Standing among the scattered boulder petroglyphs atop a hill in east central Alberta, the highest vantage point for miles, I close my eyes and imagine herds of bison 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, Indigenous 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 boulder petroglyphs – or rib stones – are still paid tribute.
Wainwright's Buffalo Legacy
To learn more, I paid a visit to the Wainwright and District Museum, about two hours southeast of Edmonton, where the story unfolds in the Buffalo Gallery. I discovered how the buffalo helped maintain the prairie ecosystem, provided sustenance to First Nations and were saved from extinction in the early 1900s – thanks to the efforts of the former Buffalo National Park, a 606 sq km (234 sq mi) preserve set aside for the protection of 700 bison from Montana, which eventually propagated into a herd 40,000 strong when the park closed in 1939.
The former parkland is now part of Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, but the Bud Cotton Paddock 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 Indigenous 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 First Nations buffalo hunters, moonshine-swilling prisoners-of-war and the wildlife conservationists who toiled to bring the bison back from the brink of extinction.
Bison Hunting Ground
I recommend spending an afternoon at the fascinating Bodo Archaeological Site, three hours east of Red Deer in an area of stabilized sand dunes. You can almost picture the sights and sounds from a time when the site was made up of First Nations campsites and bison kill sites. This oasis in the vast grasslands of central Alberta is where bison were hunted communally for thousands of years. Here, you can learn from a professional archaeologist how to excavate and identify artifacts. You might find pottery pieces, tools, tips of arrows and spears, and all kinds of bison bones at this authentic dig site.