Hoodoo Magic

After our extensive trip across Canada last summer, we are staying closer to home this year, opting for a few short excursions instead.  Alberta has such diverse landscapes that driving two to three hours in any direction from our home in Claresholm will bring us to a variety of unique vacation spots.

It’s mid July and we’ve already been enjoying a beautiful hot summer for more than a month.  By now we’re glad to see a slowdown of growth in our lawns and we’ve babied our flower beds to maturity.  Outdoor repairs and improvements have been looked after and our sense of wanderlust kicks in to high gear.  Places to go and things to see…the trailer gets packed and we’re off exploring again.

We’re heading south this trip, through Fort Macleod, Lethbridge, and beyond until we’re just a few kilometres from the US border.  Making a sharp turn east at the town of Milk River, we travel another 20 km to Writing on Stone Provincial Park.  To the south, in Montana, the Sweetgrass Hills stand a couple of thousand feet higher than the surrounding prairies.  In the 17 and 1800’s the Blackfoot Nation would have scouted from the top of those hills for bison, moving their lodges to be in proximity to their livelihood.

I have fond memories of this place both as a child and as a young mother with children in tow.  It is a magical place where a lush river valley is surrounded by desert and lined with strange sand and rock formations called hoodoos.  Many times, as a child, I played hide and seek amongst these hoodoos with my siblings.  Once, I remember writing my name in the soft sandstone that forms the majestic columns, topped with their flat cap of shale.  Years later, with my own children, I tried to locate the spot I had signed the rock but to no avail.  Wind erosion had erased my name, thereby erasing the guilt I carried for defacing such a beautiful piece of Mother Nature’s art. Other people’s names and declarations of true love, more recent than mine, are still visible but they too will eventually erode with wind, rain and snow into oblivion, only left to memories.

A trip to this park would not be complete without some play time in amongst the hoodoos that flank the north end of the campground. Evening is the best time for this as the sun is getting low and the temperature is dropping. Walking amongst them is like walking in a maze, never too sure of your location until you climb to the tops where you take in the amazing panoramic views of the valley. The miles of slate topped hoodoos take your breath away in the long shadows of the setting sun. As you hop from one to another, you find places that have been eroded into bowl shaped cavities. Some have been named over time…the “bathtub” and the “toilet” have been favorites of kids for the past 30 years. Finding your way back to the campground can at times prove challenging but every gully leads down…sometimes in well worn paths and sometimes through thick brush.  

The days are typically hot in this neck of the woods…somewhere near 30 degrees Celsius.  A dry desert wind blows gently through the valley, giving some relief from the heat.  We have a love/hate relationship with this kind of heat.  It’s what we want but we seek the shade and are thankful for the cooling breeze.  It makes us lazy and we are glad to pull out lawn chairs, content to watch the robins and meadowlarks flit through the trees and the children speed by on their bicycles to and from the sandy beach of the river.  As night approaches, the temperature drops considerably assuring us that sleep will come easily.  Normally a camp fire would fill our evening hours but with the intense heat and tinder dry vegetation, a fire ban is in effect.   We cover our laps with blankets and   get settled for an evening of card games.  It won’t be dark until after 10pm. 

Next day, we venture out on the Hoodoo Trail.  It is approximately a 2 km hike one way through the hoodoos, passing through thick trees and brush near the river and out onto open plains of sage and fescue. We’re mindful of the presence of rattlesnakes in the area but because we keep to the trails we never encounter any.  The heat becomes intense, reaching near 40C on a normal summer day.  We’ve been sure to wear sunscreen and pack our water bottles.

The scenery is breathtaking!  Hoodoos, all shapes and sizes, loom all around us, the Milk River swiftly flowing in the valley, the Sweetgrass Hills on the other side. The sky is a bright clear blue and the sand beneath our feet is soft and powdery.  Vegetation is sparse, limited to the most drought resistant plants…cacti and creeping juniper, tiny flowers taking hold in minimal soil, Saskatoon and chokecherry bushes closer to the river.   

At the end of the trail, archeologists have discovered petroglyphs on the walls of the hoodoos dating back to the 1800’s.  Thankfully they have been cordoned off to keep them from being vandalized.  The largest sample of petroglyphs in the park depicts a battle scene with tepees, horses, and guns. Trade with the Europeans for horses and guns started in the late 1700’s.  After consulting with Blackfoot Elders, it has been determined that this particular piece of rock art is believed to depict a battle between two warring nations.  

Other examples of rock art found in the park may have had spiritual meaning or may be results of vision quests.

The Milk River meanders back and forth between Canada and the United States several times. At this time of year it is fairly high and travels swiftly through the glacial valley. Sounds echo off the hoodoos, making it easy to know of approaching tubes, kayaks and canoes as they wind their way through sacred native land.

On our second day, the river itself will be our adventure.  Because this river clips along at a nice, easy pace and is relatively shallow in many spots, it attracts people of all ages and abilities with kayaks and canoes.  There are numerous spots to put in, depending how long a float you want.

We don’t have a canoe or a kayak but we have pool noodles!  Yup… cheap tubes of flexible styrofoam that we picked up for about $5 each!    The day is steaming hot again and we know the water will bring relief for our melting bodies.  Wearing our bathing suits and water shoes, we test the water from the put-in spot in the campground.  It’s not deep…only to our knees at this point…we splash our bodies with the cooling water as we wait for a few kayaks to float past us.  Then it’s our turn. We fall into the water with the noodles across our chests, lift our feet and we’re swept downstream by the current.  We float lazily, enjoying the sun on our backs as the water laps around us.  Hoodoos rise high along the banks of the river.  Hawks soar in the blue sky above.  A couple of wide turns in the river and soon we’re at the beach.  The water is still no higher than our knees but the current makes it difficult to get across the sandy riverbed to the shore.  We slip, stumble, land back in the water, laughing.  It’s such a great way to cool down!  

All in all, a great short vacation and a place we will definitely return to another time.