In spite of its rich historical background, the dusty prairie city of Medicine Hat, Alberta, (sometimes called the Gas City on account of its abundant natural gas deposits) is typically not very high on the list of must-see Albertan destinations. Considered by some to be the “Saskatchewan Corner of Alberta,” Medicine Hat has a culture, or lack thereof, shaped largely by the utilitarian asperity of hardcore cowboys, die-hard oilfield personnel and all manner of self-proclaimed rednecks. Saskatchewan-bashing aside, if you ever find yourself in Medicine Hat on account of work, family, or the unfortunate reality that you live there, here are a number of things that you can do to pass the time as painlessly as possible.
(Spoiler: Medicine Hat’s really not that bad. Neither is Saskatchewan, by the way.)
Visit the Saamis Teepee
The Saamis Teepee, Medicine Hat’s most visible landmark, is the tallest teepee in the world. It was built for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, during which it housed the Olympic Flame in Calgary’s McMahon Stadium. After the Games, the teepee was purchased by Hat businessman Rick Filanti, who donated it to the City of Medicine Hat. In 1991, the teepee was re-erected in Medicine Hat on the old Blackfoot buffalo jump overlooking the Saamis Archaelogical Site, near the Trans-Canada Highway.
Today, the Saamis Teepee is one of Medicine Hat’s major tourist attractions. Visitors receive not only the novel experience of standing inside the world’s tallest teepee, but also the opportunity to study ten finely detailed paintings depicting the history and culture of the Plains aboriginals, showcased in the teepee’s interior.
Tour Medalta Potteries
The early economy of Medicine Hat revolved primarily around three major industries: 1) natural gas; 2) agriculture; 3) pottery and clay. Although natural gas production and agriculture still drive the economy of Medicine Hat to this day, Medicine Hat’s current pottery and clay industry is a mere shadow of its former self.
Today, the museum at Medalta Potteries, a National Historic Site founded by Hatters Jack Forbes and Jim Marshall, gives us a glimpse into the heyday of the once-dominant industry. Covering information on the industry’s social and industrial history and the pottery production process, a number of the museum’s displays tell the story of Medalta Potteries both objectively and through the eyes of its former employees. Visitors are encouraged to tour the insides of the “beehive” kilns in which raw clayware was baked, and to even try their hand at “throwing” clay on a potter’s wheel themselves. Crowning Medalta’s museum is an exhibition of over 30 000 pieces of Medalta pottery, Hycroft china and Sunburst ceramics from the Medicine Hat Historic Clay District.
In addition to its museum, Medalta Potteries has a gift shop that sells rare books on early Medicine Hat and the Medicine Hat Historic Clay District history, along with actual pieces of classic Medalta pottery that are now considered collector’s items.
Go For a Walk in Police Point
One of my favorite places in Medicine Hat is Police Point Park, a natural cottonwood grove in the bend of the South Saskatchewan River. The park is home to a huge variety of plants and animals endemic to prairie river valleys, including chokeberry bushes, spear grass, sagebrush, cacti, owls, deer, pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits, skunks, porcupines, foxes, coyotes, rattlesnakes, pelicans, geese, hawks, eagles, herons, grouse and many more varieties of biota that the knowledgeable staff of the park’s interpretive centre will probably be able to identify. The park boasts a well-kept trail system with interpretive signage and benches, a lookout platform, a BMX park, a number of picnic spots and a riverbank perfect for summer fishing.
In addition to its tangible attractions, Police Point Park has an interesting history. For centuries, the present-day park was known to the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine as “the place where the river comes closest to the mountains”. Indeed, the meander that surrounds Police Point Park, the bend where the east-flowing South Saskatchewan River turns north, is the part of the river in closest proximity to the southeasterly Cypress Hills. The natives prized this area for a number of reasons: in the spring and summer, the eagles that nested in the tall cutbanks that tower over present-day Police Point yielded the best feathers; in the fall, southward-bound bison herds often accumulated in the river bend, making for easy hunting; and in the winter, the wooded river valley offered much-needed fuel and shelter from the cold. Due to its popularity, the Police Point area became the site of many violent confrontations between rival Indian bands, the accounts of which may have evolved into the legends responsible for the city’s naming.
In 1883, the North West Mounted Police, who came to bring law and order to the newly-established tent town of Medicine Hat, built their post in this area that would later be named in their honour. A sign in Police Point Park marks the place where the NWMP barracks once stood.
Go Swimming at the Leisure Centre
If you ever find yourself in Medicine Hat in possession of either swim trunks of a pair of skates, consider making a trip to the FLC.
