Rain or shine, for me, it’s all about being on the road. I like to stop for historic markers, and keep my eye out for any, and all signage that may hint of a former overland trail. It’s almost like solving a mystery: it takes knowing a bit of background, being on the alert for clues, and then putting it all together, which in some cases only happens with luck!
To get a feel for what mushing in the north looks like, Blair Braverman‘s article Meet 5 of the Women Racing in this Year’s Ititarod includes accompanying photos and videos by Kiliii Yuyan that are simply spectacular. Falling snow with limited visibility, unfamiliar terrain, wild animals, and even sleep deprivation are potential threats to a team’s safety. But, losing the trail on frozen lakes or sea ice is not something a musher wants to add to that list. Open spaces on the Trail are marked with distinctive wooden tripods.
When Europeans began to explore the continent, circa the 1500s, they discovered that indigenous North Americans had a well-established system of way-markers in place for their trails. This shouldn’t be a surprise since First Nations peoples had been traveling over this vast expanse of land since at least the end of the last ice age, approximately 20,000 years ago.
Trail marking methods varied greatly, depending on available materials. For example, in temperate climates, hard wood trees were selected, then manipulated to form particular shapes. Trail marker and signal trees were used as tools for navigation, and as signposts for sites of a religious or ceremonial nature. To read more, visit the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society and Indian Trail Trees.
In more barren terrain, for example in the arctic regions of most northern countries, large single rocks and arrangement of stones acted as markers for a wide variety of activities. They were reference markers and points of navigation; they marked hunting or fishing spots, camps, food caches or sacred places. Some argue that the human-shaped inukshuk, which we know so well, today, is a post-European development. These rock structures have come to symbolize the North for many of us and many are, in fact, still in use today. For more on Inukshuk, visit Wikipedia and the The Canadian Encyclopedia.
The Yellowhead stretches through BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and is named after the Yellowhead Pass that crosses the Rockies. The pass and the highway are both named after an Iroquois-Métis trapper, fur-trader, and explorer who worked for the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Pierre Bostonais was nicknamed Yellow Head, or Tête Jaune in French, because of his blond hair. The name Bostonais refers to his probable American origin as American traders were often identified as Boston men in French. Bostonais died 1828.
This abandoned 2-story log house, age undetermined, is still standing upright on the north side of the Yellowhead Highway, just west of Vegreville, AB. All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.
The Northwestern Territories have never looked so glorious as in this last year of Grace 1902. Never were there such turquoise skies, such golden brown acres of prairie grass billowing away to the four points of the compass… We halted for dinner at “The Badger,” a neat little sod roofed shack kept by two American women of rather wide experience. We dined off exquisite Japanese china, for the West is a place of surprises and incongruities.
Pauline Johnson, poet, artist, and spoken word performer with a flare for the dramatic, traveled extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and England from the 1880s to 1909 on a series of speaking tours. The above excerpt is from an unpublished manuscript, and describes the stagecoach journey Johnson undertook in 1902 between Saskatoon and Battleford on the Battleford Trail.
The Battleford Trail was a segment of the Carlton Trail system that connected the Red River Settlement in Winnipeg with Edmonton, 900 miles away. This overland route followed many of the ancient trails used by Indigenous peoples, and then the Métis. Eventually, the railroad transformed transportation patterns, roads were built, and most of the old trails were plowed under.
The sign commemorating the Pioneer Wagonroad is located on Alberta Hwy 14, on the south side of the road just west of the junction with Alberta Hwy 883 (west of Fabyan). Today, little evidence remains of the old wagon trails except for the ruts that exist in a few locations, and the historical plaques that describe them. Across the road from the Battleford Trail sign, and a little to the east, is a sign that also marks this route as the Poundmaker Trail.
Saskatchewan’s Hwy 40 and Alberta’s Hwy 14 form a 369 km stretch between North Battleford and Edmonton. Designated the Poundmaker Trail, this road commemorates Chief Poundmaker’s (Pitikwahanapiwiyin’s) journey on foot in 1886 from his people’s reserve near Battleford to his stepfather Crowfoot’s reserve at Blackfoot Crossing. This journey was undertaken following his release from the Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg where he was imprisoned following the Northwest Rebellion. He died a few weeks after his arrival.
All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.