Monday, October 4, 2021

Gifts from the Road : St. Walburg to Onion Lake Cree Nation

 We allowed ourselves a bit of a slow start this morning, perhaps to savor the last days of our time in Saskatchewan, but also in the hopes that by the time we'd hiked the 45 km of road we'd intended to cover today darkness wouldn't be too far off.  As with most days on the trail, things didn't end up as we'd planned, but today it was the result of several unexpected blessings.  It almost felt like the trail in Saskatchewan was bestowing a series of parting gifts on the eve of our departure. 

After watching a beautiful pink and gold prairie sunrise we set off through the chilly morning, our breath making feathery patterns in the -5°C air. We passed under the wooden archway for the Trans Canada Trail, and soon found ourselves crunching through frosty yellow aspen leaves that carpeted the treed pathway. 

As we trekked along through the beautiful golden corridor of trees we could hear the now familiar sounds of geese honking overhead, cows mooing in a nearby field, and coyotes yipping somewhere in the far distance.  Today these sounds were joined by the soft crunching noises of a flock of grazing sheep.  We envied them their thick-looking fleece, but noticed that the soft brown ones in the group were covered in a thin layer of white frost on top! 

Suddenly we saw a large, dark brown shape swiftly and silently running alongside the fence beside us.  A large chocolate brown llama had come to check us out!  As Sean walked over to say hello and give it a friendly pat, the tall, regal creature haughtily stuck its nose in the air.  It proceeded to sniff back and forth while looking down its nose with large, soulful brown eyes and deftly swiveling its log furry ears forwards and backwards.  When Sean reached up to give it a pat, it let out a great big sneeze at him before unabashedly enjoying a good rub on the nose.  


As we left the beautiful treed section of pathway behind and headed out of St. Walburg we received our first treat for the day.  The next 8 km of road were paved!  We glided almost effortlessly along, enjoying the sun soaked fields under a clear blue sky.  Many of the leaves had already fallen, but those that hadn't were a rich, coppery brown or a deep golden yellow.  These soft accents complimented the tapestry of warm dark brown, faded green, and pale blond fields that covered the rolling hills around us.  

As we were trekking along, thinking about all the places we've visited this year and how fortunate we've been, we spotted something we haven't seen in a while - a gopher!  The small, light brown ground squirrel horrifyingly shot across the road in front of an approaching pickup truck.  When it reached safety it sat there emitting high pitched hisses of indignation.  Throughout the morning we heard many of its friends and relations doing the same thing.  We've missed these cute furry critters over the past few weeks, and had been wondering if we were now too far north for them or whether they'd gone into hibernation already. 

Our lovely paved road inevitably turned to gravel, but that turned out to be another blessing - it was hard packed, allowing maximum enjoyment and requiring minimum effort to progress forward.  As we passed large cattle ranches, many of which were identified as Century Farms by intricate and beautifully designed metal signs, we felt extremely fortunate. 

The pastoral landscape was dotted with abandoned wooden cabins, barns, and outbuildings. As we approached the intersection with Highway 21 Sean spotted a particularly interesting looking one, sitting in a pasture filled with cows, just beyond the large and well-maintained St. John Cemetery. It was a tall square wooden building with a lookout on top that resembled an historic blockhouse.  A blockhouse is a small, one-room fortification, usually located on a hill or other easily defended position that allows the occupants to fire through loopholes on enemies approaching from below.  There was no historic plaque, but given the rich history of the region we wondered what its story is. 



After crossing the highway our trail experience once again changed.  We found ourselves descending very steeply into a treed valley with a meandering river at the bottom.  Golden leaves of aspen trees still shone brightly in the autumn sun, contrasting with the dark green of spruce trees, and the pale brown of bare branches.  It took us a moment to realize that among the trees stood rows of conical earth piles, their tops peeking up above the forest canopy like lines of gigantic mole hills.  A large cloud of dust on the far side of the valley was our second clue that the seemingly peaceful valley was home to a large and very active gravel and sand pit.  

As we crossed the bottom of the valley we watched a convoy of large, double-bed trucks slipping and slithering at high speed down the steep, winding gravel road on the opposite side of the valley.  A steady stream of fully loaded trucks was leaving the pit, roaring and growling as they struggled to haul their heavy loads up the steep incline.  At the same time a road grader was working on the busy slope, advancing and reversing among the convoy of trucks.  This was our pathway forward. 

Seemingly miraculously we made it up the long, steep climb with only the road grader for company - no trucks! Once again, we felt sure St. Roch and others were looking out for us, and we silently sent up our thanks.  For the rest of the day the convoy of 15-20 trucks were our constant companions, many of them hauling loads of hot smelly asphalt.  

