Alberta, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, August 26, 2008

19 09 2011

Tipis of the Albertan Plains

I took this photo in the Yukon, not Alberta, but it is a Wild Buffalo

Okay, so it used to be that there were a kabillion buffalos roaming the prairies, so many that when the Europeans immigrated they would just use the choice hump of the buffalo and leave the rest to rot. But the native people never did that—they respected the buffalo! For thousands of years the Blackfoot people conducted a killing spree called “Buffalo Jump”, but not every year, only years where the buffalo were particularly abundant. Then that year they would have plenty of everything and life would be leisurely.

How they did this was by making a herd of buffalo jump off a cliff at this one spot where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains of Alberta. They would spend weeks lining a sort of diminishing path with fence and then dress up like wolves and stuff and scare the buffalo into stampeding down this corridor. The path would become increasingly narrow, and by the time the buffalo realised they were about to go off a cliff they had so much momentum and so many buffalo pushing behind them they would just go over, either dying on impact or breaking their legs so the Blackfoots could easily kill them later. The people had a nearby camp where they would party and process this amazing heap of buffalo into skins and pemmican and tools. They used all the buffalo, not just the hump, but there were lots of bones left over and they are about 12 feet deep below Head Smashed In. (All other known buffalo jump sites have been destroyed, because buffalo bones have a lot of phosphorous in them, and the bones were mined during the 19th century to make fertiliser, and later to make ammunition. Head Smashed In had not been discovered yet, so that is how it survived).

One year, a teenage boy decided he wanted to see the buffalos jump from below, and he was later discovered dead under a mountain of buffalo, with his head smashed in. So that’s where the name came from.

Robin in Front of the Cliff Where the Head got Smashed In

The Interpretive Centre was almost comical in it’s depiction of the traditional life of the Blackfoot, but maybe only because today’s stereotypical depiction of their ancient lifestyle is accurate? (I hope that is the reason). As you drive up you see Tipi’s on the plains, and indigenous people are banging on drums and stuff. The centre was really interesting. I particularly enjoyed an accounting book in the room dedicated to the time when the European settlers’ and the native peoples’ culture collided. Unlike Leonard, who we had met at the Nisga Lava Beds, and who’s Indian name meant “Wolf on Ice”,  the names of the natives in this account book included ones like “Really Slow Runner” and “Never Pays His Bills”. It was like Looney Tunes meets History. I wish I had had the wherewithal to take a picture of this book, because those aren’t the actual names, they are just approximations (I don’t have a razor sharp memory and it’s taking me so long to write this blog it was now a while back).

Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun

When we left I made Step and Linda listen to Ethel Merman sing “I’m an Indian, Too”—twice— which was a racially charged song from Annie Get Your Gun that isn’t included in modern productions. It just seemed to go really well with Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump. Click the link and listen for yourself.

The plains of Alberta are super windy and we saw a lot of wind farms from Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump to Pincher Creek, where we stopped for provisions, and the wind followed us to Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, where, after changing sites several times (Linda didn’t want to be in a site with a tree stump in it. ???) we spent the night.

How the Wind Blows


Alberta, Drumheller, and the Badlands, August 25 and 26, 2008

11 05 2011

People Roam the Badlands

These Silos are Tiny!

There’s no actual direct route from Calgary to Drumheller, but prairie lands were fresh for Linda, so we kind of drove down back roads for a while. It’s flat. We saw a row of grain silos far in the distance, but when we approached them, we found they were nearby! And really small; it was all an optical illusion. We had quite the laugh over that. (I mention this as a literary device called foreshadowing, the relevance I think, will come clear when we get to the hoodoos).

The Alberta Badlands, where soft earth deposits have eroded away and you can actually see the geological bands of the ages, look like the terrain where the coyote and roadrunner play. It was like we had been picked up and thrown into the Wild West. It was incredibly beautiful and I can’t believe I had been ignorant that such a place existed in the province right next door to where we live.

