Carved into Hands and Rock

hands after a week

After 150 km or so, I’m surprised by my hands. They’ve been chipped and cut and scraped and burnt, pricked by mosquitoes and cactus and sharp straw and torn by caraganas and baked in the constant sun. They seem like different hands from the ones I started out with, at the beginning of the Battleford Trail. If a pilgrimage is a journey of transformation, I hope that what’s happening to my hands is also happening to my mind and heart. Today and yesterday we stayed at the Herschel Retreat House, where from the Ancient Echoes Archaeological Centre we walked out (on our first and only day off) to see petroglyphs that have been radio-carbon dated to the first century. The same years as Jesus walked, some ancestor of the Blackfoot carved these symbols into the dolomite rock.

petroglyph Herschel

and this was a potholder at the Herschel Retreat Centre (Herschel SK, population 31). We used the potholder for a day before actually realizing the design, which echoes the petroglyph:

bison potholder

 

Learning to Smell

brown eyed susans and tree

Bit by bit, as you walk slowly across the land, senses you don’t use normally come to life. For me the most surprising is smell. You can smell canola fields from quite far away, if you’re downwind. The smell of fresh hay is a smell of my youth…it makes me happy. Sage is everywhere – that beautiful prairie perfume that fills your nostrils with such a welcome. I have some sprigs of it drying in my hat.

buffalo berries

Buffalo berries (above) don’t smell that much, but the green patch they’re in did. The green, or dry, smell of prairie grasses, as you walk through in the early evening especially, is a treat. Even the smell of cow manure, or bull manure (two days ago they fetched a young bull out of our camping yard just hours before we got there apparently, is a dark spice – just don’t step in it! I’ve learned, in the smudges, to appreciate the good smell of moist, clean and unchemicaled tobacco…so different from the cigarette addictions I grew up witnessing. Caragana bushes smell like shade. Alkali water stinks as you walk by, tickling your nose with the falseness of water that you can’t drink. And here and there, the best: the smell of green things, of dark earth and poplar shadow under an unblinking sun.

dead tree in prairie

Smudging and Walking

smudging or just before

There aren’t any pictures, really. That’s because we don’t want to disturb or disrespect what we’re doing by recording it. Just about every morning, before we start walking, Rick Kotowich, a Métis/First Nation walker, smudges our group and we reflect on what we’re thankful for and what we hope for, give thanks for the land and the people we meet. A few times, local ranchers or farmers happen by to see us just as we’re about to begin, and it’s been interesting: every one has been interested in joining in. The elements of the smudge, sage and sweetgrass, reflect the country we’re walking through (besides buckbrush, there’s been lots of sage growing wild). We remember ourselves and the land we’re walking through with the smudge. And in this dry year, we are fastidious about making sure everything is done safely.

tree against stormcloud

quotes of the day (yesterday) from a local rancher, looking out over the horizon as he talked to us: “awful nice country…until the farmers found it.” Or from Fred, one of the walkers, looking at his tent: “my mess is changing, which I’m taking as a sign of hope”.

Saskatchewan Melancholy

abandoned barn on walk.jpg

There’s a certain forlornness to Saskatchewan’s countryside, despite the vitality of so many of its cities, towns, and First Nations. When you’re walking 20-25 km through the countryside, you see a lot of abandoned farmsteads. The rural areas have emptied out. Today we passed a cemetery for a town that no longer exists, and the community centre that sheltered us two nights ago was once a local schoolhouse. Today it’s managed by enthusiastic locals – who fed us supper! Many of the smallest towns no longer exist, others are struggling to find purpose. Three nights ago, we camped in Sanctuary, where only an abandoned elevator remains of what was once a thriving community. As you walk, everywhere you look there are old buildings falling into the earth, rusted implements dark red against the grain.