As in the past, the drivers were extremely nice to us, pulling over into the other lane, slowing down, and giving us a friendly wave and sometimes a well-intentioned (if a little deafening) honk of encouragement as they passed.  We were incredibly grateful for their kindness, but predictably, by the time evening came we'd had enough of the chocking dust clouds that enveloped us every few minutes and the loud changing of gears. 

When we reached the top of the hill we were very pleased to discover that the partially graded road was hard packed, making for relatively easily going as we trekked along through the sunny countryside.

Before we knew it, we had reached the Frenchman Butte National Historic Site of Canada.  We pulled over into the beautifully forested site, grateful to take a break at the shaded picnic table and escape the truck convoy for a few moments while sitting under a canopy of golden leaves.  A White-breasted Nuthatch was foraging along a nearby tree trunk, Black-capped Chickadees were chattering in the canopy, and a Blue Jay was curiously scoping out snacks while arguing with a Black-billed Magpie.

The battle that took place at Frenchman Butte between members of the Cree Nation and the North West Mounted Police on May 28, 1885 was part of the North West Resistance, and it was deemed a stalemate.  In the spring of 1885 Plains Cree Chief Big Bear was still holding out, refusing to sign Treaty 6 or to choose reserve lands for his people.  The Canadian government began withholding rations, bringing the Cree band to near starvation.  Against Big Bear's wishes, Cree war Chief Wandering Spirit attacked the small settlement of Frog Lake on April 2nd, taking hostages and killing nine men.  Shortly afterwards, on April 15th, the Cree negotiated the surrender of Fort Pitt.  When news of these defeats reached Ottawa, a column of militia men known as the Alberta Field Force were rerouted, marching from Calgary to Fort Edmonton and then boating down the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Pitt.  This force was under the command of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange, and it met the Cree at Frenchman Butte. 

A butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top - in other words the perfect place to take a stand.  On May 26th a brief skirmish with NWMP Inspector Sam Steele left one Cree warrior dead.  In response, Chief Wandering Spirit led his warriors to dig defensive rifle pits on the butte facing south, while hostages and civilians dug trenches behind the front lines.  On May 28th Major- General Strange's men took up positions on the far side of the valley, facing off against the Cree.  Strange's men were better armed and had artillery, but the Cree position was stronger.  After one Cree warrior and three of Strange's men were killed, both sides withdrew, and Strange declared the conflict a draw. 

Beautiful forested trails at the National Historic Site allow visitors to explore the butte, see the depressions where the rifle pits were dug, and enjoy stunning views out over the North Saskatchewan River valley.  The nearby Frenchman Butte Museum consists of nine historic buildings, a teahouse, and an RV Park.  The museum includes firearms used by the militia, an original buckskin jacket worn by Louis Riel, and photographs of Fort Pitt from 1884, as well as other historic artifacts.  

As with many things along the trail in the shoulder seasons, the museum was closed.  We explored a little bit of the walking trails and the beautiful forest before reluctantly continuing on our way.  This National Historic Site was very beautiful, and it would have made a lovely spot to pitch the tent for the night.  Sadly, we needed to get a few more kilometers behind us before calling it a night. 

The next stretch of trail took us through more beautiful countryside, with panoramic views of the rolling hills surrounding the North Saskatchewan River.  One of the small valleys we crossed had standing water at the bottom, it's smooth surface reflecting the deep blue of the sky.  Looking out along the valley we saw the warm yellows of tamaracks and the tall conical forms of dark green spruce in a beautiful slice of the Boreal forest.  The spruce bogs, small marshes, and conifer stands of the next few kilometers reminded us strongly of Newfoundland.  

As we climbed back up into more open ranch country again we passed beautiful wooden barns and outbuildings, many of them abandoned.  Two white-tailed deer leapt across the road in front of us and disappeared into the trees behind a small cabin.  Just as we passed a road sign indicating we were only 25 km from highway 17 (the Alberta border!) the road became broken pavement again!  Another treat for fast and easy walking.  

Soon we came to a worn and weathered sign welcoming us to the Fort Pitt District, and a little farther down the road we came to the Fort Pitt All Saints Anglican Church.  The small, white wooden building was erected in 1929 and stood beside a neat and tidy cemetery on the side of the road, seemingly impervious to the clouds of road dust that continuously enveloped it.  The metal sign out front said all were welcome, so we took a break at its gates before continuing on. 

A few hundred meters down the highway we came to a cleared grassy area with a stone cairn for the Fort Pitt School, which was opened in 1911, having just seven students at the time.  It operated until 1967, when students started getting bused to Frenchman Butte.  There was a large roofed shelter at the cleared grassy historic site behind the cairn, which would have made another perfect spot for camping.  It was a gift we likely should have accepted, but we decided to push on for a few more kilometers.  