The Last Thing You Would See if You were Eaten by the Giant Dinosaur of Drumheller

Drumheller is famous for having the most dinosaur fossils of anywhere, so Drumheller is all about dinosaurs. It’s a sweet town but too touristy for us. We didn’t go to the dinosaur museum, although we did climb up the gigantic fibreglass dinosaur and take pictures from it’s mouth. We were able to get a pretty good organic espresso at a downtown cafe, but the lunch we had at Sizzling House was merely mediocre.

The Giant Dinosaur of Drumheller

A Majestic Hoodoo

Hoodoos are hard rock formations that have sort of flat mushroom heads that stop the rock below them from eroding entirely. They take millions of years to form. All visitors guides to the Badlands show pictures of their majestic, towering hoodoos, often with the sun setting behind them. We needed to go. Drumheller gives out all kinds of free tourist maps, and we saw the hoodoos were only 16 kilometres away. It was fun to drive through the Badlands. I looked for tumbleweeds and we stopped at a lone butcher called Riverside Packers—-ha! Sounds like a sports team— and bought steaks (in case you don’t know, Alberta beef is famous for it’s fine quality).

There were a lot of people there, and when we arrived we laughed and laughed. We had expected these sky scraping rock formations, but the hoodoos were shorter than we were! For some reason, people are allowed to climb all over them and some people have even scratched their initials in. It was hard to get pictures that weren’t full of tourists. You can climb high up the hill side, if you want to, but I didn’t.

Hanging Out at the Hoodoos

Linda is Horny

From the hoodoos we decided to check out the Last Chance Saloon. It’s in Wayne, but it’s a really short drive. To get there, you have to cross 11 (that’s eleven) one way bridges. In ye olde days, when miners hung out there, you could only get to the saloon by rail, but since then this bridge rich road was built. It’s an interesting place. The saloon has a hotel, a second hand store, and a little campground. There’s still bullet holes in the wall of the saloon from some long-ago cowboy incident. A tour bus was just leaving when we got there, so inside the saloon there were only 3 other customers. We started talking to the other customers, and one of them told us he had been instrumental to bringing Expo 86 to Vancouver. He was proud of that and said he made a lot of money. Eventually I politely admitted I thought Expo 86 had really ruined everything nice about Vancouver (I have lived in Vancouver since 1984), and he said he thought so, too, which was why he moved. Thanks a lot, buddy.

Inside the Saloon

We liked it there so we decided to spend the night in the campground. The grounds were pleasant and grassy, with the badland hills all around, and sometimes there are music festivals there. The only thing that didn’t really work was the wood we bought at the second hand store was so dry it burned super fast, and the fire pit was so deep you couldn’t really see or feel the fire. After the first $10 bag was gone, we debated on buying another one, but just went to bed instead.

The Big Badlands

Saskatchewan & Alberta, Cypress Hills InterProvincial Park, Medicine Hat, August 24, 2008

15 03 2011

Yes, Virginia, the Earth Really is Round

The Top of Cypress Hills

There’s a giant plateau straddling the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta, Cypress Hills InterProvincial Park, that has sides that are cliffs and if you stand on one you can see the rolling prairies go on forever. It is the highest point of Canada, in between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. It was a bit of a drive to get there, but the ground got more hilly and instead of wheat fields we started seeing cattle ranches. When we got to the Hills itself, signs warned it was steep and the roads weren’t that wide so maybe you shouldn’t take your Mo-Hoe up there. We figured the Boogie Bus could handle it no problem and it did. The top of the plateau was scorched dry and dusty, flat and covered with straw that was once grass. No one else was around and we stayed for about an hour, marvelling at the vie—we could see the curve of the Earth!

"Wild" Cows of Alberta

Wha....? "Trans-Canada Trail"?

We drove down the other side into Alberta. There are a all kinds of cattle ranchers there, and the cows can wander around the park at will, so we encountered a few “wild” cows. It must be nice to live in that park. It feels kind of Western and once you get off the top of the hills it is forested and there are streams and such. Every now and then you see a house or a dude ranch. The roads are rustic. We broke one of the useless CB antennas—the Boogie Bus was really starting to look like it was getting around.

