The Granddaddy of Sandboxes

Dubai is an ultra-modern city. Its energy, architecture, and international ambience need take a back seat to no metropolis.  It is a beautiful city with a sufficient mixture of new and old to satisfy any taste.  It is a shopper’s paradise.

 But it has a flaw.  It possesses one feature that will never allow it to become truly cosmopolitan.    It is a blight that neither the visitor nor the new resident can quite comprehend and it goes far beyond the statistical norm for such things.

We speak of Dubai’s penchant for digging holes.  Digging holes and trenches.  Dozens of them.  Hundreds of them.  Miles and miles of them.  Holes and trenches everywhere you turn.  Big holes.  Little holes. Deep holes.  Shallow holes.  Holes within holes.  Neat holes.  Sloppy holes. Holes dotted around bigger holes. We dig, therefore we are.  

The absolute first order of business upon completing the construction of anything is to dig another hole – preferably close enough to the finished product to render it once again incomplete.   Among the richest men in Dubai are the purveyors of shovels, picks, backhoes, front-end loaders, augers, and draglines.  Everyone wants to get in on the act.   It is not advertised anywhere but there must be a department devoted solely to the act of digging up the ground.  The Department of Holes and Trenches. Perhaps it is all an atavistic expression of the hunt for water in the desert.   In any event, the scope and incidence of digging beggars the imagination.  

In October, a new supermarket opened next to us.  It was a splashy affair with colored ribbons, officials smiling at cameras, cars offered up to lucky customers, the whole ‘Grand Opening’ enchilada. Within two weeks, a ten-foot trench appeared across the full width of the store.  After three weeks, another trench isolated it from one side street.  Soon, the street itself was subjected to a trench.  Now the store had a real problem.  Customers could not approach from anywhere but the rear.  Business volume visibly suffered.

That was in October.  It is now mid-February and the trenches appear no closer to being filled than they did in November.  On the contrary, more trenches have appeared, down the middle of the main road, through the adjoining block, back as far as the eye can see.   The poor supermarket may as well be on the moon.  Customers across the street cannot patronize the place.

All the while, dirt is being moved from place to place.  Great mounds of dirt were piled into an empty lot behind us in November and December only to be retrieved now to be placed somewhere else.  It’s not as if any holes or trenches are being filled.  The holes appear and the dirt moves.

Everywhere in the city, beautiful new courtyard areas, boulevard decorations and sidewalks are being constructed of red paving stones.  No sooner have the bricks been installed than they are dug up to a) allow trees to be planted or b) to change the configuration of the bricks or c) simply because . . . .

In short, anything pretty and standing still is vulnerable to attack from the Department of Holes and Trenches.  The majority of digs defy any logical explanation.  No signs explain their purpose.  No holes ever appear to get filled.  Work continues unabated, shovels flashing in the sun, huge front-end loaders mangling the pavement, the desert sands artificially shifting from location to location.

Perhaps it is all a game. None of us really wants to grow up and digging in the sand is timeless childish fun.  Moreover, in Dubai, there happens to be an abundance of sand. It is work/play that need never end – and, judging by appearances, has done just that.  [2001]

Robert Alan Davidson

May, 2019

The Meadowlark

Spring doesn’t come early at 54 degrees N.   Conventional wisdom dictates the children don’t go swimming in the lakes until Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24.   The snow might have disappeared in late March or early April but the spring sun takes its good time to warm the earth, pussy willows notwithstanding.   Yet the advent of spring on the Canadian prairie is still a time of celebration

In the 1950’s, there were no spring festivals like those celebrated in Europe.  Perhaps people were too busy trying to survive the harsh climate to afford any frivolous celebrations of spring.   Prairie celebrations were more subdued.   Spring will come but the Earth at this latitude won’t make it a smooth arrival.

First, the snow must melt.  Water begins to pool on ponds.  Miniature rivers begin running on the streets of towns, the melt seeking bottomland.  Young boys patrol these small streams watching their imaginary ships of popsicle sticks as they sail on.

People are seen to walk slightly more upright, no longer bent over by the cold. End of season bonspiels are held, trophies handed out.  Hockey playoffs are rushed in contests with crumbling ice.  Jacket zippers sometimes lounge half closed.  Rubber boots replace galoshes.  Conversations can be heard on a walk down Main Street. Store windows are washed.  People look at the sky again and discuss clouds. Farmers urge their fields to dry quickly. Nature intrudes  . . . .

Everybody waits to hear the first robin but it’s more likely a returning crow will beat him to it.   But there’s no magic to a “caw”, only a welcome familiarity, and the song of the robin remains the one everyone wants to hear.  Fat buds appear overnight on willows and poplars.  The unbroken brown and grey of the landscape is first  broken on the railroad right-of-ways where the close-cropped grasses, burnt twice a year to prevent runaway grass fires, turn a vivid green and invite crocuses to make a brief and colorful appearance.   This pleasing sight will disappear when the age of the steam engine is eclipsed by diesel locomotives.

Young boys and their dogs watch the countryside and know when it’s okay to hike the fields again, maybe to play catch, maybe to hunt gophers, maybe simply to leave footprint on the grass.   And they’re waiting to hear a song.

And what a song it is.   It’s the song of the Western Meadowark, a beautiful melody that strains the ear’s talent to appreciate spectacular originality, a song far too complex to be imitated or even translated into a gibberish-type English. 

