31-Aug-2001 -- In an earlier search for local confluences, I had noted that 52N 113W, an unvisited secondary, was near Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. I had never heard of this park, but it sounded interesting, and I filed the information for future reference.
The next reference I saw to Dry Island Buffalo Jump was in a Canadian outdoor magazine’s October 2001 issue, on the newsstands in mid-August. The park was listed as one of Canada’s best autumn hikes, and the article featured a double-page photo of the area. When I found myself with a free day, a trip to the confluence and the park was a natural choice.
A buffalo jump is a cliff used by aboriginal inhabitants in prehistoric times to kill large numbers of bison (as they are more properly called) by driving a herd over the edge to their deaths. Such an enterprise required a high degree of organization, co-operation, and skill, as bison are the largest North American land animal, and wary beasts. Often a funnel-shaped line of barriers was built. The herd had to be subtly influenced to enter the funnel, and at exactly the right moment had to be frightened into stampeding headlong over the cliff.
Afterwards, the people would put a great deal of intense labour into recovering all the usable parts of the dead bison, and almost all of the parts had some use. A successful jump would see the tribe well supplied for the fierce prairie winter with hides for shelter and clothing, and dried meat for food; failure could mean starvation.
Suitable cliffs for buffalo jumps are not that easy to find on the Prairies, flat plains left behind by retreating continental glaciers after the last ice age. In this case, a large river has worn its way down through the loess by centuries of erosion. The Red Deer River has created a deep valley, the sides of which are occasionally steep enough for a buffalo jump. The Red Deer River passes within three kilometers of the confluence at 52N 113W, while the provincial park is only about seven kilometers away.
The nearest town to the confluence, some 17.7 km east, is Big Valley, which has some interesting history of its own. Designated as a divisional point for the Canadian Northern Railway in 1911, Big Valley thrived as the location of a big "roundhouse," rail yards, stockyards, coal-dock, water tower and general railway maintenance and repair facilities. The post-Great War depression led to the Canadian Northern being taken over by the Canadian Government and merged with the also bankrupt Grand Trunk Pacific to form the Canadian National Railway (CNR). By 1924, the consolidation of facilities removed Big Valley’s status as a divisional point. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that the CNR divested itself of the line through Big Valley. According to the village web site, “In November 1986, Central Western Railway Corp. (later Railink) purchased the portion of CNR track from Ferlow Junction (seven miles south of Camrose) to Munson Junction (about seven miles north of Drumheller). They hauled grain, from all the elevators on this line, on a regular basis.
“They have since sold most of the line to a salvage company and, essentially, the tracks now exist only from Stettler to Big Valley. This remaining portion is owned by a group named the East Central Alberta Heritage Society (ECHAC). Alberta Prairie Steam Tours (a Stettler based group) rents the use of the track, from ECHAC, for their steam train excursions.”
The station, a Canadian Northern Standard Second Class design, has been restored, but all that remains of the turntable and roundhouse are a pit and the walls.
I drove to Big Valley from Edmonton over the two-lane blacktop of Highways 21 and 56. Highway 56, in particular, is etched across the flatlands as a die-straight north-south line with only a couple of jogs to cross Meeting Creek and to go through Stettler. Such a route brings an appreciation of the flat vastness of the prairies, and the visual impact of any dips and rises. This part of Alberta supports grain-farming and cattle ranching. It is harvest season, and many farmers were swathing or combining their crops.
After a stop in Big Valley to photograph the train station and the remains of the roundhouse, I headed west on Secondary Road 590, a paved road that took me across the Red Deer River to a fair-weather-only gravel road just west of the 113th W line of longitude. I followed this dusty and nearly straight road south 3.2 kilometers across the 52nd North parallel of latitude to another similar east-west road, that took me east, driving around a cow pasture fenced with barbed wire. The countryside here was cut up with shallow gullies sheltering small stands of aspens.
I found a gate into the pasture only 300 meters from the CP, and parked there. There was a government-provided sign by the gate calling for people to respect the property and to contact the address below for permission to enter. There was no address below, so I gave myself permission, grabbed my camera, and climbed over the fence.
The cow pasture was laced with cow paths and cow pies; following the former, and avoiding the latter, I let my GPS receiver and compass guide me in a spiral to the confluence, which proved to be only a few meters east of a north-south barbed-wire fence right on a cow-path. For a change, the confluence had distinctly different views in each of the cardinal directions. I recorded the views, and made my way in a more direct route back to where my car was parked. There were no cows encountered.
By now it was lunchtime. I drove to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park where I ate the lunch I had packed at one of the picnic tables provided. The park has few facilities: a hand-powered water pump, a few picnic tables, a place to launch boats into the Red Deer River, and pit toilets are all the comforts provided. I spent the rest of the day wandering game trails on the dry, eroded hillside and photographing whatever caught my eye. I returned via the city of Red Deer to the comforts of home.