An unexpected journey

It was supposed to be a straightforward adventure. And then my path turned to water and light, life and death, and deep time.

My best laid plans always leave room for surprise.

Bright green arms of the Aurora Borealis spread across the starry sky over Great Slave Lake.
The aurora borealis shimmering over Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories.

It was supposed to be straightforward. I would take another road trip to a bison destination to gather blog and story map content. I would add to the project I sweated over for 18 months to publish– and then recovered from , letting it languish online for a year. My day job swelled with opportunity to innovate and lead. I suddenly found myself mentoring two college interns. I needed to divest myself of the whole Barbie Western Ranch kit after my last horse died. The country descended into surreal chaos. Too much going on to think, write, draw, communicate anything personal.

Cover image for a Story Map, with a title and buffalo staring out from the screen.
“On the Trail of the North American Buffalo” now lives on ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World.

This trip, I would take time to decompress. The interns would be back at school. I would spend more time traveling, four days driving to Northwest Territories and Wood Buffalo National Park and three weeks on the road. I meticulously penned the plan on a pre-flight wait in March. I scheduled the trip for September to avoid mosquitoes and crowds. I left an itinerary and emergency numbers with my sister, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I would check in regularly. All set.

But my journeys, no matter how strategically planned and defined in scope, always lead somewhere I don’t expect. This time, it was meant to be about wildlife, documenting travel tips, history, updating neglected blogs with new stories.

And then my path turned. The journey became all about water and light, the randomness of life and certainty of death, and deep time.

blue sky.
A golden eagle flies over the rich boreal forest of Northwest Territories.
A large wood buffalo bull walks among young aspen trees growing at the edge of the boreal forest.
A large wood buffalo bull walks among young aspens at the edge of the forest.

It will take me awhile and a few posts to unpack this journey. I packed not only my gear but also a strange and dangerous organism that dogged me all summer and almost won. I drove across a national border and turned off the news to ignore my country in historic chaos, anger, and agony. The unexpected changed my perspective at every stop.

I’m not superstitious, but I will always carry a small wooden square carved from an ancient tree, pressed into my hand by a Métis man who struck up a conversation with me. He insisted I take the square with me to ensure my survival and safe return to Canada in the future. He asked me to look up the real history of St Paul des Métis, where the tree once lived. He wanted me to share the story as far as I could. People needed to know the truth, he said.

At the time we spoke, I wasn’t sure I could do that. There might not be another trip. Ever. By that point in my travels, I felt overwhelmed, almost done in by a microscopic pathogen, and meaningless in the face of time. I wasn’t sure it mattered what happened to me. This was supposed to be a simple adventure and now I felt like a kayaker spilled into infinite rapids, grabbing a breath anytime I surfaced in the sunlight.

Then, after that conversation, the tide turned- suddenly, finally.

The sun rises over Great Slave Lake, on the shores of Hay River.

Here is the path I followed, a route that landed me in a place unimaginably old. Watch for updates as I set out on the road for my first destination: Blue River, British Columbia.

My journey from home to Wood Buffalo National Park, through the badlands of Alberta, and back home again.

Key:

  1. (A) Snohomish, Washington
  2. (B) Blue River, British Columbia
  3. (C) Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Grande Prairie, Alberta
  4. (D) Sixtieth Parallel Territorial Park, Northwest Territories
  5. (E) Hay River, Northwest Territories
  6. (F) Peace Point, Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta
  7. (G) High Level, Alberta
  8. (H) Elk Island National Park, Alberta
  9. (I) Drumheller, Alberta
  10. (J) Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
  11. (K) Springy Point, Idaho
  12. (L) Home again!

Random acts of travel

Wandering the prairie as a grasslands nomad

I drove solo to Death Valley National Park one year and spent the whole trip looking over my shoulder. I committed no crime more serious than extremely distracted driving and hiking in  a rich visual landscape of surreal abstraction and surprise.  I would pull over or wander off trail for unnatural colors, unusual textures, or just a small shrub full of butterflies sitting in the middle of a barren.

And once, passing a coworker and friend on the way into the women’s room, she asked,”Hey, do you want to go on a kayak trip in Tonga?”