The boys smile at one another when they hear the first one.  They see the bird sitting atop a fence post.  A nesting pair has returned to this field. As they did the year before. Spring hasarrived

In the 1950’s, the meadowlark (there are eastern and western meadowlarks on the North American prairie but the latter is more prevalent) was relatively common. Mating pairs (or sometimes trios when the male attracts two females) make their nest on the ground.  There is very little difference between the eastern and western meadowlarks.  A bit of white coloration around the collar and a wider song repertoire with the eastern bird is about it.  They do not cross breed as far as anyone knows.  

The bird is not actually a lark, but a member of the blackbird family.  It’s an insect eater and is the state bird of no less than 6 states, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota.  

It’s song is special.  The mockingbird may also deliver a similarly complex song and no doubt the tropical rain forests are home to exotic birds with flamboyant songs but for the western prairies, normally home to the bland offerings of magpies, robins, crows, english sparrows, and the screech of raptors, the meadowlark’s song is rhapsodic, imitated only later in summer by song sparrows and warblers.

Sometimes, the nest is set next to a wetland and the meadowlark has neighbors who will help warn of potential intruders.  Neighbors will include Geese, Mallards, Wilson Snipes, Phalaropes, Sandpipers, and Killdeer.   Thanks to DDT, the 1950’s is almost empty of raptors and meat-eaters. The biggest threat to the nest is from a few weasels that survived the DDT scourge and the feet of young boys. 

The boys do not hunt for the nest. The nest is well-hidden, often with a canopy and they do not want to inadvertently make a mis-step and crush the eggs. Even at a young age, the boys see the bird as a symbol of the thrill of spring and its promise.  They want the song to continue even knowing, as always, the bird will stop singing in mid-June to raise its family.

The young boys revel in the outdoors now that spring has released them from parkas, mittens, and flight boots.   Their spirits ride high in the stiff breezes of April and May and the song of the meadowlark holds pure in all winds. The memory of brief sightings and the indelible song will remain for the long lives of the young boys, even when environmental change dictates the experience becomes a rare treat.  Maybe next year, old men hope, a meadowlark will nest close to whatever place they call home.   For them, the bird and its song are cherished symbols of the freedom and beauty of the North American prairie.

Robert Alan Davidson

February, 2019

The Local

Trainspotting, the amateur’s interest in watching trains, is an activity normally associated with the British Isles.  It has a grand tradition, leading to both a novel and a movie.   But let’s consider, for a moment, trainspotting and the two vast railway systems that connect Canada. And let’s consider it before the diesel locomotive robbed the industry of most of its charm.  For roughly 70 years, steam locomotives of astonishing diversity criss-crossed 3500+ miles of largely unsettled country.  From the edge of a small prairie town, it was my good fortune to have experienced 10 years of this often hectic traffic.

As a boy, our family lived next to the CNR main rail line that connected Moncton, New Brunswick, with Vancouver and Prince Rupert.  We lived so close to the tracks that – in the words of Daniel Woodrell – “if the train came through at breakfast time, all the eggs were scrambled”.  From 1946 until steam faded into history around 1955, I watched hundreds of locomotives pull their loads across the country.  Our town was what the railroad called a divisional point. This meant that every locomotive had to stop to take on water, get a splash of oil on squeaky bearings, perhaps re-fuel, and often undergo a change of crew.  Think of a pit stop writ large.

Not every locomotive stopped.  On rare occasions a heavyweight locomotive (a 5500 series, if I recall) sported white flags across on either side of its forehead.   This meant the main rail line was to be cleared and this monster allowed to race to its destination as fast as it was allowed to go, its cargo a secret and its comings-and-goings unannounced. Where it began and where it finished we never knew.  Often they passed in the night and only their fierce huffing told of this brief dash through town. Rumours abounded as to the possible cargo – silk, munitions, nuclear weapons.   These ‘phantom’ trains fueled many a conversation at the beanery.

My brothers and I were self-trained experts on CNR train traffic.  We had names for the different types of locomotives that had nothing to do with the standard wheel assignation, such 2-6-4-4. We knew approximately how long a train would lay over by how far its siding was from the main track.   We knew the language of the whistle.  When a freight carried what we called a ‘dead’ engine, a locomotive headed either to the Winnipeg repair centre or the locomotive boneyard, we would try to sneak onto it and play engineer.  Thanks to this proximity to the CNR main line, our childhood was enriched greatly.

But there was one train that consistently received special attention.  It was called the Local and it ran from Edmonton to Saskatoon.     Every day.  One train going west, one train going east.  They passed each other somewhere, we guessed, around North Battleford.  

The Local  was not a big train, like the Continental and Super Continental, either of which could run to twenty or more cars.  On a big day, it might have a baggage-passenger car mix of eight. Often it was only four cars long.  The local began its service sometime in the early thirties and continued through to the early sixties, that sadly brief period of Western Canadian history when travel by passenger train waxed and waned on the Canadian prairies.  And if you ask the small-town prairie people who lived on the CNR or CPR main lines what they remember about train travel, they’re quite likely to cite the Locals.  The bigger, continental trains were flashier and state of the art but they generally traversed the prairies in the dark of night (the assumption being their fare-paying clientele had no wish to gaze at unending grasslands and wheatfields.  Unfortunate, because many of those passengers would never know the subtle and varied beauty of the Canadian prairie.  Moreover, the continentals had no intention of even slowing down for most prairie towns.  They stopped only at divisional points and then but briefly.