The Family Leisure Centre, or the FLC, was a big deal when it was built in Medicine Hat in May 2000, and remains a central part of the community to this day. The sport complex, located in Crescent Heights in the northwest part of the city, is divided into three sections (not including the central concession, which is shaped like a sailboat): 1) the pool facility; 2) the rink; 3) the weight room.
Most of the Leisure Centre’s patrons come for the indoor pool facility. The largest part of the facility is the lukewarm wave pool, complete with noodles, beach balls, floating mats, a waterfall apparatus and a whirl pool. At one end of the wave pool is a smaller, separate wading pool -adorned with painted, water-belching pelican sculptures- typically occupied by mothers, small children and the elderly. Opposite the wading pool is a large hot tub and steam room. Beyond the wave pool is a 50 metre multi-purpose pool usually reserved for lane-swimming, swimming lessons, or local swim club activities. Adjacent to the multi-purpose pool is a smaller pool fronted by two diving springboards (1 metre and 3 metre), a 5 metre diving platform, and a swinging rope. Beyond the diving boards is arguably the FLC’s most famous furnishing, the “Rip-n-Rattler” waterslide, a waterslide built in the likeness of a diamondback rattler which snakes around in a wide corkscrew, with some sections built partially outside of the building. Surrounding everything, on the walls of the facility, is a painted landscape vaguely resembling the South Saskatchewan River valley.
In addition to the pool complex, the Family Leisure Centre also has a small weight room and an ice rink. The ice rink is used mostly by local hockey teams and figure skaters, but is opened up in the winter for pubic skating sessions.
Watch a Tigers Game
On most Friday, Saturday, and occasionally Thursday nights during hockey season, hundreds of Hatters (as Medicine Hat residents are sometimes called), many clad in orange and white, pack into the Medicine Hat Arena- the self-styled (and rightfully-styled, at least during playoffs) “loudest barn in the WHL”- to watch a Tigers game.
The Medicine Hat Tigers are a high-calibre junior ice hockey team of the Western Hockey League (WHL) famous around Canada for producing Lanny McDonald and Trevor Linden, two professional hockey hall-of-famers. With players that are typically smaller than average, yet skilled and hardworking, the Tigers have recently received national hockey acclaim by clawing their way to the 2004 and 2007 Memorial Cup Tournaments.
If you’re a fan of Canada’s favourite game, and happen to be in the Hat during hockey season, consider buying a ticket to a Tiger’s game.
Check Out Historic Downtown
If you want a taste of classical Medicine Hat, consider checking out Historic Downtown. With its trademark gas lamps that have been burning local natural gas nonstop since the turn of the century, and a scattering of early buildings that have stood for just as long, Medicine Hat’s Historic Downtown is the heart of the city.
Downtown Medicine Hat is lined with coffee shops, small stores, good restaurants, banks, law firms, churches, dental clinics and a number of other small businesses. Also downtown is the famous glass City Hall, the Courthouse, the Monarch Theatre, the Esplanade, the largest chess set in the world, and Riverside Veteran’s Memorial Park.
Catch a Flick at the Monarch Theatre
Built and opened in 1911, the Monarch Theatre, on downtown 2nd Street, is arguably the oldest running movie theatre in Canada that has ran film since its inception. In its infancy, the Monarch ran silent black-and-white films for the residents of the so-called “Industrial Capital of (Early) Alberta” or “Pittsburgh of the West”, then a booming natural gas town. Today, the Monarch features both old classics and the most recent movies for the residents of the Gas City.
Attend an Event at the Esplanade
If you’re ever looking for some culture in industrial Medicine Hat, the Esplanade is the place to look.
Ever since its construction in 2005, the Esplanade on 1st Street Downtown (now also known as “Esplanade Street”) has dominated the scenery of downtown Medicine Hat. With colors and architectural motifs reminiscent of the prairies, the Esplanade attempts to capture the essence of the city and surrounding area.
The Esplanade is comprised of three main sections: 1) the theatre; 2) the art gallery; 3) the museum; 4) the city archives. The theatre, the design and colours of which is very obviously meant to evoke images of the prairie, regularly features concerts and other shows. The art gallery exhibits a dynamic collection of local art. The museum, which is bisected by the art gallery, displays both pre-historic mammoth fossils discovered in the local badlands and artifacts from Medicine Hat’s frontier days. Lastly, the archives contain many interesting (and many more uninteresting) documents collected throughout Medicine Hat’s history.