As we continued on we passed the turnoff for the Fort Pitt National Historic Site of Canada, which is another point of interest on the Trails of 1885 and is located inside Fort Pitt Provincial Park on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Fort Pitt was built in 1829 by Chief Factor John Rowan of the Hudson's Bay Company as a resupply point for travelers halfway between Fort Carleton and Fort Edmonton.  For 70 years it was an important link in the fur trade, and local Cree, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot also traded in buffalo hides, meat, and pemmican there.  In 1873 a new post was built approximately 100 m southwest of the first one, which was then abandoned.  

In 1876 Fort Pitt was one of the locations used for the signing of Treaty 6, and in the following year a North West Mounted Police base was established at the site.  The NWMP detachment was under the command of Francis Dickens, son of famous author Charles Dickens.  In 1885 it became a significant site during the North West Resistance.  

When word of the 1885 attack at Frog Lake reached Fort Pitt, Dickens sent out three scouts.  While they were gone the Cree arrived and set up camp outside the fort to ask for a meeting. When the unknowing scouts returned they stumbled into the camp and fighting broke out.  One scout was killed and another injured, and after negotiations the outnumbered Mounties withdrew to Battleford and the civilians surrendered.  The Cree took the provisions from the Fort and burned it to the ground. 

We didn't walk the 6 km off trail to the National Historic Site, but apparently it contains archeological remains from the two versions of the fort, interpretive panels explaining the history of the site, washrooms, a picnic area, and canoe access to the North Saskatchewan River. 

Continuing on, and just past the turnoff to Fort Pitt, we came to a very large sign reminding us that we were on Treaty 6 Territory.  There were eleven numbered agreements signed by the Canadian Crown and various First Nations between 1871 and 1877.  Treaty 6 is an agreement between the Plains and Woods Cree, Assiniboine, and other band governments and the Crown which was signed at Fort Pitt and Fort Carleton in 1876.  The European understanding of these treaties was that the Indigenous Peoples gave up their customary title to the land in exchange for provisions from the government.  The Indigenous understanding of these agreements was very different, being closer to an expectation that the two groups of people would live together on the lands and manage or protect them for future generations.  Treaty 6 covers parts of what are now Saskatchewan and Alberta, and a celebration is held in August of each year to honour its signing. 

As we continued walking into the evening, the sun low on the horizon and shining full into our faces, we came to a stretch of brand new asphalt, and soon learned where the convoy of trucks had been heading all day.  We had been hoping to camp in a certain stand of trees that was located in the crux of two roads – some 42 km from our starting point this morning which didn't look like it was on anyone's private property.  When we came to it we found the verge full of the vehicles from a very large road work crew. Given the situation, we decided to keep walking with less than an hour of light left.

The next 7 km or so of road were being actively worked on.   One lane was scraped bare and being used by traffic, and the other was being repaved.  Deep ditches had been scraped bare on both sides of the road, extending well into the fields and forests on either side.  Luckily for us the construction crew let us walk through, as this was the only westward road anywhere in our vicinity.  While trekking onward along another paved surface was a blessing, it was also a very hairy experience walking beside a very steep ditch and sharing a single lane with a seemingly never ending stream of traffic and large construction vehicles. 

As we trotted along we passed the entrance to the Onion Lake Cree Nation lands.  With all the reserves in the area combined, the Onion Lake Cree Nation has 586 sq km of land which straddles both Saskatchewan and Alberta, and 6,475 registered members.  There are five schools within the community, as well as a store and a healing lodge.  As we walked past, many of the Cree drivers gave us huge smiles and very enthusiastic waves.  Only later did we learn that this community – according to the news - has been struggling with gang warfare, homicides, and some members being involved in car thefts in the surrounding communities.  Our experience however was very different and was one of warm welcome. 

As a result of the construction we ended up walking quite a bit farther than we had intended.  As darkness fell and the temperature dropped we finally walked a few steps down a side road and pitched the tent in a treed patch of grass.  It turned out the area was covered in wild rose bushes, which were impossible to see in the dark and absolutely covered in sharp prickles. By the time our tent was set up and thermarests were inflated we were both prickled from the knees down and the wrists up. I guess this is a fitting introduction to 'Wild Rose Country.' 

So, as we lay here under a blanket of stars, listening to the sounds of the road crew working into the night nearby, we are now unexpectedly only 4.1 km east of the Alberta border.  This will likely be our last night on these beautiful prairies until we return next spring.


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