In Calgary, it’s easy to be tempted by the mountains to the west with all their showy geology, but there’s just as much drama and far less traffic when you turn your back on the Rockies and head east on the Trans-Canada Highway. And when you turn up the tunes on the way to Medicine Hat, you’d best buckle up for gorgeous scenery, ancient history and more than a few surprises.
It starts, of course, with rolling prairie. I maintain those who claim the prairies are dull and boring just aren’t paying attention. Fields of green sway in the wind, yellow canola pops against the blue sky and there’s room to think your most expansive thoughts along the ribbon of highway that cuts through it all.
About 45 minutes out of Calgary we turn south off the Trans-Canada. In about 10 kilometres, we come around a bend to see the prairie suddenly fall away into the valley where the Bow River flows. People have gasped at the beauty of Blackfoot Crossing for tens of thousands of years. This traditional meeting spot was also the place where the Blackfoot, or Siksika, signed Treaty 7 in 1877.
The Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre is built into the landscape of the river valley. The centre welcomes you with giant glass eagle feathers and has exhibits about ancient legends and more recent history. Wandering around artifacts, old photographs and a blown-up Indian Act, we learn that treaty translators weren’t exactly up to snuff. The Blackfoot thought they were signing a document of friendship, not transferring land. And somewhere along the way, translators also botched one of the respected Siksika leader’s names – ‘Crowfoot’ was actually ‘Crow Big Foot.’
‘All hell for a basement’
We hear about yet another mangled interpretation in Medicine Hat, a couple of hours further southeast. A few years after Treaty 7 was signed, the railway rolled across southern Alberta, establishing communities that all of a sudden needed names. Medicine Hat was born when a cartographer in Toronto messed up the translation of saamis, the Blackfoot word describing a medicine man’s headdress. In 1907, intrigued by the odd name, British poet Rudyard Kipling accepted an invitation to drop by while touring Canada. When some locals lobbied to change the name in 1910, Kipling wrote a passionate defence of ‘Medicine Hat’: the “lawful, original, sweat-and-dust-won name of the city.”
Today, you can see another Kipling quote painted on a mural on the side of a liquor store downtown. Referring to the area’s abundant natural gas fields, he wrote: “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be Medicine Hat.” A century later, Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson, who went to high school in Medicine Hat, wrote the working man’s lament, “All Hell for a Basement.”
I found myself humming the song, wandering around the wide downtown streets admiring the work of other artists. Local legend James Marshall’s brick-and-clay sculptures are everywhere, art clubs have transformed a pedestrian underpass into a vibrant gallery, and an impressive number of cool coffee shops excelling in the culinary arts claim to make the city’s best vegan chocolate brownies. Two of the frontrunners are Madhatter Coffee Roastery and The Heartwood Café.
We also stopped by the Medalta interpretive museum, located in a century-old ceramics factory, dropped by Hells Basement Brewery to try some local craft beers and stopped at Saamis Teepee on the Seven Persons coulee, the site of an ancient buffalo camp. Inside the “world’s biggest teepee” (some 20 storeys high) you can read about Blackfoot culture and history. Outside the massive poles, be careful where you step – you may stumble upon one of the millions of ancient artefacts buried here, or an almost equal number of gopher holes.
After a day of exploring the city, we enjoyed a steak dinner at Redwood Steakhouse and Bar. If your crew is more into authentic Thai for dinner, try The Thai Orchid Room – a local favourite – or head to the Rustic Kitchen and Bar for locally sourced ingredients. Enjoy a good night’s sleep at the Medicine Hat Lodge, a popular and versatile spot with an indoor water-slide park for the kids and a casino for their parents.
Exotic critters and rare geology
About 45 minutes south of Medicine Hat, discover the joys of a prairie lake set amidst high hills at Elkwater in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The 200-square-kilometre park, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, sits on a high plateau, and on a clear day you can see all the way to Montana. Visitors can rent cabins or pitch tents and haul their boats to the park to cool off in the water. Jump in for a swim or rent your favourite gear to enjoy the water – kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, wind surfers and more – at the marina on the lake front. You can also rent bikes to explore the 50 kilometres of mixed-use trails or lose your flip-flops for hiking boots and head out on a trail.
While walking the Beaver Creek Loop, I spotted an exotic little creature covered in dots and stripes. It ran off before I could count all its tiny markings, but evidently someone once did and named the critter a Thirteen Lined Ground Squirrel. And there are plenty of birds to be seen on the boardwalk over the marsh at the lake’s edge. It’s a birder paradise where more than 240 species have been recorded. A chili-fries paradise is a short walk up the road at Camp Cookhouse and General Store, a delightful restaurant and shop.
There are no shops, just remarkable geological formations about an hour west at Red Rock Coulee. When you pull off the gravel road into a small turnout, you’re greeted with a solitary picnic table and dozens of concretions – red sandstone blobs that were formed, once upon a time, inside bedrock. The bedrock eroded over millions of years, leaving the concretions lying around for you to gape at. My companion, who knows the area well, advises to make a lot of noise to send rattlesnakes scuttling and cautions, “It’s scorpion country, so don’t turn over any rocks.” While I don’t see any creepy-crawlies among the strange red rocks, there are prickly pears and other cacti.
After taking in Cypress Hills, It’s worth heading southwest to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, the sixth and most recent place in Alberta to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park, near the U.S. border, has Indigenous rock carvings and paintings dating back thousands of years, as well as a Model T from the early 1900s. After exploring the ancient and not-so-ancient markings, as well as the hoodoos, visitors can bunk down for the night at the comfort-camping facilities in the park.
On the way back to Calgary, we take a couple of minutes to pull over and stop for a quick selfie with Pinto McBean, a giant pinto bean dressed as a cowboy at Bow Island, an area known for growing more than its fair share of legumes. This part of the world also has more than a few cattle ranches. Country singer Corb Lund grew up on one a few clicks down Highway 3 near Taber, and as you drive through the town, it’s hard to resist the urge to belt out his lyric: “Everything is better with some cows around ...”
In Lethbridge, we stop at the Jonny Bean café to devour a sandwich served in a biscuit that’s still warm from the oven. When we get back on the road, I scold myself for taking so long to discover the delights around Medicine Hat. I know the trip will stay with me, like one of those songs that keeps playing in your head.
The writer was hosted at Medicine Hat Lodge and Camp Cookhouse. They did not review this article.