But the Locals were special.  They were generally stubby affairs that roamed a vast sparsely-populated swath of Canada.   They were, in a very real way, thereliable link. The highway system was well-developed by 1950 (if not paved) but weather could disrupt traffic at any time. Not so the Local.

The locomotive itself was a sleek black machine, almost diminutive compared to its transcontinental cousins.  If the larger locomotives could be likened to noble thoroughbreds, the Local engine was a perfectly proportioned quarter horse, no less beautiful for its smaller size.  It shone brightly in the prairie sun, always appearing as if it had received a fresh coat of shiny enamel.  The Local did its job so briskly that gawkers of all ages came out regularly just to watch its arrival and departure, to watch its huge wheels slowly begin to roll, to edge as close as one dared to avoid steam suddenly released from one of the many valves, and to wave to the man with the best job in the world, the engineer. 

Today, few people expect passenger trains to run on time (probably because passenger rail traffic has no status with railroads fixated on freight) but the Local, unless impeded by a blizzard or a crossing accident, was rarely off schedule by more than 10 minutes.  It was, for many, the model of beauty and efficiency.  Of course, it only had to go 300 miles.  Why shouldn’t it be able to keep to its schedule?

Well, between Edmonton and the Saskatchewan border – roughly 170 miles – the Local had to be prepared to stop a few times.  In this 170 mile stretch, these towns and villages were stops for the Local – Clover Bar, Ardrossan, Uncas, DeVille, Lindbrook, Tofield, Ryley, Poe, Holden, Bruce, Torlea, Viking, Phillips, Kinsella, Jarrow, Irma, Fabyan, Wainwright, Greenshields, Heath, Edgerton, Ribstone and, finally, Chauvin. With only one or two exceptions, each stop had a small sandy-coloured station and at least one grain elevator. 23 stops in 170 miles and 5 hours.    Try replicating that in a car and you’ll have some idea of how conscientious the trainmen were to stay on schedule.   There was none of that ‘grabbing the mail bag off a hook as you race by’– stuff either.  

For a traveler in a hurry, taking the Local could be frustrating, even when the timetable was apparent.  All that stopping and starting every 6 or 7 miles could try one’s patience. But most travelers took it all in stride and it was cleaner, roomier, and brighter than the bus.  The occasional whiff of smoke and dusting of cinders was preferable to the gravel highway alternatives of choking dust, knee-deep mud or four-foot snowdrifts.

The Local rarely had more than one or two passenger cars, day coaches with less-than luxurious seating.  But it was an important freight conduit to the small communities along the way. The dominance of the trucking industry was in the future and for smaller freight loads the Local was a reliable option.   Prompt delivery was important for many rural businesses and the Local delivered.

Why were there so many towns?  One word.  Grain.  Getting the grain to the elevator was an arduous task.   The grain was heavy, the equipment clumsy and accident-prone, and the ‘engines’ were dray horses.  Both the wagons and the horses often had to be borrowed from a more affluent neighbour and keeping their loaned use to a minimum was both polite and prudent.  The town began with the elevator (if one considers there may have been as many as 60 elevators along that 170-mile stretch, there must have been one hell of a building boom in the first 30 years of the 20thcentury).

The elevator was the town centre and what happened after that was a matter of speculation.   Some towns grew and others did not.  And, as far as I know, no Ph.D candidate ever researched this phenomenom.  All I knew was that physical beauty didn’t have anything to do with it.  The prettiest town locations were more than likely the sparest. Our town, healthy and growing, was set in a dreary slough bottom. Seven miles away, a beautiful valley was home to a dying hamlet.  

It may seem obvious now that not all of these towns could survive. I am also sure no one thought that at the time.  Perhaps they were hoping the European model might be replicated and may have simply underestimated the harshness of the prairies.

Now in the second decade of the 21stcentury, in that 170-mile from Edmonton to the Saskatchewan border, only Wainwright, the divisional point could be described as a healthy town.  Others, like Tofield, Viking, Ryley, and perhaps Irma are clinging to a small population base.  Edgerton has a small but vibrant arts community.  The rest have either disappeared or are nearly deserted. And, of course, the Local is no more.   

But for an all-too-brief period of our history, trainspotting on the Canadian prairies was a splendidly varied and exciting affair.  And there was always the Local.   I wish my grandchildren could have seen it. An imitation of sorts can be seen – and experienced – these days with the steam train running from Stettler to Big Valley in central Alberta, although the promoters seem more interested in portraying an old west evocation rather than the mid-20thcentury.  That’s understandable, it’s entertainment, not history, even if, to people like me, history IS entertainment.

Robert Alan Davidson

June 15, 2015

Small Town Alberta

In 1952, approximately 3000 people lived in Wainwright, Alberta.  As prairie towns went, this was big.  And Wainwright had big ideas, maybe even becoming a city.  But you needed 5000 people to become a city and you try luring 2000 new people to a dusty, scruffy chunk of real estate in a half-forgotten corner of a prairie province.  There are only so many spinoff jobs from farming.   Besides, most prairie towns were beginning to shrink, not grow, and Wainwright was lucky to be treading water with its 3000.

Eastern Alberta, at the town’s latitude, was a world of mixed farming.   The soil wasn’t rich enough to deliver bumper crops but neither was it so poor that running cattle was the only option.  Ergo, wheat, oats, barley, and Hereford cattle were what you saw.  No Canola or flax or exotic cattle breeds.   A dairy farmer might have his Holsteins and there was the occasional Jersey kept for decorative purposes, but short-horned white-faced cattle dominated.

