Nowhere With You

Day 20: Lethbridge, AB to Drumheller, AB (August 23, 2017)

Saturday September 2, 2017 (Canada)


The day started with a side-trip to a place with the best name we've yet seen: Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It's a historic site that was used for an indigenous bison hunting technique in which the animals would be intentionally stampeded over the edge of a cliff to help kill them in large numbers. It can sound a bit barbaric, but the hunt was often critical for providing enough meat and materials to last through the winter. Initially, Sandra and I assumed the "head smashed-in" just referred to the bison themselves after they'd fallen off the cliff, but it turns out it actually refers to an indigenous boy who wanted to watch the hunt from the bottom of the cliff and was crushed by the falling bison, only to be found later with his head smashed in. Not the most subtle or sentimental name, but it works, and it sure is memorable!

There's a very informative museum at the site that goes through the finer points of how the hunt was performed, along with a plethora of displays and reading material about the history of indigenous people in the region, tipi construction techniques, local flora and fauna, and so on. The clifftop itself is now only about 10m in height, but historically it was more like 20m. The distance between top and bottom has been cut in half due to innumerable years in which bones, tools, and other accumulated rubble from a hunt have been covered by the hunt that followed.

We watched a short video about the hunt itself, and I was blown away by all of the strategies employed to make the approach successful.

  • Stone "cairns" (small piles of rock with branches sticking out of them) would be placed in the days leading up to the hunt creating a chute for the bison to run down. The bison, due to their poor eyesight, would perceive the cairns to be a solid wall and would resist crossing between them.
  • The chute would gradually get thinner and thinner to direct the herd to the intended target.
  • In preparation, bison skins would be dragged along the path of the chute to direct the animals along the desired path.
  • A single hunter would dress in a bison calf skin and would act lost and distressed. This was the most prestigious task, and would draw the bison herd to protect what they believed to be their young.
  • Other hunters would wear wolf skins and mimic lupine behaviours to spook the herd and commence a stampede.
  • Finally, the "distressed bison calf" would run in front of the charging bison herd to the edge of the cliff, but dodge through the cairns at the last second, at which point the herd would be sent over the cliff. Any animals that survived the fall were killed by hunters waiting below.

Again, it can sound like a pretty rough technique for hunting, but it was done sustainably for countless years. Problems only cropped up after bison began to be hunted commercially for fur and sport, at which point the bison population plummeted from about fifty million animals to several hundred in a decade. In a decade. I couldn't believe those numbers. Apparently it became fashionable at one time to shoot bison from passing trains, leaving their bodies to rot in the fields. It's pretty disgusting the types of behaviours we once thought harmless.

We got very lucky with our timing to the site, and were treated to some First Nations dancing by various groups from around the country. There was live drumming and singing, and the dancing and regalia were beautiful to watch. Although the trip to Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was not along the shortest path for the day's drive, we're very glad we went!

From there we continued on our way to Drumheller. Luckily, the drive brought us through Vulcan, Alberta. Vulcan being the name of Mr. Spock's homeworld in Star Trek. And the town itself being the official Star Trek capital of Canada! Neither Sandra nor myself are huge trekkies, but we certainly got a kick out of checking out the murals around town. The tourist info centre had a whole dress-up section where you could take as many photos as you wanted with Star Trek cardboard cutouts running the gamut from the original series all the way up to the recent movie reboots! The welcome sign is translated into Klingon. There's a big replica of the Enterprise watching over the highway. Definitely a place to go if you love the show! We got to sit in a chair used on the bridge in the original show! I was pleased.

We arrived in Drumheller towards the evening, but decided we had enough time to check out some hoodoos and the Rosedale suspension bridge before nightfall. Hoodoos are a geological formation in which a hard cap of stone forms over softer stone below. As erosion proceeds, the hard cap remains mostly unaffected while the stone underneath is slowly eaten away leaving a large mushroom-shaped rock. The area containing hoodoos also has beautiful stone "rills" along the canyon walls. They look like the result of tiny rivers eating away at stone hills. Gorgeous!

When you're entering Drumheller, you're basically driving into a deep canyon, the sides of which look like exactly what you'd imagine "The Badlands" to be! Well… it is the Badlands. It was originally a massive coal mining region, and still contains the largest known coal deposits in the world, but the coal is impure and difficult to mine so it's been mostly abandoned. The coal seams are still easily visible in the canyon walls as horizontal streaks of black in the layers of rock. The suspension bridge was originally built to ferry coal and miners across the Red Deer river, but in recent times is used as a convenient access point for hiking in the area.

We ate dinner at the Last Chance Saloon in the town of Wayne and were underwhelmed. It's an original saloon from the boom years in the early 1900s, but the only beer they were serving was mostly-cold bottled Kokanee. Now I don't mind Kokanee, but a dang saloon has to do better than that! At least have something on draught. And failing that, at least have something could. Ouch. The food was passable. Apparently there are some old bullet holes still visible in the walls, but we didn't stick around long enough to find out.

Our accommodations were outside Drumheller proper, so we retreated to our country slumber in the sticky summer night heat. We drank wine on the deck and planned the finer points of the upcoming days. At this point we only had bookings for places to stay up until Calgary (the next night!), and after that it was… anybody's guess! Fingers crossed!


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