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.
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6 thoughts on “The Wood Mountain Uplands (Part 1)”
I have similar memories of my own childhood growing up in a coastal Cumbria village that was only a mile away from rising hills that led to mountains. As children we would disappear for a whole day during weekends or school holidays, walking for miles along desolate beaches, sand dunes and sea cliffs, or going up into the woods and rocky outcrops. Occasionally we created havoc by being too enthusiastic in our fire creation! Children don’t have anything like the same freedoms today. The fencing off and removal of walkways etc in your case does seem extreme, denying people the opportunity to visit and see those carvings. I understand the need to “screen” an area that potentially may lead to rockfall, but surely there is a compromise solution. If a rock’s gonna fall it’s gonna fall, no matter where you roam or climb.
I think the travesty began years ago when SK Parks built the staircase up to the top without installing any interpretive signs telling people what was there. I saw many people who had no idea what they were standing on until I told them — they thought it was all about the view — and then they jumped back onto the grass behind. Because the sandstone is so friable, the increased traffic wore away many of the petroglyphs. Eventually, Parks installed a boardwalk across the rock surface but the damage was already done. So, you see, I have mixed feelings about the fence, but at least I have memories of what the site was like, once upon a time.
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Although I grew up on the north edge of the Big Muddy Badlands near Big Butte we never did go see the cliffs..spent time in the Badlands though but rural life in the 60/70 we had no cash and didn’t do holidays or even day trips unless we went berry picking.
We were lucky — we lived only 50 miles or so from the petroglyphs. My mother grew up just north of Assiniboia so she was well familiar with them. I suspect she was the motivating force behind why we went there so often.
Where do you grow up Margaret?
I grew up at Meyronne, 40 miles west of Assiniboia on Hwy 13.