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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Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches

May 23 a red-serge letter day

NWMP trek

May 23, 1873, the Dominion of Canada created the North West Mounted Police. Many were misfits. Quite a number of the first recruits were sent home, some went home when they saw the conditions. But they proved themselves, acting bravely, often honourably and occasionally even nobly, despite bureaucratic bungling and sometimes terrible direction from a far-away government.

The NWMP were poorly equipped, fitted out with red coats (Macdonald didn’t want the Americans to think they were a military unit, but rather a police force), and had to go through the States to get to their Canadian posts, because there was no railroad. Their first task was to trek to the North West Territories so recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to take advantage of the temporary power vacuum in the west created by the American Civil War’s effects, to seal the border against the United States (a number of the American “wolfers” were themselves Civil War vets and perhaps sufferers from what we would now call PTSD). They were to gain the trust of the First Nations, which they for the most part did, a trust that their political masters later occasionally asked them to betray, a turnaround that deeply disappointed and forever marked some of the first recruits.

Canada would not be the country it is without the red coats. But we could do a lot of learning from their first years, still. Or again.

govt sign three

Every Day a Bit More Real

Pine Cree Park 2014

While I plan conferences and teach pilgrimage classes here in Montreal, my colleague Hugh Henry has been doing the heavy lifting of contacting folks along our planned walking route in Saskatchewan. Some of the on-the-ground details remain to be determined. But the route is set, and those who would like to walk with us for a day, a few days, or longer, are encouraged to contact the SK Historical and Folklore Society, at http://shfs.ca/contact/   for more information and to register their names for the walk.

Today I met with two young film-makers who would like to be part of the project. Some of you may hear from them soon, as they are setting up a crowd-funding site.

In the meantime, here is the tentative itinerary:

NWMP Trail – Walk Schedule

July 17   arrive at Wood Mountain Post Prov. Historic Site  Accommodation: camp at Wood Mountain Regional Park (adjacent to Post – pool, showers, food service)  Activities: tour Wood Mountain Post; Rodeo and Ranch Museum; NWMP cemetery

July 18 trek ‘commissioning’ event in morning at Wood Mountain Post; walk through W. M. First Nation to Orthodox church south of Glentworth  distance: est 13 miles/21 km  Accommodation: tenting at church yard; hotel in Glentworth (food service)  Bike Hwy 18 – 19 mi./29 km to Glentworth

July 19 from church to McCord     distance: est. 12 mi /19 km Accommodation: tenting at campground next to McCord museum (store and service station in town)  Bike Hwy 18 – 8 mi./13 km to McCord

July 20 from McCord to Mankota   distance: est. 11 mi /17.5 km Accommodation: hotel in Mankota. or tenting in town; showersOther events: public presentation about history of NWMP Trail markers; reconsidering the history  Bike Hwy 18 – 11 mi. to Mankota

July 21 from Mankota to Walker farmyard     distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Walker farmyard  Bike Hwy 18 – 41mi. to Val Marie

July 22 from Walker farm to farm at corner of Hwy 18, E of Val Marie. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting in farmyard    

 July 23 from farm to Val Marie. distance: est. 9 mi / 14 km  Accommodation: Val Marie hotel / convent / The Crossing, campground in town  

 July 24 rest day in Val Marie Activities – visit Grasslands N.P. interpretive centre; Prairie Wind and Silver Sage; etc. Program in evening – presentations at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage (Museum); campfire sing-along Note: `Sleep under the Stars` event at Grasslands National Park on July 25.

 July 25 from Val Marie to Range 15/16 road.       distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in abandoned farmyard

 July 26 from Range 15/16 road to Jensen family ranch. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in Jensen Ranch yard

 July 27 from Jensen Ranch along Frenchman; detour to Bible Camp. distance: est. 8 mi / 13 km Accommodation: Riverview Bible Camp on Hwy #37, south of Frenchman (toilets, showers, campfire)

July 28 from Bible Camp to Gronhovd farm. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Gronhovd yard

July 29 Gronhovd farm to Wig farm (?) along Frenchman river. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 kmAccommodation: tenting at farmyard  

July 30 Wig farm (?) to Chimney Coulee. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Chimney Coulee  

 July 31 Chimney Coulee to Eastend. distance: est. 3.5 mi / 5 km Accommodation: Cypress Hotel, Riverview Motel, B&Bs, camp at Pine Cree Reg. Park

August 1 Rest day in Eastend SHFS-sponsored field trips and presentations (archaeology, geology, paleontology, local history, etc.). Communal supper (café or catered) Accommodations: hotel, motel, B&B, Park

Aug. 2  from Eastend to Ravenscrag corner, Hwy 13. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km  Accommodation: tenting in Arnal farmyard

Aug. 3  from Ravenscrag corner to farm near Robsart. distance: est. 11 mi /18 km  Accommodation: tenting in farmyard near Robsart

Aug. 4  from Robsart to Cypress Lake. distance: est. 15 mi / 24 km Accommodation: tenting at Cypress Lake (no facilities)

Aug. 5             morning at Lake; Cypress Lake to Brost Ranch distance: est. 6 mi / 9.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Clint Brost ranch.     NWMP patrol station (Cottonwood Coulee ?)

Aug. 6  Brost ranch to Parsonage Ranch. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tent at Parsonage Ranch

Aug. 7   Parsonage Ranch to Ft. Walsh distance: est. 5 mi / 8 km Event: welcoming celebration

 *Home*

 

Notes

  1. Walkers are responsible for providing all of their personal needs. A support vehicle will follow walkers to carry food, bedding and other supplies. Note the towns passed along the route and the possibility of booking motel or related accommodations. (On your own for this.)
  1. Suggested bike route at beginning of trek is on paved Hwy and parallels the NWMP Trail. There is the opportunity to join walkers during stops at Wood Mountain, McCord, Mankota or Val Marie. Daily travel distances and pace to be determined by individual bikers.
  1. There may be opportunities to trace the Trail on horseback, along dirt roads or through pastures. Details on dates and locations will be determined after landowners have been consulted, and may be affected by weather events.
  1. The daily walk schedule may be affected by weather, so distances and stops are approximate. Also, the number of walkers able to access cultivated fields may be restricted by landowners.

NWMPT map SHFS

Scouting the Trail

Today we scouted the beginning of the North-West Mounted Police Trail. It meant piling five of us into a big Dodge Ram and pounding over the Wood Mountain hills. Thelma, a renowned poet and historian from the area, called it the “Boundary Commission Trail” several times, since the original NWMP trek was further north. Or it might be the “Metis Trail”, or the “Major Walsh” trail (although she doesn’t have kind words for him).

Anyway, we scouted it. Today we pulled out maps. Come summer we will walk.

Between then and now dreams and visions.