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.

It’s the Little Things

Spring may be in the air, but it’s still winter on the ground. Desperate to get outside in the fresh air, I passed up the muddy, slushy grid roads around town, and headed, instead, for the sidewalks of Battleford. This is where the Battle River joins the North Saskatchewan. The area has a rich fur trade history dating back to the 1770s, but that’s not what I’d be looking for in town.

Battleford became the capital of the North-West Territories in 1876 with a North-West Mounted Police post and an official town site. In 1883, the capital moved to Regina, as did the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s plans for its main line. In 1905, the Canadian Northern Railway also chose to bypass the town by building on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River. Even so, Battleford remained a “government centre for land title registration, a judicial district and an Indian Affairs office“. It was a prosperous time, and the town’s heritage buildings still reflect this.

Battleford Town Hall, SK
The Town Hall, one of four red brick heritage buildings still in use today in Battleford, SK

The downtown core is about 4 blocks square. It’s an easy walk on paved sidewalks, and a couple of small pocket parks offer shade on a sunny day. The Town of Battleford is proud of its past, and much information about its history and heritage is online for visitors. The key stops on a downtown walking tour would be the four red brick, ornately trimmed government buildings still in use today: the Court House & Land Titles (1907), Town Hall (1912), and Post Office (1911).

Although these beautiful old buildings are, without doubt the main attraction, it’s always fun to poke around to find the less obvious treasures. For example:

  • The Queen’s Hotel (1883): From boarding house, to hotel, to student residence, then to rooming house and hotel. This building is over 130 years old; it’s the oldest operating hotel in the province. Question: How old is that narrow staircase leading to the second floor?
  • The Windsor Hotel (1910): Outside, at street level, is a large iron cover embossed with the words “John East Iron Works.” In 1910, John East had just opened a foundry in Saskatoon and his primary product was manhole covers, which were used in water distribution and sewage systems. Question: Was this cover lifted to fill a cistern, or extract sewage?
  • Former bank (1910): I was spotted taking photos of one particular brick-faced building along main street when the organization kindly invited me inside. They shared what they knew of the building’s history i.e. the date of construction but did not know who the first tenant might have been. However, they let me take a picture of the original door to the bank vault. Now how cool was that?

I finished my afternoon tour with a few photos of the false front buildings still in use on the main avenue. Then, I decided I’d have to come back in a couple of months when the ice cream stand was open. Many of Battleford’s historic sites are seasonal including the Fred Light Museum and Fort Battleford National Historic Site. The North West Mounted Police Cemetery is always accessible to the public except, of course, when it’s covered in snow.

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