Every few years, I make a summer sojourn to the Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Áísínai’pi National Historic Site for the beauty, the sacred and the historical. Located about three hours south of my home in Calgary, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is over….km of prairie grassland with hoodoo and hills. This is called the Badlands due to the dry and unearthly scenery. Milk River, shaded by cottonwood trees, is a welcomed oasis that winds through this area.
My friends and I arrived early for the weekend on Friday so we could maximize our time. We decided to stay in the provincial run campsite next to the river. It accommodates both tents and RVs with our own ancient tent trailer. I looked in envy at the Comfort Camping: a set of high-quality canvas walled tents with wooden floor & plenty of ventilation. Next time, I promised myself, a little more luxury.
First on our exploration list: The Hoodoo Trail is 2.2 kilometres of easy path that winds through hoodoos, sandstone cliffs, prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley and coulees. We wandered the surrounding hills in absolute silence, listening to the trees blow in the soft but hot breeze. I could feel every muscle start to relax and the smell of sage and sweetgrass filled my nose. It was better than any massage with fancy oil I’ve ever had in the city.
After a great dinner and sleep, we were ready for more hiking around the area. In the late morning, we joined a small tour group to view the writing on the stones. Due to conservation concerns, this is the only way visitors can see the petroglyphs and pictographs. Our Alberta Parks guide stressed to us that Writing-on-Stone/ Áísínai’pi (meaning it is written) is a sacred and inspiring landscape for the Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsítapi) peoples: Kainai, Piikáni and Siksika. These people have camped here for over 3,500 years and still come here today to pray and hold ceremonies. Therefore, respect has to be shown while we visit the spaces, just like any religious place. He asked for lowered voices and to not touch a thing. As a research in Aboriginal history and culture: I understood where we were going was special and it was a privilege to be allowed here.
The guide told us that the people created these works of art in the 1700s or earlier, but because they mostly used sandstone, the earlier works probably did not survive. The rock art was created for biographical and ceremonial reasons. Biographical rock art can depict events which the artist may have witnessed or commemorate a chief, battles, or hunts. Ceremonial rock art depicts images from dreams, vision quests, and prayers. These may have been part of a ritual or the result of an individual’s dream. Some people believe that the rock art was created by spirits.
Our guide pointed out one carving that looked very new: a Blackfoot had drawn a car into the rock in the 1900s, probably seeing one for the first time. Unfortunately, some visitors carved their names and pictures into the rocks for many decades until pressure from the locals and the archaeological community led to the government creating the protected area in 1977. Since then, the First Nations people are unrelenting in their stance on conservation and protection. They see the area as theirs and must be protected and managed by them.
After the tour, the heat of the day demanded dip in the clean and cool Milk River. Laying around and making plans for our backcountry hike took up the rest of our day. The plan: hike as much of the Davis and Humphrey coulee areas south of the river. We decided on the hike we’d take as a full day to cover half of the over 930-hectare backcountry hiking zone. There’s no paved path but a game trail made by the many deer we see was easy to follow. We even avoided getting wet by crossing the Milk River at a low point. Many times I just sat among the rocks and looked at the formations of stone. All around us was hyper blue sky, rolling grasslands, hoodoo fields and narrow sandstone canyons. While deer were the number one animal we saw, a few hawks glided over us looking for a tasty gopher or mouse to nibble on. I did spy a skunk in the distance but luckily he was heading into a brush.
A little dried out and more than peaceful, we returned back to our campsite for a much needed clean up again in the river, and a quiet night around the campfire. As I looked up into a black-blue night of stars, I realized the campground was silent. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is very much for contemplation and peace among the hoodoos.
By Tereasa Maillie