Magically Delicious!

Medicine Hat, Alberta was the polar opposite of Moose Jaw. It was a place where it looked like people care, and it had art sculptures. We popped by the visitor centre and the person who greeted us was actually allowed to make dining recommendations, a gratifying circumstance that was new to us (although we had never stopped asking). They even had a complimentary RV sanitation station, where we filled up our water tank. But something went wrong and we flooded the van! On the up side, the floor got washed. We were worried because we would pick up Linda that night. Linda is a really clean person and at this point the bus, due to our sleeping in parking lots, not showering, and always being in a hurry, was a stinkin’ mess. We needed to clean it in the next 5 hours. We decided to try the Thai restaurant, and see if there was a laundry-mat nearby we could wash our clothes at the same time.

The laundy-mat was closed but the food at Thai Orchid Room was incredibly delicious.

We booted it to the outskirts of Calgary and got a spot in a weirdly suburban RV park, oddly called Mountain View Camping even though there’s no mountain in sight, where we guessed a lot of the guests were living there and working in nearby industrial projects. They had a petting zoo. And a laundry room (with WiFi, thankfully). We pulled everything out of the van, did the dishes, wiped everything down, and then Step left me in the laundry room with my laptop and a giant stack of loonies, and went to pick up Linda at the airport.

I Can See Your House From Here

Alberta, Two Hills, June 8, 2008

2 07 2008

Step in Relation to Giant Pysanka

My Mother was born in Two Hills, and my great grandparents were named Bill and Mary Buk. While in Edmonton I found a phone book listing for Mary Buk in Two Hills and called her. She wasn’t my great grandmother but she was my in-law relation, and oddly her husband was also named Bill (he was my Great Grandfather’s cousin, which makes him my cousin 5 times removed). He worked at the grain elevator for 30 years. She invited us to drop in and so we did. (But not before stopping in Legreville to see the famous giant Pysanka.)

Grandpa\'s hardware store

Grandpa's Hardware Store

 Mary Buk is 99 years old and her husband Bill died in 2002, just before their 70th wedding anniversary. Other than battling some skin cancer, she is still quick of mind and body. Her daughter Sonia and son-in-law Mike joined us and took us on a personal tour of the town. Two Hills isn’t large but there was a lot to see such as the house my grandmother once lived in, the hardware store my Grandfather opened, and the family cemetery. Yes, Two Hills has 2 cemeteries—one for the town where the different religions are in respective corners (I would hate to be around when the space starts running out) and another one, LaNuke, that half the dead people in it are somehow related to me!

The Family Cemetery

 Everybody tells me something different; my Great Aunt Olga told me the town was called LaNuke and her dad renamed it Two Hills, but Mary Buk said it was always called Two Hills. They both say my Great Grandfather Bill Buk built a big generator and brought electricity to the town (it ran 4 lights) and then Calgary Power came and either bought or pushed him out. I guess my family was Big Shots in Two Hills once upon a time.

Nick Buk

Nick Buk

 It was too much information for me to retain in my head all at once but I recorded most of it on pictures and our mini-sound recorder, for posterity. Also, my brother found this book about Two Hills online written by a relative of mine, Nick Buk, who died a bachelor, but I haven’t read it (yet).

Robin and Mary

Robin and Mary with a Generous Pillow

Mary, Sonia and Mike were so happy we came to visit. They kept giving us presents and I totally scored on a pink crochet pillow from Mary, some knit dishcloths from Sonia, and this totally awesome 60th anniversary glass that has a wedding picture of Bill and Mary on it, in that 1930’s Ukrainian wedding style. We were also stuffed with coffee and rhubarb muffins.

Of course they wanted us to stay but we were anxious to get to Saskatoon in case we had to fly to Vancouver earlier rather than later, and were going to try to get there that very night. I promised Mary I would come visit again for her 100th birthday, and we rolled out around 8. Yes, we had impressive goals but grief makes us both exhausted and it ended up taking us 2 more days to get to Saskatoon.

