Moving east across Canada, the mountains are left behind. The Province of Alberta becomes dead flat just outside the National Park. If the State tree in Kansas is the telephone pole as some critics have it, then the Provincial Tree of Alberta is the fence post.
About the time you reach the other side of Medicine Hat you are convinced. The odd name for the town legend has it was the result of a tribal Medicine Man losing his “bonnet” during a battle and the Cree’s subsequent lost the battle. They never forgave him. History does not record his fate.
Suddenly the tug of an uphill climb is sensed in La Coachasita outside of town and 34 kilometers southeast of the Queens Highway you find the Inter-Provincial Park at Cypress Hill. The elevation here is the same as the mountain they ski on at Whistler far north and west in the Rockies. It is one of the very few areas of Canada that was not covered by glaciers during the ice age and had a substantial population during that time and may well have been part of a corridor that allowed humans and animals to continue to migrate from the Alaskan land bridge. The remains of ice age mammoths and camels have been found far to the south in Arizona and elsewhere. Many of the ancestors of the Navajo, Hopi and Lakota Sioux and other tribal civilizations are found here and well south of here. The conclusion is that they came this way more than 1,000 years ago. It is hard to wrap my head around the idea that the Indians living in Arizona are direct descendants of those peoples. Genealogy is not my subject but that is impressive.
There are an abundance of pines as well as deciduous trees including birch and cedar as well as wildlife found more likely in a more mountainous environment which make it a wonderfully diverse place to wander. Moose, cougar and beaver are here. You can visit the new and old beaver dams up the streams, the muskrat homes in the marsh along the lake. The Cedar trees are stripped of bark in places. They provide sustenance to the moose that tough it out in the forest in the brutal winters here and eat most anything they can find.
The exercise conscious Canadians are out jogging and biking on the cool clear mornings. My neighbors, a delightful couple from a mere 40 miles away, deny that there is less obesity here, but I am still looking for my first morbidly obese person wearing sweat pants because that is all that fit, a common sight at home.
The weather is warm and mostly sunny. Last night there were thunderstorms that apparently are so rare here they were the talk of the village coffee house this morning. At we are under a very rare tornado warning, which for this grizzled veteran of the mid-west campgrounds finds amusing in the way the locals are reacting to it. One touches down in the Province about 20 miles to the west. I feel no more than a strong breeze and an increase in humidity. My hope was that it would be cancelled before midnight so that some amateur didn’t decide we needed to congregate in the visitor center for the night. There are precautions I take when this happens and I took them, singling up to only the electric line and running everything internally that I can. Before sleep I switched the refrigerator to gas in case the power is lost, I won’t lose the food. The temperature dropped ten degrees in an hour and while rain and hail were possible, neither happened here.
The trip over included a stop at Fort Mc Murray, the first of the Northwestern Mounted Police as they were first known. It was 14 miles down a gravel road and sadly is in great disrepair. There is a plaque and a flag that mark the spot. Fort Walsh, named after the first Commander which is part of this complex has fared better. The former was put there during the time before the definitive survey was taken to establish the 49th parallel as the border between Canada and those people to the south. The latter, Fort Walsh had a more violent beginning and interesting history. The distinctive red tunic that we identify with the RMCP today was first worn here and became a sign of trust to the Indians known here as members of the “First Nations.”
James Morrow Walsh was 35 years old on the November night in 1873 when troubled village here finally spilled over into violence. Hunters, known as “Wolfers” locally were abundant here as were people of the Cree Black Feet and the Metis (accent over the “e”), the name given the tribe which resulted in the intermarriage between the hunters and native women. While they were nomadic and followed the bison herds as did the natives, their dress and dwelling were decidedly European. A wolfer’s horse was stolen. He blamed a member of the Metis tribe and shot him. Further violence erupted all night. The Dominion government decided they had seen enough in this place with a history of strife, whiskey runners and other bad actors behaving violently and asked Walsh to Command a new detachment of the Northwest Mounted Police. He was a tough, demanding, yet fair and firm in separating the issues, well respected by the natives, disliked by the wolfers and did much to settle this part of Canada. After Sitting Bull defeated Custer he moved north and remained in this area from 1877 through 1881. Walsh managed to baby sit him without incident until he left. When he did and peace was more the norm in the Cypress Hills, the fort closed in 1883.
One Northwest Mounted Policeman was killed in those early days. A young trooper who was tending horses between here and Fort Mc Murray never returned. On November 17, 1879, his body was found with a bullet through the back of his head. It is still an enigma and a figurative stain on the now rarely worn dress red tunics of the men who “always get their man.” The murder of the man with the improbable name of Marmaduke Graburn remains even now an open case with the RMCP.
The park straddles the provincial border into Saskatchewan. There is much to see on that side and I will on my way out. Most of the camping is here near the town site of Elkwater. It is a charming place of cottages, a store and restaurant combination and an excellent Visitor Center in which the artifacts of the area are displayed. One of the ladies working the campground check-in lives here all year and says 90 other hardy souls do as well. The snow and wind chill here in January is not something in which I would want to participate yet she, like the man I met the other night who lives 20 miles from the Arctic Circle and can’t even drive all the way home, find such weather and isolation just fine. Each claim there is lots to do where they live and were surprised I would think otherwise.
A nasty wind a cold greets our departure from this lovely place and we more to Saskatchewan. Wrestling the van down the road becomes ominous amidst weather reports of a very wet weekend. I am forced to give up two stops and move on through Swift Current and Moose Jaw on the Queens highway. We turn south trying to find blue skies and largely fail, ending up in Moose Mountain Provincial Park on the east side of “Sask” as it is often referred to here. It is a bleak province on the whole, and appears less well off than its neighbor. The unemployment is higher and the population smaller. Given my small window of opportunity to see it I cannot be sure, yet even the Provincial Parks are not as well kept, the people seemingly more distracted, less friendly than those in the Provinces have been in so far. It is flat, so flat, to quote a source I cannot recall, it may not be the end of the earth, but you can see it from here.
Tomorrow we make one more stop in Manitoba and visit (assuming the rain does not catch up to us again) the International Peace Garden on the border of Manitoba and North Dakota, said to be lovely. Should the weather catch us again we will move on further to the east and return to the United States through Minnesota.
See you on the other side where my telephone works, WiFi far more common, and even cable television available.