Stegner House the ides of April

The cloud’s beauty belying what will come, rolling over the White Mud Valley, then out over the prairie. I know it will bring twelve below temperatures in April, and hopefully moisture to the parched winter ground.

Storm Clouds over the Whitemud Valley

I head East out of town turning after the bridge onto the gravel, travelling out of what was the ZX ranch, once the owner of the ranch where the town is now built. Swinging around the fenced paddock and then back again to the hill, as the engine begins to struggle, off to my left are lines cut in the hill by motorbikes. In the foreground, the ground is as hard as a rock, cracking like dry skin in the cold. The winter blackened plants struggle for nutrients in what the road construction unearthed, Cretaceous clay beds now pockmarked by gopher holes.

I look West beyond the reservoir; it was around the corner that Sitting Bull, in 1876 encamped with 5000 Lakoda Sioux after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Atsina (Gros Ventre), Lakota (Sioux), Nakota (Assiniboine), Plains Cree
and Siksika (Blackfoot) was here as well, all hunting the last remaining buffalo herds.

Now on this hillside, the evidence of leisure activities brings to mind a warm summer day when on my bike heading out onto the prairie, just beyond the shopping center, I was lost for hours with my friend in the rolling grass and sloughs. Reaching the top of the hill, the wind blasts the side of the truck, and the valley on the other side rolls out six-kilometre bucking its way over the feet of the hillside. A few scattered buildings dot the valley floor, and a large Coulee in the distance, dark and green against the hillside as it wanders East.

The landscape is sectioned by fences, with different coloured fields running like a quilted checkerboard on either side of the road. Small coulees deviations from this rhythm cause fences to swerve erratically into their vegetation and sloughs.

The road has streams of white dry snow rushing over it, as the truck rises and falls. At intervals, old tires are hung on Wills Ranch fence posts; on them, the white paint reads “no hunting, no trespassing.” The gravel is now calm under the tires as the truck is cradled in its grooves.

The Chimney Coulee begins to loom against the rise of the bench, I slow to take it in, here stone chimney remains, at one time, reminded settlers of a Metis village. Escaping the Red River problems nourishing themselves on buffalo, deer, pronghorn elk, jackrabbits, badgers, porcupines, snow and Canada geese, prairie chickens, ducks, coyotes, fox, beaver, fish, and wolves.

They wintered in these trees after being told by George Fisher on his return from Wood Mountain that here was a “real hunter’s paradise.” At the coulee I pull the truck off the road into the grass, there archeologists, carrying large brightly coloured electronics, are walking into the woods to search for what might remain. Searching for evidence of the settlement with ground-penetrating radar. We stood talking in the cold for some time, sheltered from the wind. Leaving them I back the truck onto the road and swing into the opening in the trees.

Suddenly the road swings to the left, and I am on a steep climb; the tires begin struggling with the gravel, no longer cradled. On either side, the snow thickens, and the wind increases its strength against the door panel. The Coulee’s trees thread their way into the hillside on my left. Safely sheltering them from the winds, so many others fighting over the remaining resources.

I swing the truck into another curve and pass through an opening carved out of the hillside, the snow and wind increasing with intensity. Did they find more dinosaur bones when the road crew cut this one? Like the one, Ken hit with his machine while carving out a road years ago. I remember a local surveyor telling me that the old people, who have long since gone, talked about the danger of the bench I was approaching. If something went wrong up there in the winter, you did not come back. With sudden whiteouts, the cold, and the wind you became part of the environment where you fell. The trees below would have been your only protection in this weather.

Up somewhere above the Bench I am approaching is an area somehow a creation of the last ice age whose glaciers petered out 200 miles to the south. I pull into an extension of the road that leads to a field gate. Leaving the engine running I open the door, I have to struggle with the wind that seems to want to tear the door from my hand. Finally, I step out onto into the frigid air and instantly, the prospect of frostbite is apparent, the brutality of the place is apparent.

The panorama must stretch out for thirty miles or more snow-covered prairie with blue storm clouds rising miles into the sky. I turn into the wind, squinting as it lashes my face; I see the land climbing higher towards the sky. I see I have not yet experienced the bench and what would be its full intensity? Even the sky seems to change colour in its vast flat expanse.

Down below in the trees the Metis in 1873 hidden from the conflicts over the game, and in the safety of the North West Mounted Police outpost, the American whisky traders who had sewn chaos throughout Cypress Hills had just been pushed back over the border. I climbed back into the cab’s heat, turned the heat up, and sat quietly in the warmth listening to the wind. Thinking in the spring, there would be green willow and poplar shrubs, wild saskatoons, chokecherries, and strawberries growing in the springs and creeks, something that the Metis would have been waiting for as smoke filled their chimneys. While outside, they posted a military guard against attacks in this no man’s land. I am lost in my body’s reaction to the cold, thoughts about what came before, and the emotions that run back through my years—the familiarity of this gestalt.