At the beginning of the 20thcentury, there were no towns to speak of north of the 51stparallel.  The countryside still consisted of aboriginal villages and Metis settlements with a scattering of white settlers (e.g. the famous Barr colony didn’t arrive until 1903). History belonged to the aboriginal peoples and the Metis. While the CPR’s rail line , built close to the U.S. border, had been operating for over 10 years, central and northern Alberta and Saskatchewan were still very much unsettled by the white man.   But with the completion of the northern rail line through Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver, a near stampede of settlers poured out from the east and northern U.S. to populate and farm the Canadian west.  When you examine all that transpired in those few short years from 1900 to 1914, the energy and achievements were impressive.  Unfortunately, the 

path to growth had some washouts.  WW1 took and lost almost an entire generation of youth.    Things picked up nicely in the go-go twenties until the decade-long depression again brought everything to a standstill.  It took the young families re-building after WW2 to re-invigorate the growth.

Certainly, there was no shortage of optimism.  The war was over and those young families were eager to build a future. Conversations swirled around what was coming next – paved roads, television, more radio stations, refrigerators, seed-cleaning plants, power steering, automatic transmissions, and transistor radios.  With hard work and a little luck who knew what could happen?

With few exceptions, aesthetics played no part in a town’s development. All prairie towns were laid out on a grid -as per the railroad’s dictates – spreading out from one side (the station side) of the train tracks (As a rule, the railroad builders were ceded every other section of land along their right of way and so had a big  say (i.e. the onlysay) as to where a town-site was placed and how adjacent land was developed).  Commercial buildings showed the obligatory false fronts, hotels sometimes had verandas, and sidewalks were a luxury.    The grid layout was a variation on the classic baroque street pattern, as in Quebec, where the town radiated outward from the centre of power (in Quebec’s case, the church).  Here the centre of power was the railroad and the towns didn’t so much radiate outwards as swell out from one side of the tracks a bit like a burl on a tree.

It was the houses that were interesting.  Here could be found  ‘architecture writ- small’.   Houses were small and functional – a front porch, a back porch, a kitchen, living room, and as many bedrooms as the owner could afford.   To the casual observer these simply appeared as row upon row of small bungalows or two-stories.  The really surprising fact was that these little houses were all different.  ‘Plans drawn up on grocery bags’was how one critic put it.   In the larger scheme of things, this astonishing variety may have been inconsequential  but in the hardscrabble of surviving on the harsh prairie, they were nothing less than stirring expressions of creativity.   More importantly, perhaps, the houses could be seen as representative of the freedom of the prairie.  No matter how tenuous the future, people were free to carve out a life of their own.  There were no big bosses, no entrenched factories to indenture people, no wealthy power structure to dictate another’s place in society; in fact, very little wealth at all.   But there was freedom and community and optimism and of all the positive stories to emerge from the 20thcentury, the energy of these drab little towns and their citizens might have been the nicest manifestation of what a democracy could deliver when given a chance.

Which isn’t to say living in a small town was a walk in the park.   Jobs were scarce, wages were low, and job security was non-existent.  Prosperity in large part was a function of crop yields and the price obtained for livestock.  Success or failure was most often determined by the weather.   Some things never change.

But Wainwright had an advantage over most prairie towns.  Besides being a railway divisional point that required personnel to take up residence in the town, it had something else.

Sometimes a disadvantage turns out to be an advantage.   Prairie towns with the greatest chance of success were, understandably, the ones surrounded by the richest farmland.  But the land around Wainwright was certainly not the best, sandy in many places, and boasting only marginal top soil in others.  It was so miserable that in 1909 the federal government set aside 160 square miles of this scrub prairie as a refuge for the vanishing plains bison.  This worked, with mixed results, until 1939 when the bison were shipped north to Wood Buffalo National Park and the land morphed into a training ground for the army.  During the war, it was used as a prisoner-of-war compound.  After the war, it became Camp Wainwright, 160 square miles of rolling grassland upon which the armies of Canada could simulate fighting on foreign terrains (This will give you some idea of the physical diversity of the area – you want desert? you want jungle? you want swamp?  You got it).

All in all, things were pretty good for Wainwright in 1952.    A railway town, an army town, and a small oil refinery on the western outskirts combined to fuel the optimism of a town that was going somewhere.   People didn’t have to rely entirely upon crop yields and cattle prices for their livelihood. The army camp, the railroad, and the refinery each delivered a few full-time jobs.

But – and this was true of a great many small towns In the 1950’s – it was the people who made the place special.   Young couples with young families were there to make a future.  With a population of 3000, the town had four doctors, 3 of them under the age of 35 (Read into that what you will – either the town was exceptionally well cared for or there was an unusual demand for medical services.  Since there was no health care insurance in those days and people were generally poor, I think the answer is that the town was well cared for). Townspeople worked hard; they played hard; and they planned vigorously.  There were few government programs in those days – you wanted something done, you had better find your own means for doing it.  Meanwhile, the town could boast of six cafes, two hotels, three grocery stores, three dry goods stores, a bakery, a dairy, a theatre, two drugstores, two hardware stores, three auto dealers, two farm equipment dealers, and a locker plant (for those of you too young to remember, no one owned a freezer in those days so if you wanted to keep some frozen meat you had to rent a locker from the locker plant).

