Thursday, January 9, 2014

Last Mountain House

Trip Date: December 2013

A couple of days after my visit to Condie we decided to rent some cross-country skis and spend another afternoon outside.  Our original plan was to head out to Last Mountain House, ski through the coulee, and explore the site.  There are only two shops in Regina that rent skis and, unfortunately, both of them were entirely rented out, so we would need to revert to Plan B.  Our new plan would be to still head out to Last Mountain House and do a little exploring at the old site, but instead of skiing, we'd be doing some snowmobiling.  My brother Kyle has his own sled and our cousin lent us hers so we ended up with two, which worked out perfectly.  It had been a year since I was last on a sled, but I had so much fun that time, I was looking forward to doing it again.  After the initial disappointment of not being able to ski, things were shaping up to be a fun day outside after all.  Last Mountain House is located approximately 45km northwest of Regina along Highway 20.  Over the summer they offer interpretive programs and a chance to go inside the buildings.  Unfortunately everything was closed while we were there, but that didn't stop us from just looking around.

Last Mountain House Historic Park
Last Mountain House was built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869 as a winter outpost for it's Fort Qu'Appelle operation.  The post almost feels like an afterthought, since the fur trade had been operating for almost a century in western Canada by the time Last Mountain House was constructed.  The Hudson's Bay Company deemed the post necessary because its competition was moving in on its territory and the Bison herds were moving southwest.  

Last Mountain House as it appears today
Situated on a high plateau above Last Mountain Lake, the location provided all the necessities needed to sustain it.  Wood collected from the nearby coulee was used for building material and firewood, fish and waterfowl from the lake provided a source of sustenance, natural springs from the ravines provided drinking water, and grasses fed the livestock.  
A map of the Last Mountain House area
The outpost housed a clerk, a Postmaster, various servants and their families.  The first year the post was operational (1869) was a very prosperous one.  The post was used as a base to hunt Bison and trade for dried meat, grease, and pemmican; the staples of the fur trade.  Its primary role was to send these provisions, or food, to the Hudson's Bay Company's more northerly outposts.  Unfortunately, one good year was all this outpost would see and it was abandoned sometime in the early 1870's.  The Bison herds continued moving westward, the sale of HBC lands to the Canadian government, and the Red River Rebellion all played major roles in the closure of this outpost.  At some point in the 1870's the post eventually burnt to the ground and was never rebuilt.  The buildings that make up the site today were built on their original locations sometime in the late 1960's or early 1970's and have been used to interpret the fur trade ever since.

The Men's House
The Men's House was divided into two sections; the Single Men's Quarters and the Married Men's Quarters.  The Single Men's Quarters resembled a bunkhouse.  Walls were covered with everything from winter clothing to kitchen utensils.  The furniture was simple, usually just bunks and a table.  The number of men living there varied.  Temporary servants and men helping on trading trips were constantly coming and going, lending an air of transience to the place.  

Married servants and their families probably occupied two of the three apartments in the Men's House.  As many as two couples and their children squeezed into this 4 x 5 metre (12 x 15 foot) room.  Even though the men often worked away from home, privacy and solitude must have been unheard-of luxuries.  

The Master's House
Issac Cowie, clerk-in-charge, shared the Master's House with Postmaster Joseph McKay and his family.  Here Cowie worked on the accounts and directed daily activities.  McKay, however, was often away on trading trips.  

The relatively large building with its separate kitchen clearly shows the wide gap that existed between officers and men in fur trade society.  

The Privy was located outside the Master's House
The Barn/Warehouse
The exact use of this building is not known.  The daily journal states that a barn was built at Last Mountain House, however, Issac Cowie's memoirs indicate that the warehouse and trade shop were located here, on the south side of the post.  It is possible that this building may have served both purposes.  

The foundation of the Trade Shop
Cold hard credit best describes the trade for pelts and pemmican.  Cash was not used.  Written accounts of credit and debt were kept through the winter and balanced each spring.  It was cold work because the building was never heated.  The barrels of gunpowder stored here made using a stove or fireplace way too dangerous.

The Fur Press
For efficient transportation, bulky items like buffalo robes had to be tightly packed.  To operate the Fur Press the men lifted the long boom pole and placed folded buffalo robes in the space below.  Then they "lowered the boom" and pressed it down to squeeze the robes into a compact bale.

