Alberta – Cruising Cowboy Country

Alberta Canada – By Irene Butler
Pics by Rick Butler

Cattle grazing on soft rolling hills, farmlands a vivid green with new wheat crops, the big unobstructed sky above, Stetson hats and pick-up trucks, small towns with friendly folk were wonderfully ubiquitous on our trails across southern Alberta.

Big_Honkin_TruckHeading from Kimberley towards the Alberta border, the largest truck according to the Guinness Book of Records, caused us to veer off for one last British Columbia stop – Sparwood. And a monstrosity it is; the Titan, a 260 ton tandem axle rear dumping hauler, has a maximum carrying capacity of a 350 ton load. It can hold two Greyhound buses plus two pick-up trucks and is powered by a 16 cylinder, 3300 horse power locomotive engine which when teamed with a generator delivers power to 4 traction motors located on the rear wheels; this generator is powerful enough to supply electricity to 250 modern homes. After 21 years of use hauling coal from the open pit mines in the area, it was put to rest as it was no longer cost efficient to run, with a fuel tank holding 3632 litres of fuel and 1262 litres of oil. We first became aware in Sparwood that 2004 has been declared “Year of the Coal Miner”. Though the time has come to re-think fossil fuel usage, after having lived in a mining community for 27 years, we celebrate the coal miners who live in a dark, dusty and dangerous world to put bread on their family’s tables.

An army of windmills stood tall on the horizon as we approached Pincher Creek, Alberta; the wind power capital of Canada. Row upon row of the silvery poles with arms reaching outward dancing in the wind was magnificent. Known for its relentless winds, the area is a perfect testing ground for wind energy and many companies are testing prototypes. (See Rick’s blog “The Answer My Friend is Blowing in the Wind” for particulars.)

Little Pincher Creek is the home of an exceptional museum of early history in the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village . Twelve original dwellings, including a sod hut, log and frame homes, once belonged to the hardy stock of settlers in the area. Thousands of artefacts fill Fishburn_Schoolthe interiors, bringing the past to life. Our favourite was the old one-room school house, Fishburn School No. 311, built and registered in 1894. We envisioned the old school marm ringing the tarnished brass bell as pupils, who had been up since sunrise feeding chickens and milking old Bessy, noisily manoeuvred their way into the classroom around the pot bellied stove. Grades 1 to 8, with the wee tykes in the front and the tallest youth in the back, often years older than our present-day grade eighters, as work on the ranches often came before studies. Well-used books on desk-tops and stacked high in book-shelves, ink wells and straight pens, coal-oil lamps, chalk dust; the scent of learning, fun, mischief and hardship are presences still flooding the room.

KKootenai_Brownootenai Brown was the colourful character of choice when naming the museum. In a cabin he lived in until 1911, his buckskin jacket is a hang’n on the wall, and his cowboy hat is a rest’n on the table as if ready for use come morn’n. Of Irish descent, he showed up in Canada first at the time of the Caribou gold rush. He later became a constable at Fort Steel and finally settled in Waterton, near Pincher Creek where he became the first superintendent of Waterton Park. Not bad for a fugitive wanted by the United States authorities for murder. After his first Métis wife, Olivia died, he sent his three children to be raised by the church, headed by Father Lacombe, whose hermitage is also a part of the museum village. He later married a Cree woman, Isabella. His shoulder length hair hooked behind his ample ears, his handle-bar moustache and thick brows over twinkling blue eyes make him a recognizable figure on everything from murals to posters in Pincher Creek. Since 1916, he lies buried between his wives on the shores of Waterton Lake.

The Ward Cabin housing the ranch manager and his family was indicative of the prestige allotted to this position. But keeping tabs on 50 burly cowhands and keeping their stomachs filled would not have been an easy chore. An enormous kitchen is half filled with a wood stove and caldron-size pots; the other half is taken up with the authentic round turn-table, seating 15 of the 50 cowhands at one time – no doubt a conversation piece among the area ranches. The spinning centre brought the desired item within each fellow’s reach, which remedied dunking a sleeve in your neighbour’s mashed potatoes.

