I’ve been trying to spend time out on the landscape lately. It’s good for not only my physical health but my mental health.
Of course, as a historian as well as a nature nerd, I’m always looking at my surroundings with a historian’s eye. History isn’t just in our books and papers – it’s out there, in the world. Natural landscapes have a history too – a human history, but also a history of the animals, plants, and ecosystems that came before. Something I saw recently really threw that into relief for me.
I did a short road trip last week with a friend down to the West Block of Grasslands National Park. We were our own self-contained unit, bringing our own food, paying at the pump, staying in our individual tents, and limiting our contact with others. In one of our cupholders in my vehicle we had hand sanitizer, ready to deploy when needed. Grasslands National Park is a great place to spend time outdoors, away from people you don’t know. Even when the trail head parking lots were full, we rarely if ever saw anyone else.
My friend and I specifically chose the West Block because it’s bison territory (of course). It’s a very stark landscape but a fascinating one. One of the trails we hiked highlighted some of the hazards we should be prepared for: “exposure, wind, unstable footing and ‘feeling small’ in a big landscape”. Essentially: be prepared for existential dread. Certainly, we were very aware of ourselves moving across the landscape. It allowed for some great introspection.
We also had several up close and personal encounters with bison. There was bison sign all over the place: paths, tracks, patties, wallows, and hair. One of my favourite design elements of Grasslands National Park is that the interpretive signs are surrounded by wooden posts, because without them, bison would use the signs as scratching posts, damage them, and knock them down. You can still see signs that they’ve been using the posts to scratch anyway:
We also encountered several bison bulls wallowing in mud and using boulders as rubbing stones. These stones are called erratics – they’re stones left behind by glaciers, transported from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away during the last ice age. In a landscape with few trees, they really stick out. Here’s one that was recently vacated by a pair of bulls we startled. (Sorry!)
But by far the coolest one we found was this stone. Why? Because the corners were rubbed shiny and smooth by bison.
Now, the current herd of plains bison was reintroduced to the West Block of Grasslands National Park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park. The wear and tear on these stones is pretty advanced – this is not the result of 14 years’ worth of bison rubbing against it. This is from generations of bison scratching itches. To me, touching this smooth stone was like touching an object from a sepia-toned photograph. It was like an object from the past had been superimposed in front of me. It felt surreal.
These bison, today, after nearly 150 years of being absent from the landscape, had rediscovered a stone that their ancestors may have used, and were using it for the same purpose. And that’s wild.
I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!
Sometimes you trip over historic sites in the middle of a big city. Sometimes historic sites are just off of major highways. Sometimes it takes a bit of driving down dusty back roads where cell service can be spotty. Sometimes they’re a 20km one-way hike into the back country of a national park.
During the September long weekend this year, I made the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park, along with Carol Crowe and her husband Joe, as well as some friends we made along the way. We hauled in our backpacks of gear, camping two nights overnight, hiking 40 km over three days, ducking around muddy terrain, tripping over roots, and crawling over and under downed trees. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so much, physically, in my life, and now I hunger for more journeys like this. The landscape of northern Saskatchewan has a history, and if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs left behind by those who came before – and you’ll find the occasional historic plaque among the trees.
Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Belaney, was a famous author and conservationist who lived for a short while in Riding Mountain National Park and Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. An Englishman from Hastings, he is also infamous for adopting an “Indian” persona as he believed people would take his messages more seriously coming from that perspective.
He married a Mohawk woman, who became known as Anahareo. Both lived in the cabin along with their daughter, Shirley Dawn, and several pet beavers.
I hiked in to see the cabin – and the three grave sites – with Carol. This was a personal journey for Carol, because Anahareo was her Auntie. We were going for a family visit.
I’d woken up early and was right at the park’s visitor centre at 7am when the building opened to register for our campsite. (On the long weekend we knew that the choice campsites would be snapped up quickly.) We three left the trail head parking lot in the late afternoon, and arrived at our campsite three hours and 6.5km later at Chipewyan portage at about sunset. That evening, there was a spectacular light show: the aurora borealis. It was the first time I’d seen it this season.
