If you’ve always wanted to have your own western experience, Calgary and its surrounding areas offer a slew of opportunities to don a cowboy hat and rope a steer, or to learn first-hand the time-honoured traditions of First Nations peoples.
BAR U RANCH
Before arriving at Bar U Ranch, a designated National Historic Site since 1995, I was expecting to tour around an interpretive centre, watch a video and listen to costumed, summer-student guides run off pre-rehearsed ranching history lessons.
It’s true, I did tour the main visitor’s centre, and yes, like most museum-type centres, there was a video, but it was the authentic guides at “the Bar U” (as the staff call it) that truly made me feel the generations of ranching history and what it’s meant to both Alberta and Canada.
There are 130 designated historic buildings in Canada—26 of these are located on the 375 acres at Bar U. After touring the centre I was met by Donnie, a local rancher who’s lived in the area for the past seven years, and brought over to a wagon pulled by two large black Percheron horses. “This here’s Hawkeye,” he says, patting the one on the left, “and this is Trapper.”
After piling onto the wagon, we head toward the ranch buildings that have been on the property as early as 1882. Established in the 1880s, Bar U Ranch became one of the first and largest operating corporate ranches in Canada, and continued as an operating commercial ranch until 1950. At its largest, it encompassed 157,000 acres (63,500 hectares) of land with over 60,000 head of cattle. Its roots in Stampede culture run deep with three of the “Big Four” ranchers and entrepreneurs who established the Calgary Stampede playing a part in its history: George Lane and Pat Burns each had a hand at owning and running the ranch, while A.J. Cross, acted as a foreman.
As we ride down through the buildings, we are often stopped by guides waving us down to say “howdy” and to tell their site’s story. Lewis, a jolly man with a bushy mustache and round glasses who works on all the ranch’s saddle repairs and designs treats us to some cowboy poetry—a mix of poetry and storytelling with a touch of humour thrown in. Donnie is also full of stories—as he expertly leads the horses along the winding path, he tells us proudly of the history of the Percheron horses at the ranch, and how they were once considered the best in the world. France, the country where George Lane once purchased the ranch’s original Percherons, looked to Bar U to restore its depleted stock after the devastation of WWII.
Donnie also speaks of some of the ranch’s famous visitors—amongst them H.R.H. Edward, Prince of Wales and the woman he abdicated the throne for, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. “He liked it here so much that he bought a neighbouring ranch,” Donnie tells us.
“Wallis Simpson though, she didn’t like it much, so they compromised—11 months a year in Paris, and two weeks here.”
We also learn of Bar U’s colourful past employees including Hop Sing, a Chinese ranch cook who reportedly inspired the character of the same name on Bonanza; Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. The Sundance Kid, a former ranch hand (upon visiting Bar U a relative of his remarked that it was his only “honest” work); and John Ware, a former slave from the southern U.S., who became a legendary cowboy and rancher.Once we’ve reached the end of the site, we hop off the wagon with a wave to Donnie and are free to explore the buildings on our own. The stables and barns are mixed with interactive exhibits and actual ranching equipment, as the ranch still operates 40 head of short horns, three Percheron teams and four saddle horses. One building has photos of original cowboys and ranch hands, another saddles, and another a full set-up of the former post office, complete with the original telephone, mail boxes and typewriter.
Across the bridge is the round-up camp where folks can gather around the fire for a cup of cowboy coffee and hear stories and music. Every afternoon an order of fresh bannock is made and offered to the public to try. The newly renovated cookhouse offers a unique glimpse into the day-to-day lives of old cowboys and ranch hands. The sleeping quarters upstairs look like a scene out of The Assassination of Jesse James with narrow single beds, threadbare suitcases and guitars leaning against the wall.
“Many of these items were donated by the guys who used to work here,” our guide Lee tells us. “When they came back to look at this room some of them had tears in their eyes. To them working for a big ranch was the same thing as being a rock star.”
Downstairs, the kitchen is filled with antique cooking products and kitchen utensils, while in the eating area sits two tables with large lazy susans. “One table was for the senior boys, and one for the juniors. One guy made the mistake of sitting at the wrong table once,” Lee points out. “He was put in his place pretty quickly.”
Heading back, I stop to say goodbye to the interpreters who have helped to bring the ranch’s past to life. I’m told by each “to make sure to come again”—it’s a gesture that feels sincere and reflects the spirit of western hospitality. If I’d been wearing a cowboy hat, I would have tipped it.
Admission $7.80 adult, $6.55 sen, $3.90 youth (6-16), kids under six free, $19.60 family. Open daily 9 am – 5 pm. Located south of Calgary, 45 min off Hwy 22 near the town of Longview, 403-395-3044.YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY…
…a stay or visit to Homeplace Ranch in Priddis. They have over 40 horses so you can find the one that’s right for you. Owner Mac MaKenny has ranching in his blood, his parents were ranchers too. Some of the buildings on-site are from the original homestead in 1912. Stay for a week in one of their cabins or rooms to go trail riding, hiking or try your hand at ranch chores, then come back to a home-cooked “family-style” meal—guests eat together around a large wooden table. The daily baked cinnamon buns are delicious. Call for rates. Located in Priddis, 50 km west of Calgary, 877-931-3245.
