Day 679: Whoop Whoop

With a population of about 90,000 residents, Lethbridge is the largest city in southern Alberta. But before the nineteenth century it was the domain of the semi-nomadic peoples from a number of First Nations: Blackfoot, Sarcee, Cree, Nakota (Assiniboine), and Kutenai. The settlement that became Lethbridge began in 1869 as Fort Hamilton, a whiskey trading post established north of the border after the United States Army shut down the practice of trading booze with the Blackfeet in Montana. The post, also known as “Fort Whoop-Up,” had a short life. In 1873, a drunken group of whiskey traders, American wolf hunters, and freight wagon drivers fired into a Nakota encampment near the fort. The incident, called the Cypress Hills massacre, led to the establishment of the Northwest Mounted Police (forerunner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), who moved into the area in 1874, shut down the post, and established order.

Sophie and her group began the day by going to the Fort Whoop-Up historic site. Later that morning, they viewed the High Level Bridge, the longest and highest steel trestle bridge in North America. After lunch they went to several local art galleries: the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and Casa, the city’s new community arts center.

Unlike Laetitia, Sophie wasn’t much into the bar scene, but she needed a limerick. Just as she decided she would take Laetitia’s advice and find a happy hour, one popped into her head.

Those drunks really managed to goop up
That profitable venture Fort Whoop Up
For Lethbridge is tame
And just not the same
Since the tiff that brought that Mountie troop up.

Day 678: Drop Jaw in Retlaw

Sophie and her group began the day by hiking in the Twin River Heritage Rangeland Natural Area just west of Milk River. Of particular note were all the birds of prey in this grassland area. They saw prairie falcons, golden eagles, and ferruginous hawks.

Afterward they drove north to Retlaw, a community named after Canadian Pacific Railway employee Walter Baker. No one is sure why, but his first name wasn’t interesting enough, so they spelled it backward for fun. The village was anticipated to really go places, and after WWI its population soared to 250 persons. It had a hotel and a Royal Northwest Mounted Police station. But drought, coupled with mismanagement and the CPR pulling out of town, led to its dissolution in 1925. There were still two families living there in the 1950s, but today its lovely little chapel is the most prominent building around for miles. Though the chapel sat empty for half a century, in the 1980s local farmers joined in a restoration effort, and it is now used for small church and community events.

While the members of Sophie’s tour group were ambling around the church and grounds, Sophie talked to the caretaker. When she told him about the tours she conducted and how each ended with a limerick, he told her a story about an infamous happening at the church. Because southern Alberta is tornado country, there is a storm cellar accessible through a removable panel in the church foundation just to the left of the front steps. During a church restoration fundraiser held on the church grounds, the panel opened, and a bewildered and disheveled couple appeared just as the lucky raffle ticket was drawn from the box and the emcee announced, “The winner is …” Apparently they were so preoccupied they didn’t hear the guests arriving for the drawing.

Afterward, Sophie took her group to Lethbridge, where they were spending the evening. When her guests went to their hotel rooms to freshen up for dinner, Sophie went to hers and wrote the limerick of the day.

Reverend Hugh didn’t like what he saw
In the little ghost town of Retlaw
‘Neath the local white chapel
Where a couple did grapple
And emerged ‘midst a church raffle draw.

Day 677: Lucky Strike

When Sophie had talked to another mother at the playground in Milk River the previous afternoon, she was advised that while she was in the area she ought to go to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and a ghost town near there called “Lucky Strike.” Following that advice, Sophie headed east with her group from Milk River in the direction of the park. Emma was back in school, so Sophie was leading the tour alone.

As its name implies, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park features a magnificent collection of First Nations pictographs (images painted on rocks) and petroglyphs (images carved on rocks). The group spent most of the day hiking on the prairie and among the cliffs and hoodoos (rock spires),  viewing the First Nations images, and photographing wildlife. Afterward they headed north for a short visit to the ghost town.

Lucky Strike was named to reflect the enthusiasm of its early homesteaders, who began arriving after 1910, but it never developed into much more than a store, post office, and a few dwellings. Although it didn’t grow very large, it was once the subject of a picture postcard, perhaps a speculative endeavor that was part of a vain attempt to make it a tourist town.

The group went back to Milk River for the evening, and this time Sophie took Laetitia’s advice and went to a local bar. The bartender was familiar with Lucky Strike and pointed out that despite its small size, it was home to some famous people. There was Robert “Swede” Black, who was famous for developing the petroleum industry in the area. Perhaps “infamous” is a better word to describe “Mighty Mike,” a Lucky Strike native who as a rodeo cowboy and motorcyclist and was best known for his exploits as a ladies’ man. Mike’s story became Sophie’s limerick of the day.

In a mailstop that’s named Lucky Strike
Lived a man who was called Mighty Mike
He was known to the gowns
From the neighboring towns
As adept at a shag on a bike.

Day 676: All the Rage in the Sage

Sophie, Emma, and Sophie’s tour group headed generally southwest out of Medicine Hat in the direction of Milk River. The Milk River basin of Southern Alberta is one of the traditional breeding grounds for sage grouse, though their population there is in decline because of loss of habitat. As the group watched the birds in full courtship display, Sophie began her spiel. In the spring, the males gather in an open area called a lek and do a dance to impress the females and become one of the few males allowed to mate that season. As they dance, they spread their spiked tail feathers and puff out the yellow-brown air sacks on their chests. White feathers on their necks resemble the ermine stoles European royalty used to wear. The inflated air sacks make popping sounds that attract the females.

While many in the group were viewing the courtship from an interest in science or bird watching, several women were discussing whether the sage grouse hens really found those strutting pompous males sexually attractive. One thought the hens found the whole affair tiresome but necessary to conform to sage grouse social mores that required their belonging to some male’s harem. Another made reference to teenage girls who neck passionately to just short of the point of no return in the hope of enticing clueless males with supercharged libidos into marriage. “One must distinguish between “hunt ‘n’ peckers and huntin’ peckers” said a retired English teacher, steeped in the lore of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the popular book by Lynne Truss on the importance of correct punctuation. The discussion ended when an irked birder castigated them for ascribing human behavior to birds.

Some parents worry about having their children exposed to conversations on adult subjects. Sophie was not one of those, but if she were, she needn’t have been concerned. Emma loved watching the birds, had her own ideas of what was going on, and, like most children, found the adult conversations too boring to listen to.

Sophie took her group to Milk River for the evening. While her they were relaxing in their hotel before dinner, she took Emma to a playground. She didn’t need to follow Laetitia’s example and go to a bar. She already had a limerick.

The Sage Grouse don’t just hunt and peck
They do a wild dance in a lek
In order to date
And ultimately mate
Some hens who might just want to neck.