The next morning, we had a fortifying meal of pancakes with wild blueberries (gifted to Carol before she left by a relation). We probably lingered too long in the morning, but as a result, we met our neighbours at Sandy Beach campsite that afternoon. They continued on the trail with us to Grey Owl’s cabin that afternoon and evening. We hauled our gear to Sandy Beach, set up camp, quickly packed day packs, and continued.
We arrived at the cabin later in the afternoon, and immediately set to making a small feast: soup, plus wild blueberries. Carol and Joe made an offering to Anahareo’s spirit at her grave, and we were all able to take in the calm atmosphere at Ajawaan Lake. Loons called, and it was very still. We shared the soup with a few other visitors who made their way to the cabin while we were there.
There are two cabins at the lake: one where Grey Owl lived, and a second up a hill where Anahareo stayed. The lower cabin, famously, has a beaver lodge in it where their pet beavers lived. There are also the grave sites of Anahareo, Grey Owl, and one of their daughters, Shirley Dawn.
We left as it started to get dusky – we had resigned ourselves that we’d be hiking back partially in the dark, but didn’t want to rush away after hiking 20km to get to the site. We didn’t want to waste the soup, but it was balanced precariously on our small camp stove and at one point toppled, spilling out a lot of what remained. (Later, Carol told me that when we accidentally spilled the soup, it may have been Anahareo’s spirit’s way of telling us to get back on the trail so we could get back to camp safely.) We cleaned up the fallen soup (partially because it was an animal attractant, but partially because we needed to burn the remainder back at camp), and headed on our way.
We hurried to North End, and made it there just as the sun set fully. We hiked the final three kilometres of the trail to our campsite in full dark. In retrospect: dangerous. We were tired, and there were many slippery spots and roots along the trail. We stuck together, however, and howled like wolves and sang to both keep our spirits up and to keep large wildlife away. I’ll never forget the eerie feeling of walking, feeling a bit floaty from exhaustion, along a trail that I half-recognized from earlier, flashes of the path visible in the bobbing light from my flashlight. I kept my light on the trail ahead of me, and dreaded flashing it into the woods surrounding me in case it caught the eye-shine of a bear. We rolled into our campsite at about 10:30pm, exhausted but triumphant.
The next day, we breakfasted, and then hiked back the remaining 13km to the trailhead. We were very tired when we got back to the parking lot, but in good spirits. We’d taken off our shoes at lunchtime, when we’d eaten sandwiches on a beach, and we only realized when we got to the vehicles that one of the reasons Carol’s feet hurt so much was that she’d taken some of the beach with her for the final 7km!
In all honesty, I’ve never been so physically challenged in my life, but I am so glad I went, especially with Carol and her partner. I made new friends and experienced a different part of the park that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. It was amazing to get out onto the landscape, despite its potential dangers.
Truly an adventure.
If you want to make the journey yourself, here is my advice:
Know your fitness level and plan accordingly. Exercise in the month(s) ahead of time, make sure your shoes and your backpack are broken in. I recommend doing it over the course of two nights, so you can set up camp at the sites 7km or 13 km in, meaning you hike the remainder of the distance to the cabins with just a small day pack instead of hauling your large bags in 18km one-way to the Northend campsite.
If you decide to paddle in, leave early and plan to be delayed just in case. Kingsmere Lake can get notoriously and dangerously choppy with the slightest wind.
Pack appropriately. When you put everything in your bag, ask yourself: am I willing to carry you for 40km? There is such a thing as over-packing, particularly if you’re carrying them the whole way. Make sure you have the right layers for changing weather conditions. Don’t assume you’ll be able to make a campfire – check to see if the park is in fire ban, and if so plan to bring a small stove. Bring a knife, first aid kid, rope, extra dry socks (I brought twice as many as I’d normally need because there’s nothing better than finishing your hike for the day, setting up camp, and sliding into some fresh dry socks). Remember you’ll be packing out your garbage so bring small bags to put garbage in. I strongly recommend water tablets or a water filter, so you don’t need to haul in enough water for three days. Not sure what to pack? Consult AdventureSmart.ca.
