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

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