By Mechtild Brennen (edited by Karin Lindquist)
October 5, 2023: On a cool, windy October evening, a small group of BLNC members and I gathered just off the main road south of Stettler. We were met by Bob Thomson (with Ducks Unlimited), who led us to a fenced grazing lease that a friend of his had. After going through the fence, we followed Bob through a beautiful, slightly hilly country of natural prairie dotted with a mix of shrubs, trees, and open areas of native grassland. Sadly, much of it was quite overgrazed.
Bob talked about the damage caused by the grazing and the lack of rain over the last few summers. He showed us some of the native prairie species of grasses and plants, including willows, roses, aspen poplars, speargrasses, and sage. Bob also explained how grazing had influenced the growth of native plants and encouraged other non-native plants to grow because those native plants were not allowed to fully develop and then reseed themselves. It is unfortunate that this damage is occurring with the lack of rain and the cattle needing to eat, Bob told us.
Yet, Bob had some fascinating observations to show us. Pointing at one of the large clumps of shrubbery and aspen trees, he asked us to notice how these sheltered areas had larger shrubs and trees on one side versus the other. He explained that the wind blew snow into those areas, piling up into drifts that remained longer than the rest of the snow in the surrounding areas. These sheltered drifts provided plenty of moisture for plants to use to grow, be they old established plants or new ones emerging in the spring. Bob also mentioned in passing that he had seen a moose hanging out in the willows just a few days before we came out. So, we were on the lookout for wildlife. There were also cattle still grazing there; naturally, they were quite interested in us!
After about a kilometre or so, we came to a dried marshy area that was surrounded by low willows and high, flat banks surrounding it. This area was sheltered by even higher hills on the north, west and east sides yet exposed to the south for the warmth of the sun.
There, on those high flat banks, lay the remains of several teepee rings.
Bob and the grazing lease owner counted about ten rings, plus some smaller rings nearby. We suspected they might be sweat lodges, but we weren't sure. A large rock sitting in a hollow was also found, its sides nicely polished to a shine by the old bison herds that used to visit here over the ages; a perfect scratching stone, if you will.
These preserved lands no doubt hold several more areas with teepee rings, but this was one of the few that have never been researched. Who knows what other indigenous historical mysteries lay under our feet that we had no clue about?
As the evening drew to a close with the sun close to setting, Bob suggested we hike up to the top of a nearby ridge that promised a great view of the surrounding area. We could not pass up the opportunity. Reaching the top, we found ourselves in awe of the sight surrounding us. It's quite possible we could see 15 kilometres away, possibly more.
Sadly, the wind and cooling of the evening called us back to our cars. We trekked back almost the same way we came, reminiscing about what we had just seen, from the native plant life that has existed for many years to the incredible historical finds we were guided to, as well as the land surrounding us. Grateful were we all to have taken the opportunity to visit this special and amazing place and for our knowledgeable guide to share it with us.
Before leaving, we each thanked Bob for guiding us to this special and interesting place. As a parting thank-you gift, Claudia gave him and the lease owner each a thank-you card and a Nature Alberta magazine subscription for taking the time to lead a group of eager naturalists and share with us this beautiful area.