lakota fled northward to the Wood Mountain area after the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. It was all but closed after 1881 by which time most of the Lakota had returned to the USA. It regained some importance during the Riel Rebellion of 1885 because the Canadian Government feared the numerous Metis living in the area might join Louis Riel and the Metis at Batoche. Afterwards, there were bootleggers to deal with. And rustlers. And the occasional other crime.

It was permanently closed in the early 20th century and the buildings torn down. It may have disappeared from view but not from the memory of the people who lived there (the location was always pointed out to us Woodboia campers on every hike). In the 1970s, Saskatchewan declared it a Provincial Historic Site. They marked the building locations, rebuilt one building which serves as an interpretive centre and conducted archaeological excavations. there.

Wood Mountain Stampede:
This is Canada’s oldest stampede, first held in 1890. It’s not your glitzy Calgary Stampede. No, this is a down-home kind of rodeo that is all about riding and roping and celebrating all things cowboy. There’s the arena, the stock pens, a grandstand (when I was a kid, the roof was covered with freshly cut willows and aspen branches) and the concession stand, all surrounded by horse trailers, RVs of various sorts, and lots of real live cowboys who are willing to talk with you, have their picture taken with you, maybe even let you sit on their horse. You’re close enough to the arena you can smell the manure and hear the cowboys grunt, the horses’ hooves strike the ground, and the “smack cer-runch!” as a cowboy hits the ground.

Heading back to camp (behind the trees) after Vesper service; swimming pool on the right

Camp Woodboia:
The United Church of Canada established Camp Woodboia in 1949 as both a religious and an outdoor experience. I learned to swim at there. Every summer from about 1956 to 1964, I flailed my way across the pool to earn another Red Cross pin marking my progress from Beginner to Junior to Intermediate (I left for university before I earned my Senior pin). We held Vesper services on Sitting Bull’s Hill, hiked over to visit Mrs. Elizabeth Ogle , a Lakota artist who always welcomed us as if we were her own grandchildren, and listened to Lakota elders tell stories of times gone by. We hiked through the bush, had cook-outs, washed in the creek, formed friendships and, yes, attended Bible study. But most of all, it was a place of wonder for all of us who came from the farmland to the north where trees grew only because they had been planted.

The Rodeo and Ranch Museum:
Don’t let the small size of the building fool you. It is filled chock-a-block with exhibits about ranching and rodeo and all the people — Metis, English, Lakota, Romanian, Serbian, American and others — who lived, worked and played here. It has a nice little book store, too. It’s well worth the visit.

Wood Mountain Lakota Reserve
Not all the Lakota returned to the USA in 1881. Several remained here, the foundation of Canada’s only Lakota reserve, and became an integral part of the Wood Mountain ranching and rodeo community. Even though they did not take treaty, the Government allotted them a reserve here in the Wood Mountain Uplands. However, during World War I, the same government took away a substantial amount of the land to give to European ranchers and returning soldiers. After a 10-year long court battle, the Lakota and the Canadian government have reached a tentative settlement whereby the Lakota will be able to purchase up to 5,700 acres of land to replace what was taken.

#SaskatchewanHistory #WoodMountainUplands #ChildhoodMemories #WoodMountainPost #WoodMountainStampede #RodeoRanchMuseum #CampWoodboia #Lakota #Highway18 #MargaretGHanna

The Wood Mountain Uplands (Part 1)

The Lakota called them mistiko waci. The first Europeans called them La Montagne de Bois or Woody Mountain. Today, this region is officially called the Wood Mountain Uplands. We just call it Wood Mountain.

This region of flat-topped hills, wooded ravines, springs and streams extends almost 100 miles along the Saskatchewan-Montana border, from Big Muddy in the east to the Cypress Hills in the west. It’s high, up to 1000 meters above sea level, high enough that it was not covered by ice during the last glaciation.

For untold generations, it was a wintering area for the Metis, Lakota, Plains Cree and Southern Nakota (Assiniboine) people. This was the region where Sitting Bull and his Lakota sought refuge after the Battle of Greasy Grass (otherwise known as the Battle of Little Bighorn). A well-worn “pitching trail”(camp-moving trail) ran from here to what is now known as Moose Jaw, and became the basis for the Pole Trail that the North West Mounted Police and homesteaders followed into the “south” country. Various notorious outlaws – Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch (including the Sundance Kid), Dutch Henry, and Sam Kelly – as well as lesser known rustlers, thieves and general ne’er-do-wells used it as a hide-out, evading the law. It is now primarily ranching country, and home to Canada’s only Lakota First Nation reserve.

In the heart of this region are two places of interest: St. Victor Petroglyphs (this week), and the Wood Mountain Regional Park complex (next week).

St. Victor Petroglyphs Provincial Historic Site
First, the sad news: It is now impossible to experience this place the way I did as a child. I will tell you why below.

These petroglyphs (rock carvings) are carved into a horizontal, loosely consolidated sandstone outcropping that lies a few miles south of, and overlooking, the tiny village of St. Victor. We are not sure how old they are – possibly 1000 to 1500 years old, – who carved them and why, although that hasn’t stopped people, especially archaeologists, from speculating.

Nevertheless, it is a place of great beauty, a place of contemplation and a place of wonder. And for us young kids, a place to scamper up the hillside (or, if we were brave, to climb straight up the rock face) ahead of our much slower parents. Once on top, we walked carefully across the outcropping, taking care not to step on any of the carvings, checking out our favourites, and then stood still to gaze northward across the descending slopes and cultivated fields to the horizon, 40 miles away, where the town of Assiniboia was barely visible in the haze. Montague Lake lay just to the northeast. We heard the wind rustle the leaves on the trees below. We heard birds singing. And we were always sad when our parents herded us back below to head back home.

The sandstone that made it easy for ancient Indigenous people to carve the petroglyphs is also its inherent weakness. Over the centuries, the freeze-thaw cycle created a myriad of cracks and fissures, some fairly deep. One day in the 1990s, one of those fissures gave way and a huge piece of the rock face, including many of the petroglyphs, calved off and fell into the valley below.

The Parks Department decided it was no longer safe to allow people to access the outcropping. They took down the stairs and the boardwalk they had built some years earlier to facilitate visiting, rerouted access and built a tall chain-link fence around the outcropping. Now you can only view at a distance, which is unfortunate because you can no longer feel that you are a part of the place, as I did when I was a child.

#Saskatchewan #StVictorPetroglyphs #WoodMountainUplands #SouthernSaskatchewan #SaskatchewanHistory #SaskatchewanArchaeology #IndigenousHeritage #MargaretGHanna #SaskatchewanHighway13