In the Lost World of Cypress Hills

Unlike any other place in Canada, this strange mountain on the prairies harbors tropical scorpions, petrified figs, fourteen kinds of orchid and a lawless past that sparked the formation of the Mounties


In the Lost World of Cypress Hills

Unlike any other place in Canada, this strange mountain on the prairies harbors tropical scorpions, petrified figs, fourteen kinds of orchid and a lawless past that sparked the formation of the Mounties


In the Lost World of Cypress Hills

Unlike any other place in Canada, this strange mountain on the prairies harbors tropical scorpions, petrified figs, fourteen kinds of orchid and a lawless past that sparked the formation of the Mounties


IN THE lonely little-known southeastern corner of Alberta, a summit called Head of the Mountain juts abruptly from the plains, forty-five hundred feet above sea level. It is the highest point in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies and it commands a spectacular eighty-mile prairie view.

Yet bizarre as it is, this mountain on the prairie is merely one facet of the strangest geographical freak in Canada. Head of the Mountain is the westernmost tip of the Cypress Hills plateau, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border fifty miles above the United States, and in the Cypress Hills nearly everything is out of step with the surrounding world.

For years geologists, entomologists, botanists and historians have been intrigued by this incongruous place. Here Rocky Mountain plants flourish on slopes two hundred miles from the Rockies and fragile ferns and wild orchids thrive in moist shady nooks while, in neighboring foothills, a thousand miles from their kind, horned toads and scorpions scramble through semi-tropical Yucca grass. Here, buried in sixty-million-year-old layers of the earth, are the bones of fierce carnivorous dinosaurs. Even the lofty crown of the Cypress Hills, although much younger than its lower levels, is at least two million years old; it was one of the few points in Canada to escape the ice-age glaciers. This is a curious lost country—a land that, seemingly, nature dropped on the prairie by mistake.

The Cypress Hills plateau is approximately eightyfive miles long and one thousand miles square. About one third of it lies in Alberta, the remainder in Saskatchewan. The top is a level, grassy, narrow plain called The Bench, which averages about four thousand feet above sea level but occasionally bulges into higher knolls as in the case of Head of the Mountain.

From the perimeter of The Bench, the Cypress

Hills plateau slopes down on all sides to the surrounding prairie. On the north and west the slopes are steep and treacherous; on the south and east they merge more gently into the plains. On all sides there are patches of dense evergreen forest, carved with countless wooded coulees and tiny creeks with fanciful names like War Lodge Coulee, Medicine Lodge Coulee and Battle Creek. Steep

rocky trails weave through the timber like badly paved cobblestone streets. Beside them, clear water bubbles from subterranean springs, feeding Elkwater Lake in Alberta and Battle Creek, Frenchman River, Cypress Lake and Loch Levin in Saskatchewan.

Oddly, there isn’t a cypress tree in the Hills. The first French fur traders called the place Montagne de Cypre, obviously being poor foresters, and English traders later translated the name into Cypress Hills. There are pure stands of lodgepole pine, jack pine, spruce and poplar which shelter deer, elk, porcupine and the occasional bobcat. Once the Hills even had grizzly bears and in 1906 ranchers in the Saskatchewan region shot seventysix timber wolves that leaped down from the bush to attack cattle.

Geologists agree that parts of the Hills were untouched by the series of glaciers which began to spread over most of Canada from the Arctic a million years ago and finally receded fifteen to twenty thousand years ago. The southbound ice sheets thinned and split as they reached the summit of the Hills, leaving an island of approximately eighty-eight square miles. A layer of rock circles this area at about forty-four hundred feet, apparently indicating the high ice mark.

Dr. E. H. Strickland, professor of entomology at the University of Alberta, relates this ice-age phase to the curious creatures found in the region which, to his knowledge, are found nowhere else in Canada. Over the years Strickland has discovered horned toads, kangaroo rats, scorpions and solpugids, not in the Hills proper but in the arid foothills nearby. The two latter creatures belong to the same zoological class as spiders. Scorpions grow from one-half to eight inches long, have a poisonous sting in their tails and are most commonly found in tropical countries. They hide by day and forage for spiders and other insects by night. No one has been reported stung by scorpions around the Hills hut their sting has been known to kill children in other countries.

