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The Legend of Old Wives Lake

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The Legend of Old Wives Lake

 

A historical maker on Saskatchewan Highway 2.

A historical marker on Saskatchewan Highway 2 describing the legend.

 Old Wives Lake is a large saltwater lake located about 30 kilometres southwest of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, as the crow flies. Designated a Migratory Bird Sanctuary due to its large seasonal populations of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, Old Wives Lake is the largest natural lake in southern Saskatchewan and the fourth largest saline lake in North America.

Old Wives Lake is the largest natural lake in southern Saskatchewan and the fourth largest saline lake in North America.

Old Wives Lake is the largest natural lake in southern Saskatchewan and the fourth largest saline lake in North America.

Old Wives Lake owes its peculiar name to an old Cree legend which, as is the case with most oral lore, has a number of different versions. According to one version, which was recounted to the first officers of the North West Mounted

Police by their Metis guides on their Great March West, a Cree hunting party from the east of Wood Mountain (in some versions, the Cree hailed from the Qu’Appelle Valley and travelled southwest via the Fort Qu’Appelle-Wood Mountain Trail) ventured up the Wood River to Old Wives Lake in search of buffalo one spring in the early 1840’s.

Earlier that spring, a prairie fire on the eastern plains had decimated the local buffalo population, and the Cree, running low on their winter stores of pemmican, were desperate for food.

The Cree hunting party travelled up the Wood River in search of buffalo.

The Cree hunting party travelled up the Wood River in search of buffalo.

The Cree hunting party found a herd of buffalo grazing on the shores of Old Wives Lake.

The Cree hunting party found a herd of buffalo grazing on the shores of Old Wives Lake.

Luckily, the Cree discovered a herd of buffalo grazing on the shores of Old Wives Lake. The hunters made camp on the lake’s shore and brought down many animals in the ensuing hunt. As the men skinned and dismembered the carcasses, a group of old women, who had accompanied the hunters specifically for this purpose, set about rendering the suet and marrow and drying and pounding the meat to make pemmican. Soon, the Cree had prepared enough food to sustain their starving band back east.

The Cree loaded their horses down with pemmican and prepared to return home.

The Cree loaded their horses down with pemmican and prepared to return home.

Just as the Cree had finished loading their horses’ travois, a Blackfoot war party attacked. Although unprepared, the Cree delivered an effective counterattack and successfully repelled the warriors, who retreated to the nearby hills.

A painting depicting the legend at the Mossbank & District Museum. Special thanks to Joy Silzer for the photo.

A painting depicting the legend at the Mossbank & District Museum. Special thanks to Joy Silzer for the photo.

That night, the Cree held a powwow. They knew that the warlike Blackfoot would likely return at dawn in strength, preventing them from returning to their easterly band with the pemmican. After some deliberation, the Cree braves resolved to make a stand and fight, allowing their women and children to escape with the pemmican under the cover of darkness. No sooner had the warriors made their decision, however, when the old wives spoke up. The old wives knew that they, the younger women and the children would likely not make it far without the braves, and so they offered to stay behind instead. They had seen many summers, they maintained, and wished to give life to the tribe one last time, as they had in their childbearing youth. The old wives would not be overruled, and so, with great reluctance, the men, women and children of the hunting party left for home with the pemmican in tow.

The old wives sacrificed themselves for the survival of the tribe.

The old wives sacrificed themselves for the survival of the tribe.

At the lakeside camp, the old wives tended the fires and talked loudly throughout the night so as to not arouse the suspicions of the Blackfoot. At dawn, a horde of Blackfoot warriors thundered into the camp screaming war whoops. When they discovered that they had been deceived and that the bountiful spoils they had anticipated were reduced to a handful of gray scalps, they tortured and killed the old wives.

Old Wives Lake's largest island is said to be haunted by the spirits of the dead women. The island is known as the Isle of Bays, ostensibly named for the unearthly 'bays', or howls, that are said to issue from it from time to time.

Old Wives Lake’s largest island is said to be haunted by the spirits of the dead women. The island is known as the Isle of Bays, ostensibly named for the unearthly ‘bays’, or howls, that are said to issue from it from time to time.

Legend has it that the spirits of the dead women haunt a small island in the lake, known as the Isle of Bays, to this day. Some say that on windy spring nights you can hear the old wives’ howls of laughter mocking the Blackfoot they deceived.

Looking out towards the haunted Isle of Bays, obscured as it is by the fog.

Looking out towards the haunted Isle of Bays, obscured as it is by the fog.

 

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9 comments… add one
  • Mona Kolish August 29, 2016, 5:53 pm

    What a lovely rendering of the legend. We ranch on the edge of Old Wives Lake, the most beautiful place in the world. Every day it offers a different view.. Thank you for sharing this legend.

  • Kathy Piche August 30, 2016, 10:59 pm

    Thank you for the sharing this story about Old Wives lake. For years have driven by the far eastern end of the lake, where my husband always pointed it out. He is from south west of there, but did not know the history of it. Beautiful story but also sad.

  • Lorna Bérubé September 1, 2016, 6:04 am

    I was raised on a farm nearby and no trip home is complete without a drive out to the Lake. Friends said the water was high enough for swimming from shore this year . Love this post about the Legend, thanks.

  • Leslie J. Sadler January 19, 2017, 11:27 pm

    I am writing a book on the Commonwealth Air Training Plan of World War 2. I am connecting this event with the lake since I do believe the lake had been used for gunnery and bombing. I am hoping to visit the lake particularly this spring and camp along it’s edge to view it and maybe hear the voices of the old wives. Great work on making this lake something special in history. Les Sadler

    • Hammerson Peters January 20, 2017, 1:40 pm

      Very interesting! Please feel free to leave a link to your book here after you’ve published.

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