Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

I’m blaming free hostel beer and The Wolf of Wallstreet for my slower than planned start on Wednesday. I was on the road by 10:30 though, this time heading south towards Fort MacLeod.

On the way you pass through or near the towns of DeWinton, Okotoks, High River and Nanton. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I popped into the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton to check out one of the planes I knew to be in their collection. It wasn’t the specific plane that I have been trying to locate but I spent an hour or so perusing the exhibits and marveling at the underside of a Lancaster Bomber that is on display with bomb doors open.

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I took a pass on the Museum of Miniatures, Big Sky Garden Railway, a display of Ultimate Trains, and the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre, although the latter is something I’d do if I had more time. Honest.

The ultimate destination for today wasn’t the historic town of Fort MacLeod, although I did stop there later in the day, but rather Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The name intrigued me and when I learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and not your average small town tourist stop, I was sold.  It’s a museum of Blackfoot culture located about 18 km west of Fort MacLeod in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

I arrived at the parking lot in mid-afternoon and walked the last few hundred yards to the interpretative centre which is built into the side of a sandstone cliff and is barely visible from the road and parking lot. The centre won the Governor General’s Gold Medal for Architecture in 1990.

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You enter the interpretative centre on the lowest of seven levels and after a watching a short introductory film you take a series of stairs or elevators to the top level.

A guide explained the significance of the site, how it got its name, and what you can expect to see at the top of the hill.

Here’s a Wikipedia entry about the site:

“The buffalo jump was used for 5,500 years by the indigenous peoples of the plains to kill buffalo by driving them off the 11 metre (36 foot) high cliff. Before the late introduction of horses, the Blackfoot drove the buffalo from a grazing area in the Porcupine Hills about 3 km. west of the site to the “drive lanes”, lined by hundreds of cairns, by dressing up as coyotes and wolves. These specialized “buffalo runners” were young men trained in animal behavior to guide the buffalo into the drive lanes. Then, at full gallop, the buffalo would fall from the weight of the herd pressing behind them, breaking their legs and rendering them immobile. The cliff itself is about 300 metres (1000 feet) long, and at its highest point drops 10 metres into the valley below.

The site was in use at least 6,000 years ago, and the bone deposits are 12 metres (39 feet) deep. After falling off the cliff, the buffalo carcasses were processed at a nearby camp. The camp at the foot of the cliffs provided the people with everything they needed to process a buffalo carcass, including fresh water.

The majority of the buffalo carcass was used for a variety of purposes, from tools made from the bone, to the hide used to make dwellings and clothing. The importance of the site goes beyond just providing food and supplies. After a successful hunt, the wealth of food allowed the people to enjoy leisure time and pursue artistic and spiritual interests. This increased the cultural complexity of the society.

In Blackfoot, the name for the site is Estipah-skikikini-kots. According to legend, a young Blackfoot wanted to watch the buffalo plunge off the cliff from below, but was buried underneath the falling buffalo. He was later found dead under the pile of carcasses, where he had his head smashed in.”

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I had intended to drive another hour west of HSIBJ to see the site of the famous Frank Slide but I made one crucial mistake when I opted for a shortcut over a gravel road. The route was indeed shorter than had I backtracked to the highway, but since the gravel was very loose and I didn’t want to put my rented Chevy Cruse in the rhubarb, I arrived at Pincher Creek about 30 minutes behind schedule.  I chose to abort the mission as the interpretative centre closed in an hour and I was still 45 minutes away.

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From Pincher Creek I then headed east to Fort MacLeod where I stopped at the Queen’s Tavern for the Wednesday Night Wing & Beer Special: $5.99 for a dozen huge, saucy wings and $3.25 for a bottle of Old Style Pilsener – or ‘Pil’ as it’s known around these parts. And for the record, I can only find 6 bunnies on the label.

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Weary travellers should have no trouble finding a room in Fort MacLeod. If the Queen’s Hotel (above the Queen’s Tavern) isn’t up to your standards you can always mosey on down the street to the American Hotel or even the (no-name) Motel.

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A friend saw this early 1980s Cadillac and wondered if we might have stumbled upon the Witness Protection Program’s secret hangout for Henry Hill.

After of kicking up dust in Fort MacLeod for an hour or so it was time to head back to Calgary. Along the way I spent a few minutes in the communities of Barons, Carmangay, Champion, Carseland and – wait for it – Vulcan. Yes, there is a small Alberta town named Vulcan. And yes, they are milking it for every Vulcan penny.

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I’m not a huge Star Trek fan and since the tourist info station (a not-so-faithful replica of the USS Enterprise) had closed for the day, I didn’t need much more than 30 minutes to see most of Vulcan, including a pit stop at the local A & W.  One frosty root beer to go, please.

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When back on the rather straight road to Calgary, I called a good friend and former Woodbine colleague Robert Moskaluk and we chatted (hands-free) for the rest of the 90 minute drive to Calgary. Some call it multi-tasking. I call it killing two birds with one stone. I wonder what the Blackfoot buffalo hunters of 6000 years ago would call it?

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