THE MYSTERY ROCKS
“The enigma persists.”
Desolate and mystifying, enigmatic and old, the Mystery Rocks are one of the hardest places to approach using language but I’ll give it my best shot. Situated in the rolling foothills of the Cypress Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan, there is nothing in my experience quite like them. They are a true prairie anomaly, definitely a place not to visit “in neutral” but with all your protection fully engaged. Am I suggesting this is a dangerous place? Using the precautionary principle due to the place’s unwillingness to reveal very much about itself, I am suggesting just that. Feel ready.
Photographer Courtney Milne’s marvelous book Spirit of the Land featured a picture of the Mystery Rocks, which was how I heard of the place. My first visit was on a hot and windy August day in 1997 with second-generation landowner Brett Gaff welcoming me and taking me out to the site. It’s drivable from his farmyard, over the hills, across pastures and finally arriving above the place. Bret said two archeologists have visited the place, one from Mexico who camped here for a few days and left suddenly, and another person about whom Brett was vague. Both researchers agreed the place merits more in-depth study. On both my visits, Brett left me alone at the site.
The view from this magnificently isolated place is ten kilometres north, south and east. The deep dun valley spreads away dotted with stands of spruce and pine. The north side of the coulee is rich with evergreens; the drier sunny south is short grass prairie with prickly pear and pincushion cactus.
Looking down from the top of the outcrop at the jumble of rocks and the platform beyond.
Opposite view from previous picture. Here looking up from the front edge of the platform.
The Mystery Rocks lay on a bench about halfway down a deep coulee. My first sense was the site was created with great care and purpose but never finished. Above the site, jutting out of a sandstone outcrop, are a number of sheared rocks. Down from them is a jumble of stone blocks, some on their sides, leaning against each other, some prone or tilted edgewise. Many of the jumbled rocks have been cut into rectangular shapes like the ones on the platform. Below this is an organized platform of rocks beyond which the bench slopes steeply into the valley. The astonishing platform consists of eleven evenly placed rows of huge stone blocks laid end to end, six complete rows at the front of the platform, five more partial rows in back, sixty-five stone blocks in all. The largest rock is six feet by twenty-five feet; most are five to nine feet deep. The front of the platform faces due east.
Edge of the platform is on left of picture with large boulder and assembled platform visible.
Near the front edge on the platform rest two large oval boulders aligned southeast/northwest, the same direction as the long cuts between stones. Each boulder is about four feet across and three feet high. Many of the stone blocks have basins on their horizontal surfaces, circular indentations in the sandstone ranging in size from 3 inches across by 3 inches deep to a foot across and 10 inches deep. There are 27 basins on the platform. The ground beneath the platform is sandy with various vegetation – creeping juniper, bearberry, sage and fescue.
Standing on the Mystery Rocks, the cut blocks and basins are clearly visible. Notice that the block in lower left is perfectly square.
Approaching the actual platform was exhilarating. The closer I got the more intensely present I became. The energy flow felt as if it was spiraling toward and away from the site at once, rather confusing for me but very exciting. On my first visit, I sensed an immense span of time had passed since this site was made. This area escaped glaciation in the last Ice Age so it could go back more than 85,000 years.
My first visit was an easy blur where I lost track of time. The exhilaration from the site clung to me strongly. Even the next day I was still stoned from the place. My second visit, on my 50th birthday in August 1999, was different.
Brett took me out to the site and, as we were talking, I saw over his left shoulder a herd of elk walk up an incline about a mile away. I counted 26 head with many stragglers. The day was hot, overcast and breezy. I hiked down the coulee and approached the Mystery Rocks from the side. As I crest the rocks, I saw scratched deeply into the sandstone in bold block letters one word: LINDA. Her spirit was always with me on all those solo trips, a reminder she loved me at that special moment.
The same spiraling energy as last time, ancient and pivotal, greeted me as I stepped onto the platform. The combination of the vista before me and the energy flowing through me took my breath away and I knelt on the stones. My little rattle and my quiet power song brought me fully present and I received my first communication from the place. A small voice whispered to me repeatedly, “They are in the rocks.” I asked who is telling me this and all I heard was a rustling laugh, derisive and dismissive then nothing, silence. I felt challenged and alone. The exhilaration from this visit passed quickly once I left the site, unlike my first visit.
