Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Friday, July 26, 2013

"Head Smashed-In" and the "Mounties" - Fort Macleod, Alberta

When I heard of an attraction in Alberta called “Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In” I just knew we had to go there.  The nearest town to this crazy named UNESCO World Heritage Site was Fort MacLeod, Alberta which had an attraction of its own – a mounted police barracks – perfect, two attractions that could keep us busy for a two-night stopover. 

The museum is built into the hillside and is architecturally impressive.
Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In is a perfectly descriptive title for a place where Indians actually coerced stampeding bison to jump off a cliff.  This method of hunting was very successful resulting in the death of entire bison herds that often numbered well into the hundreds.  Now that you understand the “jump” part, where does the “Smashed-In” come from.  You might think that it relates to the
violent death that the bison incurred from falling off a rock cliff, but you would be wrong.  It actually comes from a young boy who wanted to witness the bison jump from below the cliff.  The hunt was exceptionally good on that day and more bison made the plunge than expected.  When the tribe began removing the bison for butchering they found the young boy had his head smashed-in from the weight of all the bison.  I am not making this up!  And no, my joyful reunion with wine (after leaving Mormon country) is not causing an imagination explosion.  In fact, this particular jump is just one of many that were used in this area and is thought to be one of the oldest and best preserved jumps in North America.  
Buffalo jumps date back 6,000 years and were an effective technique at killing bison during this time that predates horses and guns.  Other mass killing methods included driving them into corrals and water crossings, but none were as effective.  At the Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In site alone over 100,000 bison were killed throughout its use.  Today the buffalo jump is commemorated in a five-story interpretive center and trail on the grounds.  

The museum also tells the story of the demise of these once prevalent animals that iconically represent the North American west.  When white man arrived, they slaughtered the bison with their guns as they shot them for sport from horses and trains, often leaving the carcasses where they lay.  Naturalist John J. Audubon commented in 1843 that "before many years the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared..."  While the native people used all parts of the bison, the white man exploited them.

The Interpretive Center shows a great movie entitled “Pis’kun – The Buffalo Jump” that recreates the process of the buffalo jumps.  The bison herd was driven towards the cliff through “drive lanes” defined by evenly spaced cairns with waving branches stuck upright in them.  Since bison don’t see well, this formed a barrier that they would not cross.  As the drive lane got closer to the cliff it narrowed, concentrating this in the specified location.  Bison are protective of their calves and when a lone calf becomes separated the herd moves to protect the calf.  A young Indian man adorns himself in a bison skin to represent the lone calf.  Once he gets the herds attention, he moves down the drive lane.  All the while two other men, dressed in wolf skins, stay behind the herd encouraging them to protect the calf.  Soon a frenzy erupts and the stampeding herd is led down the drive lane, and just before the cliff, the boy dressed as the calf steps outside the drive lane to safety but the bison are left to continue over the cliff.

View from atop the cliff 
This view from below the cliff shows the drop-off which was estimated at 60 feet.
Remember, do not stand under the cliff when the buffalo drive is taking place or you'll
get your head-smashed-in!
Wolf skin with picture of young hunter.

Our next day in Ft. Macleod was not filled with so much death.  Although we have been having fun with the "head smashed-in" phrase.  Such as the other day when we got home from the grocery and our "bread was smashed-in," or the women who cut me off in the parking lot and I threatened "to smash her head-in," or when I made a turkey sandwich with "cranberry sauce smashed-in" the bread. Enough said - I think you get the picture!

Just down the street from the RV park (or dump as we called it) was the Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police (which adopted the name Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920).  The “Mounties” as they are affectionately called established an outpost in 1874 in an attempt to institute law and order to the unsettled western Canadian frontier.  The fort today is a replica of that fort and features a museum, dioramas, riding arena, and Indian exhibits that tell the story of the Mounties and the Indians that lived in the area.

One of the real draws to this museum for us was the "Musical Ride."  One of the first Musical Rides took place in Fort Macleod in 1876.  For 40 years, the museum has featured a Musical Ride that features riders dressed in colorful replica uniforms and executing intricate patterns that exhibit the horsemanship of the Mounties.  The 40-minute performance was entertaining and gave Betsy the chance to get horse smell on her hands (which she likes by the way).

We did like the maple leaf design that is brushed into all the horses rumps.
We had read that historic downtown was a great place for a stroll so we ventured over after our Mountie experience.  The historic downtown has restored buildings dating back to the turn of the century but is extremely dead on a Sunday afternoon.  In fact, I am not sure that it ever gets hoppin’ so our sightseeing was over and off to the grocery we went.  But we did like the town's Mountie humor that was displayed around town.

1 comment:

  1. Head Smashed In is a fascinating place, isn't it? I was attending a conference in Calgary and this was one of the places they took us to. Don't think we got to Fort McLeod ... but that's all the more reason to return.


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