Travellers come here for many reasons. To explore bizarre sandstone formations and the most extensive concentration of indigenous rock art on the North American Plains.
They come to reflect on the passage of time—in the grand sense, as evidenced by the graceful curves of the river, the steep rise of the canyon, the eloquent images carved on stone centuries ago—and the brief moment: the giddy insect, the baby pronghorn, the weekend visitor. To marvel at a dramatic landscape abruptly unveiled. East of Milk River, the short-grass prairie (one of the largest wilderness grasslands in Canada) suddenly drops down and reveals an amazing river valley.
A trip to this corner of southeastern Alberta always yields rewards. In May, visitors sit under splendid cottonwood trees in dense willow thickets, breathing in the delicate fragrance of the chokecherries and the saskatoons just
Writing-on-Stone’s interpretative centre, a 5,000-square-foot building, will replace the current 280-square-foot trailer facility. Situated on a ridge, the centre will provide a panoramic sweep of the hoodoos and the river valley. Construction will start this summer and take about six months. Over the fall and winter, an interactive display, consisting of standing tripods and drum-like exhibits, will be fabricated and installed.
The design concept integrates the rich cultural past and the beauty of the landscape. Indigenous traditional values are reflected in the circular form of the building and the space allocated for
The grand opening in the spring or summer of 2006 will provide another occasion for visiting this unique oasis—unique being the one word that captures so much of the park’s essence. The Milk River is unique in that it’s the only river system in Alberta to flow south, eventually finding its way into the Gulf of Mexico. The petroglyphs and the pictographs tell a mysterious story, and they do so on the Milk River formation sandstone, which outcrops here and nowhere else in Canada. And the park is one of Alberta's richest wildlife viewing spots: it is home to 265 species of plants, 100 bird species, and 22 mammal species, and includes such rareties as the Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly, the Long-legged Bat, and the bobcat.
Humans have been drawn to the park, too; for thousands of years, Writing-on-Stone has been revered as a sacred site. The hoodoos seem both alien and yet somehow familiar; the landscape both stark and verdant. Everything in the park is alive, bursting with energy, and yet a curious stillness and austerity contrast with the riotous unfolding of spring. The elemental forces essential for ritual and spirit work—stone, water, and tree—are present in abundance and in extraordinary form. Not surprisingly, peoples such as the Shoshone, the Kutenai, and the Siksika have been coming here for at least 3,000 years to carve and paint their stories and dreams on the hoodoos and to pursue vision quests.
Two of the park’s interpreters are Siksika, the people of the Blackfoot Nation. One of them, Quenton Heavy Head, discusses the significance of the park, known in Blackfoot as Aisinai’Pi or “Where the Drawings Are,” to his people. As someone who has been able to reconcile Catholicism with indigenous ways, Heavy Head compares Aisinai’Pi to St. Peter’s Basilica. “You have the same open cathedral, the reverence for spirits, and the burial sites,” he says.
According to the Siksika, the spirit world created the drawings, thereby passing on to the people the things they needed to survive. “A man would die early in the warrior days unless the spirits gave him a war shield,” says Heavy Head. To this day, the Siksika visit the park to pay homage to ancestors and the powers that be.
Eventually, wind, water, and weather will prevail. Over time, the rock art placed by spirit and those residing-in-spirit
will fade. But the beauty of the Milk
River and its canyon, the abundant flora and fauna, and the weird rock formations will endure—just as they linger in the minds of all who venture to this truly remarkable place.
Margaret Chandler is a
freelance writer in Calgary.
left: A pictograph painted on sandstone using ochre, made from a mixture of crushed iron ore and animal fat, which produces red, yellow and orange colours.
right: Petroglyph, a form of rock art that is carved into sandstone with tools made from wood, bone, antler, horn and rock
Rendering of Writing-On-Stone's Interpretive Centre.