You can find here the radio broadcast of my interview with Radio-Canada, in French, as well as a photo essay by William Burr, also in French, about the trail and our pilgrimage.
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
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.
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”.
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.
There’s a whole vocabulary that I’m learning on this pilgrimage – a language that maybe I should have learned when I lived here, but never did. Lots of farmers and ranchers know this language. Hugh knows it. It’s the vocabulary of place, of the creatures and growing things on this tawny plain.
I have a beginner’s knowledge. I know words like meadowlark and magpie, speargrass and mule deer. But there’s so much more to know. Lark bunting. Buck brush. Short-horned lizard. Swainson’s hawk. The various geographical formations. Any of the myriad of songbirds that fly up as we approach.
Trevor Herriot read from his book at our Val Marie event tonight. We had a great crowd, including friends who drove down all the way from Saskatoon to be there. Trevor emphasized that growing to love something is learning the words that describe its complexity and colour. It’s just natural to give words to what we respect and care for.
I have body, movement and narrative on this trek – now I need words to describe the terrain (my pilgrimage class students know this quartet very well). It has always seemed to me that prejudice between people most often arises from ignorance, and is most often solved when we really get to know someone from that “other” group. Maybe it’s the same with land. Our ignorance can lead to a kind of unconscious prejudice against the very earth that sustains us. Walking, and watching, and learning, mean we become friends. Like the young woman I interviewed tonight who is living three months in a teepee, as did her Métis grandfather. “In a teepee,” she told me, “I’m not shutting out nature or inspecting it like some kind of outsider. A prairie dog burrowed up under my bed frame the other night. Nature is coming to inspect me, sometimes literally, and is welcoming me.”
It would be presumptuous to say that we’ve learned how to listen to the land on this prairie pilgrimage. Some – Hugh for instance – already know the flora and fauna very well, and Rick from his Metis and First Nations background has a sense for how the ever-changing terrain contains messages and directions, and listens intently for them. Hayden has the stamina and openness of youth, and the local people gravitate naturally to his enthusiasm. Me? I’m not sure. I’m listening, but not yet sure what I’m listening for, exactly.
The barmaid/waitress/innkeeper at our first hotel stop last night is from Australia, near Brisbane. In talking with her we spoke about walkabouts, and it came up again this morning as Rick talked about his trip to central Australia some years ago and his contacts there. I guess in some ways this is a prairie walkabout. Or if not a walkabout, then perhaps what the Lakota elder who smudged us the first day called it in Lakota. I cannot remember the term, but he described us as taking a voyage as they once did, where a group of people simply pack up and leave the safety of the camp to go out and explore. He said it was a good thing to do, and smiled at us.
And so we walk, and listen. Yesterday, as the wind abated, we heard so many different bird calls – the eagle, the killdeer, the lark bunting, the meadowlark. The cattle were speaking to us at times, not always happily. And the wind, as it changed, and moved over the terrain, was always new.
A pilgrimage, among other things, is a journey of transformation. Yesterday as we started out Rick started humming some old classic rock tune. Then another came up. Then Hayden sang the first few lines of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”. I guess this is a bit of a prairie wild-side walk, but the transformations in our case are quite different from the classic song! They say there might be some rough weather today. Should be an interesting time of listening.