If you want a history lesson that beats anything you’ve ever had in school, head to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in the southeast corner of Alberta (it’s called Áísínai’pi by the Blackfoot, meaning where the writings are). But before you go, sign up online for a two hour rock art tour so you can see a large number of rock art paintings, most of which are 500 to 1000 years old. In fact the park boasts the largest concentration of rock art on the Great Plains of North America.
The park is also home to fantastic desert scenery with loads of sandstone hoodoos just begging to be climbed and photographed. Hiking, canoeing, camping and birding all take place in the park as well.
Writing-on-Stone became a park in 1957; then in 1977 access to some of the park was restricted, largely because of all the graffiti happening. It may become a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it will be a few years before anyone knows if the park makes the final cut.
John and I recently did the rock art tour with Deserae Yellowhorn as our guide. We were joined by about a dozen young teenagers and four other adults. The tour started with a short drive into an otherwise off-limit section of the park. From there we hiked a short distance down the Milk River Valley, stopping to discuss the rock art panels along the way.
Though simplistic, the pictographs (paintings using ochre which was likely sourced via trade) and petroglyphs (rock art formed by carving into the stone) tell a story. And with a guide along to explain the meaning of the symbols, the rock art comes alive. Part of the way they date the art is by what is or isn’t in the scene. For example horses didn’t show up in the area until the early 1700’s.
Deserae was masterful at bringing the Blackfoot history alive. We learned that the area from Writing-on-Stone through to the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana is a very sacred area for the Blackfoot people – and as such no wars ever took place here; this, despite the fact that as Deserae pointed out, the Blackfoot people were intimidating and very war-like. Interestingly, the typical male was 7 feet tall and females on average were 6 ½ feet tall.
Not all the rock art in the park has been created by the Blackfoot people. The Shoshone, Cree and others contributed as they were passing through. On the other side of the river – which is off limits to the general public, we are told there is even more rock art to see.
Right now there is discussion concerning what is graffiti and what is not. It has been decided that everything pre-1957 is historical. “Recent” carvings include the names of some of the earliest settlers as well as the Model T Ford.
The Blackfoot people have a very strong oral culture. Storytelling season is in winter when the days are short and the nights are long. Many stories have a moral theme – geared to teaching children a lesson. It was a real treat to hear so many of them via Deserae.
The buildings in the photo below are reconstructions of the ones the Northwest Mounted Police lived in – while trying to disrupt the flow of whiskey from the States to Canada. We heard that they got so bored patrolling out in the middle of nowhere that they eventually helped make the whiskey trade happen.
The Hoodoo Hiking Trail
If you have time, I highly recommend the easy 3.5 kilometre return hike to the Battle Scene petroglyph through the beautiful hoodoo country. It’s an interpretive trail following the Milk River with a dozen stops along the way described.
If you go to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
- Tours are $15 per adult. There is a $5 reservation fee.
- There are three types of snakes in the park – garter, bull and rattlesnakes. In the last four years, there has only been one rattlesnake bite – on account of stupidity.
- It’s tick season between now and July. Then it’s mosquito season.
- Carry lots of water (1-2 L minimum) as it can get very hot around the hoodoos – 10°C above the surrounding area.
Thank you to Travel Alberta for making this trip possible. All opinions are my own as usual.