Of course there were the slackers.   The two beer parlors had a small but steady clientele of men who had either given up or didn’t care.  Quixotic characters weren’t hard to find. The eternally optimistic farm boy from east of town who had his farmer father buy him a new International half-ton so he could spend his days driving up and down Main Street looking for girls.  He was a familiar sight with his arm propped on the truck door and a pack of Kools tucked into the sleeve.   He never seemed to realize girls – the few that might have noticed him – weren’t about to run up to his truck and throw their arms around his neck, while he, on his part, wasn’t about to get out of the truck.  It was a stand off of sorts that went on for years.  Every town had a supply of eccentrics.  Not only were they tolerated, they were often spoken of with pride, as if they added to the town’s special character.  

Wainwright’s memorial to WW1 was the centerpiece of the town.  A clock tower, roughly 30 feet high, sat in the intersection of Main Street and 2ndavenue.  It was a handsome rock tower, each rock reputedly representing a district man lost in the Great War.  Given that each rock was slightly larger than a basketball and the tower was roughly 15 feet in diameter at its base, the Clock stood as vivid reminder of just how devastating the war was to the country’s youth.

And Wainwright had churches. Lordy, it had churches.  In addition to the ‘Main Street’ denominations of Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbysterian, there was an impressive, ever-changing gaggle of fundamentalist cliques, each with its fire-breathing congregation and firm conviction that everyone else was doomed to the eternal fires of hell.  If anyone doubted this, they needed only to have lit up a cigarette or cracked open a beer in a believer’s presence and then looked into their eyes. Whatever one thought of all this religious democracy in action, it did add to the energy of the town and everyone, whatever their private opinions were, more or less tolerated each other.

The railroad divisional point designation was a big deal.  It meant the town had a large station with a beanery, a telegraph office, a roundhouse, watertower, a spacious stockyard, a half-dozen grain elevators, several sidings, and two loading docks.  And all this meant permanent employment for some.

But, with all the positives, Wainwright also had a few major drawbacks.  The big one was its location, I mean itsspecificlocation.  And, for this, you could blame the railroad, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad.   They were in a hurry to lay track and in all that haste they didn’t give a lot of thought to the aesthetics of a town’s location.   What they did think about was where their trains would need water and fuel and that – no more, no less – was where the town would be. Consequently, Wainwright, a mere 7 miles from one of the most beautiful river valleys in Canada, was placed in a slough bottom east of that valley.  Town growth forever after would have to combat the marshy terrain and the desire of spring snow melt from as far away – residents exaggeratedly believed – as Hudson’s Bay to gather en masse In and around the town. Before modern drainage techniques could be brought to bear, spring in Wainwright was not for the faint-hearted. For a few weeks each year, a raging torrent swept in from the northeast, ripping out a section of Main Street north of Sixth Avenue, and continuing on to form two lakes, one on each side of the tracks, in the southwest.  Sloughs, in and around the town, all survived the dry summers and provided a year-round home for mosquitoes, muskrats, a variety of shore birds, and discarded farm equipment.  And, of course, outdoor rinks in the winter.

Another drawback was by no means specific to Wainwright.  Towns were all so busy building a society that worked they had little time for social amenities, especially for their youth.  Children were expected to find their own entertainment and the town’s largesse seldom extended beyond building an ice arena and that usually depended upon having enough people with enough money to hold a car raffle or two or three to finance the construction.  Obviously some towns were more indulgent of their youth than others – the dynamics of this fact being one of the great mysteries of the prairies – but Wainwright, for all its commercial energy, had limited enthusiasm for anything else.  

So that’s my story of one prairie town in 1952.  I’ve forgotten many things that should be said but the time came and went quickly and most of the features I’ve described have long since disappeared. Yet for one brief moment in history, these small prairie towns displayed an energy, an enthusiasm, and an optimism that was remarkable.   They may not have been Camelots, but they were definitely special.  (September, 2014)

Fishing

Everybody thinks fishing is a favorite childhood pursuit. Think of Huck Finn and Jim sitting on the bank of the Mississippi waiting for that big ole catfish. It’s like motherhood and apple pie – a given. Fishing is a rite of passage for North American kids. What kid would not want to drop a line in the water?  Well, me, for one.  What was wrong with me?  I did not enjoy fishing at all.

Why? For a reason, I have to crib a line from the “Blue Bloods” TV show when Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) says to his son, Danny Reagan (Danny Wahlerg) “You know the reason I never took you fishing?  It’s because you have the attention span of a gnat.”     Good old Frank spoke for me too.  I simply didn’t have the patience for it. Short attention span.  If my Dad took me fishing, I can’t remember it and, if he did, it would have been brief.  He had no patience for my lack of patience.

When I was a kid, spending summers at a small eastern Alberta lake, my brothers and I fished for the three “P’s” of eastern Alberta lakes  – Perch, Pike, and Pickerel. There were no Trout or Steelhead or Catfish or Bass in this part of the world.