Solpugids resemble large spiders and are abundant in Africa, although they’ve also heen found in North America as far north as Nevada, some six hundred miles south of Cypress Hills. Horned toads are actually a scaly type of lizard with a tail. They grow up to five inches long and generally live in desert countries.

Once, in the prairie between the Hills and Medicine Hat, Strickland found wasps which he couldn’t identify. He sent them to an expert in New England who said they belonged to the genus Odynerus and added, “I’m afraid these specimens have been mislabeled. They are never found north of Texas.” When Strickland assured him they came from the Cypress Hills, the New Englander wrote back asking about the nearest hotel accommodation. He wanted to see the Hills for himself.

Yucca grass, a shrubby plant generally found in Texas or Arizona, also grows near the Hills but is pollinated by moths and could have been transported from the south. But Strickland thinks the scorpions, horned toads and solpugids may be survivors of the ice age. Presumably these creatures climbed to the Cypress Hills island until the ice receded, then returned to the more favorable arid plains.

“They still survive the cold winters of southeastern Alberta,” he observes. “I don’t think the ice-age climate was terribly severe around the Hills; remember, the ice didn’t originate there, it merely flowed there from the north. These creatures may have heen native to Alberta for millions of years.”

Incongruously, while these semi-tropical creatures live on the surrounding plain, mountain trees and shrubs flourish a few miles away in the Cypress Hills proper. In 1947, August J. Breitung, a former Ottawa botanist now living in California, made a two-month botanical survey of the Hills. He found six hundred and sixty - five different flowering plants and ferns, including fifty Rocky Mountain species and fourteen different kinds of orchids.

After the last glacier receded, says Breitung, the Alberta climate was cool and humid and probably the mountainous growth extended from the Cypress Hills directly to the Rockies. But as the plains became dry and warm, the mountain species died off surviving only in the Hills which still have a cool moist climate. Nowadays the Cypress Hills have fifteen to eighteen inches of rainfall a year; aji average of four inches a year more than the surrounding plains. The summer temperature rarely rises above the eighties.

Paleontologists are also delving into the mysteries of the Hills. Their research takes them hack sixty million years. The British Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Saskatchewan Provincial Museum of Natural History have sent thirteen expeditions into the Hills since 1920, discovering skulls and other bones but never a complete specimen.

Most of the fossils are found around Eastend, Sask., near the eastern tip of the Llills, and are the twenty-fivemillion-year-old remains of Oligocène Age mammals: three-toed horses,

sabre-toothed cats, camels, primitive

rabbits and squirrels and, most commonly, the skulls of the Titanotheriidae, a horned mammal distantly related to the rhinoceros and about the size of a small elephant.

In addition, Harold S. Jones, an amateur collector at Eastend, has found petrified figs and coconuts and stone impressions of cinnamon, walnut and redwood leaves which he estimates are forty million years old. Jones has fragmentary bones of a Tyrannosaurus, a carnivorous beast of about sixty million years ago, that walked on its hind legs and stood eighteen to twenty feet high. It frequently dined on the Triceratops, a peace-loving three-horned vegetarian.

Harold Jones is an elderly stoopshouldered Englishman whose slow deliberate speech reflects years of painstaking research. He came to the district in 1898 and while other men rushed to dig gold in the Klondike, he settled down to ranching. His collecting career began a few years later when he picked up an odd-looking bone. One day in the 1920s a stranger was in town looking for fossils so Jones produced his find.

“Why that’s the eye-horn of a Triceratops,” said the stranger gleefully.

“Are you sure?” said the sceptical Jones. He discovered later the man was sure—he was a paleontologist from the National Museum of Canada.