Plan to be out for twice as long as you think you will be, just in case of injury or things taking longer than you plan. Plan to be out after dark – bring a headlamp, and/or a good flashlight, just in case.
Don’t forget your spirit of adventure!
Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl. Markham, ON: Paperjacks Ltd., 1972.
August 10th, 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of the opening of Prince Albert National Park. To honour the occasion today, I drank some delicious home-made lemonade at the Waskesiu Heritage Museum (as was served on opening day to visitors 90 years ago) and went to track down some historical photographs of the park. Here are a handful of postcards I found:
Then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie King came to dedicate Prince Albert National Park on August 10th and stayed in a rustic log cabin made especially for him (still standing on Prospect Point in Waskesiu). In his speeches, King spoke on the importance of nature and national parks to the well-being of the country:
“In the building of Canadian national life and in the moulding of our national character, it is of the utmost importance that we should cultivate an appreciation of all that is beautiful in our physical environment. In a young country so amply endowed with material resources there is always a danger that we may turn to the gods of the market place and sacrifice the beautiful on the altar of utility. . . It is indeed cause for deep satisfaction that Canada in her youth has learned the wisdom of conservation.”
Prime Minister Mackenzie King, quoted by Bill Waiser in Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince Albert National Park, 32.
I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.
The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.
My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.
However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.
One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.
Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”
No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.
The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.
I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.
So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.
Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.
Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.
While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:
Photographs taken after one of the last buffalo chases of the 1880s, right at the cusp of the collapse of bison populations. I reproduce one photo of an absolutely massive bull shows buffalo running horses in the background. The fact that it’s in black and white disguises the fact that the snow is stained by blood until you go looking for it. The image is so crisp you can see the texture of the fur on his hump.
One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.
I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.
When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.
Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.
We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.
Parks Canada manages both national parks and national historic sites. Often people, even employees of Parks Canada, think of there being a strong division between the two: some sites are all about nature, other sites are all about history. Biologists and ecologists work in national parks and historians work for historic sites and never the twain shall meet. However, national historic sites have natural conservation issues, and of course national parks do have a history. For all that people like to talk about the “untouched wilderness” of national parks, framing their photographs to exclude the hundreds of tourists that surround them, these natural spaces have had a human presence for generations – longer than they’ve been national parks, often by thousands of years. I’m particularly interested in signs of past historical events in “natural” landscapes. That’s why I was delighted to learn of Yoho National Park’s Walk-In-The-Past trail.
You can access it from the Kicking Horse Campground. Depending on how quickly you walk and how long you linger to contemplate the past, it takes about an hour and a half to hike. You can pick up a nifty self-guided pamphlet from the visitor centre in the town of Field and read more about the history of the place as you pass numbered signs.
Follow the same path hundreds of railway workers took generations ago.
A modern railway cuts across the historical trail.
Handy signs like this pointed the way where the path may have been unclear.
The first section of the trail follows a path used by railroad workers over 100 years ago as they travelled from camp to their worksite up the mountain. The path crosses over a modern train track at about the halfway point. You walk along a section that was originally cleared for an old rail line – dangerously steep for the time but fairly gentle by the standards of mountain hikes. (My friend and I had huffed and puffed our way up the Iceline Trail the day before, so that was our point of reference.) Evidence of coal dust left behind by the steam engines is still visible in the dirt along the path.
The final stop at the top of this hill is an old steam engine. Interestingly, it’s gage is actually narrower than all of the train tracks that exist in the valley and could never run on them; it was in fact a smaller train used to haul rocks away as they were digging the now famous spiral tunnels. Its rusting hulk is an interesting and physical reminder of the valley’s not so distant past.
