Blowing in on the Wind

When I sat down to write Winter Walks, my intention was to describe the wind at Fort Battleford on Canada Day last year. However, at the time, the only thing I had on my mind was the polar vortex and the arctic windchill temperatures in the week’s forecast. Today, the weather has moderated, although the wind is ever present.

The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie… The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses.

Albert Pike, Journey in the Prairies (during 1831-32)

I like visiting Fort Battleford National Historic Site. It sits on a ridge above a flood plain at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and the Battle rivers in the Town of Battleford (It’s the Little Things), SK. Annual July 1st celebrations have become less elaborate over time with fewer attendees. I don’t know which came first: a dwindling public interest in the onsite event, or budget restrictions that forced cuts to activities. In any case, in 2019, and I’ll be honest, I was there for the cake.

blanket flower
Gaillarda / Blanket Flower

I’d found a seat at one of a couple dozen picnic tables set up in front of the flag pole. The Canadian maple leaf was already dancing in the wind. Soon, we’d stand for the singing of O Canada, the canon would be fired, then cake would be served. I’d tried to unfold my road map to weigh the afternoon’s possibilities but the wind was having none of that. Instead, I put the map away and sat back to enjoy the moment.

Clear blue skies, families filing in through the fort’s palisade gate, the odd prairie dog making a beeline to the next hole, and the thundering flap of the flag above it all. And then, something else. I caught a scent on the wind, a peppery, intriguing, familiar smell that took a minute to identify. It was sage, and I wondered… who would’ve sat in this same spot 150, 200, or 500 years ago, felt the same wind on their skin as I did that day, heard the same rustle of wind-tickled grasses in the fields, and recognized the same scent of sage blown in on the wind?

Fort Battleford Historic Site, Flags representing area First Nation communities & Treaty Six signatories
Fort Battleford: Flags representing the Treaty Six First Nations from the area, Battleford, SK

There was a new exhibit just outside the palisade gate, installed on Indigenous Day 2019. Twelve flags representing the Treaty Six First Nation communities from the area were raised on June 21, 2019 and “will fly up at the fort from now on.” These nations are Métis, Lucky Man, Thunderchild, Red Pheasant, Sweetgrass, Young Chippewayan, Mosquito, Grizzly Bear’s Head, Lean Man, Saulteaux, Little Pine, Moosomin, and Poundmaker. Before I left Battleford, I circled the fields around the fort. I found sage, creeping juniper, blanket flowers, wild strawberries, and blue-eyed grass. Buffaloberry bushes, their silvery leaves shining in the sun, tumbled over the ridge to the flats below.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

Grid Roads & Roadside Attractions

The population of Saskatchewan passed one million residents a few years ago. Almost half of them live in Regina and Saskatoon, with the remainder distributed sparingly throughout the province. Whatever the population density may be in real numbers, in actual fact, it can often feel like there’s no one else driving the back roads, except for me. Last Sunday I spent about four hours on the grid roads southwest of The Battlefords and met only three pick-ups and an ATV.

railway sign
Near Revenue, SK. Note that this railway line has been discontinued. The track no longer crosses the road. (Opportunity to create a rail-bed walking trail?)

On the one hand, travelling on back roads can be a challenge in a small, lightweight vehicle (i.e. Toyota subcompact). Slip-sliding over ridges of loose gravel can be hazardous if you’re not anticipating them, and I speak from experience. But, this is really the only negative part of grid road travel I can come up with because, on the other hand, the freedom of being the only one on the road makes this small discomfort completely worthwhile.

There are two types of attractions in prairie farm country that will prompt me to pull over: natural and man-made. And, although it may seem, from the photo above, that a person should be able to spot something coming a mile away, this is usually true with traffic, not so much with wildlife, signage, or historical markers. Visibility also varies with the season, which is why a sudden decision to stop, and being able to do so safely, is a wonderful bonus when driving less traveled roads.

slough w/ Canada & Snow geese
Snow geese & Canada geese visible on shoreline near Tramping Lake, SK

Now, about Sunday. To begin with, it’s the middle of the waterfowl migrations on the Central Flyway, and the small sloughs that polka dot last year’s harvested fields are often full of ducks and geese on their journeys north. It’s always a thrill to see the snow geese, the white birds with black wing tips, in amongst the more common Canada geese. All these birds, with their recognizable squawks and honkings, are so welcome after our long, cold winters.

