By John Warden
I've been doing a lot of reading lately, studying about the early explorers, painters and photographers of the West. What did they see and feel when they observed the landscape of early Alberta. Can I improve my ‘long slow look’ approach to nature photography by trying to see through their eyes?
The comments from two people seem to really standout for me, Thomas Blakiston the explorer and ‘Kootenai” Brown the frontiersman.
In 1858, the Palliser Expedition was searching for a route through the Rocky Mountains for the Canadian Pacific Railway. As a result of some differences, Blakiston and a small party split away from the expedition and continued on their own. Their journey took them over the South Kootenay Pass and along Pass Creek (renamed Blakiston Creek) down to the Kootenay Lakes, which he renamed Waterton after Sir Charles Waterton, a prominent English naturalist. From Blakiston’s writings-
After two hours travelling on level ground along Red-stone Creek (Red-Rock) we emerged on the Saskatchewan plains, just six geographical miles north of the 49th parallel and camped at the lakes… The scenery here is grand and picturesque… .
While Blakiston may have been one of the first Europeans to travel the South Kootenay Pass, the Waterton Park website advises that evidence of bison hunts and travel along this route date to more than 10,000 years ago .
Seven years after Blakiston, the legendary Kootenai Brown came through the pass. Emerging from the South Kootenay Pass we hit the foothills near the mouth of Pass Creek and climbed to the top of one of the lower mountains. The prairie as far as we could see east, north and west was one living mass of buffalo .
Brown is described as a gold miner, pony express rider and buffalo hunter. He was wounded by the Blackfoot, captured by the Sioux, spent time as a wolf hunter, was a whiskey trader and chief scout for the Rocky Mountain Rangers during the second Riel Rebellion. Interestingly, considering his past, Kootenai Brown became a champion for conservation. He loved the beauty of Waterton Lakes and was one of the key drivers behind the Waterton Lakes area becoming a forest reserve in 1895 and then through his continued persistence, a national park in 1911. Brown was appointed the first fisheries officer in the reserve, then a game guardian and eventually, park ranger.
The beautiful descriptions of Waterton by both Blakiston and Brown inspired me. I needed to go and see what they had seen and perhaps get some sense of the feelings and emotions behind their words. By standing in their footprints, could I breathe in their spirit? I left Sherwood Park early, 4:30 AM, taking highway 21 south, and three hours later stopped to experience the solitude of sunrise on the edge of the Dry Island Buffalo Jump. In the valley below the cliffs, mist was floating above the Red Deer River. Clouds swirled around the rising sun and spirits of the past danced in the sparkling sunlight. Easy to see why some say Dry Island is a sacred place.
It was hard to leave, it’s so beautiful and mystical there, but Waterton, my muse was tugging at me. I continued on Highway 21 to Strathmore, but then cut across to Gleichen to get a sense of the prairies. The sky was huge and imposing as I zigzagged along highway 547 through the lands of the Siksika Nation. Picking up Highway 23, I stopped for gas and lunch at Vulcan.
I was born at Vulcan, so made the time for a small detour and headed east on the Lomond Road towards our old farm. Imagine my surprise when at the turn-off for the farm, there at the corner, alone on the prairie was a big bull bison. Certainly it was a domestic bison and of course the land was fenced, but somehow, the symbolism was just so appropriate. The buffalo landscapes as seen by Blakiston and Brown remain, close to home. It was a moment steeped in connections with the past and an opportunity for artistic expression that for me bridged the gap of time.
I paid my respects to the land around the old Warden place and the Clifford place and then returned to Highway 23. I followed the highway past Carmangay where my grandfather came to Alberta in 1906 and carried on south to Fort MacLeod and west to Pincher Creek. Turning south on Highway 6, I recognized the silhouette of Chief Mountain from the paintings of local artist Brent Laycock and I was at Pass Creek by 4:00 PM. Driving up onto the Red Rock Parkway was to step back in time. As I drove along the Parkway and into Blakiston Valley, the fall colors and sweeping lines of the landscape spread out before me.
Parks Canada describes the Red Rock Parkway as the best place to experience Waterton's classic prairie meeting mountain landscape. The parkway follows the creek for 14 km into the mountains and Red Rock Canyon. I stopped for photographs of bears eating berries, the rocks and wave ripples at Lost Horse Creek and then spent an hour or so exploring Red Rock Canyon as the light faded into the mountains.
I was up before the sun the next morning. The parkway climbs up about twenty meters or so above the highway and the view is amazing. I parked my car and walked amongst the rolling hills and eskers. Looking to the east and the first rays of the morning sun, bull elk were bugling all around me. I caught glimpses of them running through the trees, their hooves pounding in the solitude of the morning. Blakiston and Alden had come through this same valley in September 154 years ago. Then too, the elk would have been rutting. We shared a connection across the years. It was gloriously beautiful, standing there as the sun rose over the prairies to meet the mountains and easy to appreciate that I was standing in the footprints of mountain men.
It was still early, a good time to see wildlife, so I took another slow cruise along the parkway. It follows an old buffalo trail and Parks Canada road side displays do a wonderful job of explaining the long history of buffalo hunting in the area.
As I drove the parkway, inspired by the past and motivated by the sublime beauty of the present, the spirit of the old buffalo trail was revealed to me. Cracks and shadows in the red argillite rock became a bison with one horn. The rippling waters of Red Rock Canyon swirled together to form the face of a black bear and somehow, camouflaged amongst the trees, was it a trick of the light or did I see an old park ranger’s Stetson, set low, over a big white mustache.
Inspiration allowed me to see the landscape with new eyes. Being open to the spirit of the land though, allowed me to feel it’s magic.