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

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

Saskatchewan is NOT Flat!

Whenever my Alberta-born and raised husband wants to get a rise out of me, all he has to say is, “Saskatchewan is s-o-o flat!” and the battle is on.

“Saskatchewan is NOT flat!” I declare.

Which got me to wondering: Why do people think Saskatchewan is flat?

I think it has to do with where the horizon is. If you come from a place of mountains or forests or cities, you have to look up, w-a-a-y up to see the horizon. In Saskatchewan, the horizon is down around your knees. Maybe even your ankles. It is OUT there, not UP there. It is “space,” writ large. As one of my uncles said, “You sure can exercise your eyeballs there.”

So, yes, you can see yesterday leaving and tomorrow coming. Yes, you can see your dog running away for three days. But that doesn’t mean it is flat! We have valleys – the Frenchman, the Qu’Appelle, the South and North Saskatchewan river valleys, the Assiniboine. We have uplands – Moose Mountain, Duck Mountain, the Porcupine Hills, the Missouri Coteau, the Wood Mountain Uplands, Cypress Hills, Old Man on His Back.

Another factor may be that people drive through Saskatchewan on the Trans-Canada Highway which, surely, is the least interesting part of the province (note, I did not say “the most boring” part). The route was probably chosen because it was the least demanding, and therefore the cheapest, route on which to build a highway. Furthermore, it connects three major cities – Regina, Moose Jaw and Swift Current – which, I grant, have their own charms.

But if you want to see the Other Saskatchewan, the Definitely Not Flat Saskatchewan, turn left at Moosomin (if you’re coming from the east) or right at Maple Creek (if you’re coming from the west) and head south to Highways 13 and 18. That’s where I grew up and where we (my family and I) spent the occasional week when farming duties permitted. I will introduce you to some of those places in my next posts.

I guarantee you will see the definitely Not Flat Saskatchewan.

#Saskatchewan #Highway13 #Highway18 #SouthernSaskatchewan #Saskatchewan History #SaskatchewanArchaeology #SaskatchewanHistoricPlaces #MargaretGHanna

“Our Bull’s Loose In Town!” – My grandparents’ story

“Our Bull’s Loose In Town!” Tales from the Homestead

A tiny shack in a vast prairie. Spooked horses and run-away pigs. A town half-destroyed by fire. The year with no crop. An untimely death.

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Little did Addie Wright realize what she would face when she came west from Ontario in 1910 to marry her fiancé, Abraham Hanna. Based on entries in Abraham’s diaries, Our Bull’s Loose In Town tells the story of the author’s grandparents as they built their farm and raised a family in the Meyronne district of southwestern Saskatchewan. Through trials and triumphs, sorrows and successes, the horrors of the Great War, the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and the dark years of the Dirty Thirties, they found strength and courage in their faith, in their indomitable humour, and in their family and neighbours.

This is also the story of the rise and decline of a prairie village, and of the political and social turmoil of a province and country in the first half of the twentieth century, all as Addie lived it.

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“Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” is available in bookstores  and as an e-book from the following sources: Chapters/Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo, ScribdSmashwords and Walmart.com.

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What Readers are saying about “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!”

Margaret was able to present us with a wonderfully rounded, factual account of what it was really like to pioneer near Meyronne in 1911. . . In spite of Margaret Hanna’s outspoken revelations about the darker side [of the 1920s], I still maintain that Our Bull’s Loose in Town is the most realistic look at life in southern Saskatchewan in pioneer days that I have ever seen.  Kay Parley, author, The Grass People

[The author has] a marvellous way of making history come alive. I think the secret to her success is having the book told from Addie’s perspective. Not just dry historical facts, but real life drama. Frank Korvemaker, co-author, Legacy of Worship: Sacred Places in Rural Saskatchewan

Margaret Hanna’s story of her grandparents’ journey as prairie homesteaders is a classic! It is cleverly written in her grandmother Addie’s voice. Addie provides a several decade play-by-play of her resilient family. The story unfolds concurrently with the initial settlement and development of rural southwest Saskatchewan. Improved finances, two world wars, a drought/depression and new technology are all woven in. Accordingly, whether you are a history buff, or just someone who grew up in a rural prairie community and can thus relate, “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” is a must read!     David McCaslin, former Meyronne resident

I really enjoyed the voice of Addie Wright/Hanna and her exploits through historical Saskatchewan. I really loved the first person point of view and thought it lent a personal touch to the story. Vanessa Hawkins, author

This was an interesting semi-historical about a family on the Canadian plains. The story is seen through remembrance. There was laughter and sadness, and seeing the history of the recent past through the writer’s eyes fascinating. A good read. Janet Lane-Walters, author

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#OurBullsLooseInTown #HistoricalFiction #FamilyHistory #SaskatchewanHistory #HomesteadEra #Biography #RedCoatTrail #CanLit #BWLAuthor #MargaretGHanna