Traces Where There Should be Life

  
today, walking through mile after mile of pasture (10 miles today),  we found about a dozen teepee-rings. Four days ago, when I stopped to answer my phone, there by my boot was an arrow head. 

Everywhere we go, along with the history of ranchers and pioneer farmers, of North West Mounted Police, there are traces of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, Dakota and Lakota and Bkackfoot people who have lived here for so long, but are here no longer. They were pushed off the land by John A Macdonald, as official policy. 

It’s hard to be Treaty 4 and not see the other side here. Although it felt so easy to imagine those empty hills with their rings alive again. This is a pilgrimage of remembrance, of so many layers of life. Tonight camping in the yard of the Lacelle family and thankful for their incredible hospitality. 

  

The Surprise Dinner Guest

Max Mirau with Hugh and Matthew

An example of one of my interviews with a self-professed “old timer”:

My father used to hunt deer year-round. Didn’t care a bit for the hunting licenses. He was a generous man and would hunt deer and give them to all of the neighbours. No one had much money then, so the meat was welcome, but my mother used to fret about his illegal hunting and give him trouble over it. Then one day the policeman came to the door on horseback after a long ride. He was tired and hungry and my father, always hospitable, asked him to stay to eat. Mom had a huge venison roast in the oven. She brought it out and served it, shaking with fear that father would be clapped into jail for poaching. The policeman finished eating, wiped his mouth, said “that was one of the finest beef dinners I’ve ever eaten”, got on his horse, and rode away.

Max Mirau, Swift Current, an old friend of my father’s.

Blue Moon over the Riverside Motel

arrival Jack's cafe

blue moon over main street

There’s no better way to reach a destination than to ford a stream and arrive on its banks. Even if you don’t have to. Stew Tasche, writer and producer of “The Cypress Hills will never be the Same”, and his wife Cindy arrived at Chimney Coulee this morning just as we were packing up our tents. They walked with us the short, half-day, five miles into Eastend. It was like Stew knew every inch of the way. “We used to cycle out here and find old NWMP shell cartridges”. “That’s where my uncle lived. The Metis chimneys were still here when I came out to see him.”

When we crested the hill and looked down on wooded Eastend, Hugh asked if we’d like to ford the Frenchman River at the old crossing, rather than walk across the bridge. Since I’ve been looking at that water enviously for days, he didn’t have to ask twice. We inched down the steep incline, came to the water……

“That’s the highest and fastest I’ve seen it in a long time,” Cindy said. Stew agreed. Eventually, probably because he’d suggested it, Stew grabbed a thick pole of a branch and inched across. He was fine and so we followed, one by one. We came to the ranch-house that has been in his family for generations, the first house in Eastend.

And for me, eventually, to the motel, for the first shower in many days, a working toilet, and a cold beer. Ed, one of the owners, was playing blues in the other room when I got to the desk, and couldn’t hear me ring. When he found out I was one of the NWMP walkers, he gave me the family rate. Tonight is Friday night. Tomorrow the SK History and Folklore Society have a number of events scheduled, finishing with a banquet and readings by author Candace Savage. I’m looking forward to meeting this author who has so changed the way I see my prairie homeland. But in the meantime, it’s a blue moon, a very quiet town, and I’m going to sleep comfortable and clean in the Riverside Motel.

blue moon over the Riverside Motel

Rhubarb Wine among the Saints

cactus on the plain

Tonight we;re in a grove between caragana hedges, on the Duke farm near Eastend SK. Now that the dark has descended, it feels like a secret, hidden place, with only the sound of cicadas and crickets to accompany my typing. No coyotes as yet, although the moon is full and just waiting for their chorus. The farm is located along the Frenchman River, with the steep walls of the valley rising miles away at either side of a great, wide, flood plain. We walked that plain all day….tawny hills on the left and the right, white mud cliffs that leave your fingers stained, and a river I wanted several times to jump into for some kind of break from the heat. For the first time this trip, we’ve had to contend with mosquitoes, so setting up tents was a hurried affair.

Fortunately, we have a gazebo, and that’s where I shelter to write this. The others have gone to sleep – funny how a full day of walking makes for fatigue as soon as the sun sets. For a late supper we put together Madonna’s lentil soup, Hugh’s beans, Kathryn’s broccoli salad and some British Army ration soup. We ate the resulting mix, out of the pot, with gusto. But the best part of the meal was rhubarb white wine, from the Cypress Hills winery, donated to us by Curt and Lorie Gronhovd, the incredibly kind hosts with whom we stayed last night.

Over dinner (and the wine) we talked about saints and First Nations, about the connection between the Egyptian desert fathers and the Irish monks, and between those monastics and a pilgrimage here and now in south-west Saskatchewan. I guess it’s no mistake that this is, also, a semi-desert that we walk through. Fifteen miles today in land that, like the Biblical wildernesses, reduces the walker to the essentials. When the land is so sparse and the cactus and short grasses (and some cattle skeletons) are all you see, the wind blows and I think of Ezekial calling the four winds at the Lord’s behest, or Christ in the desert. Or Saint-Anthony, seeking white martyrdom in the wilds of Egypt.

Tomorrow we walk to Chimney Coulee, so named for the chimneys left behind by the Métis hivernants who built a settlement there in the mid 1870s. They say there are ghosts there, of the Assiniboine who died scavenging after Cowlie, the Hudson’s Bay trader, hurriedly left in 1873. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow night. For tonight there’s the moon, the mosquitoes, the dark, and the wind through the caraganas. And thoughts of the saints and their time of testing and of encountering the divine in a wilderness not so different from this one.

rhubarb wine

whitemud

Alive and Well

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There’s something exciting and exhilarating about taking shelter in the back of a van, the back gate up providing a temporary roof, watching the driving rain come down so hard you don’t dare step out into it. It feels just a bit precarious when the lightning is so loud and close you take your feet off the ground just in case there’s a nearby strike. Wondering if the tent you’ve set up under the caraganas will hold up and stay dry (especially since your sleeping bag is already in the tent. You can see the fabric of the fly bouncing from the weight of the downpour, the heavy rain spraying from the roof). But it’s also, somehow, comforting. You are – mostly – dry, the threatened wetness in your boots and the moisture seeping down your back balanced by the carrot and coriander soup mixed with long grain rice (British Army rations) that you’ve saved from the fire and are now eating, steaming hot, straight from the pot.

I’m alive and well. Both. I’m learning once again that the two are not always the same thing.

After the rain, a rainbow comes out over the Frenchman River valley, also known as Whitemud. The valley is so wide you can see both sides of the arc touching down. Golden light floods the river plain from the west. There are horses – perhaps a dozen – charging around the field beside us, kicking up their back legs, perhaps in relief at the temporary respite from the storm. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, their manes and tails flying against the dark sky.

The clouds close again and the rain settles in – 7/10ths by morning. I’m awakened several times by flashes of light and loud booms, and sometimes by the horses in the Green’s trailer, whose movements also sound like thunder. At 6:45 am Hugh and I meet in our rain ponchos in the drizzle, trying to decide what to do. Bishop Don’s tent has flooded. The horse folks are calling it a day before starting and starting to pack up. It will be impossible to get through the riverbank grass and lower bogs in any case, so we decide to postpone the half-day river section of the walk. We confer with the rancher, Terry Jensen, a cowboy so stoic he looks as though he would be unperturbed if a spaceship landed on his property. He owns as it might be good to wait. We drive up and out of the valley before the road becomes impassable. It’s the first day we’ve had to change plans. Flexibility, I tell myself, is one of the marks of a pilgrim.

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