The art of fishing in those days was pretty basic.  It wasn’t a willow rod, a worm, and a hairpin as per ‘The Little Rascals’. Not thatbasic.  No, for us it was a cheap rod and reel, a few lures, a trusted rowboat and bad weather. If the sun was shining we were swimming or playing baseball or hiking.  Fishing was a default entertainment called into action when the weather turned rainy.  This also subscribed to the absurd theory that fish were more attracted to false food enticements when it was cloudy and wet.  We used different sizes of the same lure, a Red Devil, depending upon what we thought we might catch.  Everybody remembers Red Devils.  If fishing lures had their own hall of fame, Red Devils would be the first selectee.   Every tackle box this side of the Bay of Fundy had at least one.   The silver and red spoon was catnip to a wide variety of fish and I recall thinking a really big one could probably land a marlin or a swordfish.   Red Devils just didn’t work for me.  Nothing did – lures, flies, worms, minnows, chunks of wiener, or Perch.

I had to mention that last one because the bigger kids kept insisting the best way to catch the really big Pike was to use a Perch on the hook with a 3 ounce weight, maybe.  But I was far too squeamish to do that to a Perch.  The Perch travelled in schools and, for a fish, was kind of cute.  It was the toy poodle of the fish world, perfectly shaped for a fish, big enough to examine closely but too small and bony to eat.

The Pike, on the other hand, was an over-sized piranha, a viscious throwback to the Mesozoic era where it evolved to control the aquatic dinosaur population.  Actually, I don’t know that but the fish has such a curmudgeonly reputation, it could be true.  It will eat anything but especially likes Perch, Pickerel, and smaller Pike. It is a lake-locked barracuda. Why prairie fishermen go after it so zealously is a puzzle.   It’s not a particularly tasty fish and its reputation as a fighting fish suffers greatly from its dismaying habit of sinking to the bottom of a lake after mistaking a lure for a Perch or a Mallard.   I guess it’s popularity is because it’s so ubiquitous.

No, the prized fish was the pickerel. It is a delicious fish and, as far as catching it was concerned, is rumored to actually leap out of the water when hooked.   Our family loved a meal of pickerel, as did most families we knew.    There was only one tiny problem with pickerel.

THEY WEREN’T PICKEREL!!!   In a monumental example in lazy and inaccurate regional dialects, Western Canadians ALL extolled the fighting and eating worth of pickerel.  What they meant was WALLEYE.  Why this came about is a matter for the language mavens but the error persists to this day.  If your corner grocer happens upon a rare shipment of Walleye fillets, he’ll advertise it as Pickerel.  And no one minds. Truth in advertising? Hah!

There is a real Pickerel fish but he doesn’t live in Western Canada, doesn’t look like the fish people call a Pickerel (he looks like a small Pike), and he certainly isn’t as tasty as the fish we call a Pickerel but really is a Walleye.  I know, as kids, we never referred to this fish as anything but Pickerel which is a shame because Walleye as a word is a lot more fun to say.

Anyway, we did go fishing more or less regularly because we believed they took away your Kid-At-A-Lake license if you didn’t at least try to catch a fish. But, what we usually caught were weeds.  We spent far too much time trying to free the lure.   For a split second after a fishing line went taut, a kid would think maybe he’d just landed a ten pound pickerel only to realize the lack of animation meant whatever he caught was rooted to the bottom of the lake. The only skill we developed was navigating the row boat to find a way out of the weed entanglement. When we did finally free the Red Devil, it reeled its way back into the boat covered in gross, slimy plant life that was surely harboring some miniscule aquatic vermin capable of untold harm.  Worse, when the tension was finally released the line would recoil viciously and tangle up at the reel, necessitating at least three hours to disentangle the whole mess.  It’s where we learned to swear.

People did catch fish on our lake, only my brothers and I were continually skunked. We were so ineffective, neighboring kids feared our incompetence might be contagious and suddenly found other things to do if we suggested we might join them on a hunt for pickerel/walleye. My mother jokingly called it the Stain of Pisces but we never got the joke.

It bothered me a little that I didn’t like fishing. I was a voracious magazine reader and “Field and Stream” was always high on my list, if only to enjoy photos of parts of North America so manifestly prettier than eastern Alberta.    Snapshots of trophy trout flashing their colors in a crystal-clear mountain stream would set me to salivating.  Now there’sfishing I would like! This envy carried over into almost everything that demonstrated a richer environment than the one I was stuck in. (No wonder I fled my town five minutes after finishing my last grade 12 exam.)

Take that Crystal-clear mountain stream comment. We had two streams in our part of the world, the Battle River and Ribstone Creek.  The water in these lethargic water courses was so brown and unappetizing we rarely even thought about dropping a lure into them. Some thought water-soluble iron ore was the culprit for this cruddy coloring but it was likely just sludge brought on by a current so feeble as to appear comatose.

Over the next fifty years, I made brief forays into the world of fishing, all of them reinforcing my early indifference.  I fished for lake trout on the Shushwap.  After one week, I’d gained nothing but sore arms from trolling with heavy weights..  I fished for trout and grayling on the McLeod River.  After three days, nada.   I fished for pickerel on Christina Lake north of Lac La Biche and caught – what else?- a pike that no one wanted.  I went deep sea fishing off the coast of Tahiti but unwisely took the free version offered by Club Med. only to find myself (along with five other guests) being coached by a Tahitian who thought we were a commercial fishing operation. He was determined to frantically reef in any fish we caught.  We were competing with the local fishermen.  I caught a smallish Dorado and was ordered to haul it in muy pronto and get the hell out of the chair so one of the other five could have a chance. It wasn’t much fun.  And lastly, I took my youngest daughter fishing one afternoon on the Elk River near Fernie.  Not only did we not catch anything, I had to witness my beautiful daughter slowly evolve as she stood in the clear cool water of the river.   Sure as heck, she went from a potential fishing enthusiast to my daughter who for ever after would say she could probably find something else to do. Maybe my indiffference was contagious.

