Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
If you ever happen to be travelling on the Alberta Highway 4 from Lethbridge to Montana (or vice versa) and have a day to kill, you might want to consider checking out Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta. Located in a remarkable section of the Milk River Valley near the Alberta-Montana border (about 40 minutes southeast of the town of Milk River, Alberta; a short distance from Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills), Writing-on-Stone is a place where, according to the Park’s official slogan, “Histories, Stories and Dreams Become One”. More specifically, Writing-on-Stone is a popular provincial park that is not only a favorite destination for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, but also a perfect place to visit for those interested in archaeology and the natural, geological and anthropological histories of southern Alberta.
Much of the allure of Writing-on-Stone is due to the strange, layered, mushroom-shaped sandstone hoodoos that make that part of the Milk River Valley more reminiscent of the surface of the moon than the prairies of southern Alberta. The sedimentary rock of which these mysterious sandstone features are composed was formed about 85 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period. At that time, the Writing-on-Stone area lay at the western edge of an enormous inland sea known as the Pakowski Sea. As the sea slowly retreated east, different sediments were deposited in layers in its wake. Over millions of years, this sediment was buried, compressed and hardened into rock.
During the Wisconsin Glacial Episode (10-70 thousand years ago), the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet advanced over the Writing-on-Stone area (and over most of Canada and a large part of northern United States). The ice sheet began to melt about 17-18 000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age, and started to slowly retreat northeast. The glacial meltwater at the southern edge of the ice sheet was unable to flow downhill (northeast in the direction of Hudson’s Bay), as it was blocked by the enormous ice sheet, and was forced to drain south. This created deep meltwater channels which exposed the Writing-on-Stone sandstone. In the process, the Missouri River, and subsequently the Milk River (the Milk River is a tributary of the Missouri River) was formed. Since then, thousands of years of frost, rain and wind have eroded the Milk River Valley, carrying away the softer rock and thus shaping the strange-looking sandstone hoodoos that Writing-on-Stone is famous for.
Traditionally, the natives of the Plains believed that Writing-on-Stone, with its unearthly hoodoos and rock formations, was the sacred dwelling place of powerful spirits. The Blackfoot referred to the place as Asinai’pi (Siksika for “it is written”), while the Cree knew the place as Masinasin (Plains Cree for “writing on stone”). Over the centuries, Indians wintering in the area would carve images into the sandstone cliffs and hoodoos depicting the stories and legends of their tribe. Although many of these images have since disappeared due to erosion and artificial defacement, a number of petroglyphs and pictographs-most of which are located within the Park’s Archaeological Preserve- remain today.
The most extensive and complex of these remaining petroglyphs- which is anomalously available to the public; located at the end of the Hoodoo Trial- is the so-called Battle Scene. This glyph depicts over 250 characters, including 115 warriors (mostly carrying bows or guns, from which are issued streams of arrows and bullets) and 17 horses (some pulling travois). According to a South Peigan elder named Bird Rattle, this glyph is associated with an actual historical battle known as the “Retreat Up the Hill Battle”. This battle, which was one of the South Peigan’s most decisive victories, took place on the Milk River east Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1866. Before the battle, a South Peigan war party came to Writing-on-Stone and saw petroglyphs portending an imminent attack (writing on the wall, if you will). With this foreknowledge, the warriors were able to ambush and defeat a combined war party of Gros Ventres, Crow and Plains Cree which was also in the area at the time, in accordance with the lithic omen. According to Bird Rattle, the South Peigan warriors managed to dispatch more than 300 enemy braves in this conflict.
In 1874, the North West Mounted Police- newly formed to bring law and order to the Canadian West in response the Cypress Hills Massacre– made their famous trek west from Fort Dufferin (in present-day Manitoba). While the travel-weary Mounties were resting in a small valley east of Writing-on-Stone known today as “Dead Horse Coulee”, Lieutenant-Colonel James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton to obtain supplies and returned with Jerry Potts, the legendary Scotch-Peigan warrior and scout. Potts- whom the Mounties hired in Fort Benton on the advice of an American merchant named Isaac Baker- led the awe-struck Force west through that spectacular section of the Milk River Valley, in which they pitched their tents for a night, and north to an island on the Oldman River that would become the site of Fort Macleod.
