Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pine Coulee

Trip Date: September 2013

While searching for interesting places to visit in southern Alberta I came across a local photographer's website.  He had snapped some photos of pictographs that I hadn't seen before so I sent him an email asking if he'd share the location with me.  He put me in contact with a landowner named Larry, in the Nanton area who granted me access to a coulee on his land where the pictographs are located.  This past Friday I took a drive down to Pine Coulee to see them for myself.  

The parking spot above Pine Coulee next to a large boulder
Looking southeast into the coulee
My hiking partners were Kola (above) and Rome (not pictured)
Another large rock sitting above the coulee
Looking west into Pine Coulee.  My trail today roughly followed the narrow strip of red vegetation in the valley bottom.
Over the course of our email correspondence, Larry informed me that there's a lot of history in this part of the province, and not just First Nation history either.  In the late 1860's two Americans moved across the border to what is now southern Alberta and began selling illegal alcohol out of a post that became known as Fort Whoop-Up.  Canada's Northwest Territories, present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, was a lawless land where the trading of illegal whiskey was an extremely profitably business.  The absence of any kind of law enforcement allowed various illicit whiskey operations to grow and prosper.  One such site, known today as the Whiskey Still, was located in Pine Coulee.  If you look in the photo above, just to the left of centre, on the hill across the coulee you will see a band of light-coloured rocks.  At the bottom of the hill directly below those rocks is the approximate location of the Whiskey Still.  This lawlessness in Canada lead to the creation of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  Allegedly the first arrest in Alberta by the NWMP was in Pine Coulee at the site of the Whiskey Still.  Unfortunately there's nothing left of it today, but the story makes for a neat experience while exploring the coulee.  There's also some caves further up the coulee called the Whiskey Caves.  Some think that illegal whiskey was stored in these caves to keep it hidden from the NWMP.  Despite a lengthy search I was unable to locate the caves.  I guess I'll have to come back for a second look!

I'm told the pictographs are located somewhere beneath this rocky cliff
Apparently Bison skulls have been found at the base of these cliffs.  The prominent theory is that the First Nation people used the cliff directly above the pictographs as a small Buffalo Jump.  They would run the Bison off the cliff to their death and then butcher them at the base of the cliff.  

Found them!  These two pictographs are very well preserved.
If you look closely you can see red smudges along this wall.  These are the remains of more pictographs that have been lost to time.
The pictographs should have been well protected as they were located under this rocky overhang and were very sheltered from the elements
Larry also gave me a bit of background about the pictographs.  He said that archaeologists from the Glenbow Museum were out to view them and they think that the artwork depicts shield-bearing warriors before the introduction of horses.  A member of the Blackfoot community, however, feels that the pictographs are telling the legend of the Wedding of Napi.  I find it interesting that two different experts on the subject can have two very different opinions about the same piece of art.  The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.  

Larry also explained to me that a friend of his, who also happens to be of Blackfoot descent, feels that the whole coulee area was the site of a large tribal camp and that one of the neighbouring hills might contain the remains of a medicine wheel.  He's planning on returning to the coulee sometime in early 2014 for further research and exploration.

You can read more about the pictograph sites I have visited by visiting my Western Canadian Rock Art section on the Bradshaw Foundation's webpage.  

The coulee was lined with rocky cliffs
I noticed this cow Moose on the opposite side of the coulee as we were making our way to the bottom
I didn't see a calf in the area and she posed no threat to us.  She was happy to just watch us from a distance and she was long gone by the time we made it back.
I wasn't expecting to see bears during this hike, but after spotting several piles of berry-filled scat I was on high alert.  There was a healthy crop of berries in the coulee that bears could easily hide in so I made sure to make enough noise not to surprise any of them!  Luckily I didn't run into any bears at all.
After I finished the hike, Larry informed me that there was a Grizzly sow and two cubs in the area all last year.  His neighbours have spotted her again with both yearlings this summer.  He apologized and said he should have warned me, but it completely slipped his mind.  I'm just glad I didn't run into the entire Grizzly family while I was out there!  

The coulee keeps on going, but this was the end of our journey today
There was a fence-line here that had a "No Trespassing - Keep Out" sign posted on the gate.  I felt I should obey their wishes, as I wasn't sure whose land it was.
In places the brush was as high as my chest.  Thankfully there was a faint quad trail that I could follow.
I scrambled up the side of the coulee for a better look
Looking back from where I started.  I guess it's time to start hiking back.

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