The Doukhobors, fleeing religious persecution in Russia, came to this area in 1915. A barn, sauna bathhouse and blacksmith shop from this sect are just a few more well-presented glimpses into the past.

A couple of plaid shirted, unclipped and unshaven old timers peered King_Brothersdown at us from a large photo. Farley, our guide with at least a dozen volumes of history stored in his head, filled us in on the bachelor King brothers, who owned a large ranch near Porcupine Hills just north of Pincher Creek. One was known to be good with numbers and the other was a superior rancher. When moseying around town picking up supplies, they would command attention with their antics; such as, one brother wearing one rubber boot and one shoe. With a poker face he would respond to odd looks with, “There’s a 50% chance of rain.” The last brother died eight years ago a millionaire.

Neither the museum nor the Information Centre, which is in the same complex, is government funded. Original fundraising ideas brought in hard dollars; the wealth of artefacts was donated from attic and barn loft treasures of locals; they depend heavily on volunteer help. A play, “The Life of Father Lacombe” was in final rehearsal stage for the summer months. It all sums up to a place not to miss.

The Alpine Restaurant in Pincher Creek should not be by-passed either. A top-sirloin, with Spatsley, a traditional alpine noodle treat saut饤 in butter and onions, and an in-house Caesar salad dressing so flavourful we were tempted to lick the dish, rated an 8 on our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System”.

Head_Smashed_In_Buffalo_JumpNative history is dynamically portrayed at UNESO site, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump  18 km N.W. of Fort McLeod on Hwy 785. The name is entwined in Indian Legend, telling of a young brave who wanted to stand beneath a ledge at the bottom of the cliff to witness the herd of 500 kilogram bison plunging to their death from over the top. He became trapped between the animals and the cliff and when his people came to do the butchering, they found his skull crushed by the weight of the carcasses. It is the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jump in the world. Layers of bones and artefacts, such as knives, scrapers, arrow-heads and pottery were found twelve metres deep at the cliff base. Carbon dating confirmed this sophisticated hunting technique was first used 5,700 years ago (before the great pyramids of Egypt), up until the mid-1800’s. First with only spears and later with bows and arrows, not enough of these massive animals capable of speeds of 50 km per hour could be successfully hunted on foot. Stampeding the bison over the edge of a cliff was an ingenious method to ensure survival of the Blackfoot, which includes 4 tribes; Blackfoot Proper (Siksika), Bloods (Kainai), Northern Peigan (Aapatohsipiikani), and Southern Peigan (Aamsskaapipiikani). Please read my story, “Gift of the Creator” for further insight into a young brave’s dauntless participation in a hunt.

My fascination for dinosaurs is the size of a Brontosaurus. I got my first fix at Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Museum. Driving south down Hwy 4 from Lethbridge, a right onto Hwy 506 sent us back 75 million years in time to where dinosaurs came to lay their eggs. This area was once near the shore of the sea stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Artic Ocean, dividing the continent in two. A short wet season was followed by the longer dry season when the eggs were laid. Periodically, the rivers flooded due to torrential rains, burying the landscape, including the eggs under layers of silt and clay. At the end of the ice age 10,000 years ago, glacial streams carved out the coulee bringing the deeply buried nests to the surface. Thirteen nests, each with up to eight eggs were found of the Hadrosaur, a duck-billed, vegetarian, which full grown stood 14 ft high and 23 ft long. Most amazing was the embryo curled up in a shell with every bone intact, though palaeontologists used three embryos to make this one complete.

Back on Hwy 4 we drove to Milk River, then took a left onto Hwy 501 Writing_on_Stone_Prov_Parkto Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park (403) 647-2364 . The mushroom shaped rock formations, the Hoodoos, are spectacular in this area. As soon as we purchased our tickets for the guided tour, several cracks of thunder and streaks of lightening ripped the seams of black clouds releasing buckets of rain. Watching the roads turn into rivers from beneath a shelter, we were not sure if the tour would proceed. Though it was still drizzling at 2:00 p.m., the lightening had stopped, and eight soggy people boarded the bus to the site. Kyle, a full-blooded Blackfoot, led us past the petroglyphs scratched onto the sandstone cliffs with bones or antlers, and pictographs of red ochre created by his ancestors. Some, according to archaeologists date back 3,500 years. Warriors holding large body shields used before these peoples had horses were from the pre-historic period. Human figures in several stances with horses are from historic times; also spears, bows, tepees, travois, and headdresses. Interpreting the rock art, Kyle relayed the difference of opinion even among the elders. Some felt the art was a record of a spirit dream during a vision quest, when a young man (and occasionally a woman) spent several days fasting and praying for a vision at this sacred place; others believe it was the work of spirits. Shamans used the images to predict the future.