Years later, in April 1887, the Mounties (under the command of Colonel Sam Steele and led, once again, by Jerry Potts) returned to Writing-on-Stone and set up a summer tent camp in what is now known as Police Coulee. Two years later, in 1889, they built a permanent post of cottonwood logs.
The Mounties established this outpost in Writing-on-Stone partly in an attempt to curtail Indian horse-raiding parties, which continued to occur in spite of the formal peace that was made between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies in the fall of 1871 (made in the aftermath of the Battle of Belly River). Despite their efforts, however, in the same year that the permanent post was constructed (1889), a Blackfoot horse raiding party slipped by them unnoticed. The raiding party- a party of six led by Prairie Chicken Old Man- moved cautiously through the Writing-on-Stone area, wary of the NWMP officers. The braves consulted the sacred glyphs, hoping to obtain supernatural powers, before venturing south into Crow territory. Against all odds, the raiding party returned four weeks later with an abundance of Crow horses. They attributed their success to powers they acquired at Writing-on-Stone. Perhaps due to the presence of the Police, the Blackfoot never again attempted a horse raiding mission. In fact, the 1889 horse raid was to be the last act of Indian warfare in North America.
Another purpose of the Writing-on-Stone outpost was to combat cross-border whiskey smuggling. However, by the time the Mounties established the post, the once-flourishing whiskey trade was on its last legs. Instead of tracking smugglers and Indian raiding parties as they had initially intended, the officers stationed at the outpost (the outpost was typically manned by 3-7 men) spent most of their time fighting prairie fires, herding American cattle back across the border, and riding on tedious patrols along the 49th parallel. Alcoholism, loneliness and desertion soon became serious problems. In 1893, five of the six officers stationed at the outpost deserted en masse, and in 1894, a young corporal deserted his post to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago, afterwards returning to turn himself in. In spite of the low morale of the officers, and a 1908 summer flood that caused major damage, the outpost remained operational until 1918.
The Alberta provincial government created Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in 1957, and designated it as an archaeological preserve in 1977. In 2005, the Park was designated a Canadian National Historic Site.
Things to Do in the Park
Writing-on-Stone is a popular place to go camping. Throughout the Park, there are 19 un-serviced campsites, 45 campsites with power, 61 winter campsites, and 3 landscaped comfort campsites (furnished canvas tents equipped with private decks).
Fun on the Milk River
The Milk River that runs through Writing-on-Stone, with its slow current and soft silt-covered bottom, is relatively shallow and, in the summer, quite warm. Accordingly, favorite activities at Writing-on-Stone include swimming at the natural sand beach on the east side of the camping area, tubing down the river and kayaking.
On the north side of the Milk River, the one-way 2.2 kilometre Hoodoo Trail winds through the hoodoos and connects the campsite and beach with the Battle Scene- the most extensive of the Writing-on-Stone petroglyphs and the only glyph not contained within the Archaeological Preserve.
In addition to the Hoodoo Trail, the Davis and Humphrey coulees south of the Milk River comprise a 930 hectare backcountry hiking area devoid of developed trails. In order to get to this hiking area, hikers need to wade across the Milk River.
The Archaeological Preserve
Aside from the Battle Scene, most of Writing-on-Stone’s petroglyphs are located within the archaeological preserve. Visitors may access the preserve on guided tours. Tour tickets can be purchased at the Visitor Centre or online.
The Visitor Center
The Writing-on-Stone Visitor Centre, built in 2007, features a gift shop and a small museum built in the likeness of a First Nations teepee. The museum is filled with Blackfoot artifacts, dioramas and displays that tell the archaeological, geological and biological stories of the Writing-on-Stone area.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to a variety of prairie animals, including, but certainly not limited to, pronghorn, deer, skunks, rabbits, raccoons, beavers, marmots, bats, frogs, toads, salamanders, bull snakes and rattlesnakes.
Bird watchers can revel in the 150 avian species that inhabit the area, which include black-belled cuckoos, least flycatchers, mountain bluebirds and cedar waxwings,
- The Alberta Stretch of the Milk River and the mystique of s surrounding landscape. 2010, Johan F, Dormaar
- From Sandstone to Settlers: Writing on Stone District History, 1983, Masinasin Historical Society
- Back Roads of Southern Alberta, 1992, Joan Donaldson-Yarmey