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. 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.

Trail Markers

The 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a.k.a The Last Great Race is into its fifth day. Racing from Willow through to Nome, the route approximates the old freight route, and covers 1000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. “The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago.” Even though cell phones, satellite tracking devices, and GPS units are standard gear today, old-fashioned trail markers remain an essential part of the historic trail.

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.

Photo of Robert Sørlie’s team approaching Nome, 2007. (Note the tripod-style log marker on the right. These tripods are used year round to mark open spaces on the Trail i.e. marshes.)

#FlashbackFriday

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.

Flashback Friday: Traditional Colours

Traditional Ukrainian Farmhouse, Western Development Museum, North Battleford, SK

Another frigid winter day in west central Saskatchewan as I not-so-patiently await the spring. My thoughts have turned to gardening, heritage vegetable seeds, and perennial flowers like the ones I saw a few years ago in North Battleford. This traditional Ukrainian farmhouse is located in the Western Development Museum’s Heritage Village at the corner of Highway 40 and the Yellowhead.

A woven wooden fence surrounds the front flower bed and a plank sidewalk leads the way inside. It’s not surprising that an abundance of yellow flowers are growing on the doorstep of a Ukrainian pioneer family’s home. Reds, oranges, yellows, and browns were traditional colours used in the art of egg decorating, or pysanky, to celebrate the festival of spring. Dyes were created from natural materials, like flowers and plants.

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

Flashback Friday: Abandoned

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.

Flashback Friday: Winter’s Coming

toboggan at Fort Carlton
Toboggan, Fort Carlton, SK

TO·BOG·GAN

  • originating from Mi’kmaq (tobâkun) and/or Abenaki (udãbãgan); adopted by French Canadians (tabaganne) in the early 1800s; now toboggan. – from Canadian Icons

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

Flashback Friday: Wagon Roads

Battleford Trail Pioneer Wagonroad 1877-1907
Battleford Trail Pioneer Wagonroad, AB

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.

from “The Battleford Trail” in “The Uncollected Prose of Pauline Johnson” by Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

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.

Alberta Highway 14 West, Poundmaker Trail

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.

Flashback Friday: Hiking Sticks

hiking-sticks-stocknagel-overview
Hiking Sticks with Stocknagels by Alexander von Bronewski

No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.

Hal Borland

The snow is melting, the prairie spring is on its way, and I look forward to the honking of geese overhead. No stocknagels will be waiting for me on the completion of any of my planned hikes this season. But as walking culture in Canada evolves with the coast-to-coast-to-coast connection of The Great Trail, one day there just may be hiking badges for prairie portions of the trail.

Stocknagels, or badges, were souvenirs purchased from European mountain destinations once a hike had been completed. Attached to the hiking stick with small nails, they acted as a great motivator for all ages! This mountain tradition continues today – even in Canada.

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