GRANUM AND THE FOOTHILLS

Drive 150 kilometers south of Calgary and the traveller finds oneself in what appears to be just another flat, nondescript chunk of bald prairie. But if the visitor will tarry a while and explore the area, he or she will find an area of impressive variety, bisected by a robust creek, boasting a sizeable lake where a large body of water is most unexpected and to the west, the land rises sharply to become the so-called eastern slopes of the Rockies, Alberta’s foothills.  For more than three decades I regularly visited this area of Granum and the foothills.

These visits began in 1964, in a world that really doesn’t exist any more.  For one thing, there were many more small farms.  In this dry part of the world, the classic quarter section farm never existed for any length of time but many half to full section operations were surviving.  With perfected irrigation techniques, the thin soil of southwestern Alberta was able to deliver some bumper crops and farmers generally hedged their bets with mixed farming, some crops, some livestock. The corporate farm was still in the future.

There was no shortage of wildlife, even if the large predators like bears and wolves were a rare sighting.  Deer, both mule and white-tail were common, coyote packs could be heard most nights, moose and elk might be seen on occasion, and the smaller mammals like badgers, raccoons, weasels, voles, and gophers were well represented.  But it was the bird population that impressed, especially the game bird population.

These smaller places, with their carigana windbreaks, provided crucial cover for pheasants.  The pheasant population was fairly robust in the mid-sixties.   Experienced hunters were often able to shoot their limit and return home with some dressed-out birds to surprise their families.  Today, a visitor would be lucky to see a pheasant in the Granum area and there are far fewer farms.  When these small farms disappeared, the wind breaks of cariganas went with them.  So did the pheasant, a bird that under any circumstances, found it hard to survive in the prairie’s harsh climate.

The area could also boast the presence of other upland birds, notably hungarian partridge, sharptail grouse, pigeons, and ruffed grouse.  Being on the central migratory bird flyway, hosting endless fields of stubble, a healthy creek and one sizeable lake, the area all but guaranteed a healthy populations of ducks, teals, and geese.  Occasionally, huge flocks of sandhill cranes would drop by to ravage a stubble field.

Just as the bird population was far different in the 1960’s, so, too, was the town of Granum.  The old two-story hotel still sported a few ancient bullet holes that generated many embroidered tales, if little reliable history.  For $5, you could have a wonky-floored room on the second floor, rented from whatever bartender was on duty. The beer parlor took up most of the main floor and was the social centre of the community. The hotel burned down in the 1980’s and was replaced by a one-story pub/motel which serves the same purpose but with considerably less romantic allure.  When old hotels are razed, it’s not simply a physical loss.  Eventually, the tales it could tell, tales that helped weave the community’s history, drifted away in the relentless west wind.

The town had a confectionery store, a bank, a fuel depot, and the ubiquitous small town drop-in centre.  At one time – and briefly – Granum was home to a tiny nail factory.  Why nails, why manufacture them, and why Granum were questions no one seemed able to answer.

Homes were small and individually unique.  Most of them are still there even if seriously depreciated. And now there’s actually a suburb (in a town of maybe 300 residents?), modern homes taken up by some of those farmers who gave up their small farms but wished to remain in the area.

As a town, then and now, Granum raised a few questions.  Its genesis was like most prairie towns, proximity to the railroad, with an elevator or two to receive the year’s crop. When the smaller towns began to disappear in the 1950’s , Granum found itself between two growing communities, Fort McLeod and Claresholm.  Tough to compete with 2 flourishing communities.  But Granum did survive.  Its population from 1945 until 1980 changed very little. What would have kept it going? The railroad rarely stopped and businesses never seemed to achieve much more than simple survival.  The crops  could easily be delivered elsewhere.  Yet the dynamic of a small town is often difficult for a visitor to understand.  Who would want to live in such comparative isolation when a broader experience and more conveniences could be had 15 kilometres away? Whatever the reason, there seems to be no shortage of tiny villages like Granum where the few, dwindling number of residents prefer their relative isolation. Some inhabitants are seniors and reluctant to leave what has been home for decades but some are simply people who prefer the quiet but often vital village life.  It is a character trait, a shout for independence, often found on the prairies.

West of Granum lies a range of foothills butting up against The Rocky Mountains.   The area is actually part of the Aspen parkland system, one known specifically as the Foothills section.  Dividing the range of hills is highway #22, a scenic 2-lane route connecting central Alberta to Highway #3.  The lower portion , roughly 100 kilometers  from Black Diamond to Hwy 3, is one of Alberta’s most picturesque drives.

