The Great Southern Prairie

Back in the 1990’s, two friends and I undertook a short hunting trip to Milk River in Southern Alberta just north of the US border. Officially, we were hunting the wily pheasant but, unofficially – now being in our fifties – the real goal was simply trekking the prairie, enjoying the crisp, clean air and marvelling at the wonders that water and wind and time had created in the sandstone and clay of the countryside.

We had never hunted this area before and had no idea where any good hunting spots might exist. So the plan was to simply head east toward the vast mostly-treeless expanse of prairie between Milk River and the Cypress Hills. Maybe we would surprise ourselves with what we found. Good company and interesting country were the main ingredients for a rewarding day. A rooster or two would be a bonus.

The first day’s walk brought some surprises. We were east of the Milk River townsite and north of the Milk River ridge, a nearly 2,000 square-kilometer height of land that extends through much of the southern border region.

We noticed the farms tended toward the very large, multiple thousand-acre spreads with huge swaths of cultivation next to large grazing tracts, most of which were home to Aberdeen Angus cattle, the beef industry’s flavor of the month in the 1990’s.

Many of these immense spreads were Hutterite colonies, many were owned by Mormons. Their vast agri-business operations had all the latest in farm gadgetry and looked for all the world like sizeable industrial complexes.   Both might have invited criticism for their insularity but they were exceptionally efficient farmers and ranchers

One thing they both did was to eagerly acquire more land and as the small operator had to sell there were ready buyers. Whatever the quality of the land, whatever lax stewardship may have abused it, the land had a buyer. It’s difficult to witness the loss of any small farm but if you are that farmer drowning in debt, the Hutterites amd Mormons might be considered saviours. I guess it’s all in the perspective.

Anyway, in one afternoon, we saw or visited a dozen deserted farmsteads, some vacated very recently. We found it difficult to witness these deserted sites, some with elaborate and beautiful windbreaks, arboreal beauty and utility that took as long as 40 years to create. Now they lay abandoned to await the bulldozer as the new owners prepared to put the site under cultivation.

We wondered what was to become of Alberta’s long history of family farms and ranches when economies of scale turned so many of them into liabilities that could not be endured.

Two farmsteads were particularly hard to accept. One featured a small 4-room house heated by steam. Imagine a small house heated by steam, the water coming from a large cistern buried in a shed outside the kitchen. The northeast corner of the house even boasted a small patio. A workshop behind the house was superbly outfitted with a furnace, a forge, a mechanics wall and hoists. This was one very resourceful and capable farmer.   He was obviously a consummate craftsman and we liked to think a neighbour any community would welcome. Surely, he did all he could to make a success of this farm. That he could not was a particularly discouraging message.

Yet, this visit left us with two positive takeaways. One, scaring up a good-sized rooster kept us from being shutout on the bird hunting front. Two, we could not help being awed by the skill and determination of our early settlers. This place, for all its evocation of hope and failure, was one we were glad to have had a chance to visit.

The second farmstead was home to an original cabin, a tiny ramshackle affair that remained barely erect. It’s interior was strewn with garbage, rusted tin cans, dusty bottles and a large 2.5 gallon jug of oil. For whatever reason, the owners did not destroy this simple crude abode when they moved to a larger home. Close by lay the remains of the foundation to this new house. We could only assume the new house had been towed away or torn down. Given the damage to the foundation, it was likely moved. Inside the foundation lay the detritus of a once-functioning home, a stove, several household effects, and a rusting birdcage. Thoughts of a hard-working beleaguered housewife being soothed by a canary or other songbird had us shaking our heads. Mixed in with all the effects were pieces of concrete, too many to just be broken off the foundation. Where would they come from?

It was an angry site, visions of a frustrated family ridding itself of so much that made their hard lives more manageable. The home quarter also boasted beautiful topiary, a prairie emulation of the grand estates of Europe – willows, spruce, poplar, and carigana laid out with geometric precision and grown to maturity, a pleasing oasis in a land of wind, dust, heat, bitter cold, and, always, more wind. Silos and outbuildings were set in logical fashion leading away into a willow thicket that must have, at one time, been home to a slough. Drought may have robbed it of its water or maybe the farmer simply got tired of living cheek-by jowl to a mosquito-breeding factory.

We marvelled at the thought and work that went into creating this homestead. And for what? In the end the house was placed onto a flatbed and hauled away. Small wonder the air of rage lingers in the air. We know all farmers live with the vagaries of the weather but the feeling was this was not weather-related. Rather, it reeked of skewed economics, of values that undercut the nobility and perspiration and perseverance of a farm family’s work.

It’s likely the three of us had some idea as to how the prairie economy evolved the way it did just as we may have had some understanding of the ecology of this distinctive prairie. But the real surprise of that first day was just how varied and visceral both of them were.   The deserted farms told a very vivid and sad story of hope and resolve and predatory economics. The land was simply bigger than we could imagine.

Whenever we entered an area where no farms or power lines appeared and we were left to scan pure prairie, my thoughts conjured up visions of the historic aboriginal life. For centuries, the many plains aboriginal communities roved through this area, following the buffalo or attending some celebration that might be hundreds of miles from their homes. It was near here that Sitting Bull’s Lakota tribe found a short-lived sanctuary after Little Big Horn. The closer we got to the Cypress Hills the more desolate was the short-grass prairie and it was easy to imagine the vast herds of buffalo wandering and roving tribes traversing the immense open spaces.

We knew that for centuries the grassland was home to vast herds of bison. And, while the bison may be gone, wildlife flourished where one may initially think it could not. Deer, both whitetail and mule, antelope in good-sized herds, coyotes, foxes, badgers, raccoons, weasels, gophers, squirrels, hawks and owls (including the rare burrowing owl) in some variety, waterfowl, songbirds, shore birds, upland birds, and eagles. An astounding variety for what at first glance seems a lifeless terrain. Walking, as opposed to driving, helps reveal this abundance of life.

I keep saying the prairie is full of surprises. Maybe it’s because we’re expecting tedium, like the passenger train fares who cross the prairie at night and think only of the mountains. They miss much of what makes North America great. The familiar images of farmhouses, outbuildings, pastures, and cultivated expanses are all well represented, only not as frequently as they were when we grew up used to quarter-section farms. Some of the cultivated fields are seemingly endless and we joke that a man could spend his entire career swathing one field. Yet we also encounter many shallow lakes and sudden valleys cut by small streams and the main watercourses of Southern Alberta – the Bow, the Oldman, and the Milk. Where we were, Willow Creek meandered eastward carving a beautiful valley with impressively sharp cliffs. The valley hosted a variety of willows and stubby thickets of rose bushes. And it is here that the prairie of history, the one sloshing about in our imagination, continues to exist. We believe we’re seeing the country in its unadulterated state. Alas, it is not so. Fences still extend into the valleys, rusting farm equipment lies half hidden by the bushes, and decades of grazing cattle have cut durable paths through the rose thickets. Man’s pushy nature continues to alter these wonderful sites but it is not without some pushback – the foxes raid the chicken coop, the deer and antelope ignore fences, geese and cranes eat the crops, coyotes lure dogs away from the homestead. But mostly the animals accommodate and adapt.

The surprise comes when the visitor realizes the richness of life on this treeless prairie and rejoices, as the native cultures and settlers might have on a summer night, to be part of such a beautiful and endless world.

One lone pheasant after three days of hunting and walking. And not one complaint.

Robert Alan Davidson

February, 2017

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