PLAYING ON THE PRAIRIES
When I think of the Canadian prairies, it always brings to mind a family trip with my grandparents when I was about six, great fields of waving wheat, iconic grain elevators and miles and miles of flat, flat land.
This July, I flew to Calgary to meet up with other relatives and take in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Calgary Stampede. It is a controversial event but a truly Canadian one and I am into anything that can be dubbed “Truly Canadian” so I was up for it. I took in the parade and the rodeo; saw the chuck wagon races and the bull riding. I gasped at the calf roping and questioned where the dividing line is between cruelty and entertainment. I don’t have the answer but I did ask the question. For all the thrills and spills, the music and midway, I don’t think I need to go again.
On the other hand, one day, two friends who live in the small town of Brooks, 200km east of Calgary, took me to the prairies…their prairies.
Here, far from the maddening crowd, the sky was high, prairie grasses and wild flowers softened our footsteps and soft breezes cooled us in the ninety-degree heat. The silence was interrupted only by the buzz of clouds of hungry mosquitoes.
Our four-wheel drive vehicle took us across rutted paths, past homesteads and the site of an old school, now marked only by a blue sign. Visions of reruns of the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” danced in my eastern head as I tried to imagine what life was once like on this windswept land that is now the home to birds, range cattle and ancient spirits.
The path out to Majorville Medicine Wheel, a native Canadian spiritual site that is believed to be as old and as significant as Stonehenge, crosses acres and acres of undulating fields. When the potholed road gave way to a path outlined by only crushed grass, it was necessary to stop and walk the fields to find a safe route around water holes recently replenished by cloud bursts of torrential rain.
Majorville Medicine Wheel stands alone on a height of land that looks to the bends and cliffs of the Bow River and across the green fields as far as the eye can see. Tons of ancient stones piled at the crest of the hill, form its centre while “spokes” of carefully laid rocks descent down its sides. These lead to a second group of stones that are thought to be a place that aligned with those on the rise and the sun at the time of the summer solstice. Any sunrise or sunset at this special place would be beyond wonderful!
I am a quietly spiritual person. This is a place of strong enduring energy and it gives strength to those who have the privilege to walk the land. I know little of the customs of these ancient people. I could only be respectful and grateful that I was privileged to come here.
The three of us wandered and came together to share a wild rose or a perfect, almost translucent, cactus flower. We took pictures of ourselves standing inside an ancient tent circle and laughed to think we might be in the “living room”. It was all “living room” …as far as the eye could see.
Way too soon, it was time to climb the hill back to the car. The cliffs of the serpentine Bow River were behind us, brown and black mottled puffballs popped beneath our feet, orange and yellow daisies waved goodbye and the sweet smell of sage wafted upwards with each step.
It’s never easy to move a group of photographers from one place to another but in this case the person who holds the car keys rules the world. We jostled our way along the trail, stopping to study waving grasses and fields of purple flowers. It was hard to leave. We couldn’t do it in one foul swoop. The place calls you.
Heading towards Medicine Hat, I was pretty much lost other than to know that we were heading east. Miles of flat irrigated farmland occasionally rose up and fell away. The corn was short, the canola fields a ripple of yellow and the potatoes just in flower. There was hardly a cloud in the sky.
I asked a stream of questions that probably only come to the head of an easterner so wheat boards, potato production, new grain elevators, and the names of towns were all of interest to me. This was a new part of Canada to my adult brain and I needed to be taught to help me consolidate my experience. A Tim Horton’s stop for what passed for lunch, somewhere near Taber, helped too!
Red Rock Coolee is south of Medicine Hat near Seven Persons. The mountains of Montana stood grey in the distance as we pulled into the parking lot late in the afternoon. We were the only people there. It was hot. I’m not sure how hot, but hot.
This place was very special and very different from Medicine Wheel. The land is undulating with amazing round red rocks strewn like marbles across the landscape. Whole ones stand like giant mis-coloured snowballs ready to race down a hillside. Others are shattered by time and weather and sit like tables hosting bouquets of wild flowers. Alberta’s wild roses in shades of pink and white and more of the fragile translucent yellow cactus blossoms sat in the burning sun. Blue bells and little white daisies were everywhere.
We rambled, each finding their own treasures in this magic place. We explored, shared and took time for ourselves to drink it in. There was time to experience and time to remember. This was the Moeraki Boulders of New Zealand that I didn’t get to see, done Canadian style!
For me, the opportunity to experience this geological phenomenon, to wonder once again at the complexity and simplicity of this world and to share it with special people was priceless.
Too soon, it was time to go. We clamored in twos onto the rocks for a last photo shoot and headed up the hills towards the car.
Water would have been very, very good. I’m not sure what I was thinking but obviously, not very much, as I forgot my water bottle when we set out into the valley several hot hours earlier. Thankfully, photography allows me to stop often to capture yet one more magical thing or at least I look like that is what am are doing while I are really just trying to catch my breathe and not pass out.
Small pink fairy like flowers grew in giant patches along our route. The sun was lower in the sky now and its light shone through their dancing gossamer heads making them glow like the bursts of tiny fire crackers.
As we reached the parking lot, the water cooler was more than a welcome sight. The light was beginning to wane. Calgary and my relatives were 291 kilometers to the west.
These places will stay with me. I would not have found them on my own in my own country.
This time will not be forgotten. This day was a priceless gift generously given to me by my prairie friends.
What could be better than playing on the Canadian prairie, even if only for a day!