Historical newspapers seem to love talking about charismatic bull bison, characterising them as curmudgeonly grumps and giving them cool names. I uncovered this great account of an older bull at Elk Island National Park in 1908 in the Edmonton Bulletin. I get exhilarated just reading about this epic bison battle, nearly 110 years later:
“The king of the largest herd in the park is Pink Eye, a mammoth bull, who is known to be 29 years old, and who may be several years older. He is a monarch without doubt. He rules his herd with a rod of iron. He is an autocrat. . . . Pink Eye is loved because he gives voice to a profoundly continuous roar, and because he has the weight to retain his hold upon the throne. His sway is not undisputed. There are ambitious young bulls who resent Pink Eye’s authority, but their insolent and defiant questioning of the monarch’s rule [illegible] opportunity for revision when the king locks with them. No bull in all the 400 is a match for Pink Eye, even though his left horn is but a stub, crumpled by many fierce conflicts. His immense weight and tremendous strength and his sagacity makes him unconquerable. But though he could rule the whole herd he is content to lord it over but 60.”
“Pink Eye has been called upon to defend his throne against only one serious revolutionary movement of a pretender since the herd entered the park. In this fierce battle he was returned victorious – not unscarred, but with a deeper rumble to his bellow, and a more dangerous gleam in his eye.
It was a fierce battle. The scene of it was on the top of a knoll, which capped a rise overlooking the lake. The bull who essayed to oust Pink Eye from command of the herd was a giant himself, but young and inexperienced, unversed in the plan of battle. The keepers say the fire of the approaching battle had been smouldering for some days. Pink Eye was loathe to engage in it, but when the point was reached where his dignity could suffer no further insult and permit him retaining his prestige, he gave battle.
Like a general he selected a strategical position. He worked his way to the knoll, and there, with head lowered, and bellowing defiance, he withstood the charges of his enemy, until the young bull, worn out by repeated charges up the hill, and meeting head on each time a force which sent him back like a stone from a sling, became utterly exhausted, and, unable to meet the terrific onslaught of Pink Eye, made at the psychological moment, he was carried down the hill and completely vanquished. The keepers saw the battle. They were unwilling to interfere, even had intervention been possible, for until one bull gains supremacy over all others with ambitions, there is trouble in the herd. There has to be a battle, and the sooner it is over the better. To-day Pink Eye is supreme.”
Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)
Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.
The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail. I think bison see it more often than people do.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.
Visitor guides from the 1980s seemed to go the metaphor route. Judith Cornish wrote in Finding Birds in Elk Island National Park (1988): “Elk Island – an island of wilderness in a sea of rural development.” Jean Burgess in Walk on the Wild Side: An All Season Trail Guide to Elk Island National Park (1986) also described the park in its introduction as an “‘island’ of wilderness.” I’ve heard ecologists talk about how the Beaver Hills, where the park is found, are like an island of unique geology, rising up above the surrounding landscape. That may well be true, but is it where the park’s name came from?
I had read early newspapers that called the place “Elk Park” before it became a dominion park with the Dominion Parks Act of 1913, at which point it became “Elk Island Dominion Park.” Why the addition of the word “Island” at that time?
So I did what any historian would have done… I looked it up.
I went over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, an archive of Western Canadiana, and did a quick search of their newspaper archive. I put “Elk Island” in quotation marks to get an exact phrase, and then sorted the newspapers in ascending order of dates to get the oldest entries. And wouldn’t you know it – I found my answer in an article from 1908, a bare two years after the park was founded but five years before it gained its full name officially with the parks act of 1913:
“Quite apart from the attractions which the park will have for those who love wild animal life, the scenic beauty of the park and its surroundings will make a powerful appeal. It is four miles square and the lake, from which it obtains its name, is situated wholly within its borders, being two miles long by an average width of a mile and a half. It contains twenty-one of the most beautiful islands imaginable…”
I have since read elsewhere that Astotin Lake was also once called “Island Lake,” like in this caption from a photo album circa 1910:
From 1906 to 1922 (when the park expanded its borders to what is now the Yellowhead highway) the park was a little fenced postage stamp of land around Astotin (Island) Lake with a bunch of elk. People came to admire the park’s two distinctive features: the elk and the islands. Hence: Elk Island National Park.