Robert Alan Davidson

October, 2018

Ghost Towns

The west has an enduring fascination with ghost towns. Abandoned buildings stir our imagination.  We imagine hard working people living in these buildings and planning for tomorrow.  Until they didn’t.  This story is about 2 towns where there are no buildings left to spark our wonder.  There is no sign – no sign – that there was ever anything placed upon the land except grass and trees.  Yet, these 2 communities thrived more or less for over 60 years, 2 single industry towns churning out a basic commodity – coal.  And now, they are no more.  That should provoke a sense of wonder of a different type.  How could that happen?  Even the abandoned communities in the Namib desert left traces of their once-robust lives.

The towns are Michel and Natal, pronounced ‘Mish-ell’  and “Nah-tall’.   They were two coal-mining towns in the B.C. portion of the Crowsnest Pass. Michel was named after a chief of a Kootenai tribe while Natal was named after the state in South Africa (Both of those facts suggest more interesting stories lurking behind them).  At one time, the two towns were separated by no more than a few hundred yards, but by the time I came to know them, the traveller couldn’t tell where one left off and the other began.

My interest in the two towns began in 1959 when I began my education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.   Getting to Spokane from Edmonton meant travelling the Crowsnest Pass and I was always stunned by the dreary appearance of these two towns deep within the Rocky Mountains.   Moreover, my travels gave rise to one very special memory.

It is a vivid memory brought about by trying to hitchhike through the Crowsnest to Cranbrook in 1961. I got as far as Michel when a drunken and unhinged driver decided he and I should find jobs in the mines. When he entered a mine office, I walked back to the highway looking for a new ride.  I had walked to Natal when my unhinged driver returned, evidently unsuccessful in his job search.

Instead of stopping for me, he gestured obscenely and sped on.  A mile later, he missed a turn onto a Michel Creek bridge and killed himself in a heap of twisted steel.

I was still in Natal when I found out about the accident and night was falling.  I still had no ride and now there were very few cars.  I hung around a small hotel and eventually bought a bus ticket to Cranbrook rather than spend the night in the dismal mining town of Natal, musing on my close call.

My experience in Michel-Natal all those years ago left an enduring fascination with the events that led to their removal from the map.

So I finally looked into the history of Michel-Natal, a history, I submit, that was anything but dull.

The Crowsnest Pass is a gentle route through a beautiful section of the Rocky Mountains.  It was originally an Indian trail connecting the prairie tribes of the Blackfoot nation in southern Alberta with the Kootenai tribes of southwestern B.C. The watersheds are the Crowsnest River flowing eastward where it becomes part of the Oldman River.  The Elk River headed west  to become part of the Kootenay then the Columbia River.   In the 1890’s, the Canadian Pacific Railway undertook to build a rail line along this path and eventually connected Fort McLeod in Alberta with Nelson in British Columbia (the line was completed in 1897).   CPR knew there was coal in Fernie, the town immediately west of Michel-Natal, and wanted access.   Their locomotives were fired by coal and demand was high.  At the same time they began mining coal in Fernie, they discovered more coal in Michel.

Michel’s first mine started producing in 1899 and within three years, the town had a population of 400.  Natal came much later, 1907, and  became – arguably –  the more commercially and socially robust of the two.  Between the two towns, coal production was impressive.  Thousand of tons of coal shipped from their mines well into the 1950’s when CPR began moving to diesel and demand began to diminish.

In addition to the coal mines, the type of coal found in the area was perfect for converting to coke, an essential fuel in the production of steel. Consequently, there were soon several hundred coke ovens smoking away within a short distance from town limits.  These operated day and night for decades.

The grey pallor that settled over the towns was due, primarily to these  coke ovens that released clouds of smoke and soot.  The gray pollution was relentless and soon turned the two towns into collections of dull and dirty buildings.  One wonders how any housewife dealt with drying the laundry.   Yet they did.

So who were those three generations of coal miners?

Most of them  were either eastern European or italian, so the influence of the Catholic Church was substantial.  History isn’t very helpful here but it seems these immigrants adapted to life in Canada amicably.  Sharing a hazardous workload and presenting a unified front to combat the often abusive mine management no doubt encouraged cooperation and both towns took displayed a vigorous civic pride.  Fortunately, in Michel the residents were not handcuffed economically to a company store as many mining towns were and this freedom carried on into Natal.   The big difference between the two towns was that Michel’s residences were company-owned and rented while Natal residences were privately owned.  The freedom from the company store made a real difference to the vibrancy of the communities.  It meant the presence of a regular grocery store, a hardware store, a haberdasher and ladies fashion store.  It meant choices.  At one time, Natal boasted four hotels.

The two towns were as lively as any western town, possessing all the amenities including a small hospital and an opera house. Although the towns had no ice rinks, the high school had a gymnasium, so the youth played basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse.  A baseball diamond was laid out some distance from the coal dust.  Social life was as full as any small western town struggling to prosper. The area was also a renowned fishing and hunting destination.  Weddings were often held in Fernie simply because it was cleaner and the bride felt her dress could make it through the day without turning gray.

Politics was always a hot button issue in Michel-Natal.   Like most miners, the men saw the flaws in capitalism and with so many of them coming from eastern Europe, dabbling in communism and Technocracy was widespread.