If you imagine these hills at a time when no roads existed, they  become a bewildering maze of peaks and valleys, each one looking like the next.   The land is the ancestral home to the tribes from the Blackfeet nation and they would have had centuries-old paths worn throughout the hills.

The Blackfeet prospered in this area.  The land’s bounty was impressive – bison, elk, deer, antelope, all in generous quantities.  The Blackfeet were hunter-gatherers and with the bounty of the Hills, never ventured into agriculture until the late 1800’s when the bison disappeared and forced them to become agrarian.  A vivid example of their hunting history can be found at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump a few miles southwest of Granum.  The provincial government has created an impressive museum on the site.  The site explains the origin of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.  Apparently, It had nothing to do with the state of a buffalo’s cranium after being driven off a cliff.  Rather, its origin refers to a small Blackfoot boy with a very sore head who was found alive at the bottom of the jump after the drive was over.  Such good fortune had to be commemorated.

The Blackfeet were one of the fiercest of the prairie indigenous peoples, so much so that when John Palliser came through mapping the west, he was advised to veer north somewhere near the present-day Alberta-Saskatchewan border in order to avoid having to meet up with the aggressive residents of the foothills.

The foothills are covered with fescue grass and swaths of prairie rose and snowberry shrubs. Hundreds of coulees are lined with willow trees. The hills are also the headwaters of the Oldman River that becomes part of the South Saskatchewan river and ends up in Hudson Bay.

When the white man evicted the Blackfeet and confined them to reservations, they knew exactly what they wanted to do with the hills. The foothills are now home to huge multi-thousand acre ranches, some owned by British royalty, and all committed to providing the continent with as much beef as it might need. The scope of grazing is impressive, especially when one considers much of the land is still owned by the Crown and is sublet to the ranchers.

For more than 25 years, 3 friends and I set aside a few days each fall to hunt pheasant in southwestern Alberta.  One of these friends owned a ranch west of Granum so we always had a place to stay.  This was a friendship of astonishing longevity, differences of opinion being few and tolerance for each other’s failings admirable.

Our hunting routine was spending mornings hunting pheasants and partridges on the prairie and afternoons hiking the foothills to look for sharptail grouse. It was the afternoon hunt that I especially enjoyed, as did the other hunters.  Bird hunting is not a dangerous sport unless you’re stupid about wielding a shotgun.  But, for people with weak hearts, hunting sharptail grouse might be avoided.  The preferred method of hunting – with or without a dog – is to wade through the rose thickets hoping to roust a bird that very much dislikes having to fly when the occasion doesn’t call for it. The sharptail grouse much prefers to sit tight in the dense shrubbery of the prairie rose bush. This also means that IF you are successful in rousting one or more, they will have waited until the last possible moment before flushing.   This “flushing” is very noisy – very loud and actually quite shocking when you’ve been quietly tramping the countryside listening to the wind caress the grass. Who knew a three pound bird rising out of a low-lying bush could raise such a racket.   It should be added that this last-minute flush occurs only once.  If you follow them (they’re not all that fond of flying and don’t generally go far), the hunter now has a difficult time getting anywhere near them before they fly again. They’re not a stupid bird.

As a rule, hunters were generally barred from the immense ranches in the foothills. No rancher appreciates a near-sighted nimrod mistaking a hereford for a prize elk and bird hunters were included in this ban.  There was one exception. In the 60’s, the sprawling Wesley ranch surrounded a much smaller ranch owned by the Baird family who did give us permission to hunt their land.  On such occasions, we could expect to be intercepted by a couple of Wesley’s field hands to whom we had to explain our intention to visit the Baird ranch.  It was all very friendly but uncomfortable knowing we were being watched constantly.   By 1970, the Baird ranch had been swallowed by the Wesleys. Luckily, the Granum area was also home to a large Hutterite colony and they had no problem giving us permission to hunt in their extensive range of foothills.

When I first hiked the hills, they made me think of the English moors I had read about in “Wuthering Heights”, melancholy, rugged, lonely, and windswept.  That impression did not last long.  The foothills may appear barren and at times can bear all those adjectives but it’s more than that. Hiking difficult terrain in the cold blustery late fall isn’t something described as bucolic,  But there is a raw clarity to the experience as if experiencing life at its most elemental and finding it very invigorating.

My memories of the foothills are cherished.  Hiking through the cold, violent wind-driven hills was oddly nourishing.  The air was brittle and sweet and the sense of being somewhere truly special was ever present.  The foothills are a hauntingly beautiful world and the memories always give rise to a smile.

Robert Alan Davidson,

August, 2018

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