“Sure, sounds cool, sign me up,” I replied. “Where’s Tonga?”

That’s my temperament, orientation, and wiring: wandering, curious, focused on nature, taking in the world through my eyes. I think I hailed from nomads, following food across the landscape. It is not the best fit for today’s linear, boundary-defined, man-made world. But it is natural for me to be attracted to grasslands,  where I can wander and find little surprises everywhere.

BrokenHills
Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, Grasslands National Park

For most, this scene disappoints:  no towering mountains or trees, no sparkling azure lakes, no man-made stuff. For people like me, it’s an invitation to explore. What’s more, I have permission from the ranger, who says that Grasslands National Park allows people to roam everywhere. Hilltops welcome after dinner strolls from camps, and tempt you from a track.

FrenchmanValleyEveningLight
Frenchman Valley, as a storm clears and lets in evening light.

And navigation is not challenging here, even without a device.  The land is heavily sculpted by water, with a distinct orientation and flow, and landmarks easily visible from the ridge tops.  On Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, the yellow trail markers guide hikers down a path, but you can roam without fear of wandering up in the wrong drainage, as can happen in my area. Perfect.

GrasslandsAerialWestBlock
You can see in this aerial view how heavily the Grasslands West Block has been influenced by water.  Imagine the flood outflow from two melting lobes of a giant glacier sending water scouring across the land.

GrasslandsAerialBelzaBW
This map illustrates what Parks Canada calls undulating prairie.  These undulations are important for prairie life. And you can see how Broken Hills got their name!

BrokenHills2
Those undulating prairies wander into water-sculpted landscapes perfect for wandering and playing rock/fossil detective (don’t remove anything).

One of my challenges hiking Broken Hills was catching up to prairie butterflies.  They are really petite and speedy.  This makes sense if you think about what they face:  drying sun, a lot of wind, and no shelter from any airborne insect eaters.  Wing size needs to be large enough to absorb heat and fly, but limited to avoid moisture loss and predation.  At least that’s my amateur butterfly scientist hypothesis.

BrokenHillsButterfly
Sorry, haven’t figured these two characters out yet!

At any rate, I know that some butterfly flowers like ridge tops, and they attract butterflies.  This happens in Eastern Washington, and sure enough, it works in southern Canada, too.

I also know the dark side of butterflies, as we humans interpret them. We poeticize them as flying stained-glass angels alighting on nectar-filled flowers.  But they need protein, too, and will find it in carnivore poop, blood, rotting meat, and so on.  Grasslands has its coyotes, as you can tell from night time howling and occasional deposits.  I never find butterflies on the furry scat, but they will land on more moist scat.

BlueButterflyBrokenHills
Lovely little butterflies waiting their turn to access moist poop, lower right.

BrokenHillsButterflyPoo.jpg
Yum. Butterflies extracting needed amino acids and other nutrients from a rich source.

Larger animals and birds frequent these areas.  Wolves and bears that roamed the land were extirpated by settlers who couldn’t imagine coexistence with predators. But smaller herbivores are stalked today by coyotes that spread across North America with human settlers.  Wary, they give hikers a chance to leave, then bound gracefully away.

BrokenHillsPronghorn
Pronghorn antelope

BrokenHillsDeer.jpg
You’ve got two seconds to leave before they’re outta here.

An herbivore that doesn’t need to fear coyotes-and can injure feckless or ignorant humans-is the mighty bison.  I’ve personally seen one stand off a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park despite a clearly broken leg.  After awhile, the wolves gave up and ambushed an elk.

IMG_0146
Viewed from Hellroaring Creek Overlook, Yellowstone National Park, 2012.

You can find traces of buffalo throughout the prairie landscape, including poop, laydown areas, and tracks dried in once muddy areas. As a prairie detective, you can take notes on where they sleep and what paths they use.

This buffalo bull at Grasslands appears unconcerned about either the weather or people.

BrokenHillsBison.jpg

People have long wandered these lands; Parks Canada literature says the park includes 12,000 known tipi rings, and drive lines that people used to direct bison (or perhaps antelope) into traps.

brokenHillsTipiRing2.jpg
Tipi ring used by native peoples skilled in anchoring shelter on windswept prairies.

