Tag Archives: cypress hills

Out There It’s Summertime

Reid Dickie

I’m just back from a eight-day ramble on the prairies, mostly in the Missouri Coteau and Cypress Hills areas of southern Saskatchewan. I visited half a dozen new sites, revisited some familiar ones, shot almost 2 hours of video (expect plenty of reports from afar as a result), met wonderful new people and spent time with some old favourites. My intuition quickened, Spirit whispered through the trees in Pine Cree Park and Old Souls aided and abetted me along the way. My reward for the 2800 kms and ensuing events is serenity, a renewed sense of purpose and a bolstering of my humanity. You get what you intend.

The trip began with a perfect Saturday at the Regina Folk Festival with Linda’s cousin, Mike Panko and his beautiful partner, Brenda. Mike’s an Old Soul and a ton of fun. Here’s Mike and me at the fest.

A day of great music culminated with an energetic set from k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang closing the evening concert which also featured Taj Mahal. k.d. is in fine form these days with a new band, high energy, great new songs from her Sing It Loud CD (buy it if you haven’t already) and a back catalogue that would be the envy of any singer with perfect pitch. The show began with the lead-off track from the CD called I Confess, to my ears a Roy Orbison homage of high order. (That was one of the Tunes of the Tour as was Moonglow because Wendy Thomson performed it beautifully with the moon rising above her on the second floor balcony at The Convent in Val Marie. Both tunes sift through the inattentive spaces in my mind as the miles go by.) k.d. covers two songs on the CD and performed both of them: Heaven “by that great country band, Talking Heads,” as she introduced it, led eerily, perfectly into a new arrangement of Hallelujah; and she swung the Little River Band hit Reminiscing. She sang Miss Chatelaine, Western Skies, ending the show with a rockin’ version of her now-evergreen Constant Craving. To end the encores and evening she sang Neil Young’s Helpless.

After a restful night on Mike’s futon and a long, leisurely breakfast with him and Brenda, I was westbound onto the Missouri Coteau. The Coteau stretches from the northwest in central Saskatchewan south between Moose Jaw and Swift Current into South Dakota. It’s the next step up on the prairies after the Manitoba Escarpment and features lots of hills and gullies, some of Saskatchewan’s best scenery and worst highways, friendly people and endlessly changing vistas that surprise and enchant the curious seeker. It’s one of my favourite places to drive. The highways are lonesome and long, the sky runs ahead of me just as far as it extends behind me and there’s enough room to think, to evolve, to expand my awareness and discover what’s there. I head south from Moose Jaw to Assiniboia then west toward Pine Cree Park, my camping destination for the night.

Located in the foothills to the Cypress Hills between Shaunavon and Eastend, over the years Pine Cree Park has sheltered my little tent more than any other campground on the praires. This is a shot of the South Fork of Swift Current Creek, which runs right through Pine Cree Park; its pleasant burble can be heard from most campsites in the park.

Set in a deep mysterious coulee on a Continental Divide, Pine Cree Park is a truly rustic camping experience. There is no other like it in southern Saskatchewan. Soft-shell camping is encouraged, the park is non-electric, the width of the road and bridges prevents any unit longer than 28 feet from using the park and weight restrictions on the bridges apply. It gets extremely dark. Great for stargazing. Here’s another shot of the little stream through the park.

The little park has custodians this year, something new. Joan Hodgins and her nephew Darcy tend the park and live in two trailers just at the entrance. Both wonderful helpful people. I bought a generous tailgate load of firewood for $5 delivered. Joan offers outdoor programs at the park and both her and the lad demonstrated a great love for and understanding of this sacred place. Joan helped me understand the significance of a gift Spirit gave me just after I arrived in the park. I will have a video report on the gift soon.

