Picturing the Past in the Canadian Badlands

The Canadian Badlands are rich in history! We start with cowboys, back in First Nations history, all the way back to the time of dinosaurs.

Under the sun on the rugged landscape in Writing-on- Stone Provincial Park, our guide passes around a copy of a photo from 1924 of a Blackfoot (Pikuni) elder called Bird Rattle, etching a petroglyph that commemorates the journey he took to this special place. Our group passes the photo around, drawn farther into the story by the photographic evidence of the artist creating the work we are presently standing beside.


The image is a scan of the original, laminated in plastic to prevent the wear and tear from hundreds of interested fingers. The photo itself is locked away in an archive somewhere, environmentally controlled for temperature and humidity and protected from vermin. The petroglyph he created, and the ones his ancestors carved hundreds of years ago are there for every tour participant to see. Even though they are weathered by the elements and vandalized by graffiti, I admire their resilience and the stories we are left to decipher and interpret all these years later, even as the photos deteriorate.

These are some of the earliest petroglyphs at Writing on Stone, dated from before the time guns and horses arrived on the Prairies, as evidenced by the circular shields. These shields fell out of use after the advent of guns as they no longer offered adequate protection.

These are some of the earliest petroglyphs at Writing on Stone, dated from before the time guns and horses arrived on the Prairies, as evidenced by the circular shields. These shields fell out of use after the advent of guns as they no longer offered adequate protection.

The Canadian Badlands in South East Alberta are rich in history from every era of Alberta’s past. For our tour, we start with cowboys at the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede, working back through First Nations history at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, all the way back millions of years to the time of dinosaurs at Dinosaur Provincial Park. There are many times in our trip that I get too caught up in what we are doing to stop and take pictures, relying on the scribbles in my notebook to help me remember all we are seeing and learning.  It makes me think about the digital images I usually snap almost constantly and rarely [pretty much never] print. Will printed photographs from 2016 be as rare and precious in 100 years as photographs from 1916 are now?

Fossil hunters on the trail in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Fossil hunters on the trail in Dinosaur Provincial Park

In the quiet opening hours at the Visitor Centre at Dinosaur Provincial Park, my chatty four year old explains to the interpreter that the pictures we are looking at of dinosaurs are “just drawings from a person, not pictures from a phone.” She nods along with his lengthy explanation, making me love her for not cutting him off, and supplying the information he needs to fill in the blanks. Later we wander through the audio-visual displays, several which are glitchy or out of order completely. I chat with the apologetic guide about how when they are working, the displays are excellent and wonderfully accessible to non-readers, but the technology means problems aren’t always quickly solved. “Old-fashioned” displays of words and pictures definitely have advantages!

Research indicates that people are less likely to commit an image to long term memory if it was viewed through a lens. The memories I am so eager to digitize and record are less likely to stay with me than the ones I carry in my heart. I ponder this as I try committing things to memory, hoping I will be better able to draw on them later if I put down my camera and concentrate.

Later, I try to bring this fact again to mind as I stand at the gate, subtly jockeying with other photographers for the best position to snap the action shots of broncos and cowboys at the Medicine Hat Stampede and Exhibition, I realize I have neither the right equipment nor temperament to be a sports photographer. In a pique of frustration, I delete my terrible photos and comfort myself that I am a word girl anyway.

These sweet boys pulled the wagon at the rodeo; Medicine Hat is home to the largest teepee in the world, the Saamis Teepeee; our view of the waterpark from our room at the Mediciine Hat Lodge

These sweet boys pulled the wagon at the rodeo; Medicine Hat is home to the largest teepee in the world, the Saamis Teepee; our view of the waterpark from our room at the Medicine Hat Lodge

When you go:

Medicine Hat is a great base of operations for a visit to the Canadian Badlands, with easy access to both Writing-on-Stone (<2 hour drive) and Dinosaur Provincial Parks (1.5 hours). The Medicine Hat Lodge is about as family friendly as they come, with two not-too-scary waterslides and an expansive hot breakfast buffet included with the room. There is a small play yard outside in the centre court that was a safe place to blow off some steam. Helpful hint: Although the rooms overlooking the water park are neat, if you have kids with a bedtime before the pool closes at 10 pm, it can be a bit noisy and distracting. A room further away from the waterpark might be a better bet.

The hotel has good restaurants and there are more within walking distance, but you would do well to take the drive across the river to Skinny’s Smokehouse. A take away meal would make a lovely picnic on the beach at Echodale Regional Park.

We hit Medicine Hat during the Stampede and Exhibition (one of the oldest rodeos in North America), and as someone who had never seen a rodeo before, it was interesting to see. The big draw for my city kids was the show dogs, and weirdly, the vendors at the trade fair. There is also a midway, which we deftly avoided, as we had been to three fairs in two weeks and our pocketbooks were feeling the pinch of ride tickets.  The rodeo runs July 26-29, 2017.

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is great for getting up close and personal with the hoodoos!

Writing on Stone Provincial Park is great for getting up close and personal with the hoodoos!

Access to Alberta Provincial Parks don’t require a paid pass the way our National Parks do, which make them a great deal. The tours are an additional charge, and you would do well to book your spot ahead of time, as they fill up quickly. At Dinosaur Provincial Park you can wander the trails on your own, but a tour will take you to some fossil hotspots, and really, that’s why you’re there!

To see the petroglyphs in Writing on Stone Provincial Park, you must take a guided tour. The site is a protected National Historic site and not open to the general public unless with a guide. There are a few different tours to choose from. My advice is choose one earlier in the day as it can get hot! Spend some time scrambling on the hoodoos and make some wonderful memories! And maybe snap a few pics….

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