Missing: One Passenger

Since then Jones has filled a basement room of an Eastend school -with what F. J. Alcock, curator of the National Museum of Canada, calls “very good specimens.” One of them, a disc-like piece about four feet in diameter, is believed to be the headshield of an unknown species of dinosaur, probably the only specimen of its kind in the world. Jones is now on intimate terms with most of the professional collectors in Canada. When the Frenchman River jumped its banks and flooded his basement, museum in 1952, both the National Museum of Canada and the Saskatchewan Provincial Museum volunteered to help him rebuild his collection.

Prairie motorists approach Cypress Hills roads in low gear but local residents ride the trails with typical unconcern. A rancher on the Alberta side once owned an ancient Ford with no brakes and used to hitch a heavy log behind whenever he drove downhill.. One day the log broke loose and the Ford, the rancher and a companion hurtled over the winding rock-strewn road at fifty miles an hour. Later the driver recalled mildly, “I didn’t mind when the pails and stuff fell out of the back seat but when that feller beside me rolled out I began to worry a bit.”

Recently I drove through the Saskatchewan side of the Cypress Hills in a maze of bumpy back trails and Texas gates, which are well-spaced poles placed over shallow pits, allowing vehicles to pass through fiences but turning back wandering cows. My companions were William E. Caton, a portly pioneer who’s lived in or around the Hills for fifty-three years, and Chapman Wylie, a wry weatherbeaten Melfort, Sask., farmer who appreciates both a good yarn and a good poker hand. Wylie was revisiting his native Hills after a long absence.

In the afternoon there was a stop at the George Naisrrrith horse ranch, a cosy cluster of frame buildings and pole corrals in the northern lee of the Hills. Naismith, a wiry bespectacled man in blue denim, was busy at the corral so we went indoors for tea.

Mrs. Naismith and Wylie exchanged greetings as casually as though they’d met in the last couple of days.

“It’s been quite a while since you were at our place, Chappie,” said Mrs. Naismith, over the tea.

“Well, it has been a while,” agreed Wylie, absently. It turned out he hadn’t been there since 1920.

Elkwater, Alta., the only true village within the Hills, is a small sleepy settlement of retired ranchers. In it are the home and office of Carl Larson, the taciturn provincial park superintendent; a combined auto camp and grocery store; A. J. Predy’s general store and post office, and a few timber j dealers. Limited amounts of timber ! are thinned from the Hills each year I and sold to farmers and ranchers for ; fence posts and corral poles.

Elkwater depends mainly on summer tourist trade for its living and couldn’t be called a shopping centre. Most of the fifty-odd horse and cattle ranchers, in and immediately around the Hills, own cars or trucks and drive to town for groceries or entertainment. From j the eastern Hills it’s thirty miles to a movie or dance in Maple Creek, Sask.; from the Alberta side Medicine Hat is forty miles away. Once the region was snowbound every winter. Now a gravel highway runs north and south through the Hills in each province. When the back trails clog with snowdrifts, ranchers usually park their cars along the highway and walk or take a horse-drawn sleigh home.

The ranch homes are comfortable frame houses with upholstered furniture, radios, stacks of magazines and usually one or two prints by Charles M. Russell, a famous cowboy artist of the early part of this century who lived in Montana and Alberta and specialized in painting western scenes. Some homes use electricity, drawn from batteries charged by small windmills. A few families are now linked by a rural telephone system which works if you shout loud enough into the mouthpiece.

Within the Cypress Hills region almost everyone prefers history of the cowboys and Indians era, rather than that of the ice age, probably because they or their parents helped make it. Only eighty years ago the Hills were a sanctuary and a source of teepee poles for Blackfeet, Blood, Piegan, Cree, Sioux and Assiniboin Indians. While sentinels stood guard on high points like Head of the Mountain, the tribes gathered below for the savage Sun Dance.

