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”.

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

Coming up in August!

In August we’re walking an incredibly important trail from Swift Current to Fort Battleford – a trail used by First Nations, Métis overland freighters, and Colonel Otter’s Canadian militia. Big Bear, after signing Treaty Four, came overland near here. We need to remember our important historical paths, and in the spirit of the TRC, to point out to non-Indigenous peoples how Canadian history has been shaped and formed by the removal of the First Peoples from the land. Are you interested in walking or helping sponsor a walker? You can!

A Five-Minute Cooks’ Tour

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on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404

Crossing the Line

clouds and direction sign over SC SK

“Well, you know, it’s just across the Line,” my aunt said to me, about a town in North Dakota that my cousins were visiting. I haven’t heard that word for a while. In Montreal they don’t use it. But I grew up in Saskatchewan hearing it. “The Line”. Do you know where that word for the US border comes from, I asked my aunt? “No idea,” she answered.

Today is national aboriginal day. The 20th such day, and the first since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its recommendations. Though it’s a small thing, one of the things we who are Settlers can do to mark this day is to remember where some of our words come from. They’re signs of a history willfully forgotten.

I grew up in Treaty Four land – except there were no “Indians”. The First Nations were, for me, like the ancient Egyptians: important people no longer around. What I DIDN’T know, because it wasn’t in my schoolbooks or taught in my classes, or talked about by my parents or grandparents, was that the original inhabitants had only been gone 85 years or so when I was born. The big secret I learned only years later was that they had been pushed off the land they had just signed title to, to make way for people like my grandparents and me.

Using the word “The Line” for the border is a relic of the days not so long ago when the 49th parallel was called “The Medicine Line” by the First Nations, especially the Lakota. They could cross it and the American Army, who were fighting a vicious battle with them south of the border, would not follow. This was good medicine, and at the time, the Canadian government was generally respected for such protection. Soon enough, our government starved the Lakota back south, and pushed the so-called ‘Canadian Indians’ north by starvation, an intentional policy to make an “Indian-free” land-belt for the railroad and its Settlers.

When we say “the Line” for the border, we echo those days. Even better, then: let us actually remember them – with honesty, apology, and intent to make good what was wrongly done.