House Where Robin's Mother Lived

Alberta, Edmonton, June 4-8, 2008

1 07 2008

David and Luca with a Canadian Beaver

Joe Renaud and his Beaver

The next day we did some housework in the Boogie Bus, and then it was time to explore Edmonton by bike. Sue and David are both city planners and live in one of those Lefty Residential Pockets people whisper about in Edmonton. (Everyone we met in Edmonton referred often to the majority right wing red neck population but I guess because like meets like we never really encountered that side of the city). You know they are good, community minded people because at their old house they built a bench in front for people to sit around on and commissioned a local metal artist to make a beaver reading a paper on it. While we stayed at their new house Step helped build a second bench and Joe Renaud came and installed the another metal beaver he made, this one with a hockey stick. What could be more Canadian?

 I had asked Sue what the bike lanes were like, and she said they weren’t that great, but she’s obviously never biked around Vancouver because to us they were phenomenal! Near to their house was a bike “superhighway”, a dedicated bike path not even on a road that took you to a strip mall with Canadian Tire in one direction, and right downtown the other direction. As you probably know, June is Bike Month, and in Edmonton that means bicycle riders get a free breakfast every Friday, (sometimes including these locally made organic cinnamon buns that cost $3 each. I’m sure, if I had investigated, there would also be some pedicures and diamond chip tiara’s thrown in. In Vancouver all we get for Bike Month is a Transit Strike). So biking around that city was quite a joy, at least in the summer.

Robin at Red Bike

We left kind of late and first off we rode to the University Hospital to see an art show that was textile interpretations of Unesco designated Canadian Heritage Sites by Donna Clement and Lesley Anne Turner. (It was a pretty good show and I especially liked the drawing of Chateau Frontenac done with embroidery. We both thought Meshell would have liked the show, too, and also it inspired us to add the Badlands as a destination spot on our trip back.) On the way my 2nd gear disappeared. Also, my seat had come unstuck in the front and kept pinching my clothes. My bike bounces around a lot on the back of the Boogie Bus so it always has little issues. We popped into a place called Red Bike and not only did a guy fix my bike right away, he didn’t even charge me! So thank you Red Bike, here’s a picture and an endorsement on our blog for you.

Whyte Ave

Next we hit Whyte Avenue, the “funky” retail section of Edmonton in Old Strathcona. It was beautiful and charming but to be honest it looked like your standard funky neighbourhood of everywhere, with some Irish pubs and American Apparel; if I lived in Edmonton I would probably hang out there but long for something more.

The Alberta Art Gallery is free on Thursday nights, and they had a show “Projections”, projection based work of slide and film work, from the ‘60’s to present, that Step was interested in, and another show by Native artists but not traditional Native art. Because we are so used to Haida Gwaii and Inuit art in BC this show was very interesting to us. The AAG is currently getting anew building, and since it’s being housed in temporary quarters, there was no room for more art.

Street Art of Edmonton

Speaking of more art, get it together, Vancouver. It turns out most Canadian cities are way more supportive of local art than my home town is, with commissions to paint utility boxes and poles given to varieties of artists, and a goodly amount of murals and other public art. Vancouver, you are supposed to be so hippie/artsy, where are your local paintings everywhere? I love and lambast you at the same time.

Original Paintings of the Dishware of Blue Plate

On Sue’s recommendation we ate at the Blue Plate Diner downtown, and it was good. As soon as we walked in and the 100% androgynous host greeted us we expected quirky greatness, and were not sent away wanting. The Blue Plate is a member of OriginalFare, and affiliation of independently owned and operated locally supplied quality restaurants. Not only was my veggie burger delicious, but I noticed the original paintings of coffee cups at the entrance depicted the collection of cups they serve their coffee in. Well done, Blue Plate Diner, well done.

