Two Smooth Stones


I have in my jacket pocket two smooth stones – river pebbles, worn by years of exposure first to running water, and then to wind, snow, rain and sun. When I picked them up they were still so warm from the late autumn Saskatchewan sun that I could put my hand in my pocket and feel the warmth lingering there.

The stones come from the foot of the first concrete marker in the North West Mounted Police Trail. It was at the Wood Mountain historical site, site of the Wood Mountain trading post, and of the original boundary survey camp. It’s a three-hour drive south and east of Regina, on increasingly small roads, where I met local historian and NWMPT curator Hugh Henry.

Technically, the young, untested recruits from Ontario started further east. In their second-hand gear and with their quick training , they were so poorly-equipped for the harsh environment facing them that by the time they reached Wood Mountain they’d already see a number of their horses die and had been beaten down by storm, swamp, and pest. Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, told me how the SK First Nations still recount how the NWMP recruits contracted lice and fleas so badly that they had to teach them how to take off their clothes and put them onto ant hills where the ants could eat the lice and thus relieve the young military force. The thought of the future red-coated pride of Canada buck-naked on the open prairie on their first expedition west to “save” the Indians says a lot about how our history needs to be revisited.

Between Hugh Henry, Jim Daschuk, Kathy Grant, Brenda Peterson and others I learned a lot about the NWMP trail this visit. I’m hoping that some of us will walk the trail in the next year or two, not just to commemorate the brave and young Ontario men who came west, but also the Metis, and First Nations peoples who were there already to meet them, who had walked the trail, and who would soon be pushed off the very land they then called their own.

8 replies on “Two Smooth Stones”

Matthew, If you’re applying for funding for a walk along this trail, you really MUST include that tidbit about the lice and fleas and the need to revisit history. Those two sentences make the point so clearly. And unforgettably.

Thanks Alice. Good advice. I have to admit that it’s an image I couldn’t get out of my mind after Jim Daschuk told me that story. I learned a lot this last trip. Odd how history isn’t always what we’ve been taught.

Personally I might use that good advice about getting rid of lice (should I be so unlucky). We have lots of ants around the place where I live, but then again what to do about one’s hair? Waiting with interest in this proposed walk.

Fascinating detail about the lice. I also like the initial image of warm stones, because in at least one of Saskatchewan’s native languages (possibly Dakota — I can’t remember for sure), stones are categorized grammatically as being something alive. My linguistics prof at U. of Saskatchewan (almost three decades ago) said this was because hot stones pulled from a fire could be buried slightly below the surface with certain kinds of food, that would then slowly cook. Anything helping to bring forth food was considered “alive.”

We used to do exactly that with hot stones in Scouts when I was young – bury them with food and let it cook. This trip I’ve seen some “pemmican holes”, where Metis and First Nations buried and sometimes overwintered their meat….

I had no idea hot-stone cooking was also a Scouts practice. Probably it’s one of those cultural practices that people do the world over.

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