To walk the Battleford Trail is to remember one very important fact: the economic forces that forced the First Nations north to Battleford (and off the land that would stop being feeding ground for bison and soon become a vast factory landscape for wheat, barley and other grains) is still going on. In the late 1800s, those market forces forced out the Indigenous peoples. In the mid to late 1900s, they forced out the small towns and villages of pioneers who settled the prairies.

yield sign Sanctuary.jpg

So, what happens now? Can the children of those settlers, and the children of those First Nations, now live together, both subject to the market forces that have done so much to change the prairies?

(thanks to Ken Wilson for coming up with the phrase ‘Saskatchewan Melancholy’. The photo below shows one of dozens and dozens of abandoned farmyards we’ve passed or stayed at, sometimes only evident by depressions in the earth. Last night we stayed at an old farmyard and looked at the remains of a very solid house foundation, overlooking a slough, protected by a caragana hedge, no longer inhabited. Life changes, especially on the prairies)

abandoned farmstead near Greenam

 

The Kindness of Strangers

Apple-cinnamon cookies, given by the good folks of Kyle Lutheran as we passed by (too late for the service, but not the snacks!). Iced-tea and cookies from the young women of the Swift Current Hutterite Colony. Cold water, muffins and washroom use (always appreciated!) from the Elliott family, near Otter Springs, who saw us passing and took up the binoculars to have a better look.

Hutterite women offering iced tea

People ask what the difference between pilgrimage and tourism might be. One of the main differences, I’ve discovered, is how the pilgrim relies on the kindness of strangers. Especially on an arid prairie landscape, both feet blistered, under 28 degree Celsius heat and no wind or shade, a refill of water is a blessing, pure and simple.

Elliott family welcome.jpg

Tonight we’re resting and recharging in rented rooms in Elrose SK. Only 16 or 17 km today, but they were hot ones…I was thankful for the mid-day break, sitting on a tarp in the midst of a rare oasis of cottonwood poplars listening to the red-winged blackbirds complain at our intrusion. White Bear Lake was a surprise. Tomorrow we pass by Otter’s Creek and see the depression in the earth where a home was once built into the earth. This trail seeps history at every step.

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earthen home Matador SK

 

Honouring the Ancestors

grandfather rock

Almost 30 km on foot today, so my fellow trekkers tell me. It FELT long, that’s for sure. Down, over and back up the beautiful South SK River valley, where in 1952 my mother posed for Everett Baker for this photo (discovered by Hugh Henry of the SHFS). I laid tobacco, borrowed from Ken Wilson, at the spot in memory of my mother, who died last year. Then, moments later, we also laid tobacco at the grandfather stone (above). You can feel how smooth and cool the rock is, even in the prairie sun, worn by centuries of bison rubbing themselves against ‘grandfather’

Mom by Everett Baker 1952 SHFS .jpg

Finally, after the first really painful day of walking, arriving in Kyle, where gracious locals welcomed us for an evening (below). Thanks to all my relatives who came out in addition, and to Cathy and John, from Outlook! It was fun to see the country churches where I preached as a young student. The next morning, the men eating breakfast at the hotel all seemed to know who we are, offering coffee and advice on socks (wear two – avoids blisters, said one quietly, on his way out). Small town Saskatchewan….we’ve been treated graciously. And even, last night, hot showers!

kyle meeting Sat Aug 5

What the Battleford Trail Means

IMG_2444.jpg

On the 150th anniversary of Canada, we just walked today by a traditional Indigenous burial site that has probably existed for 4,000 years. We’re all walking this trail for different reasons. Mine are these: 1/ to draw attention to the fact that there IS a trail of national historical importance, walked by Big Bear and his starving and freezing Plains Cree, right after they signed Treaty 6, the route run by the Métis freighters hauling goods overland from the end of the CPR line at Swift Current to Battleford in 1882, and the route taken by Col, Otter and his troops on their way to fight the North-West Rebellion. And 2/ to show that it’s important to remember that there is a public interest in access even to historic trails on private land. And 3/ to underline the importance of the Indigenous peoples to the history of Canada and Saskatchewan, and the long history they have in this area.