Clink on the link below for the article that will appear tomorrow (Aug 28 2015) in the Prairie Post. Thanks to Matthew Liebenberg for his questions and writing!
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.
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)
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.”
Yesterday two of our group of four pilgrims ended their leg of the walk. Rick Kotowich will be staying for the community event tonight in Val Marie, and then heading home, perhaps to join us again near the end of the pilgrimage. My former teaching assistant, Hayden Thomassin, managed to find a spot on the Greyhound to Regina and is in place for his flight home today.
Already well over 100 km traversed. We’ve met some very nice people – in the photo above, three local ranch families (thanks esp to Keith and Margaret Walker and to Howard and Fern Hanson!) came together to meet us as we passed one of the few roads that day. They brought watermelon, rhubarb cake, and cold water, and lots of smiles. We needed the break and the refreshment. It was perhaps our hardest walking – through mile after mile of natural prairie grassland, over cactus and dry bog and sage and speargrass. By the end of the walk, our laces were furry with the speargrass that worked its way into my shoes and caused a painful blister. Our companions on this portion of the walk were Dave and Esther Green on horseback. We also came across all kinds of wildlife: deer, antelope, coyote, Swainson’s hawks with their scratchy cries overhead, and the tail end of a small horned lizard skittering down a hole. None of the rattlesnakes that live in these hills, unfortunately (or fortunately!).
At the end of the day I stumbled across a huge solitary boulder, rubbed smooth over years by the bison herds now gone. When my companions went to see it, they said: “didn’t you see? It wasn’t a boulder but a sleeping buffalo”. Sure enough, it was in the shape of a sleeping bison. Yet another of the magical places that sit alone on this land.
Hugh and I will miss Hayden and Rick. Rick’s attention to the spirit and the feeling of the land was inspirational, and Hayden brought a wonderful openness and enthusiasm to this first experience. More pilgrims are joining us today, so the company will change. But the journey, and the land, will stay the same.
(Photos by Marshall Drummond of Val Marie)
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.
My North West Mounted Police Trail walk (AKA Sitting Bull Trail Walk, Lakota Trail pilgrimage, Metis Trail pilgrimage) begins very shortly, on July 17th! Our small group of pilgrims will be greeted at Wood Mountain (Lakota) First Nation with a smudging ceremony and a blessing to send us off. As well, there will be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police ceremony to send us off, as we begin our three week walk. If you would like to donate to help create the documentary of the walk, please see https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/walking-the-medicine-line#/story. We have already met our initial goal, but additional funds raised will go toward hiring a sound person and camera-person to make the documentary even better. Thank-you!
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
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I have in my jacket pocket two smooth stones – river pebbles, worn by years of exposure first to running water, and then to wind, snow, rain and sun. When I picked them up they were still so warm from the late autumn Saskatchewan sun that I could put my hand in my pocket and feel the warmth lingering there.
The stones come from the foot of the first concrete marker in the North West Mounted Police Trail. It was at the Wood Mountain historical site, site of the Wood Mountain trading post, and of the original boundary survey camp. It’s a three-hour drive south and east of Regina, on increasingly small roads, where I met local historian and NWMPT curator Hugh Henry.
Technically, the young, untested recruits from Ontario started further east. In their second-hand gear and with their quick training , they were so poorly-equipped for the harsh environment facing them that by the time they reached Wood Mountain they’d already see a number of their horses die and had been beaten down by storm, swamp, and pest. Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, told me how the SK First Nations still recount how the NWMP recruits contracted lice and fleas so badly that they had to teach them how to take off their clothes and put them onto ant hills where the ants could eat the lice and thus relieve the young military force. The thought of the future red-coated pride of Canada buck-naked on the open prairie on their first expedition west to “save” the Indians says a lot about how our history needs to be revisited.
Between Hugh Henry, Jim Daschuk, Kathy Grant, Brenda Peterson and others I learned a lot about the NWMP trail this visit. I’m hoping that some of us will walk the trail in the next year or two, not just to commemorate the brave and young Ontario men who came west, but also the Metis, and First Nations peoples who were there already to meet them, who had walked the trail, and who would soon be pushed off the very land they then called their own.