Leaving the site late, we stopped at Taber for the night. Nearing Drumheller the next day, we marvelled at the Badlands, honed by receding glaciers and erosion exposing distinct layers of sandstone, mudstone, coal and shale. Hotel and motel signs read, “No Vacancy”, which should not have surprised us, being Canada Day. Driving back to East Coullee we booked into the one and only hotel in town, with a décor still from the 70’s, but clean and comfortable. With Emili still raring to go we drove back down Hwy 10. Wayne_AlbertaAt Rosedale we took 10X and crossed nine bridges before pulling into the Last Chance Saloon and Rosedeer Hotel in Wayne. A favourite watering-hole for Harley dudes, about a dozen revved in and out while we were there. The owner, Fred Dayman, served up the day’s special, mouth-watering mushroom burgers with fries. A few locals pointed out three bullet holes in the wall. The story goes, when three strangers refused to pay for their drinks, the bartender, feeling action speaks louder than words, fired a .45 revolver above each of their heads. Wild tales abound of the rough, tough days when two thousand men worked in the coal mine that once flourished across the street. Though the population now is only 30, Fred believes the community of Wayne is about to make a comeback. Two fellows at the next table had  on brand-new shirts, advertising their newly opened business. The one fellow, Pat, spent 30 years in the nearby Penitentiary; oh, as the Chief of Education, not as an inmate, and his partner, Greg, has taught high school Social Studies in Drumheller since 1972, making them experts on the territory. We wish them well in their new venture (toll-free 888-823-3118).

At last, the Royal Tyrrell MuseumRoyal_Tyrell_Museum -Tyrannosaurus Rex, stalking anything that moved and disassembling its catch with serrated knife teeth; raptors swarming their prey; Hadrasaurs feeding on lush greens deep in the camouflage of giant ferns and reeds amongst the conifers; and locals, such as the Edmontosaurus, with projecting bone plates along its head and shoulders as a deterrent to the meat-eating Albertosaurus. And not only was the Era of dinosaurs exhibited. An incredible walk through 4 billion years of time with fossilized remains of creatures stranger than fiction; the Dunkleosteus, a 10 metre long fish with boney armour protecting its head and parts of its body; 5 metre sponges, the tallest animals to ever live at the bottom of the sea; horses the size of rabbits.

Geologist, Joseph B.Tyrrell, after whom the museum was named, came to the area in 1884 looking for coal reserves, and finding as well a gold mine of dinosaurs.

Our “id” reined as we climbed the 106 steps through the innards of the world’s largest dinosaur, to view the badlands from between the teeth of its open mouth. This 80 ft tall, 145,000 lbs of steel and concrete T-Rex dominates Centennial Park.

Around 4:00 p.m. we pulled into Oyen, a small town near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border for the night. “Oy, yoy, yoy,” I muttered my Ukrainian catchphrase for all situations, this time with an intonation expressing disbelief, upon finding out the price of a room at the lone Antelope Inn. “That’s more than we have paid for a room even in big cities”, slipped from between my flabbergasted lips. “It ’tis what it ’tis”, was the clerks sober response. We headed Emili a hour further down the highway to Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

We have gained much understanding and appreciation of Alberta’s past and present; the rich heritage of the Blackfoot; the determined and courageous pioneers; coal mining history; and the current cattle ranchers and farmers who toil from dawn to dusk in a business more volatile than the stock markets.

For those of you who have been following our journey, my toe is ready to go; into runners and hiking boots that is.

Cowboy wisdom, “Don’t squat with your spurs on.”
Irene & Rick


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