Saturday, August 8, 2015

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

Trip Date: August 2015

Writing-On-Stone, or Áísínai'pi as it's known in Blackfoot, is a provincial park in the southeast corner of Alberta near the United States border in Montana.  The park is home to the largest collection of First Nation rock art on the Great Plains of North America.  The park sits in the heart of the Blackfoot's traditional territory and the area holds great spiritual significance for their People.  

The entrance to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
Writing-On-Stone is located 340km southeast of Calgary, but only 42km east of Milk River, the closest town to the park.  The Government of Alberta is working with Parks Canada and the Government of Canada to nominate Writing-On-Stone for World Heritage Site status with UNESCO under the name Writing-On-Stone/Áísínai'pi, meaning "it is pictured/written" in Blackfoot.  The Áísínai'pi National Historic Site of Canada is synonymous with Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park.  I briefly mentioned Writing-On-Stone in a previous post titled Milk River.  I spent one night in the park several years ago after paddling from the town of Milk River with my co-workers from Enviros Base Camp during a staff training/retreat.  

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park Map
Christine and I drove down to the park on the Sunday morning of the August long weekend and would be camping for two nights.  We arrived, settled into our campsite, and then headed out for an afternoon hike with Rome.  There are only a couple of official trails in the park, so we decided on the 4.4km Hoodoo Trail that featured a little bit of everything; hoodoos, viewpoints, rock art, and some beautiful scenery.  Since the trail winds it's way through hoodoos and sandstone the temperatures can be extremely hot.  While we were there the temperature amongst the sandstone was reported as 66.7°C!  Make sure you are dressed properly and carry lots of water.   

Hiking the Hoodoo Interpretive Trail
The trail offers a few chances to spot rock art.  This panel wasn't featured in the Self-Guiding Trail Brochure, but with keen eyes you can spot it from the trail, like we did!
Christine standing in the trees along the Milk River
The sandstone cliffs that are unique to this valley
Hoodoos are another rock formation that are prevalent in the park
This is a petroglyph of a bear paw, a sacred animal to many First Nation groups
The Milk River
If it wasn't for the brochure we probably would have walked right past this panel of pictographs
After running them through DStretch they're a little more vivid.  According to the brochure, the artist painted a hunting scene complete with horses, bison, humans, and the sun.
One of the largest panels in the park is the Battle Scene, which can be accessed via the Hoodoo Trail or the Battle Scene Trail, depending on your starting point.  The interpretive sign in front of the petroglyph panel reads:
"The petroglyphs carved on this cliff make up the most extensive and complex rock art scene found at Writing-On-Stone.  Over 250 characters are depicted in the most complex composition of any Northwestern Plains rock art scene.  It includes 115 warriors, some of which carry bows or guns, 17 horses, some pulling travois, and 44 guns.  A stream of bullets issues from the muzzle of nearly every gun. 
The scene may represent an actual battle described by an Aamsskáápipikáni (South Peigan or Blackfeet) elder named Bird Rattle.  He directly linked the rock art of Writing-On-Stone to the "Retreat Up The Hill" battle, fought somewhere along the Milk River in 1866.  It was one of the most decisive of the Aamsskáápipikáni victories.  Bird Rattle described this battle during a visit he made to Writing-On-Stone in 1924.  The drawing was likely carved in the late 1800s."
This is what the Battle Scene looks like, but it can be difficult to see depending on the light conditions.
Photo from a Buzz Bishop blog post.

The Battle Scene panel as it's viewed from behind the protective fence.  You can tell it's difficult to see at certain times.
A close-up of a section of the Battle Scene
Sandstone cliffs along the river
Sandstone Cliffs
Hiking back to the campground
A solitary hoodoo perched on a hill
The mounds in the background are the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana 
The Visitor Centre can be see in the background on the left
After our hike we took a refreshing dip in the Milk River, which flows through the park and is easily accessible from the campground.  After dinner we took a drive up to the rodeo grounds as the 50th Annual Writing-On-Stone Rodeo was taking place while we were there.  Unfortunately we were a bit too late as they were already wrapping up for the evening.  

We spotted this Nuttall's Cottontail hopping through the campground
The Sweet Grass Hills, the Milk River, and those white buildings are the NWMP Post
After breakfast the next morning Christine dropped me off at the Visitor Centre as I was going on a tour of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Post that sits in the park, but on the south side of the river.  This was a rare and very unique opportunity as the post hadn't been open to visitor's in roughly ten years!  They were using this day as a chance to pilot a new program with the intent of opening the NWMP Post on a more regular basis for tourism.

Vistor Centre
Outside the Visitor Centre are the weathered remains of a sweat lodge, used at the opening ceremonies for the Visitor Centre
The reconstructed NWMP Post
The post, positioned at the mouth of Police Coulee, was originally built in 1889 and was occupied for twenty-nine years before closing in 1918.  It was built with the intention of combatting whiskey smuggling and horse raiding that was reportedly happening in the area.  Once the post was established the police soon realized that the aforementioned crimes weren't much of an issue and they adopted more tedious tasks like fighting grass fires, herding U.S. cattle back across the border, and riding long patrols along the boundary.  The post reached it's peak in 1897 with twelve horses, five Mounties, and two hired range riders.  From that point the post slowly declined until there was only one Mountie stationed there in 1905.  In 1918 the federal government closed all police posts along the border as the fear of criminal activity was quite small.  The post in Writing-On-Stone shuttered it's doors in May of that year and was burnt to the ground a short time later by unknown arsons.  It wasn't until 1975, in conjunction with the North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP) centennial celebrations that the post was rebuilt according to original specifications.  