Robin Sings at Rosario's

Okay, one thing that totally impressed me about Edmonton is their unabashed love of karaoke. See Magazine, one of the 2 entertainment weeklies, has a karaoke listing! And it lists a lot. Some of the places only have karaoke one night a week, but quite a few have it every night, and two of those venues were near Sue and Davids. We picked Rosario’s. They had “Rosario’s Idol” going on, which is fun if you’re entered and a bit of a drag if you’re there to sing (although one woman sang a song about how you weren’t woman enough to steal her man, which was rockin’). We didn’t get to sing until almost midnight but once we did we got several songs each; a good karaoke fix.

Another great thing about Edmonton is that it supports not 1 but 2 local farmers’ markets and we checked out the one downtown where we purchased steaks, sausage and asparagus. We also waited a really long time for some Mexican food. It was good, especially the potatoes, but food must be delicious in proportion to how long you waited and I don’t think anything could have lived up to that wait.

And did you know Edmonton is full of Magpies and Wild Bunnies? It is.

Wild Rabbits of Edmonton

 Sue and David hosted a barbecue for all their old neighbours who lived a few blocks away, and they were all interesting lefty types. Step was inspired by Jaques, who had lived in Newfoundland, Yellowknife, and a variety of other locals. I guess it never occurred to Step you could just live in a place instead of putting down serious roots. Jaques and his partner Leo were moving to Victoria in a few days.

Steps phone kept ringing and when he finally checked his messages we found out his good friend Paul had died in a freak accident, which was a serious and somewhat devastating shock. After some discussion and sleeping on it we decided to not fly back to Vancouver right away, but wait until we knew when the memorial would take place. In times of distress I often think of Queen Elizabeth, who’s wartime platitude was “Keep Calm and Carry On”. It’s hard when someone dies: you want to do something but what can you do besides grieve, either alone or in groups? Sudden death is always a reminder to live your life the best you can, too, and enjoy your minutes, so we kept trippin’, but I think it was hard on Step and his close friends to not be together that week.


Some BBQ peops had mentioned a place called “Motoraunt” in passing and we knew we had to go there. It’s hard to know what to say or where to start on the Motoraunt. The Motoraunt was the brainchild of Carol and Wayne (or Duane—I thought Carol said Wayne but Step heard Duane), who had a Cadillac Eldorado they converted into a Hamburger stand bus with a hydraulic second story. The idea was to travel down the west coast selling hamburgers on the way and eventually settle in Venice Beach. Only they kept running out of money so they would open for a while in Edmonton, and that was 25 years ago and they’re still there (unfortunately, Wayne or Duane passed away 3 weeks before our visit. Carol seemed sad but had kept calm and carried on). I think Carol said they had 4 other locations before we visited the current one at 66th Street and Yellowhead Highway.

Interior of the Motoraunt

Carol and Wayne

Unless you know the Motoraunt is there you would be hard put to guess it was a restaurant. There’s no signage and from the outside it looks like a hebephrenic shanty town. I guess somewhere inside it started with the bus but there’s been so many shacks, lean-tos and wings built on it looks like it belongs to some crazy building hermit living in the desert and there’s no way you can see the original bus from the outside. This theme carries on throughout, with tattered flags, plants in various stages of their life cycles including long dead, and little hills of random crap everywhere. As you approach the centre of this gigantic pile in starts having some semblance of order. The main dining area was a fairly recent addition and as well as seating it housed a Transformer collection, a Christmas tree decorated with Easter stuff, and a shrine to Wayne or Duane. The bathroom was in the upper floor of the original bus and was so small you can’t actually close the door until you’re sitting on the toilet. If not for the fact that Carol was so sweet and the Motoraunt is a quirky Edmontonian institution I doubt it would ever pass health inspection.