A Sun Dance was primarily the test of a prospective brave. The medicine man cut two parallel slits in each side of the young man’s flesh, around the chest, loosened the skin and muscle, passed a leather thong through each slit and fastened the thongs to a tree. Then, while the entire tribe watched, the Indian tore himself free. Often it took hours but if he showed a sign of pain he was disgraced. This part of the ceremony was suppressed by the North West Mounted Police about 1890 but western Canadian Indians still hold a form of the Sun Dance, usually in July. Nowadays it generally celebrates good weather, good crops or some auspicious occasion.

The Cypress Hills played a major role in the formation of the Mounties. By 1870 most of the hadmen in the West knew that the sheltered coulees were ideal hideouts, far from the law. Soon the region was seething with horse thieves, gunmen and American whisky traders from Montana, who exchanged their potent firewater for furs, a pony or sometimes an Indian wife. In the autumn of 1872 a band of Crees stole the horses from a gang of whisky traders, forcing them to hike home. As soon as the Americans found new mounts they went after the Crees but lost them in the Cypress Hills. During the winter the traders brooded over this humiliating experience in Fort Benton, Mont., a hotbed of saloons, gambling and bawdy houses.

The following May fifteen disreputable characters headed for the Hills, led by Tom Hardwick, a one-time Montana sheriff. On May 31, 1873, they encountered a band of Assiniboins at a trading post and plied them with Montana red-eye. Historians don’t agree on who fired the first shot but the traders were obviously seeking a quarrel. In the subsequent running battle at least thirty —some accounts say two hundred —Indian men, women and children were killed. As a gruesome climax to the encounter, the whites mounted the head of Little Chief, the Assiniboin leader, on a lodgepole over the smoldering ruins of his camp.

The incident incensed Canadians. A massacre had occurred on Canadian soil and the country had no law enforcement agency to stop or avenge it. This hastened recruiting for the North West Mounted Police which had been authorized by the federal government in the same month as the massacre.

The Mounties were on the job in 1874 and in the following year application was made by Canada for extradition of the alleged murderers. The Mounties took the accused into custody with the co-operation of the United States government and in July, 1875, the extradition trial began in Helena, Mont. A prosecuting attorney, a few witnesses and assistant commissioner J. F. Macleod and superintendent A. G. Irvine of the NWMP represented Canada.

Feeling ran high in Helena in favor of the accused men. Lurid remarks were flung at the two Mounties when they appeared on the streets after a day’s hearing. The courtroom sessions seethed with shouts and excitement. At one point, a defense lawyer passionately vowed that before any of his clients were turned over to stand trial in Canada he would “wade knee-deep in British blood.” For every scrap of evidence put forth by Canada the defense had a contradictory story. In view of the conflicting evidence the case was dismissed.

One of the accused, Jeff Devereaux, promptly had Macleod arrested on a charge of false imprisonment. The American court ruled that Macleod had merely done his duty and the Mountie was released. Macleod and Irvine returned to Canada where, according to some NWMP chronicles, they found

that a Mounted Police patrol had arrested three members of the Hardwick gang on Canadian soil while the latter were heading for a Cypress Hills hideout. It has also been suggested, though never proven, that the Mounties quietly plucked the gunmen from United States territory. Irvine took the trio to trial in Winnipeg. Again the accused swore their innocence, no conclusive evidence was produced, and the case was dismissed.

Meanwhile in 1875 the Police built Fort Walsh deep in the Cypress Hills on Battle Creek near the site of the massacre. In 1878 this became western Canada headquarters. In June, 1876, General George Custer, United States Army, led two hundred and six men against some four thousand Sioux. This was the famous Custer’s Last Stand when the general and his men were annihilated. The Indians found it prudent to move to Canada and the notorious warrior, Sitting Bull, was in the Hills at one time, while on another occasion five thousand restless Indians were camped near Fort Walsh’s twelvefoot stockade.

They Made Conviction Impossible

Throughout the tense situation the Mounties kept order with only one tragedy—the murder of constable Marmaduke N. Graburn in 1879. Graburn was riding alone a few miles west of the fort when he was shot in the back, apparently by an Indian. Two years later the NWMP got a tip on the murder and five men rode into a hostile Blood camp, seized a brave named Star Child, handcuffed him, flung him bodily in front of one of their saddles and carried him to custody with the entire tribe at their heels. Although Star Child admitted his guilt, the jury of new settlers, nervously eyeing the swarms of angry Bloods who were following the case, brought in a verdict of not guilty.