The post sits in the Archaeological Preserve area of the park
The stable and cold storage building
Part of the reason the post has been closed is its accessibility.  Like at Dinosaur Provincial Park, a large portion of Writing-On-Stone is classified as an Archaeological Preserve, meaning it's off-limits to the public unless accompanied by a guide.  The NWMP Posts sits within the preserve portion of the park and is also on the opposite side of the river from the campground and Visitor Centre.  For the pilot program park staff used a raft to transport guests from one side of the river to the other, negating the need to wade through the shallow water.  Once across we were greeted by our guide, Becky, who proceeded to offer a glimpse into what life was like for the Mounties stationed at the post all those years ago.  

The inside has been furnished to recreate the late 1890's
After touring the post we were given an opportunity to take a short hike into Police Coulee to see Signature Rock.  It was here that many of the Mounties who were stationed at the post carved their names into the soft sandstone cliffs.  Some are elaborate carvings that obviously took a lot of time and energy, while other are more simple.  Although carving your name into the cliffs is now illegal these carvings are considered historical graffiti and are embraced by staff as part of the park's history.  For the hike we had a separate guide, Aaron, who provided additional details about the Mounties and how they spent their time while living at the post.  Both guides offered excellent insight to the history of the area, the NWMP and their roles, as well as some background information on a few of the men whose names were inscribed on the rock.  

The entrance to Police Coulee
This is just a small section of Signature Rock
A couple of hours later I was back at the Visitor Centre and ready for another dip in the river followed by some relaxation in the campsite.  I was scheduled to attend the early evening Rock Art Tour, which was again located in the Archaeological Preserve area of the park.  I met my guide, Stella, at the Visitor Centre and boarded the bus for the short drive into the preserve.  Stella was a wealth of knowledge about all the different artwork we'd be seeing throughout our tour.  She informed us that there are over 1,000 pieces of artwork that have been found in the park and some are estimated to be over 5,000 years old!  There is evidence that First Nation People camped in the area as long as 3,500 years ago, but it remains unclear when the first appearance of rock art truly was.  Researchers believe that the Blackfoot People created the majority of the artwork, but other groups such as the Cree, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Crow, Kutenai, and Shoshone are thought to have also contributed. 

These pictographs are barely visible to the naked eye...
...but after being processed with DStretch the images of three shield-bearing warriors are instantly recognizable.  There's also a fourth character visible top left.
This panel, immediately next to the above pictographs features several figures including both animals and humans
This is a v-neck human holding a quiver of arrows
Many of the petroglyphs that were created before the introduction of stone tools were incised or scratched onto the cliffs using antlers or bones.  The pictographs were painted using red ochre, which is crushed iron ore mixed with animal fat or water.  Sometimes even a piece of charcoal was used to create a painting.  Unfortunately there is no technique that can accurately date rock art sites, instead researchers can approximate the age based on objects depicted in the artwork or by analyzing changes in rock art styles.  

Here is a solitary piece that depicts an arrow with two feathers attached to it
The figure in the centre of the circle is a representation of Napi
The small tick-marks on the outside of the large circle are an indication of counting, possibly tracking the passage of time
A large petroglyph panel with many human-like figures including a Medicine Man (right of centre in a circle)
For many years this was thought of as vandalism, but that has changed and is now recognized as the earliest depiction of automobiles within the park
Much of the rock art is still shrouded in mystery as the exact meaning for many of the pieces may never be known.  Using a variety of methods, such as legends, archaeology, historical records, and the help of First Nation elders, researchers can hypothesize some of the meanings behind the art.  It is believed that much of the artwork was probably ceremonial, created during different rituals like vision quests.

The human-figure left of centre is depicted wearing his finest clothing.  The lines coming off the body represent mink furs, which adorned clothing for special occasions.
These are horses and the lines at left represent the number of horses that were likely obtained during a raid
Another panel featuring shield-bearing warriors.  The figure just left of centre that appears to be laying down with another smaller figure between his/her legs can be interpreted in two ways: (1) someone who has died and his/her spirit is leaving the body or (2) it's a mother giving birth to her child.
You can read more about the pictograph and petroglyph sites I have visited by visiting my Western Canadian Rock Art section on the Bradshaw Foundation's webpage.

Sandstone cliffs and wildflowers
Sunset at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
Writing-On-Stone is a very special place filled with great spiritual significance, unique landscapes, historical sites, legends and lore, prehistoric artwork, and endless adventure.  We arrived on a beautiful summer weekend in 2015, but the place has been visited since the beginning of time.  Who knows what other secrets have yet to be uncovered?

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