Standing among the Viking Ribstones atop a hill in east central Alberta, the highest vantage point for miles, I close my eyes and imagine herds of bison thousands strong grazing the prairie grasses below.
Around me lay large boulders - glacial erratics deposited during the last ice age -modified sometime in the last 10,000 years to resemble bison rib cages, in homage to Old Man Buffalo, spirit protector of bison herds. Over time, aboriginal hunters visited these boulder petroglyphs, leaving offerings to call the bison or give thanks for a successful hunt. I see colourful ribbons, braids of sweetgrass and strips of cloth tied to trees - proof the ribstones are still paid tribute.
Wainwright's Buffalo Legacy
To learn more, I pay a visit to the Wainwright and District Museum, where the story unfolds in the Buffalo Gallery. I discover how the buffalo helped maintain the prairie ecosystem, provided sustenance to aboriginals, and were saved from extinction in the early 1900s - thanks to the efforts of Buffalo National Park, where 700 bison from Montana propagated into a herd 40,000 strong when the park closed in 1939.
The former park land is now part of Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, but the Bud Cotton Paddock there is still home to about 20 bison and you're welcome to visit - I loved watching the magnificent beasts lumber about. And I just had to have my picture taken in front of the huge buffalo statue on Wainwright's Main Street, dedicated in 1965 to the great herds that once roamed this region.
To gain even more insight into the area's aboriginal and buffalo heritage, I fell back on my old motto: go with a guide. Buffalo Adventures is a great choice. I was treated to a most informative stroll through Wainwright's historic downtown, and then on to the site of the old Buffalo National Park, which was used as a POW camp during WWII. I was transported by stories of aboriginal buffalo hunters, moonshine-swilling prisoners-of-war and the wildlife conservationists who toiled to bring the bison back from the brink of extinction.
Spend an afternoon at the fascinating Bodo Archaeological Site, 35 km (~22 mi) south of Provost in an area of stabilized sand dunes. The best part is helping to hunt for the bison bones, arrowheads and pottery shards that tell the story of First Nations who hunted and camped here for thousands of years.