Calgary, Alberta – Deadly buffalo jumps for human survival

Claude is our tour leader today – the best one in western Canada! A 600 km long trip through southern Alberta is showing us nearly all landscapes of the province: Huge areas of arable land and pastureland, where there are cattle and real cowboys with horses. Later we see the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where we go along between green hills. In the end of the day we will cross the highest road pass in Canada.

For the moment we are visiting Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The prairie Indians, mainly the Blackfoot, developed 6000 years ago a special technique to bag the bison that were necessary for their survival. A couple of tribes had to work together to hunt the fat herds in autumn. With buffalo and wolf hides camouflaged women and men drove the animals into a narrowing funnel that they had prepared in advance for weeks. They used that bad vision but good sense of smell of the bison. Eventually they led them to panic. The animals started to run and many of them fell off a cliff that they registered too late. Most buffalos died after falling, the injured ones were beat or stabbed to death. The prey was completely used: The innards were ate, the meat cut into strips, dried and then partially grinded and mixed with berry fruits to produce the nutritious pemmikan, precious stocks for the long winter. Melted fat and bone marrow served as well as nutrition and remedy. From bones they produced tools, furs, hides and tendons were used for clothes and teepees (tents). In good years, when more animals were killed than the First Nations were able to use they just took the most wanted parts. The remaining corpses piled up during thousands of years. Excavations at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump resulted in the insight that the cliff was 22 m high in the beginning, but the bone rests shortened it to 12 m. The unappetizing name comes from an old legend that says that a young brave wanted to watch the spectacle at the foot of the cliffs under a ledge. During the unusual successful hunt the carcasses piled more and more until they crushed him to death at the rock face. His relatives found him later with his head smashed in. There were many more buffalo jumps, but this tradition disappeared with the European settlers’ arrival. Rifles and horses imported by the Whites made hunting easier and shifted it from community to individual. In the following years hundreds of thousands of bison were killed, mainly by the Whites and the species eventually exterminated. Reasons were the deliberate deprivation of nourishment as basis for the Indians’ life, a kind of perverse shooting as well as the use of the phosphor contained in the buffalos’ bones to building bombs in the First and Second World War. A later discovered small group of surviving bison were used for breeding. Today some hundreds of buffalo herds live in governmental or private possession.

In the early morning of April 29th, 1903, a 1 km wide, 425 m long and 150 m deep piece of rock slid off Turtle Mountain and buried part of the coal mining town of Frank. At least 70 people were killed while sleeping that night. The coal mining night shift found its way out later. 82 million tons of stone did not only trap the village but filled the whole valley with lumps of rock. Still today the stone desert nearly without vegetation reminds of Canada’s deadliest rockslide ever. As reasons the mountain’s unstable geological structure, underground coal mining, water action and some unusually warm days followed by a frost night are considered.

Alberta founded along the Rocky Mountains a couple of parks following each other from north to south. Coming from the south we go to Kananaskis Provincial Park, also named K-country. The lovely green foothills disappear, the mountains get steeper and stonier, and the road rises continuously. We think to be in the Alps with all the grey snow-covered mountains and conifer forests. Highwood Pass at 2206 m elevation only opens on June 15th, we are lucky. Still now there is snow on the side of the road and during photo session and goose flesh appears. Searching for wild life we cruise through the whole park. We find a lot of red and mule deer, but there are no bigger animals today.

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