The next night I moved from soft shell camping to luxury on the prairie, staying at The Convent Country Inn in Val Marie. A former convent saved from demolition by Robert and Mette Ducan about 15 years ago, this is my favourite bed and breakfast out there.  Other guests included Wendy and Eldon Thomson from Saskatoon who’d also attended the Regina Folk Festival and were out for a drive on the Coteau. Up on the second floor balcony, Wendy serenaded us with her lovely singing and guitar playing until way past dark. The balcony affords a wide view of the Frenchman River valley, Grasslands National Park beyond and the star-filled night sky. The Convent is for sale, a bargain at $525,000. Video coming soon. UPDATE: Watch my video tour. Here is a picture of me in front of The Convent.

Two more shots of The Convent: the first floor breakfast room and the second floor sitting room.

The next day I took the eco-driving tour of Grasslands National Park. There is some development occurring in the park. A small, primitive campground has been set up at the Belza Place which has a vast view of the Frenchman River valley, and closer to the prairie dog Dogtown, another development is being built. Spend a couple of minutes with the prairie dogs in GNP. Here’s a shot of the vista from the Belza campsite.

After a night at the Stage Coach Motel in Willow Bunch, I took a private tour of the Big Muddy Badlands offered through Coronach Tourism. Tillie Duncan, who’d lived in the area her whole life and knew it like the back of her hand, was my guide. She took me through the Sam Kelly Caves where outlaws like Dutch Henry and Butch Cassidy hid the horses and cattle they rustled back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We also visited two sacred sites that were new to me: a ceremonial circle and a turtle effigy, both high atop a butte on the Giles Ranch which is private property and accessible only through guided tours. Though elderly, Tillie was spry and full of vigour, offering countless entertaining anecdotes about the area. She still farms 13 quarters, growing durum and lentils this year! I recommend her highly for the Big Muddy tour. Here’s a shot of me taken near the turtle effigy.

A night in the Country Boy Motel then I re-explored a couple of the accessible sites Tillie had shown me, like the 1902 Big Muddy North West Mounted Police barracks and the family cemetery of an early pioneer, James Marshall, all with magnificent vistas of the huge Big Muddy valley. I revisited Castle Butte and took some great video of the place. Again coming soon to a blog near you. The only rain of my eight-day journey occurred Friday morning when I awoke in Weyburn. By the time I got to Manitoba, the sun was shining again. I was thrilled to discover Hwy #5 through Spruce Woods Park is now open and the park is slowly getting back on its feet. This is my report on the park’s current status.

I arrived home feeling rejuvenated and fully in touch with my humanity. The mighty Avenger and I will travel the prairies for another month. There is always room in the virtual passenger seat for you. Hope you are up to the drive all the way “out there” and back. Come on along.

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Filed under Accommodations, Ancient Wisdom, Natural Places, Parks, Pioneers, Prairie People, PRAIRIES, Sacred Places, Saskatchewan, Spirit, spirit sands, Video

Sacred Places – Mystery Rocks Extra

           These are satellite (Google Earth) images of the Mystery Rocks sent in by my old buddy Jim. Thanks Jim. I will add them to the original Mystery Rocks report. Click pics to enlarge. What do you see?

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Lise Perrault

Reid Dickie

UPDATE: Lise Perrault passed away on March 7, 2015 at age 91. Funeral information here

On my second visit to Val Marie, SK in August 2001 I met a local woman named Lise Perrault who, among other things, ran a small museum in her home. Lise collected and proudly displayed all 24 first editions of the cowboy novels written by western writer and actor Will James who ranched in the Val Marie area. Besides the books, the museum featured other James memorabilia and pictures. Lise sometimes loaned her collection to other museums, claiming it to be the definitive Will James collection in Canada, of which I had no doubt.

               Lise in 2001 when I first met her at her Val Marie house.

Lise thought Will James and his connection to the district was never fully exploited for its tourist and educational value. “We have one of the greatest stories right here in Val Marie,” she said, “but instead of preserving his homestead and making a display of it, we’re not taking advantage of it.” Today in the self-guiding driving tour of the Frenchman Valley in the Park, one of the featured stops is what remains of the Will James ranch.

