Cypress Hills rich with flora, fauna and history

Beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder. But for those who want some history along with fauna and flora found nowhere else in Canada, pay a visit to the Cypress Hills, one of the Prairies’ great natural and still largely undiscovered treasures.

Straddling the Saskatchewan-Alberta border a few miles north of the U.S., the Cypress Hills hang blue and remote between heaven and earth, as the late Edward McCourt put it in his Road Across Canada, back in 1965. And incredible as the sight of them seems in the midst of the flatland, they are, as McCourt assures us, unmistakably real.

Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief, spoke of the hills’ mysticism in 1877 when, after having wiped out Colonel Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn a year earlier, he met there in an unsuccessful bid by U.S. General Alfred H. Terry to have the chief repatriate his tribe to the U.S. And for generations, the hills served as a natural game sanctuary for rival native tribes.

Modern provincial administrators have been almost as religious in their regard for this remarkable 2,500 square-kilometre piece of Canada that harbours, along with all the common prairie flower some less common, including the calypso and 16 other orchid varieties, a rare wild delphinium that in season can turn the green hills into a blue and purple haze, sub-tropical yucca grass and several varieties of cactus normally found 600 miles or more to the south. The only explanation for the presence of all this exotica — together with such extravagant un-Canadian creatures as horned toads, hog-nosed vipers, kangaroo rats and scorpions — is that all these life forms must have hugged the higher reaches of the hills when the rest of the prairie was being submerged eons ago beneath an icecap.

That theory implies that the Cypress Hills are high. And they are. At a maximum elevation of 1,460 meters (4,971 feet), they stand, together with the lodgepole pine — a tree found nowhere else for hundreds of miles to the west — 600 meters (almost 2,000 feet) above the surrounding plain, the highest point of land between the Rockies and Labrador.

But time and what some call progress has taken its toll. Not only has the paving of a winding, dirt road leading southwest from the park proper for 20-odd miles to Fort Walsh — the headquarters for seven years of the new North West Mounted Police — deprived the hills of some of its natural character, other concessions to tourism have been made: Swimming pools now cater to tourists at the central tourist area surrounding Lake Leven, near the Saskatchewan entrance to the park, and a private hotel with condo units complete with kitchens and fireplaces, hot tub and licensed dining has been built.

Around the trout-stocked lake, together with privately-owned summer cottages, is a beach, public swimming pool, cafeteria, general store, laundry, golf course, cafeteria and ball diamond. Close by are a fast food outlet, a general store, a recreational hall, an arts and crafts area and a playground.

As well as a car and a camera, visitors to the Cypress Hills would be well advised to come with a sense of history. For it is here, as much as anywhere, that the character of the Canadian West, and, of Canada itself, was formed.

Someone once said the purpose of the U.S. cavalry in the west during the 19th century was “to protect the white man against the Indian, whereas the task assigned to the North West Mounted Police was to protect the Indian against the white man.”

That helps explain Fort Walsh, the now-restored headquarters of the NWMP (between 1875 and 1882), that sits about 20 miles southwest of the main parksite. It took two years from the NWMP’s creation in 1873 for the force to establish its main post there. But its presence eventually ended any possibility of a repeat of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre that saw a group of U.S. whiskey traders kill 36 Canadian natives in the hills. Testimony to the Mounties’ peacemaking influence can be found in the NWMP graveyard a few hundred yards from the fort. Of a dozen or more headstones there, only one records the death of a Mountie by violence. Constable Marmaduke Graburn, 19, was killed by Indians. The others died of such ailments as typhoid and dysentery. Once established at Fort Walsh, the force kept an eye on a gathering of roughly 6,000 American Sioux at the base of the hills — precarious situation as some feared the potential for an all-out war with Canadian Assiniboins, Blackfeet and others.

But that’s not all there is to the Cypress Hills. Throughout their geological history, life has flourished here. Indeed, many images of strange and extinct mammals, including titanotheres, sabre-toothed cats and even camels, are now preserved as fossils in the eastern reaches of the park.

But no journey to the area would be complete without a side trip to Eastend, a pretty town 88 km (55 miles) south and east of the entrance to the hills, on Highway 13. Eastend is one of Canada’s finest palaeontological sites and, in 1994, gave up one of only 12 known T-Rex skeletons. It also gave us Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his 1955 book Wolf Willow, and the late Corky Jones, an amateur paleaontologist sometimes credited with discovering the triceratops, the three-horned rhino-like dinosaur so popular with youngsters. Viewing the cliffs at Eastend, one can spot a dazzling white strip of clay sandwiched between layers of standard buff prairie overburden. This lining is referred to occasionally as bentonite, an extremely fine potter’s clay that could have been the source of a small industry but has never been exploited locally except as a craft medium. But this local phenomenon can be better explained by Eastend Fossil Research Station crews who, on advance notice, conduct public tours of dinosaur digs and geological oddities in the area. You can call them at (306) 295-4009.

Maple Creek, to the north between the Cypress Hills Park and the Trans-Canada Highway, is also worth a visit, if only to see some of its brick architecture — an unusual sight in the area, given its age. In the heart of prime ranching country, pioneers there still refer to it as the “old cow town.”