Who Likes Berries?

Berries weave an interesting thread through the history of western Canada. They entered the story early, an important food source for many living creatures on the prairies, and proved to be essential to the success of the buffalo hunt for Indigenous peoples. Local berries would eventually be welcomed into the diets of most newcomers, and even celebrated with festivals in their name!

One of the staples of the Indigenous diet on the Great Plains was pemmican, “a portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling foodespecially convenient for crossing long distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds. Pemmican is a Cree-Chippewa word meaning fat – appropriate because 50% of pemmican was rendered buffalo fat with 45% lean shredded buffalo meat, and 5% dried and ground berries. As the fur trade spread throughout the Hudson’s Bay watershed, pemmican became a portable food source for traders, voyageurs, and early travelers, too. Today, pemmican is popular as a survival food for hikers, and modern recipes feature all sorts of variations, including vegetarian options (see links below).

Speaking of recipes, a few years back I visited Fort St. James, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post in northern British Columbia. They were passing out samples of Indian ice cream made from soapberries. Soapberries will foam when crushed, but are too bitter to eat by themselves so are usually mixed with something else. The recipe shown below features soapberries, water, and sugar. The berries also possess a number of medicinal qualities, as do many native plant species.

Indian Soapberry Ice cream

Settlers, of course, were familiar with berries, even though they may have been different from the ones in their homelands. Berry patches were located, berries were picked and preserved, eaten with fresh cream, and baked in pies, muffins, etc. St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan celebrates wild blueberries. Why? I’m not sure, but their 30th Annual Wild Blueberry Festival finished up last weekend.

Bear scat w/berriesWho else likes berries? Well, at Fort Pitt I found evidence that the bears probably really like the chokecherries down by the river – as you can see here.

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Photo: Drying meat, Wilderness College

#FlashbackFriday

The Northwestern Territories have never looked so glorious as in this last year of Grace 1902. Never were there such turquoise skies, such golden brown acres of prairie grass billowing away to the four points of the compass… We halted for dinner at “The Badger,” a neat little sod roofed shack kept by two American women of rather wide experience. We dined off exquisite Japanese china, for the West is a place of surprises and incongruities. – from “The Battleford Trail” in “The Uncollected Prose of Pauline Johnson” by Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)

Pauline Johnson, poet, artist, and spoken word performer with a flare for the dramatic, traveled extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and England from the 1880s to 1909 on a series of speaking tours. The above excerpt is from an unpublished manuscript, and describes the stagecoach journey Johnson undertook in 1902 between Saskatoon and Battleford on the Battleford Trail.

The Battleford Trail was a segment of the Carlton Trail system that connected the Red River Settlement in Winnipeg with Edmonton, 900 miles away. This overland route followed many of the ancient trails used by Indigenous peoples, and then the Métis. Eventually, the railroad transformed transportation patterns, roads were built, and most of the old trails were plowed under.

Poundmaker TrailThe sign commemorating the Pioneer Wagonroad is located on Alberta Hwy 14, on the south side of the road just west of the junction with Alberta Hwy 883 (west of Fabyan). Today, little evidence remains of the old wagon trails except for the ruts that exist in a few locations, and the historical plaques that describe them. Across the road from the Battleford Trail sign, and a little to the east, is a sign that also marks this route as the  Poundmaker Trail.

Saskatchewan’s Hwy 40 and Alberta’s Hwy 14 form a 369 km stretch between North Battleford and Edmonton. Designated the Poundmaker Trail, this road commemorates Chief Poundmaker’s (Pitikwahanapiwiyin’s) journey on foot in 1886 from his people’s reserve near Battleford to his stepfather Crowfoot’s reserve at Blackfoot Crossing. This journey was undertaken following his release from the Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg where he was imprisoned following the Northwest Rebellion. He died a few weeks after his arrival.

#FlashbackFriday

Photos: This abandoned 2-story log house, age undetermined, is still standing upright on the north side of the Yellowhead Highway, just west of Vegreville, AB.

The Yellowhead stretches through BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and is named after the Yellowhead Pass that crosses the Rockies. The pass and the highway are both named after an Iroquois-Métis trapper, fur-trader, and explorer who worked for the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Pierre Bostonais was nicknamed Yellow Head, or Tête Jaune in French, because of his blond hair. The name Bostonais refers to his probable American origin as American traders were often identified as Boston men in French. Bostonais died 1828.

What About a Shelf Life?

Fossils, guns, antique tractors, stone tools, quilts and clothing items, memorabilia, regalia… The private collections that have launched local museums across the prairies are as unique as the people who created them and the towns that now house them. While many artifacts require little more than a dusting and a Do Not Touch sign, special care and handling are a requirement for others. Some items age well, while others? Not so much.

Take a taxidermy collection. Almost all museums have a mounted bison, elk, moose, deer, or antelope head, and many others have multiple examples of local wildlife and birds. Some even have collections known far and wide for their variety, their excellence, or their humour (see the Madhatters’ Ball photo below). If the taxidermist was a professional, or even a skilled amateur, and the mounts have been taken care of, the odds of a collection still looking impressive are pretty good.

Fuchs Taxidermy Exhibit, Lloydminster SK

Fuchs Wildlife Gallery, Lloydminster Culture and Science Centre, Lloydminster, SK | Photo by Mike Beauregard for Atlas Obscura

But, when a mount has begun to deteriorate – and there is much that can go wrong – it can be unnerving, or spooky, even stomach-churning for the visitor. The lynx pictured at the top is housed in the Frenchman Butte Museum. The eyes might look a little wonky, but the fur is still beautiful, and the overall shape of the mount remains realistic. It’s not an uncomfortable experience to view it. One collection I visited this past winter though, which will remain nameless, made me wonder why an exhibit would remain on display, when it had obviously passed its ‘best before’ date.