By 1883 the Indian menace in the Hills subsided and NWMP headquarters was moved to Regina. Fort Walsh was dismantled but recently the RCMP built replicas of the log buildings on the original site, partly for their historical significance and also as the breeding stable for all RCMP horses. Stuart Taylor Wood, RCMP commissioner from 1938 to 1951, makes Fort Walsh his summer home.

When the Mounties left Fort Walsh the Hills were safe for settlement. A swashbuckling easy-going breed of pioneers started ranching. Some were retired Mounties. Others came from the United States like James (Dad) Gaff, a tough ex-buffalo hunter who had known Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok and said both were “show-offs.”

According to a story which oldtimers in the Hills like to tell, Gaff rode into Govenlock, Sask., one night in 1918 looking for a place to sleep. Govenlock is a tiny settlement south of the Hills with about a dozen buildings including a ten-room hotel. Gaff asked the price of a room. The proprietor told him.

“1 didn’t ask the price of the hotel,” said Gaff, “just one room for one night.”

“It’s a cinch the price of this building is more than you could put up,” said the hotel man tartly.

“What do you want for the place?” thundered Gaff. The owner told him, Gaff wrote a cheque and moved in behind the front desk. Whether the transaction happened quite this way, Gaff, who died in 1940 at ninety, owned the hotel for years. The building was put up in 1914 when World War I stopped construction of a CPR branch line at Govenlock but it has rarely been overwhelmed with lodgers.

Cypress Hills pioneers included young Englishmen with a yen for adventure and a blissful ignorance of range life. One had rowed for Oxford in England’s annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race and kept a pair of crossed oars in his shack. Another laid carpet on his ranch-house floor. He realized this was a mistake when he tried to clean up the whisky stains and tobacco juice after his first party.

Parties, particularly poker sessions, have always been popular in the Hills. A few years ago it seemed unlikely that one elderly settler would live through the winter. Since he loved poker above all else, his friends gathered around him for a farewell game. By prearrangement they let him win the first few hands. But then, although his pals belatedly began to concentrate on the cards, he kept on winning and cleaned them out. He lived through the winter, too.

Most old-timers wouldn’t dream of moving to the city from the Hills and while prairie people occasionally contemplate the Pacific coast or Ontario when they reach the age of retirement, the Cypress Hills are full of elderly folks who wouldn’t live anywhere else. Phil Lindner, who went there in 1894, now lives alone in a neat little house near Fort Walsh. He apparently likres his solitude although some of his friends claim he moved there to avoid panhandlers. They say good-natured Lindner couldn’t refuse a loan and his generosity would have driven him bankrupt in time.

Charles Mudie, a stubby whitehaired pioneer of seventy-five, went ranching on the Alberta Bench in 1899. He retired a few years ago—to Elkwater, about two miles away. Ralph Hatton, a spare sixty-eight-year-old Oklahoman, says he’ll have to quit ranching soon but he has no intention of moving to the city from his home on the Bench. After a lifetime, the curious fascination of the Hills gets into a man’s blood and the undemonstrative Cypress ranchers hide a strong affection for their remote mountain.

Most could sum up their philosophy in a story that’s told of an itinerant preacher who came to Maple Creek in the early days. Diversion of any kind was mighty scarce so the Hills settlers attended the first prayer meeting en masse. They quickly caught the spirit of the occasion and when the preacher cried, “All those who want to go to heaven, stand up,” every man rose except Phil Williams, an ex-NWMP constable and veteran of the Riel rebellion.

“Everyone who wants to go to hell, stand up,” commanded the preacher.

Nobody moved. The evangelist turned to Williams:

“And where do you want to go, my friend?”

“If it’s all the same to you, parson,” drawled Williams, “I’d like to stay right here.” ★