Most of the mine jobs were contract work and the miners struggled continuously for a fair price for their work and safer working conditions.  Fires and mine explosions were all too common.

Even with Michel and Natal having their share of setbacks, the mines always managed to re-open or stay open.  One odd disaster involved a thunderstorm that sent a bolt of lightning 1,200 metres down a mine shaft via a steel rail line and ignited a gas bubble, killing three miners.

From 1916 to 1923, Alberta outlawed the sale of liquor.  B.C. followed suit in 1917 but by then the business of delivering illegal alcohol into Alberta was well-established.  After 1917, backwoods stills blossomed in the area from Fernie to the Alberta border.  Michel-Natal were front and center in the trade.  The notorious Emilio Picariello (Emperor Pic), who lived in Fernie, was the acknowledged kingpin but he had lots of associates in the two towns nearer the border.  In spite of the illicit nature of the trade, it was an interesting time for coal mining towns in the Crowsnest.   One imagines some very lively conversation in the coffee shops and in lunch breaks revolving around the escapades of the rum runners.  Rum running died out in 1926 when B.C. repealed Prohibition.

Through it all, the two communities flourished even as they participated in the constant struggle to receive fair compensation and safer working conditions when yet another mine explosion or accident took a miner’s life.   Remaining viable communities for almost 70 years or three generations was no small feat.

But even their energetic town spirit couldn’t overcome two factors.  One was the railroad’s switch to diesel engines.  This was a blow that might have been survivable – the demand for coke was still robust – if it weren’t for factor number 2.  BC tourism wonks, anxious to promote their beautiful province, realized that the westbound motorist’s first impression of the province after leaving Alberta was the dreary images of Michel and Natal. The coal tipple in Natal and the rows of gray, grimy buildings were huge eyesores.  This would not do.  Surely the province could do better.

The government developed plans to have the two towns demolished  and the residents moved to Sparwood.   It’s also probable the government did not think it would take twenty years for the transition to be completed.

Why would the federal and provincial governments care about 2 small mining towns in an out-of-the-way corner of B.C.?  Well, in the 1950’s, they weren’t so out-of-the-way.  If, in 1960, a motorist wanted to drive from Halifax to Vancouver, his ONLY Canadian route was highway 3 through the Crowsnest pass.

Highway #1, today’s trans-Canada highway, was stalled between Golden and Revelstoke.  Rogers’ Pass wouldn’t be completed until 1963.   The Yellowhead Route through Highway 16 and Jasper was stalled between Jasper and Tete Jeune Cache.  The only route was to hug the US border on Highway 3 and the Crowsnest pass.  The pass ended in Fernie.  Then it was on to Cranbrook, a turn south and on to Yahk, west to Creston, then Grand Forks, Trail, Osoyoos, Princeton, Hope and on through the Fraser Valley to Vancouver.

Sparwood started some time after Natal and being mercifully clear of dirty mine shafts, coke ovens, and the accompanying dust and grime, was established originally to provide homes for the mine managers.   The government offered compensation to move the miners but it was never enough to offset the loss.  Moreover, new building lots in Sparwood were becoming more expensive every year.  Many residents refused to move while others simply packed up and left the valley.

A bad mine explosion in 1967, the pressure to move to Sparwood and a shift to strip mining pretty much sealed the fate of Michel and Natal. By 1970, most of the residents had been moved to Sparwood and by 1990, the only trace of either town was the old Michel Hotel. By the end of that decade, the hotel, too, was no more.

One final inducement appeared in late 1967 and early 1968.  In Aberfan, Wales, a slag heap collapsed, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.  A 60-year old similar slag heap loomed in Michel and near their school.  In 1968, it partially collapsed, covering 1000 feet of highway and killing two.  It was another compelling argument for seeing the towns disappear.

In the 1960’s, a strip mine was begun a few miles from Natal and some years later, it expanded into a huge operation when Kaiser coal signed a contract to supply the Japanese auto industry.  So the coal had not run out.  In fact, Kaiser, in announcing the new contract, claimed the area contained 60 billion tons of coal.  If the Japanese were looking for a reliable source, they found one.  Users of the BC ferry from Tawassen to Sydney are familiar with the huge coal shipping site north of the ferry terminal.  That coal is from the Elk River strip mines.  Needless to say, the strip mines are well hidden from public view. I am sure the irony of two small unsightly towns disappearing while colossal and brutal wounds in the earth continue to produce the same product is not lost on the survivors of the move.

What can you say about seven decades of ups and downs in two communities, rich in community spirit but committed to trying to wrest a dangerous living from a dirty product and eventually losing when events conspired to force major changes.   The reported facts involved in Michel-Natal’s rise and fall – of any ghost town, for that matter – too often sound like the unadorned box score of a baseball game, everything except the action and emotion.  The life span of Michel and Natal was subject to many of the ups and downs that alternately vitalize and stifle community welfare  – mine explosions and fires, employer bullying, fluctuating coal prices, and boom-bust economics.  Yet civic pride and a consistent academic achievement record for the youth of the area were never ignored.  The politics of the area was as lively as any place in Canada and, despite the ravages of coal mining, outdoor activities in a mountain environment flourished.   Not bad for two small communities that, sadly, became a blight on what was – and now is again –  a congenially scenic spot in southeastern British Columbia.  And you can’t see the strip mines.

Robert Alan Davidson

September, 2018

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