Monday, 8 September 2014

Beauty on the Prairies

We drove across part of the prairie region last week. I will cover several highlights over the next few weeks, so this is a quick look at the region we wandered around in. We put 3500 kilometers on our car over the past week of exploration. 10 times that many will still not cover the land properly.
 I am sure that you can see further on the prairies than you can on the ocean. It is flat, generally, but there are rises, rolls, coulees, river valleys and hills that undulate, like ocean swell and rogue waves. The trees you see are generally planted trees. They are windbreaks for homestead shelter from the predominantly west wind or strips designed to catch snow, thereby preserving moisture. Each tree was ordered from a catalogue sponsored by the government to try to make the prairies and farms more habitable. Caragana, Manitoba maple, black poplar and more made dense habitats for birds, wildlife and humans who all needed and welcomed relief from the ever blowing wind. Without the hand planted trees, there are none. You can drive for miles without seeing a single tree. Sage brush comes as close to woody as you can find for the most part. In some areas berries such as Saskatoons or Chokecherry shrubs grow, especially in coulees or draws where there may be a bit more moisture and shelter from the wind and direct sunlight. More than 70 species of grass are the main ground cover here. Needle and thread grass, fescue, wheat grass and prickly pear cactus grow on the parched land. This land can be 35 degrees or more in summer and more than 40 degrees below in winter. It is a dry heat and dry cold but add wind for a blast furnace summer drying effect and windchill in winter. The prairie is a land of extremes and constant change and challenge. It can deceive you into thinking it might be easy to live here. It can also deceive you into thinking it would be impossible to thrive here. You do not have to drive far to see abandoned farm buildings and machinery, but they are found wherever anyone farms or settles. Evidence of people living on this land dates back almost 10,000 years. We paused at a medicine wheel that has been dated back to times before the Egyptians built the pyramids.
Centre Cairn of the Sundial Hill Medicine Wheel
Teepee rings are found in hundreds of places across the prairie grassland region of North America. We paused at the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump in Southern Alberta where evidence of human habitation has been found from more than 5000 years ago. This land as we see it today was formed and shaped by a glacier that totally covered most of the central and northern plains and then began receding 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. Large rocks called "erratics" are evidence to the movement of the giant glacier which dropped rocks carried from the Rocky Mountains into Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Glacial Erratic at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
These rocks have been used as scratching stones by Bison from herds, numbering by some estimates 60 million strong, that once grazed the land. Bison moved, like the hunters and gatherers who followed them, grazing, fertilising, mating and birthing feeding on the land until being almost completely wiped out in a wasteful blood lust of greed and debauchery. Unlike the passenger pigeon, bison had a few long sighted benefactors who could see what may happen and herded a few hundred survivors to private preserves and then to government protected parks. From less than a thousand surviving bison, we now have a fairly stable number that are being monitored and raised and moved to other regions to re-establish viable, healthy populations. We saw some of the transplanted plains bison in Grasslands National Park that have been moved from Elk Island National Park. They belong here, they suit the country perfectly. They are a wonder to see and we can only imagine what must have been at one time.
The Alberta Birds of Prey Nature Centre was a highlight for me to see. Dedicated people rescue sick and injured wildlife in hopes of healing and returning them to the wild. 
Flight Demo of Harris hawk by Dedicated Rehabilitator
Owls, hawks, eagles and more on on display. Many are too damaged to return to the wild. One bald eagle is blind, a victim of someone with a shotgun, but he is still and eagle; proud, defiant, regal and aware. He watches with glass eyes as you move around him, using heightened senses other than his sight. Free flight demonstrations by a Harris hawk or barn owl show how dependent birds are to food, just like our dogs and cats. I saw my first burrowing owl here and later saw wild ones in Grasslands. Many of these endangered owls will be released in hopes of raising wild numbers to where we no longer have to interfere. We saw Calgary Zoo staff in Grasslands Park here to count black-footed ferrets, another endangered species from this region. The ferret and the burrowing owls both live with their prey, the black tailed prairie dog, another threatened species. All these species along with the tiny Swift fox, Greater Short Horned lizard and prairie rattlesnake are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss, poisoning, over hunting and agricultural practises.
Pronghorn Family

Another aspect of the prairie region I like to explore is the settlement of the land by immigrants from Europe and Asia during the past 100 years. The European exploration and exploitation of the land and its native people and wildlife began 100 years earlier by fur traders and trappers which I have touched on in previous posts. My family ancestors took part in the agricultural settlement of the land in the early 1900s when my maternal great great grand parents arrived at  Bittern Lake, Alberta and in 1927 when my paternal grandfather arrived to take a homestead in the Peace River region.
The prairie region of Canada covers a vast area of varied habitats. Some of these areas are more people friendly than others to thrive in but none were easy.
I like to read and peruse history books that have been written over the past 20 years or so by various historical societies. The family stories are all transferable to any other region. Big families, hard times, weather, drought, floods, fire, pestilence, accidents, church and schools, no money, good or poor crops, cattle and wheat prices were and still are common issues that were dealt with year after year.
I look forward to exploring these places and issues for the next few weeks.

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