Play Chess on the World’s Largest Chess Board
If you’re a chess player, you might want to consider playing the gentleman’s game on what is possibly (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) the world’s largest chess board, located on 1st Street downtown. Situated between the Public Library and the Courthouse, and across the street from the historic Ewart-Duggan house next to the Esplanade, the giant chess set was conceptualized and developed by Dr. Bill Taylor, a local dermatologist, musician and president of the Medicine Hat Chess Club.
The giant chess pieces that accompany the board usually come out in the summer months. If you want to play on the board before then, you might have to bring your own pieces!
Pay Your Respects in Riverside Veteran’s Memorial Park
At the edge of Medicine Hat’s downtown, across the street from City Hall, is Riverside Veteran’s Memorial Park, one of Medicine Hat’s oldest parks. Although it has served a number of different purposes in the past, today Riverside Veteran’s Memorial Park is designated as a memorial to Canadian war veterans and to Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in combat.
In the centre of the park is a cenotaph that lists the names of former Medicine Hat residents who fought and died overseas in WWI, WWII, the Korean War and UN and NATO missions. Nearby the cenotaph is a gazebo, adorned with one of Jim Marshall’s murals, which stands as a backdrop during the formal veteran’s memorial service held every Remembrance Day in the park.
At the end of the park is are two connected diesel locomotives typical of those put into service by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1950’s. Built in London, Ontario, the locomotives were retired after having travelled more than 7 million miles. Next to the train is a WWII Sherman Tank, presented by the South Alberta Light Horse reserves to the City of Medicine Hat in 1967, Canada’s centennial year.
Climb a Cliff in Kin Coulee Park
Kin Coulee is a great place to hang out any time of the year. The park, which lies within the 7 Persons Creek coulee and is overlooked by the Saamis Teepee, features the 7 Persons Creek, 100 acres of open lawn (an excellent place to throw the football around), a handful of fire pits, a playground, an outdoor theatre, four beach volleyball courts, two basketballs courts, a toboggan hill and a huge wall of sandstone cliffs to climb up, if you’re feeling adventurous.
Pet Some Goats at Echo Dale Regional Park
Just a short drive from the airport, Echo Dale Regional Park is a favorite Hatter haunt during hot summer months. The park’s main attraction is a pair of lakes, one a natural boating lake, and the other a lifeguarded artificial swimming lake. Also within the park is a petting zoo, a clay mine museum, a barn shelter with picnic tables, a playground, a small campground and a handful of fire pits.
Go To the Medicine Hat Mall
Although I’m not particularly a fan of mall shopping, I feel that it would be wrong to not include the Medicine Hat Mall in this list. In addition to the multitude of retail and wholesale stores located within, the Medicine Hat mall boasts a number of Cineplex theatres that regularly run newly released movies. If you want to see a new movie in Medicine Hat, and you don’t like the limited selection of the Monarch Theatre, the Medicine Hat Mall is the place to go.
Explore Red Rock Coulee
Red Rock Coulee is a unique geological anomaly about a 50 minute drive south of Medicine Hat on the Crowsnest Highway, south of Seven Persons, Alberta. With the Sweetgrass Hills visible in the background, Red Rock Coulee is a muddy creek valley littered with hoodoos and huge red sandstone boulders that have eroded over time out of the softer surrounding “bear paw” shale. When it’s not too muddy, the coulee is a great place to hike around in and explore.
Hike in the Cypress Hills
If drive for about 20 minutes east of Medicine Hat on the Trans-Canada Highway, and then about 30 minutes more south on the 41A, you’ll come to a place that cannot have justice done unto it in a few short paragraphs. The mostly barren, relatively flat land of the prairie sharply gives way to high hills blanketed in white spruce, balsam poplar, trembling aspen and predominantly lodgepole pine (not cypress, as the name suggests) forests as you enter the Cypress Hills.
The Cypress Hills is a unique geographical region in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan with interesting geological and frontier histories that I won’t get into here. It is the highest point in mainland Canada between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains. In fact, the Elkwater town site (the north westernmost community in the Cypress Hills) sits at the same elevation as the famous Banff townsite in the Rocky Mountains. The Hills are home to a diversity of animals- some not typically found in the Canadian prairies- including, but certainly not limited to, moose, elk, wolverines, wild turkeys and, more recently, cougars.
The Cypress Hills is a great place to hike, mountain bike, camp, fish, cross-country and downhill ski, boat (and dragonboat, in the summer) and swim. If you’re ever stuck in Medicine Hat in need of some outdoor leisure, consider making the 50 minute drive to the Cypress Hills.
For more information on things to do in Medicine Hat, check out Hatter Brandie Peters’ blog, The Blogging Hatter.