Exploring Alberta's badlands delves deep into the past

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      Here’s a summer vacation idea: explore some badlands. That’s actually not as far-fetched as it might appear. Badlands were so labelled because of the natural challenges presented in traversing them. Toss that concept out the window in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park/Aisinai’pi National Historic Site in southern Alberta.

      This scenic destination is a delight to reach and explore at one’s own pace. It helps that today most visitors journey here by automobile along well-maintained secondary roads, as much a signature of Wild Rose Country pride as the neat fields of red clover and yellow canola through which the blacktop leads.

      Distances on the prairie may appear great, but the tradeoffs in wildlife sightings, like a dustup between a team of badgers and coyotes and a den of prairie dogs, render travel time inconsequential. Once you're in the badlands, you have a sense of geological continuum arching back to the most recent ice age abounds. As the prairie wind whistles through bizarrely sculpted sandstone formations, sunshine brings to life centuries-old carvings and drawings on bleached cliff faces. Naturally eroded likenesses of beavers, eagles, even giant buffalo skulls, crown mushroom-shaped hoodoo pinnacles. Incised in the rock by human hands, stick figures on horseback sit side by side with contemporary depictions of historical events.

      Never has a landscape branded with such negative connotations displayed so much enchantment. Pull in off the bald prairie at Writing-on-Stone’s entrance to experience a “wow” moment. Instantly, the landscape shifts. Grasslands end at the coulee’s rim, where polished rock walls drop to the verdant Milk River Valley below.

      What motivated Cree, Assiniboine, Shoshone, and Blackfoot artisans to journey here and detail their view of the cosmos on stone canvases?

      The answer lies within the low-slung, air-conditioned interpretive centre cleverly designed to merge with the rounded, grassy surroundings. Put on headphones and listen to gravelly voiced recollections recorded by Native and pioneer elders of both good and spooky times in the badlands. Artifacts spanning 3,000 years testify to an uninterrupted flow of travellers drawn as much for a plentiful supply of seasonal food as for self-expression.

      Do not settle for less than a close-up look at the tableaux. Two-hour tours of the park’s rock-art displays, the largest collection on the North American Great Plains, are offered twice daily in an archaeological preserve otherwise off-limits to visitors. Given that summer temperatures routinely top out at sizzling highs, a morning tour is preferable to the midafternoon ramble, when most visitors would rather be splashing in the Milk River or picnicking in the nearby campground shaded by cottonwoods.

      Last July, the Georgia Straight joined a group led by park interpreter Bonnie Moffett, who took the wheel of a school bus and navigated through the park to a gate beyond which lay the protected area. Before setting out on the walk, Moffett offered a pinch of tobacco to the earth as a sign of love and respect for those buried in the valley—primarily Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot, people—and as acknowledgment of the special beauty of the land.

      As Moffett led the group past a skittish herd of deer, some carvings on the sandstone’s smooth surface were reminiscent of adolescents’ graffiti more than of an ancient art form celebrating the interplay of the physical and spirit realms. Moffett attributed those random scratch marks of dates and initials to the park’s early years.

      “When Writing-on-Stone opened in 1957, there was no regulation of visitors for the first 20 years,” Moffett said. “Only recently have we fenced and gated the most significant sites, to keep them as pristine as possible.” Prior to the opening of the park, access was naturally limited by poor roads and limited public knowledge.

      The vast majority of early visitors—such as Bird Rattle, who carved two images of Ford trucks, dated September 14, 1924, to commemorate his visit—were drawn from members of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Tools of choice to work the soft surface were deer antlers, buffalo bones, and sharp stones. Many carvings were tinted with ochre, or desert varnish, sourced from the Yellowstone Valley; the red mineral doesn’t occur locally. Moffett explained that when mixed with buffalo fat, ochre forms a chemical bond with sandstone.

      Aside from the withering heat and the weathered hoodoos, at first blush these badlands don’t appear to be that challenging an environment. Delve a little deeper into their past, and a more solemn image emerges. Much like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, this was where the Blackfoot entombed the bodies of revered leaders and healers in rock crevasses.

      Although the Milk River Valley offered shelter, water, and firewood—the three essentials needed to survive the winter—Moffett said Natives never spent much time here and usually only came to view the carvings and rock paintings, one of the largest of which depicts a ponoka, or elk, during hunting season.

      They also ventured here on vision quests, and when domed clay deposits that rise among the hoodoos were used by elders for medicine meetings. The word that best describes the mood is lonesome. In 1892, an entire battalion of North-West Mounted Police deserted rather than overwinter here.

      But don’t let such thoughts deter you. Out here, at least in summer, bad is good.

      ACCESS: Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park/Aisinai’pi National Historic Site lies 130 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge. For more information, including details on campground and tour reservations, call 1-877-537-2757 or visit the Reserve Alberta Parks website, the Alberta Parks website, or the Parks Canada website.