Kathryn Scott, Madonna Hamel and Matthew Anderson try to remember the words and harmonies to Java Jive. We were camping overnight at Chimney Coulee, near Eastend SK, and half-way through our group’s 350 km trek along the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail. This is a moment from a summer 2015 pilgrimage organized by Hugh Henry and Matthew Anderson. The video was shot by James Page, photographer, from Val Marie SK. on the NWMP Patrol Trail pilgrimage July 30, 2015
Tonight Greg Gust and I sat in the darkness on the dock of their cottage, heads back, cool wind coming off the water, Scotch in our hands, and looked up at the stars. We saw two shooting stars and several satellites. I tried with my usual lack of success to identify constellations other than the Big Dipper. The sky was so alive that even the Milky Way made an appearance, stretching its belt from horizon to horizon, one tree-shadowed end of the lake to the other. On the NWMP trail pilgrimage, I remember several times standing breathless beside my tent, under the dome of such a night sky, amazed at how alive the heavens could be when I was far from the ambient light of a city that never stops. Even though, because of 24-hour artificial light, many of us never see such a bright night sky now, for most of history it’s been the reverse. We are among the first generations to be denied, or better, to deny ourselves, the most amazing cinema of all – the stars that have been humanity’s companions in the deep darkness from the beginning.
Likewise with movement. We tend to think of walking as an alternative activity – something we do only if we have time, something that we choose to do. For most of history walking was not a choice but a necessity. Our default is car travel, and so in the last hundred years only, we’ve come to think of distance in terms of hours (three and a half hours from Montreal) and of vectors (green line metro until Place des Arts, then bus 80).
In walking – feeling the real, physical distance in our feet, in actually seeing the night sky, and in so many other ways, we don’t even know what parts of the long and rich human heritage we’ve been missing. It’s been good to rediscover some of this. And there’s so much more. Even when there are only two shooting stars.
There were times, walking, where I forgot about our guides on the trail – the North West Mounted Police markers that Everett Baker put up in 1960 and 61. After all, that was over 50 years ago. Even eight foot concrete posts don’t always last that long, when neglected. We couldn’t always find them. Sometimes they’d been knocked down by cattle or vandalized. And sometimes, to avoid walking on crop, or because they haven’t been seen for decades, we just couldn’t find them. But Hugh, who is responsible for the posts on behalf of the SK History and Folklore Society, always had them in mind. In our three weeks of walking we found about 25 that were not on their maps or databases. Every time Hugh would kneel by the post and get the GPS coordinates for their survey. More than once he looked like an old-time pilgrim, kneeling at a roadside shrine. Which, in a sense, those posts are.
The magnificent post photos were taken by Branimir Gjetvaj, whose photography website is http://www.branimirphoto.ca. The photo of Hugh kneeling is mine.
My thanks to George Tsougrianis, who did a great job on this documentary, putting it together in two days! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLUdJZC72GU&feature=youtu.be&t=2m45s
One of the pleasures of this North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk was that I had the chance to do the last section of it in the company of some of the same folks who walked the St Olaf trail in Norway with me in 2013. Pictured are Allen Jorgenson, Kathryn Scott, and Gwenanne Jorgenson. The Jorgensons and I caught up (Gwenanne was a little less camera shy) and Kathryn and I got to sing and walk to our heart’s content. And Allen and I shared poetry. Mostly, the walking and lack of paper led to Haiku. Here’s one:
Listen! the trail says, While you pilgrims toss and dream Night’s creatures walk on.
That’s a prairie way of saying it. The expression can mean anything from hot temperatures to a tornado, and is usually delivered with the same inflection no matter which.
I found myself saying it on the second last day of the NWMP trail pilgrimage. We were walking atop a tableland of prairie grass. We’d slowed to look at tepee rings – about a dozen of them, stretching across several high hills. Just then there’d been a magical moment, as a small herd of unbroken horses wheeled counterclockwise around us at full gallop, circling to come up right behind Madonna, who was behind us and so intently peering at some of the rocks that she didn’t notice the animals, clustered and shivering, in turn peering at her. Then suddenly the horses were gone again, and we found ourselves looking up at an increasingly black, roiling cloud that stretched from one horizon to the other. A group of cattle nearby starting lowing – a plaintive, anxious sound. A muscular north wind came up, and with it the first drops of rain, pelting hard and from an angle. Some kind of weather coming.
We were too far from any coulees to take shelter, and there were no trees (not that trees would have been a good idea anyway). Gwenanne had found a small cut in the prairie, a few meters deep, and the group of us huddled in there. I still had some hot tea, but when the skies started growling thunder, some of us went to our elbows. The cattle were making very unhappy, frightened sounds. Rain beat down and lightning cracked. “It’s the bear principle,” I joked, “you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than the other person.” “Good, well one time to be happy I’m the shortest,” announced Madonna.
