“This was way more fun that I was expecting it to be,” my five-year-old said in a stage whisper as we sat at a picnic table enjoying ice cream cones after a three-hour adventure through Fort Whoop-Up, a national historic site in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Considering the competition for her time was the Holiday Inn water park that features two three-storey water slides, a wave pool, a kiddie pool and hot tub – this was high praise indeed.
Nestled in the coulees of Indian Battle Park, near the Oldman River, the fort is a recreation of the original frontier trading post, and tells three main stories within the solid log walls.
The traders The fort began as a trading post in 1869, when American fur traders brought wagon trains of whiskey and other trade goods north and established the stockade. Today, visitors can tour the fort as it would have operated in those days, with artifacts and recreated pieces furnishing the fort rooms. Self-guided tours are available, but we enjoyed the Scoundrel package, which allowed us to hear extensive stories about the fort and culture, a stagecoach ride and lunch in the impressive Shockley Firearms Gallery.
As we walked through the 12 rooms, the kids peppered our guide (dressed in period costume) with questions about where traders would sleep, eat and drink, marvelling at how roughhewn everything was. In the fort’s main square, they pet the miniature ponies and goats, and helped an interpreter collect fresh eggs from the fort’s summer hens.
The natives Outside the fort walls we gazed across the picturesque river valley, the site of the last great battle between large groups of Cree and Blackfoot tribes. The Battle of the Belly River saw hundreds of the invading Cree force wiped out by the better-armed local tribes. The fort’s role in selling whiskey and guns transformed the local native culture, and the fort doesn’t shy away from the issue. The Thunderchief Gallery and Crowshoe Gallery are devoted to the rich heritage of the tribes from the region, and interpreters from the culture are available to answer questions.
The red-coats The militarization of the local tribes as well as the lawlessness of the whiskey traders caused the Canadian government to decide to take more interest in the area, and cement Canada’s claim to the territory. The North West Mounted Police forces was created and sent out to bring law and order to Fort Whoop-Up and other area trading posts. The red-coats left members at Fort Whoop-Up before they reached Fort Macleod or Fort Calgary.
While the Fort is open year round, certain weekends feature different experiences. We watched an artillery demonstration, complete with the firing of the canon, but weren’t able to see the blacksmithing demonstration, or watch a pow wow. In the winter, sleigh rides are available, and kids can try their hand at making barley sugar candy.