How were the Mystery Rocks formed? The “official” government explanation of the Mystery Rocks is, and I quote from a letter written in 1998 by Archaeological Resource Manager John Brandon of the Heritage Branch of the Saskatchewan government, “These natural rock outcroppings have not been recorded as heritage sites.”
Let’s dig deeper into the facts and mythology surrounding these “natural rock outcroppings.” Tipi rings, usually as common as cow plop out here in this part of the prairie, are nowhere to be found at or near the Mystery Rocks. I hiked the immediate area thoroughly, finding an animal effigy, possibly a horse, on the ridge above the site but not a single tipi ring in sight. That’s odd. About a mile away was a big trading post where people from far and wide traded. Fort Walsh, the North West Mounted Police station and now an active heritage site, is nearby. The southern part of the Cypress Hills provided great overwintering sites for thousands of years but not here. The area was crawling with natives except at the Mystery Rocks. Brett Gaff said natives didn’t camp here, “It was too holy, too sacred; only certain people were welcomed here.” Was I welcomed there? I was, to a degree.
Travel back in time with this site and see if we can unravel some of its mystery. The challenge I felt on that hot afternoon as I lay on the huge rock platform was to go deeper into the Mystery. Spurred and tempted would also describe my feelings. For this visit I had expectations, my first visit had none. None of my expectations occurred and later dreaming revealed the lesson the Mystery Rocks taught me on my fiftieth birthday: always arrive open yet protected at sacred places, be free of expectation but have a powerful intent, be present. I gratefully interpreted this gift as a conciliatory sign from the local spirits.
Graffiti left by previous visitors to the site. Hat for scale.
Besides Linda’s name carved in stone there were hundreds of others who left their mark here. There were no signs of recent medicine making anywhere at the site. Due to its remoteness, The Mystery Rocks have little tourist value. Though the site is hikable from Fort Walsh, its existence isn’t well known
I have a deep sense that one of the more recent uses of the place was for vision quests. Bearberry, with its shiny green leaves, grows profusely here and is usually associated with vision quest sites. Between some of the stones, deep crevices could easily house a weeping quester. Not just any vision quester came here. Often shamans reclaimed their vision or sought out new ones several times during their lives. Shamans came here for that purpose. The basins in the stones at that time were used for offerings and smudging.
The confusion I felt comes from its great antiquity. If pre-glacial then I had few resources to handle anything this ancient. These abilities would develop in me over the next few years but that day I was flummoxed. It felt like people who used magic to create their world built this place for a specific purpose yet there was always the feeling of it being unfinished. Or perhaps its purpose had been fulfilled and what remains was the post-event disintegration of the place.
Some conjecture says the Mystery Rocks are actually a medicine wheel or astrological site. The straight lines formed by the boulders may point to other significant sites. In this picture the lines of the rocks point toward the crest of the small hill in distance.
The large blocks that form the platform are obviously following some form of organization or intent. The edges of the blocks appear to have been cut somehow and their arrangement suggests something other than natural forces had a hand in forming this place. Some of my subsequent dreaming about this place indicates it may not be a spiritual place at all but an interstellar site known to beings from other worlds. The enigma persists.
I haven’t returned to the Mystery Rocks since 1999 but have amassed a comprehensive list of things to investigate next about the place. The list includes finding and documenting the effigy above the site, checking for animal presence like scat, nests and tracks and doing a map of the platform surface including basins.
Since the archies (archeologists) seem to be in denial about the Mystery Rocks, it is up to shamans and seekers to find out the meaning and Spirit of the place. I plan to return to the Mystery Rocks in the summer of 2011 to explore, to trance, maybe just to make sure they are still as enigmatic as ever. I’ll let you know.
If you do visit the Mystery Rocks, I feel it is important to emphasize this: please exercise caution, feel ready to be there.