BLACKFOOT CROSSING HISTORICAL PARK
As you turn off the highway towards Blackfoot Crossing, in the distance a proud teepee stands high on a hill. Drawing closer you see that it sits in front of the entrance of a beautiful building framed by a fan of oversized stained-glass eagle feathers. Although the centre opened last July, the idea stemmed from Chief Leo Pretty Young Man and several Elders in the community 25 years ago. The concept was to create a place where both visitors and new Siksika generations could learn about the “proud past of the Siksika.” The Siksika are members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and it is fitting that the centre sits on the land where the 1887 treaty was signed.
Walking into the centre, friendly greeters tell me that a dance performance will be starting shortly inside the theatre. Before heading in, I stroll through the gift shop, looking at artwork, jewellery and peace pipes made by local Siksika artists. Seeing a group begin to gather, I make my way toward the amphitheatre.
Gradually we hear chanting and drumming. A traditional hoop dancer appears in full costume and we watch as he uses his feet to add hoops around his body limbs, then turning them into geometric designs without missing a beat. Gerald Sitting Eagle, a staff member at the centre, tells us of the dance’s roots, saying it was once performed by young warriors. The performer today is his son, to whom he has passed on the way of the dance after travelling the world in his youth performing for many, including the British royalty.
Later we are offered guided tours of the facility. Leonard Bearshirt guides me downstairs toward the exhibits. One of the first things he tells me is of the significance of the building’s architecture and design.
After consulting with members of the community, architect Ron Goodfellow designed each aspect of the building to be a literal metaphor of traditional Blackfoot iconography. The centre is supported by four large teepees, the wall scones reflect drums and shields used for pow wow dances, floor patterns in the cafeteria are based on Blackfoot legging designs, and The Seven Sacred Society Teepees on the roof are a symbol of an ancient encampment.
Leonard pauses to tell an anecdote or history background with each exhibit we visit. Proudly, he walks me through the early beginnings of the Siksika tribe, describing the ancient buffalo hunt, the creation of certain words, and the tribe’s transition into the 21st century. His slow smile and enthusiasm exude the pride he feels at revealing his people’s history.
“We’re telling the story of us from our view,” Leonard says, then points to show me original items from the 1887 Treaty signing. Other exhibits teach basic Blackfoot words, display ancient artifacts and tools, and teepee model displays. When we reach the celebration teepee, Leonard declares it the “fun part”—four different videos show powwow dancing and celebrations reflected off teepee walls, illustrating that the culture is still alive and well today.
Behind the centre are six square miles (15.5 square kilometres) of park land. Leonard offers to take me on a tour of the grounds. In the distance I see more teepees. “This is where visitors can camp overnight,” he tells me. Different packages offer visitors a chance to have a traditional set-up of bear rugs, authentic food and a two-hour visit from a storyteller around a campfire. The teepees are roomy inside, easily fitting six to eight people. They look comfortable and warm. During the summer, there are often art making and food drying demonstrations.
We continue on the path lined with trees, shrubs and flowers. “This used to be my playground,” Leonard says as we walk. “We used to run through here when we were kids. It was great.” We wander further until we reach a site where we see an archeaological dig in progress, as well as ruins of an Earth Lodge Village.
As we walk on, Leonard points out various buds that will become Saskatoon berries, as well as mint and wild onion. “You could never go hungry in here,” he says. We walk through the remains of a more recent sweat lodge then head down towards the river before turning back.
Along the way, Leonard picks up a piece of white sage and smells it. “This always reminds me of my grandmother,” he says. “It’s used to cleanse the mind of negative thoughts and spirits. Also, before heading on a long journey people would eat this to ward off thirst.” He hands a stem over to me, pulling off the leaves, “Try it.”
Once we reach the centre, we take a moment to look back at the land, imagining all that it had once been, and what it promises to become. You can almost feel the weight of history seeping through the blades of grass—sacred grounds indeed.
Admission $10 adult, $8 sen/youth. Open daily 9 am – 6 pm. 1 hr southeast of Calgary off Hwy 842, near the town of Cluny, 1-888-654-6274.YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY…
…a visit to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This UNESCO World Heritage Site sits on a cliff where First Nations peoples would gather to hunt and herd buffalo. Exhibits show artifacts from hunts, daily ways of life, and a sacred painted buffalo skull. Hike trails nearby, camp, or stop in at the cafeteria for a buffalo burger. Admission $9 adults, $8 seniors, $5 youth, $22 family, under 7 free. On Hwy 785, off Hwy 2 north of Fort Macleod, 403-553-2731.—Laura Pellerine