Day 86 – August 31 – Shaunavon, SK to Medicine Hat, AB (Fort Walsh)

We left Shaunavon at 9:30 and headed southwest as far as Climax before going north to the east entrance of Cypress Hills Cenral Block and Fort Walsh.


The Cypress Hills are a 250 kilometer long strip of forested plateau that rises 600 meters (2000′) above the surrounding plains. During the last ice age the glaciers parted and split to both sides of the area so it is nonglaciated land and quite an astonishing contrast to all the flat prairie that surrounds it. Ranching became important in the area after the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived at Maple Creek in 1883. Beginning in 1906, part of the Cypress Hills was protected as a federal forest reserve.

We have been following the Red Coat Trail for many days and keep building on the early days of the Northwest Mounted Police and Fort Walsh is a very important part of the story.

Fort Walsh Visitor’s Center.

We heard quite a bit about Superintendent Walsh when we were at Wood Mountain Post the other day. Wood Mountain was one of several outposts where men from Fort Walsh were sent for tours of duty and area patrols.

A Parks Canada National Historic Park is a red chair event. This will be my last ‘sitting’ on this trip. No more stops at National Parks are planned.

The fort as it is constructed now was built by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when they bought the former Fort Walsh property for a breeding stable for the horses of the Musical Ride. A rancher in the area had marked where all the old buildings had been at Fort Walsh so the RCMP built their buildings to mimic the old fort ones at the same places.

When it became an historic site, Parks Canada finished the interiors to reflect what the buildings would have been like during the years of active duty of the fort. There would have been twice the number of buildings back then.

We were just in time for a guided tour. We learned near the end of the tour, that the young man had only started working here a month ago. He was former Canadian Military and had worked for Parks Canada at Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island before moving from the expensive westcoast and buying a house in Saskatchewan. He came to the fort on Canada Day as a tourist and heard they were looking for staff so applied and immediately got hired. He gave one of the most comprehensive and interesting tours we have ever had. He really knew his history. Not just about Fort Walsh but about other events that were going on in the world at the same time that he tied all together. Really, really well done.

The new Canadian Government in Ottawa had been receiving reports of the tensions between traders and First Nations peoples, especially the deterimental affects of the American whisky traders who came across the border to do business after the US outlawed selling alcohol to the Indians. Also the loss of the buffalo due to overhunting was creating severe food shortages for the First Nations people who for centuries had relied on the buffalo for much of their food, tools, warmth, etc. Wolfers from the US came up and killed bison with poison to use as bait to kill wolves for the pelts which also caused issues with the indigenous people. But Ottawa was slow to act. They did not want to start a war with America and Britain (that Canada was part of) was engaged in a war in South Africa so arms and supplies were in short supply. However all that changed quickly when news reached the east about the Cypress Hills Massacre.

Prime Minister John A. MacDonald had formed the Northwest Mounted Police the year before and, to prevent further blood shed and to establish law and order and destroy the whisky trade, sent troops set up forts and depot posts and work with the First Nations people to make treaties before settlers moved in. Fort Walsh was establised in 1875.

There were about 250 men at Fort Walsh and at any one time there could be as many as 5,000 people in the surrounding area; either in the trading post town that grew up near by or First Nations people that came to trade and collect food after the treaties were signed.

Von, our guide, had recently found one of the forgotten RCMP Musical Ride lances in a corner of the stable. They are made of bamboo to be light for the many manouvers required during each performance.

When the Northwest Mounted Police were sent from Fort Dufferin in Manitoba to establish law and order in the west they brought cannons, however they were never needed as there were never any armed conflicts. It still fires though.

The men’s mattresses were a buffalo hide laid on a wooden pallet.

The bunk on the right is laid out with the man’s kit for inspection. The required brushes and items to care for his horse are at the foot of the bed, his personal items and clothing are arranged above it. There was a specific place for every item and it was inspected every day. They also did marching and firearms drills everyday. Walsh believed that displaying readiness and discipline to those they had come to govern would help garner respect for the police force and make it easier to do their jobs. Members of the NWMP were all educated. They had to be able to read and write and be listeners and negotiators. They were empowered to perform marriages, to collect customs, to assign tariffs, and officiate in land registries, handle disputes, mete out justice and many other duties.

With the coming of the railroad the headquarters of the Northwest Mounted Police was moved to Regina and the fort was closed. A forest fire destroyed most of it and the land became private ranchland until purchased by the RCMP for their Remount Ranch. When the breeding stable was moved to Ontario in 1966 they transfered the Fort Walsh property to Parks Canada. In 1989 the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan joined forces and created Canada’s first interprovincial park – Cypress Hills. The Interprovincial Park Agreement was amended in 2000 to formally include Fort Walsh National Historic Site. The two provincial governments and the Government of Canada cooperate in the management of this unique geographical feature and ecosystem.

John washed the truck two days ago in Assiniboia. It was covered in gumbo mud from the drive to the Claybank Brick Plant. We have accumulated a LOT of dead grasshoppers in two days!

We are staying in Medicine Hat two nights. Tomorrow we will drive to the Alberta portion of Cypress Hills and do a loop through a few small towns on the way back to Medicine Hat. After that we have one more day of ‘touristing’ before getting to Red Deer to visit my niece. That will be my last blog post. After we leave Red Deer we are on old familiar roads and will just be going to a few places to visit family as we make our way home.

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