Making use of her detailed knowledge of the area’s history, geography and special places, Lise offered interesting and well off-the-beaten-path tours of the mysterious Frenchman Valley and Grasslands National Park. In addition to the stories of local ranchers, aboriginals and settlers, Lise could recount tales of bootleggers and point out relics such as the trail the North West Mounted Police used on their patrols between Wood Mountain and Cypress Hills, an ancient half-moon effigy in the dry grass and where the prairie rattlesnakes spend their winters. The day I met her, I waited at her house/museum while she escorted a vanful of tourists around the sights. Her credentials for providing tours were solid.

                     Lise Perrault painting titled Buffalo Rub Stone         

Born in the district and a third generation descendent of Max Trottier who homesteaded in the region in the 1880s, Lise claimed that her grandfather participated in the last buffalo hunt in which 482 buffalo were killed southwest of Val Marie in 1885. Lise is a big fan and promoter of another relative, now-retired hockey player Bryan Trottier who grew up in the Val Marie area and played 18 seasons in the National Hockey League for the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ferdinand and Lise Perrault ran the Rocking 4 Ranch 24 miles east of Val Marie for 38 years where they raised nine children. In 1984, they sold their land to the Park with their ranch becoming the cornerstone of the new 900 square kilometre Grasslands National Park. A strong and vocal advocate of the Park, Lise stated, “Our hills are beautiful. There is colour in our country. It is for discerning people who have time to stop and look.”

Lise was also an accomplished painter who spent her life paying attention to the landscape and capturing its nuances in a unique folk art style. Her depictions of the prairie she saw every day and the critters who roamed it brim with simple honesty both in subject and in style. The vast dun hills rolling back and away dotted with the dark forms of buffalo and deer, the huge blue sky and the subtle connection between land and people were effortlessly captured by Lise’s brush.

Lise is now in a personal care home in Ponteix, SK, her museum closed and the fate of her paintings largely unknown. A few of her paintings are still accessible in Val Marie. The Val Marie Museum retains two of Lise Perrault’s most evocative works. Painted in 1982, one is a hilly and treed vista that may have been the lowlands of the Cypress Hills just west of here. The other, from 1998, depicts two cowboys shaking hands in the middle of the prairie. Nothing in the picture suggests the men’s motive or meaning, no points of reference. There is amicability between them but mystery as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two paintings by Lise Perrault at the Val Marie Museum. Neither are for sale.

The Val Marie Hotel features a mural by Lise depicting the broad prairie with buttes, buffalo and prairie dogs. Located in the hotel restaurant/pub, the scene covers most of a wall. The cattle brands, burnt into the wood above the mural, come from local ranches.

Lise’s prairie mural in the Val Marie Hotel with brands from local ranches along the top.

Lise’s prescient depictions of buffalo roaming the open prairie have come to life. Buffalo returned to the muscular prairie we call Grasslands National Park in December 2005 when seventy plains bison from Elk Island National Park were released into the Park’s West Block. Hoping to enhance the park’s ecological integrity by restoring grazing to the landscape, the buffalo enclosure covers approximately 181 square km and is part of the self-guiding driving tour.

I treasure the time I spent with Lise. She was welcoming and generous with her knowledge of the land and sparked my curiosity to explore and look deeper into the Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park and Val Marie. As well, one time she took me to Buffalo Butte Ceremonial Site via “the back way,” as she put it, when the pasture gate was locked. For all that, I am indebted to her.

Lise’s home was lined with dozens of paintings, all in her whimsical folksy style. As she spoke a bit about each picture and what it meant to her, her love of the land and all its secrets welled out of her. It made her joyful. At the time, I was highly inclined to buy one of her paintings but my finances didn’t permit it. I regret that.

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Sacred Places

THE MYSTERY ROCKS

AUGUST 1999

“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 looking north from atop the Mystery Rocks. The front edge of the platform is along the right of the picture with the large boulders on top. 

            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.

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