Monster Burger

Step had a clubhouse and I had a grilled cheese, but what the Motoraunt is famous for is its burgers, particularly the ‘Monster Burger’, which is 2 pounds of ground beef and serves 4. Since I didn’t order one I wasn’t able to take a picture and have stolen this one off someone else’s Flickr. It is truly a sight to behold. They also make their own chips that were really good. We weren’t the only ones not put off by the way the Motoraunt presents, for there was quite a bit of business while we were there, and I get the impression there are a lot of ‘regs’. Everyone at the BBQ eats there now and then and, after all was said and done, it was probably the purest Edmontonian experience we had. It’s places like the Motoraunt that make me love to travel.

Paul’s memorial wasn’t for another week, so for now we decided to just keep heading east.

Motoraunt Menu

Alberta, Dawson Creek to Edmonton on Highway 43, June 3&4, 2008

25 06 2008

Has Anybody Seen My Wild Alberta Rose?

Help! A Giant Canadian Beaver!

Some highways have fancy names but this highway was just called “43”. Our first stop in Alberta was a giant beaver at Beaverlodge. (Alberta has a lot of giant things like perogies and pysanka.) From the front the giant beaver actually looks quite imposing and sinister. We noticed there was a farmers’ market open right now, so of course we went, because we are obsessed with “local” food. It was late in the day so it was somewhat picked over, but we did get 1L of honey for our friends in Edmonton and a big bunch of picked-that-day asparagus, which, when we steamed it later for dinner, turned out to be the Best Asparagus in the History of Civilisation.

Our second stop was the Husky at the edge of Grand Prairie. Points of wonderment were propane cost only 65 cents a litre. 65 cents! And in the bathroom was the “XLerator”; the most powerful hand dryer ever made. The XLerator can dry your hands with air in the same time it takes to wipe them with a paper towel. Its air comes out with so much force it makes a circular indentation on whatever body part is under it, and the thin layer of fat on your arm ripples. If you want to install an air dryer in your bathroom, I recommend the XLerator. (Click here to witness the XLerator in action).

It Turns Out Bears are Everywhere

 After Grande Prairie the Highway 43 was pretty busy with quite a bit of farm residences on both sides. I was doing a buck five down a straight-away when a bear dashed across the highway right in front of the Boogie Bus! I decelerated as fast as I safely could and prayed to something somewhere, the way us agnostics do in panic situations, that we wouldn’t hit the bear, or get hit by the giant pick up truck behind us. The bear wasn’t really that close, I guess, because it made it across okay, and so did we. But for me it was a heart racing Bear Scare. You just don’t expect a bear to dash across the highway in such a populated area.

For some reason we had decided the stretch of road between Grande Prairie and Edmonton was a part to blaze through without any rose smelling, but you have to eat, right?, so we stopped to make lunch at a picturesque boat launch on the Little Smoky River that was awash with pastoral beauty. We thought where we were was off the beaten track but several boating expeditions came through and we enjoyed the friendly boatniks  and watching the 4X4’s drive right into the river.

Pastoral Beauty at Little Smokey

Our plan was to get to Edmonton, or as near as we could, that night. If BC only has outhouses at the highway rest-stops (which it does) it still beats out Alberta which has nothing but a lit place to stop on the side of the road. Sorry, Alberta, but we peed on your ground. We got really close to Edmonton but we didn’t want to roll in at 4am so we went off the highway a bit and found a spot near a gas station (so we could use the bathroom in the morning) where there was a row of trucks, campers and mo-hoes for sale, and we cleverly parked within the row and put up our curtains and slept. Because The Boogie Bus was caked with dust and bugs, and our bikes were strapped to the back, perhaps we couldn’t have fooled anybody, but in my experience most people aren’t really that observant.

The Miracle of Probiotics

It had been hot and we had slept without amenities for 3 nights in a row, so we were stinked up by the time we got to Sue and David’s. I took a shower and Sue and the 3 months young baby, Nathan, took me shopping to Planet Organic where after much quering and search I found a jar of unpasteurised sauerkraut, a staple in my life and Boogie Bus. Later, we taught Sue and David Settlers of Catan. Sue won! But I’m not sure if it was a regulation victory because I called dibs on winning at the beginning of the game.

Resting at Little Smokey River