Sunday, 25 May 2014

East Central Alberta Historic Tour

In my last post I talked about the wildlife we saw along the two day tour. I enjoy the birds and other critters as much as the scenery and the main attractions that we tend to gravitate towards. Today we headed toward the Fort George and Buckingham House fur trade museum east of Elk Point, Alberta. Even though this is our main destination there is plenty to see along varied routes.
Mundare Sausage
We paused for a few minutes in the village of Mundare to photograph and pick up a sample of famous Stawnichy's Ukrainian Sausage. There is a very large, realistic enough to want to take a bite of, statue of a sausage in the village square.Stawnichy's ship pepperoni and sausages to many regions of this province and is a major employer in Mundare. With pepperoni breath we headed north and east toward St. Paul. I remember being here one time a few years ago when I was driving truck. I came for a b-train load of salt which I delivered to a Rycroft highways department for winter highway frost removal. As we toured along the rolling Parkland aspen countryside we see evidence of European settlements, farmsteads long abandoned or sold, fence rows lined with large rocks and piles of small ones. These rock piles bring back memories of my youth spending days and weeks picking rocks and roots off our small fields. I still see a family of kids carrying pails full of rocks to the high wheeled wagon, up and down the fields on hot, dusty summer days. It seems that there is never an end to picking rocks. The larger rocks we could not carry, we rolled onto stone boats and if we couldn't roll them, we towed them off the field behind our John Deere AR or model 70 tractor.
Rock Piles Towed Off the Land
Along the way we notice old school sites, long abandoned to centralisation and population loss. The only thing left to remember these sites are the bronze plaques and perhaps a note in the local history books. When we paused for a few moments we think we can hear laughing and jostling kids lining up for class after the young school marm rings the little school bell. Horses stand hip shot at the hitch rail behind the one room school house as the last boy runs from the two hole outhouse.

We paused for a few minutes across from a beautifully preserved Orthodox church and cemetery. Some of these communities would have more than one church often competing for members or built as populations of people from differing languages, customs or religious faiths settled the region. The cemetery is large for this area remembering and honouring the settlers who worked so hard to settle in hope of an improved life. Homesteads were dolled out to families from Europe who were willing to move here, build a livable house and break 40 acres in 4 years. Some of these conditions were open to very loose interpretation but slowly the country filled up. We are slowly loosing the stories of the settlement of this land as the ageing pioneers are passing away.
Predating the farm settlements were the fur trade explorers and trappers trading with the original native settlers. Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company both had competing fur trade forts overlooking the North Saskatchewan River just east of Elk Point. The river was the main highway and transportation route for trappers and traders for several years. They paddled up river from Hudson Bay or from the great lakes region carrying steel knives, muskets, bolts of cloth and beads to trade to the native people for beaver, muskrat, Lynx, wolf and ermine furs. This was not an easy life for anyone or as glamorous as we would like to think. This was a hard life, very physically demanding and dangerous. Boats and canoes often swamped, drowning the voyageurs. Small men were used as paddlers so more weight could be carried in canoes. These men would carry tremendous packs across portages or overland to trade posts. Interpreters at the museum honouring the fur trade tell us they would carry two packs of 90 pounds each, 180 pounds. Wow, sore backs, pulled and aching muscles with little trained medical help anywhere.
Overlook North Saskatchewan River from Ft. George

I enjoyed our visit to Ft. George and Buckingham House very much. It is well worth the drive just to step back in time and honor these hardy explorers.
We have to remember the native peoples who lived here for thousands of years before the white scourge arrived. They were hunter gatherers who travelled in harmony with the land. They moved with the buffalo, the berries and the weather. They utilised the whole animal that was hunted. They honoured and thanked them for their gift of life so the people could live. It was not an easy life but was a very earth friendly life. The native people did not wreak such havoc in 10,000 years as the white trappers, traders and settlers have in the two hundred years since we arrived. Even their skirmishes with enemy tribes was not as hard as the invisible killers we call small pox and influenza. These diseases decimated native villages often undiscriminating killing 80 to 90 percent of the population. Wise elders, powerful hunters, mothers and grandmothers as well as kids and babies died leaving surviving people looking for lost guidance and food. With the white invasion also came the loss of their main food source, the buffalo. An estimated 30 million buffalo were slaughtered for hides, leaving the carcasses to spoil in the hot sun. Ducks, geese, curlews, pigeons were also hunted to extinction or nearly so. The land was soon settled and treaty's signed, reserves established, residential schools tore families apart and treaty's were broken. We have not been kind to the native people or the land.
The land continues to provide only differently. Large farms now cultivate the former forested land with wheat and canola. Often, modern corporate farms have slowly bought out the former settlers. Decaying, dilapidated farmyards display the lofty dreams and desperate struggles that are now forgotten by current owners. Beautiful way of farm life has become incorporated big business dependant upon larger corporations who genetically modify seeds to glean maximum yield from tiring land. Can it continue?
I also see a new industry that has taken up residence on the land. Oil pump jacks and tanks no stand tall overlooking the landscape, much like the old grain elevators did. Often the farmer who owns the land that oil lies beneath now makes a fantastic income for lending their land to oil companies to cross and to drill for black gold. Pipelines criss-cross the land, soon unnoticeable once rehabbed.
We stayed for the night at Vermillion and toured the grounds of the Vermillion Agricultural College where my parents went to school as teenagers and met. It is still a very valuable educational institution today.

After breakfast we headed south toward Wainwright then turned west toward home. Many stops and pauses to see and try photograph birds and old homesteads delayed our tour but made it entertaining. We took a side trip to see the large Battle River Train Trestle. It is on the mainline connecting east to western Canada. This was an integral part of the settlement of the country. The railroad route made and broke many towns, depending upon their locations. We were lucky enough to see a grain train cross, even if the wrong way for best photos. What a marvel of engineering.

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