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.

Sunday Sunshine: Old Man Buffalo

One spring day in 2016, after years of travelling back and forth along Hwy 14 (AB) / 40 (SK), I decided it was time to take a look at the Viking Ribstones. East of the town of Viking, AB is a pull-out with a provincial heritage marker describing Ribstones Historic Site. I’d stopped there many times, but had never ventured any further because the turn off wasn’t marked.** However, I’d recently come across instructions on how to reach the site, and that encouraged me to try a quick visit, without risk of losing time on a search.

ribstones enclosure
Ribstones Historic Site, east of Viking, AB

The Viking Ribstones are two quartzite boulders known as glacial erratics that identify an archaeological site going back to ancient times. These Boulder Petroglyphs have markings that resemble the spine and rib cage of a buffalo as well as smaller circular indentations whose purpose is unclear. Speculation suggests these pits could represent 1) arrow or bullet wounds, or 2) are the result of “repeated pounding done to replicate the sound of a running herd as part of a pre-hunt ceremony“, or 3) “may have been carved in imitation of the pock-marked surface of the Iron Creek Meteorite.” The
papamihaw asiniy (flying rock in Cree) or Iron Creek Meteorite could be seen from this hilltop until it was removed in 1866 by Missionary George McDougall.

boulder petroglyphs
Boulder Petroglyphs w/ markings

The Viking Ribstones are one of nine ribstone sites that have been found in Alberta. This location, on private land, is unique in that the boulders have not been disturbed or removed. In the 1950s, the area was ploughed, and at that time many ancient artifacts were uncovered. Historically, good luck offerings and prayers of thanks were given at ribstone sites to “Old Man Buffalo,” the spirit protector of the buffalo herds. Today, this hilltop remains a sacred site. Sweetgrass braids, offerings of tobacco, and colourful prayer flags on the surrounding trees and fencing are placed regularly, and should be respected.

SOURCES:

** Note: There is now signage marking the grid road south.

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

Sunday Sunshine: Lilydale

Along the stretch of Saskatchewan Highway 21 connecting Hwys 40 and 16, there’s a roadside pull-out just south of the Battle River that marks an old ferry crossing. I’ve driven this road fairly regularly over the years on trips to-and-from Lloydminster or Edmonton. The traffic’s not too bad; the rolling hills are beautiful, and I’ve actually seen moose once or twice. I read the historical marker on the site years ago, and never really thought much more about it.

Lilydale Road sign, SK
Lilydale Road, SK

Last week, however, I had an ‘aha’ moment. A mile or so before the river crossing is a large decorative sign on the corner of Hwy 21 and Township Road 460. I know it’s been there a while, but in my mind I’ve brushed it aside as a family farm marker. This time, though, when I read “Lilydale Road,” I suddenly connected it with the ferry, and decided I just had to investigate. So, on my way back home, I detoured west.

In 1905, pioneer Elijah Marshall constructed a home-made ferry boat to cross the Battle River. He named it “Battle Lily” after his daughter. In 1912, when Barr Colonist Thomas Simkins built a school for the area’s children, it was named Lilydale: ‘Lily’ for the local resident, ‘dale’ for the surrounding area. This school gave the school district its name and, later, the local post office, as well. Lilydale School District No. 450 was dissolved in 1963; the area is in the Rural Municipality of Hillsdale.

Since 1980, the building was restored and preserved by The Lilydale School Historical Society Incorporated and it was designated as municipal heritage property in 1981.

Lilydale School No. 450

Lilydale School remains on its original site with its flagpole and water pump. It’s also retains the classic architectural features of a prairie schoolhouse like the front cloakroom, the wall of windows, and contrasting window and door trim. Behind the school is a baseball diamond – complete with old backstop posts! A small house (a teacherage?) and a barn (for students riding to school?) are also part of the property. The schoolhouse is maintained and used for community events and rented out for weddings, reunions, etc. (Click on gallery above to view photos.)

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

‘Place’ is a Moment

View from the Fort Carlton stockade
View from Fort Carlton stockade, Fort Carlton, SK

There is no mysterious essence we can call a ‘place’. Place is change. It is motion killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory.

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

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

God’s Half Acre at Fort Pitt

view of cairn through god's half acre gate
Gate to God’s Half Acre, Fort Pitt, SK

In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built Fort Pitt on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River approximately half way between Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton. The fort was originally designed to serve as a pemmican production centre for the company’s boatmen and traders, and to operate as a local trading post within the HBC’s extensive fur trade network. The original fort burned to the ground, not an uncommon fate for the wooden buildings of the time, but was rebuilt in the mid-1870s.

However, by the mid-1870s, these were different times. Fort Pitt had become a regular stop for North Saskatchewan River steamboats, and for overland travelers and traders on the Carlton Trail to Fort Edmonton. The new fort was constructed further back from the river, and was larger than its predecessor. In addition, it became the headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt, played a role in the negotiations for Treaty 6, and was the location of one of the battles of the North-West Resistance.

painting of the Battle of Fort Pitt
By The Illustrated London News – Online at Canadian Military HeritageDepartment of Defence., Public Domain, Link

It was also no longer a part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly since the HBC had relinquished those rights to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Although the HBC no longer received special trading privileges, it did retain ownership of its trading posts, and a certain amount of reserve lands surrounding each of them. Fort Pitt was destined to burn once again during the North-West Resistance, only to be partially rebuilt, and then, eventually, to be sold by the HBC in 1945 as farm land.

When I visited Fort Pitt Provincial Historic Park last weekend, it was for the role it played in the fur trade and the North-West Resistance. I already knew the fort had not been reconstructed, but that paths, interpretive signage, and the footprint of the former buildings for both forts did exist – and, there was a picnic area, which is where I planned to eat my lunch. What I didn’t know anything about was the gated and palisaded monument to God’s Half Acre.

… As the shadows lengthened into a purple wave,
I gently closed that lonely grave at old Fort Pitt,
And there resolved that these first-comers
Shall have title to that scarce half-acre of sod,
For I will deed it back to God.

R.H. Hougham

In 1945, Robert Henry Hougham (1889-1960) purchased the old HBC reserve lands unaware, until he began to break ground, that the original Fort Pitt cemetery lie just below the sod. The shallow, unmarked graves had had their markers either burned, or removed during the battle in 1885. Hougham set aside half an acre, and erected a cairn to pay his respects. In 1960, he was buried there, as well. With the river on one side, and surrounded on the others by a farm and its fields, this half acre offers the visitor an unexpectedly poetic pause.

Cairn and grave marker for Robert H. Hougham
Cairn & grave marker for Robert H. Hougham, Fort Pitt, SK

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