The last structure at Last Mountain House is the Ice Cellar.  It was used to store perishable items so they would last longer.  The cellar was completely buried under deep snow so we weren't able to see it.  

The nearby coulee that we wanted to ski through.  You can see Last Mountain Lake in the background.
Christine spotted this Coyote running along the hillside on the opposite side of the coulee
After thoroughly exploring the historic site and viewing the coulee it was time to go sledding!  We unloaded the snowmobiles and headed north, riding in the ditches beside the highway.  We rode through the beach-side community of Kannata Valley and gained access to frozen Last Mountain Lake.  Here we discovered a snowmobile highway that traveled as far as the eye could see in both directions.

A very frozen Last Mountain Lake and the snowmobile highway that stretches along it
Last Mountain Lake, also known as Long Lake, is the largest naturally occurring body of water in southern Saskatchewan.  It is approximately 93km in length, but only 3km across at its widest point.  I have spent countless hours swimming, fishing, and boating on this lake, but this would mark the first time actually snowmobiling on top of it!  

Kyle riding along the lake
We turned and headed southeast towards the small town of Craven, not really knowing what to expect.  We followed the lake shore until we reached Last Mountain Creek.  We followed the frozen creek's twists and turns until we reached Craven.  From there we turned around and headed back the same way we came.

Just relaxing in my cozy La-Z-Boy recliner!
Kyle playing in the snow on the banks of the creek
Back on the lake
Me, enjoying every minute of it!
We only did about 30 miles on the day, but it was enough to satisfy my need for speed!  Hopefully I'll get another chance to go for a ride before the winter is over, but if not, there's always next year!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Condie Nature Refuge

Trip Date: December 2013

Christine and I spent a week back home in Regina over Christmas this year.  It was the first time in two years that we'd been home for the holidays.  It's always nice to go home and see friends and family that we don't get to see very often.  It's also the time of year where I get to overindulge on turkey dinners and Christmas baking!  After several days of eating, and drinking, it was time to get outside, stretch the legs, and breathe in some fresh air, so I headed out to Condie Nature Refuge for some much needed exercise.  Condie is only 14km northwest of the city along Highway 11.  

Condie Nature Refuge
Condie is far from an untouched prairie ecosystem, despite what you might be picturing in your mind when you hear the word "refuge".  The reservoir, that is home to both fish and waterfowl, was created when the Canadian National (CN) Railway damned nearby Boggy Creek in 1924 to create a source of water for their steam engines when they rolled through Regina.  On top of that, more than 80,000 trees and shrubs have been planted in the area over the last 30 years.  This has resulted in more tree shelter than would typically be available in a traditional prairie setting.  Despite these changes the refuge remains a haven for many different plant and animal species.

The Whooping Crane statue that marks the entrance to the refuge
I vaguely remember spending some time out at Condie in elementary school for field trips.  More recently I spent a day out there as part of a project for an Outdoor Education class I was taking in University, but it had likely been at least eight years since I had spent any real time there.  I was pretty excited to see what Condie had to offer on a beautiful winter's day and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the resident wildlife.  When I pulled into one of two parking areas in the early afternoon I was pleased to find out that other than two ice fisherman I would be the only one enjoying Condie's wilderness on this day.  

Shortly after beginning my hike I ran into this item.  At first I thought it was someone's poorly hidden geocache, but after opening it up I realized it was a marker for an orienteering course that's likely used by school groups.
Outside of a few birds, I didn't see much in the way of wildlife.  However, evidence of different animals was quite prevalent, as you'll soon see in the following photographs.

Tracks made by a small canine, likely a Fox or a Coyote
More canine tracks
A very frozen Boggy Creek
The shallow Boggy Creek valley
I startled these Grouse and they didn't fly away until I was almost on top of them.  To be honest I think they surprised me more than I scared them!
Grouse tracks in the snow
Boggy Creek
These tracks are likely made by a Snowshoe Hare
Ring-Necked Pheasant tracks
A bird's nest tucked away in a grove of trees
The Condie reservoir
Apparently the reservoir is stocked with Perch and Pike
Tree silhouettes created by the Sun
Rumour has it there's a local Beaver that lives in the refuge.  Here's some evidence to support the rumours.
This female Ring-Necked Pheasant flew right in front of my Jeep while I was driving home from Condie.  It landed in the snow and quickly ran into the nearby brush.