I’m not a good enough prairie detective to determine whether piles of bones are a result of natural death or hunting, or how old they are. This is a harsh environment that can fatally tax young and old animals.

The bone at lower right looks really lacy and weathered, and many appeared cracked.  I could make up a whole pile of stories about these, but really, they could even hail from the previous use of the area for ranching. Note that I moved nothing, and just took pictures.

If it doesn’t work out for an animal (or you), there are always patrolling vultures to clean up the aftermath.

EastBlockVulture

Other random finds on my Broken Hills investigation include a shed antler and various flowers.

Like people long ago, I become nomadic in grasslands. Unlike those resilient, skilled people, I am not dependent on the landscape and its inhabitants. I’m just a prairie detective, with ancient genes directing me to root around for suprises hidden in the grass.

carte-maps_en2.jpg
For a printable maps of Grasslands National Park trails and other invaluable visitor information, visit Parks Canada.

 

What’s in a name? Everything.

Why I’m driven to bring a voice and face to the erased.

It’s Thanksgiving and time to be grateful. I’m grateful today for fellow blogger @historyboots for her recent article on the proper name for the big, shaggy creatures that I’m slaving to promote.

I’m in the last lap of this ESRI Story Map package on the North American buffalo. It’s long past the story shaping part that I enjoy the most. Now it’s editing out extra spaces, finding better words (the best words!), trimming sentences and content, checking whether the visuals tell the story.  Shaun is making the pretty maps; I’m helping out entering coordinates, photos and descriptions for the simple ones.

CoverFollowTheTrail

I wouldn’t dare put this on an equal footing with my niece-in-law’s pregnancy, but I have a smidgeon of the same anxiety that something could go wrong at the last minute (with far less consequence, of course).  I obsessively back everything up, screenshot, and capture text. I worry that when I launch it, the photos won’t show up and the links won’t work.  Or it won’t load as a published product. Or no one will care.

This project has become far more consuming than I expected, but I’ve become more determined as this story has revealed itself.  The last lap of this marathon is now driven by listening to Japanese Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and even the deaf and blind communities talk about “historic erasure” at the National Association for Interpretation conference a couple weeks ago.

Erasure is using semantics in a magic trick that makes people’s histories completely disappear.  Take the term “wilderness”:  poof, and all the footsteps that fell on the land vanish! European Americans did not “discover” anything, really: there were people here already, and their feet touched many parts of the country with only an oral record of their passage.  If you ignore that record, then voila- “wilderness” and “discovery”.

Moccasin,_1225_-_1275_AD,_Promontory_Cave_I,_Utah,_bison_hide_with_hair_turned_inside_-_Natural_History_Museum_of_Utah_-_DSC07295
This moccasin comes from Promontory Cave in Utah, and was worn in the 1200’s, long before white immigrants arrived in North America. Photo by Daderot, public domain.

I even realized how rarely I see people with hearing impairments in communications products like video. This Smithsonian video welcoming two bison back to the National Zoo is an exception, because one of the bison is named after an alumnus of Gallaudet University, established for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

ScreenShotSmithsonianBison
How often do you see someone signing in a video? Captions are great, but better yet, let’s show a real person communicating.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I was on a bison road trip , visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park ,when I discovered the story of how three native men and Canada spurred bison conservation in the United States. I recently learned from Harvey Locke’s “Last Buffalo Returns to the Wild”  that the oft-told tale of Samuel Walking Coyote rescuing buffalo calves may ignore an unsung hero:  Walking Coyote’s stepson, Latatitsa. Locke says that a “robust tribal memory” credits Latatitsa, and that Walking Coyote sold the small herd to Pablo and Allard when his stepson was away.

If I have gained anything besides the ability to make gifs and simple maps from this experience, it is the ability to detect, almost by echolocation, discrimination by semantics. And a drive to do what I can to bring voice and face to the erased, whether they be people or great brown shaggy beasts.

BisonPoster

For a great article on the power of words, read Lauren’s blog post (and see the awesome photo of the bison wearing stick bling):

What’s the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!