I had just turned off Hwy 21, heading east on Hwy 374 towards Tramping Lake, when I had to stop to let a Canada goose cross the road. This guy was not going to let my intrusion into his space hurry him one little bit, which of course, was fine with me. This was my second experience with birds on the road that day. I’d already had to slow down a couple of miles earlier on Hwy 21 for a pair of Canada geese strolling towards traffic on the shoulder. Impossible to pass them, too, with a semi in the oncoming lane, but I was alright with that. This is what Sunday drives are for.

A couple of miles past the goose crossing, I came to a small rise on the left hand side of the road with a cemetery situated on top of it, and a school marker and flag just down the road. I pulled over onto the little bit of shoulder available knowing I’d be plenty visible to any one coming in either direction. As I walked up to the gate of Prairie Heights Cemetery, I was startled by a scrabbling in the grass. Then, two prairie chickens burst up into the air, wings flapping, squawking away, and I thought, “this is going to be a good day.”

In the early 1800s, an estimated 35 million bison were grazing the continent – the same as the population of pronghorn ranging from Alberta and Saskatchewan through the western United States and into northern Mexico… Both suffered from rampant hunting and habitat destruction and by 1924, just 20,000 pronghorn remained. Protection efforts have helped the species bounce back.

Dawn Walton, Pronghorns get free rein on the prairie
pronghorn about to cross the road
Pronghorn about to cross the road, southwest of Wilkie, SK

It turned out to be a great day. In addition to the geese and the prairie chickens, I also came across two groups of pronghorns: one with four animals and the second was a group of eight. My day also included trips to Tramping Lake and Revenue, SK – those stories yet to be told.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

Scheduling a Meet-up, circa 1862

Buffalo 1902
Buffalo on the prairies, Library and Archives Canada

Accordingly it was arranged that we should meet some fifteen or twenty days later on the plains “somewhere.” This was very indefinite, but as near as we could plan under the conditions of the time. Mr. Steinhauer would go with his people, join those at Saddle Lake, and cross the Saskatchewan to the plains and buffalo. We would go to Smoking Lake, find Mr. Woolsey, and then strike out also for the plains and the buffalo. There we hoped to meet in a large gathering before long.

in Parsons on the Plains by John McDougall, edited by Thomas Bredin

Flashback Friday: Prairie Wool

prairie wool
Prairie wool, Western Development Museum, North Battleford, SK

Prior to settlement, the short grass prairie of southwestern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan (a.k.a. Palliser’s Triangle) supported large migratory herds of buffalo, antelope, and deer. With the near extermination of the buffalo in the 1880s, these wide-open spaces were soon filled with cattle, and the cowboys that herded them. As long as the snow pack was such that the cattle could paw through it to access the grasses, there would be a reliable and affordable food supply twelve months of the year.

The native grass, also known as buffalo grass or prairie wool, had already spent thousands of years adapting to the poor soil conditions and semi-arid climate of this corner of the Great Plains. With a root system reaching up to five feet in length, prairie wool matured in early August, and then retained its nutritional value as it dried. Indigenous peoples used the wool as a soft bedding and lining material for their cradleboards. Early settlers used the grass to feed their horses and build sod hut shelters.

Most of the short-grass prairie was plowed under in the early 1900s, and eventually proved unsuitable for farming (see map below). The dust bowl conditions of the Dirty Thirties are well known. Today, much of this land has returned to ranching, with the exception of a few native mixed-grass prairie ecosystems, one of which is protected within Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

Sunday Sunshine: A Prairie View

frosted trees, Cut Knife, SK
Facing west from the entrance of the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum, Cut Knife, SK (2018)

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.