“Do we really need to stop at Writing-on- Stone Provincial Park?” Ed asked as we crossed the US – Canadian border at Sweetgrass, Montana. I sensed that he wanted to let the coach run on Canadian Highway 4 and make our way to Banff National Park, our ultimate destination.
“Yes, we really need to stop,” I insisted directing Ed to turn on Highway 501 East. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park held the top spot on my “bucket list” of places I wanted to see on our trip through Southwest Alberta because it had been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Writing-on-Stone contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Plains. There are over 50 petroglyph sites,” I read aloud from the Southwest Alberta 2008 Vacation Guide. “And, it has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” I added resting my case.
While waiting for the Interpretive Tour of the rock art, I wandered on the trails among the sandstone formations called “hoodoos.” These natural sculptures form when rock erodes from forces of frost and wind directed rain. As this soft rock breaks apart, a cap remains on top. This mushroom shaped cap consists of many small, harder rock layers that are resistant to weathering and protects the underlying softer sandstone. In some hoodoos, there were holes where rocks had become dislodged and fallen creating an even more interesting formation. In the distance, I could see what I later learned was Table Rock, so named because of its table like shape perched on the cliff.
I had read that the park holds special spiritual significance for the Blackfoot Indians; I would have suspected there was reverence about the place. Just looking at the landscape filled me with quiet awe for its unique features.At Writing-on-Stone, the blue Milk River winds through a valley filled with a mix of grasslands, cliffs, and spectacular sandstone formations called “hoodoos”.
Between the pillars of the hoodoos, I could see people splashing and floating in the Milk River. I wished I could join them. The dry heat of the afternoon made me hot but not sweaty. I was glad that I listened to the caution of the cashier at the Visitor’s Center who took my $8 fee, “Our guide requires you wear sun screen, have a hat and drink plenty of water while on the Interpretive Tour.” Not wanting to be left behind by an authoritive guide, I dutifully returned to the coach for a day pack including the requirements for admittance to the tour.
Our guide pleasantly greeted everyone in our small group of 11 eager tourists but firmly asked if we had sunscreen, hats, and water. She offered hats from a collection of ones from what I suspect came from the Visitor’s Center Lost & Found box. After seeing the assortment, I grinned. “Where do people get such hats?” I wondered to myself. Thank goodness I had my own ball cap to wear instead of one of her offerings.
More precautions: Our guide reminded us that we were in rattlesnake country. “Watch where you walk, stay on the trails and out of the long grass.” She warned, “If you hear a rattling sound, do not move until you know the snake’s location, then move away.”
We were safe from the rattlesnakes and cool in the air-conditioned van as we rode past the hoodoos and up a road to through grasslands. We stopped once to view the mountains in Montana visible from this side of the border and again for our guide to unlock a gate blocking entrance to the archeological preserve.
Writing-on-Stone became a provincial park in January 1957. Twenty years later, a section of the park was designated an Archeological Preserve to prevent vandalism, including modern graffiti, that had taken a toll on the rock art. Damaging the fragile rock art is punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and an unauthorized entry to the preserve is strictly enforced.
Before walking to the cliff to view the rock art, our guide quizzed us, “What’s the difference between a petroglyph and pictograph?” We waited for her explanation. Petroglyphs are a form of rock art carved into sandstone with tools made from wood, bone, antler, horn and rocks. Pictographs are painted on the sandstone with ochre. We would see examples of both on the sheer sandstone cliffs, the canvas for the works of the Blackfoot and other First Nations tribes.
The children in our group volunteered their interpretation of the art suggesting the records of successful hunts or battles. Our guide congratulated them and elaborated. She told us that the First Nations people created the rock art to depict important events in their lives. Some played a ceremonial role. Others are suspected to be a record of dreams attained when young braves were sent to the cliffs on vision quests as part of a passage to manhood. All of the rock art is open to interpretation. Historical dating of the art is uncertain too. Evidence suggests that people camped in this plains region at least 3,500 years ago yet the exact date the rock art appeared is uncertain.
As I stood looking up the cliffs and rock art, I felt a sense of wonder and awe for the people who left their marks here thousands of years ago. I felt a reverence for their culture that we know so little about.
July 2, 2008