We found out later there was an extreme weather warning for wind and thunderstorms for our area at that moment. Just like the prairies, I thought, to give us such an experience on the second last day of trekking. The wind was so strong that the storm blew over, and drying out happened quickly, although the temperature had dropped precipitously. It was a howling, cold, night, and by the time the vehicles were moved and the tents put up we only had time for some soup. Communitas in a crowded van. I crawled in to my tent and listened a while to the gusts buffeting the nylon and straining at the stakes. Then I put in earplugs and borrowed in. Getting used to the prairie isn’t just beautiful sunsets and endless days of watching deer spring out of the valleys. It’s also this. A reminder just before parting. Some kind of weather.
It’s raining lightly, tonight, at the Brost ranch. While there was still light, we headed past the ranch-house beside us, and down a grassy path to an old monument half-hidden about a half-kilometre away in the trees. It’s a small, mostly-forgotten concrete marker that says “North West Mounted Police post Cottonwood Coulee, 1878-1885”. The rancher told us it was there. Hugh knew there was such a marker, from the Everett Baker slides, taken in the 1950s and 60s. No one knows when the marker dates from. As we stood on the site of the old fort, over the hill, the sun was setting in brilliant golds and reds. Do you see that? asked Madonna, pointing. From the top of the coulee, a stag is watching us, framed against a sky like a painting.
Tonight’s dinner was a good example of communitas. Each of us brought something to the table – the Jorgensons brought pasta and pesto, Rick his hamburgers and onions, Madonna a lentil casserole, and I had my rations. we made a feast of it, laughing and teasing each other. Two days left in the walk, and I am disturbed that my mind is already starting to turn away from blisters and feet and the history of these hills to scheduling back in Montreal. Food tastes so good when you’ve waked so far for it, I think.
Speaking of eating, on our way back from the monument, the yard is full of horses, together with some cattle and a donkey. One of the horses is so interested in my camera that s/he looks like they want to eat it. We get back, only to hear from Gwenanne that one of the horses was nibbling at our tents. The ranchers tell a story of a local hunter who left his new truck in the field only to come back and find it scratched and all the plastic eaten off. Apparently, the horses like to nibble. As I write this, it’s dark, and there are horse sounds all around. I will move the van somewhere closer to the tent, and hope for the best.The group head off to sleep. There’s a neighing sound, somewhere close by. “I’d better check,” Madonna laughs nervously. “They might be eating my tent by now”.
Yesterday, while walking the long, long 16 miles of road between the Lacelle farm and Cypress Lake, my mobile rang and I was asked for an interview. The person on the other end of the phone was from Radio Canada in Regina. He was a very kind, very nice man named William, from Ottawa originally. We spoke English in our initial conversation. When we switched to French I was nervous. I told him that for me, part of the reason for this pilgrimage is to learn the language of the prairie. He seemed intrigued. What do you mean, the language of the prairie? Words that I grew up learning, I said. Or at least, words I grew up hearing, words I used to know, or that I feel I should know as part of my heritage and patrimony, but don’t remember. For instance, words about animals.
We’ve seen so many different kinds of wildlife, I told him.
Oh yes, he asked? Can you tell me some of what you’ve seen?
That’s when my words – and my memory – failed completely. How do you say badger in French? Or antelope? And while I know the word for deer, I completely mispronounced it. I probably said ‘brain’. Thankfully, William didn’t laugh out loud. As for the birds, for all of the times I’ve asked Hugh or Trevor Herriot for names, I could barely remember a single one we’ve seen. The list of what I forgot is long:
On the open prairie:
Sprague’s Pipit – who make a lovely, downward spiral whistle as they drop; Swainson’s hawk – making a high, plaintive screech as we pass by; Bald eagle – the immature birds looking like golden eagles; Chestnut coloured longspur; Sparrows – who always make me feel at home
In farmyards and old abandoned farmyards:
Great Horned owl – beautiful, and so quiet as they fly; Barn swallows; Nighthawk – thin as a stick, on top of fenceposts; Mourning doves – waking us up in the morning in our tents, just like the city; Magpies – those familiar, raucous scavengers; Ravens; crows
On roadsides, crops and crop borders:
Meadowlark – the beautiful, multifluted song that sounds like the prairie; Horned lark; Blackbirds – with their “chherk, chherk” rough voices; Red-winged blackbird – reminding me of Quebec ditches; Yellow-headed blackbird – a shock when I first saw one; Eastern Kingbird; Western Kingbird; Sharp tailed grouse – thumping away as we walk by; Grey partridge – always a shock to the adrenaline as they wait and then bolt; Lark bunting
On the gravel road:
Kildeer – skinny legs running; Blackbirds – filling their beaks with the black crickets that hop here and there across the dust
So belatedly: there you are, William. Better late than never, I hope. We’ve spent a lot of our time looking up, and looking out, on this pilgrimage. It’s too bad I couldn’t say this for the interview. Like any new language, the language of the prairie takes practice. I can tell I need a lot more practice. I’m glad that there are three more days of land, both crop and pastureland, where I can watch and practice a bit more. (photos courtesy of James Page)
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.
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.