Editor's note:
I believe this was published in a local newspaper at some point in the early 1980's. Many of these anecdotes appear in John's memoir.

The Passing of An Era

The Kootenay Plains on the Upper North Saskatchewan River west of Nordegg have intrigued me since 1935, when just by accident on a hunting trip I wandered over Smallpox Creek, down to the North Saskatchewan River and found the plains. However, except for a short exploratory trip, when I was amazed at such totally different country, noting two apparent camps of Indians with a considerable number of horses across the river, I was forced to head for home and the realities of a homesteader's life. Years later, I named these plains the Abraham Flats.

In 1958, after service overseas from which I returned to join the Alberta Forest Service, I learned that a new district and Ranger Station was being created on the so-called Kootenay Plains, for which I promptly applied. I was awarded the District to become the first resident Forest Ranger.

The Upper Saskatchewan area was most interesting with its historic ties with early explorers, tales of the Indians, and a climate different from anywhere in Alberta and I spent many happy years there, being loathe to leave when force of circumstances so dictated

The Kootenay Plains were so-called for years, before even David Thompson traveled through them to discover the Columbia River, in the days when the trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Co. and the Northwest Fur Company were known as "Forts des Prairies" and the particular fort some distance from the present city of Edmonton was known as Rocky Mountain House. From here traders journeyed to the plains where they bartered with bands of Kootenay Indians who had crossed the mountains from the west to meet them there. David Thompson outfitted at the fort Rocky Mountain House in 1807, and mentions the plains on the upper North Saskatchewan in his journal on his travels through the mountains to discover the source of the Columbia River

Alexander Henry also mentions the plains and rivers en route in his journey through to the Columbia River, leaving Rocky Mountain House February 3rd, 1811 in 12 degree below zero weather, each man traveling by sled and three dogs. In those days they did not encourage tourist travel in the west country! Alexander Henry relates that on starting out his party headed down the river to mislead the people at the fort, then swung around to follow the river, traveling on the river ice. Alexander Henry mentions passing through a gorge -- the site of the Big Horn Dam -- and that then the river valley widened out to about a mile wide with many channels, some of which were open water. They next reached spots of prairie, where the grass was stout and good for horses, and where buffalo were seen frequently; also an abundance of moose and deer with herds of as many as 30 bighorn rams on surrounding mountains. As the party traveled they killed buffalo and bighorn sheep for meat, caching some of it for their return journey by chopping holes in the ice and then flooding the hole to make a natural deep freeze

As Alexander Henry traveled up the valley he mentions a river by the name of Mirliton, and describes the peculiar shape and features of the mountains, which makes Mirliton River the present Cline River. The Cline River, which flows into the Saskatchewan River from the west, apparently was Mirliton River mentioned by early explorers, and to many of the older residents of the Rocky Mountain House area it was and still is known as White Goat River. It is a pity that its name could not be changed as the first creek north of the Cline River is Cline Creek, and this causes considerable confusion; indeed while stationed on the plains I met a party traveling up Cline Creek headed for Pinto Lake, which is at the head of Cline, Mirliton or White Goat River, as you choose.

Both David Thompson and Alexander Henry emphasize the amount of game to be seen on the Kootenay Plains and adjacent mountains, but alas! those days are gone.

The present Stoney Indians, or Rocky Mountain Sioux, on the Bighorn Reserve and the Morley Reserve Indians and their forebearers have used the Upper North Saskatchewan valley or Kootenay Plains as hunting grounds and these areas are sacred to them as many Indian graves exist on the plains. One of these is that of Joe Pee Beaver who was present at the signing of the Seventh Treaty, the last of the treaties between Canada and the Plains Indians, which was concluded at Blackfoot Crossing, September 22, 1877 by Crowfoot and his chiefs with David Laird, Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Territories. Joe Pee Beaver, one of the lesser chiefs, received the gift of a leather-bound bible in Cree language, which is still in the possession of some of his descendants on the Bighorn Reserve.

For many years the Stoney Indians traveled from Morley through Banff Park, up Dolomite River and down Siffleur River to the Kootenay Plains. This information I obtained from the late George McLean, or Walking Buffalo, who was a wealth of tales and knowledge of Stoney Indians on the areas they frequented. Old Silas Abraham, half-brother of Walking Buffalo, who was very well known to me and after whom that part of the Kootenay Plains at the mouth of the Cline River was named, did not have too much English. The reason: as a small boy, about 10 years old, he was taken to the school at Morley but learning was not for him -- he and another small boy about the same age borrowed, without permission, a horse and together made their way through Banff Park, up the Dolomite River, down the Siffleur to join his people on the Kootenay Plains. They had nothing to sustain themselves but one porcupine they managed to club to death -- so much for education.

About 1888, Tom Wilson, who was in business with a man by the name of Campbell at Lake Louise, was traveling with the Indians and he saw the plains for the first time. In 1900 Wilson and Campbell established a horse ranch there and subsequently Wilson exchanged his equity in the business at Lake Louise with Campbell for his equity in the ranch, and for many years Wilson conducted his ranch and a small trading post. There are still Indians on the Bighorn Reserve who remember their people getting flour and goods from Wilson in exchange for their help in buildings, which still exist down close to the Saskatchewan River, near the mouth of White Rabbit Creek. These buildings will be, flooded when the dam is completed. Tom Wilson later built a larger ranch house further cut on the Plains, which building was used as a forestry stop over cabin after Tom Wilson left about 1926.

In 1905, another horse ranch was established by a man by the name of Barnes. This was on the West side of the Saskatchewan river near what is known today as 2 o'clock creek Barnes ranch lasted only about 5 years. 2 O'clock Creek -- so called -- is just that. In the spring when the run-off is in progress, it can be perfectly dry in the morning, and then by 2 o'clock it will be in full flood and before the highway was built it was often a winch job to cross; then during the night it would cease flowing, and be dry again in the morning -- the effect of temperature change on the snow up in the mountains.

Not far from Barnes Ranch near Bridge creek, known to the Indians as Kootenay creek, is the scene of a purported massacre of a party of Kootenay Indians by Stoney Indians, one pregnant Kootenay Indian women being the only survivor. The version obtained from Walking Buffalo disclaimed the massacre, but claimed that a party of his people, Stoney Indians, were on a hunting trip when they came across a party of strange (Kootenay) Indians who, on seeing the Stoneys approach, all took fright and ran away over the mountains to the West -- all except one Indian woman with "baby in belly" who couldn't run and who was taken prisoner. Some years ago, while Chief Smallboy and his band were holding a Sundance ritual on the Kootenay Plains, he Chief Smallboy, pointed out one of the dancers to me, with the explanation that the particular dancer's grandfather was the "baby in belly" of the woman captured on the Kootenay Plains and who had been acquired by his people Cree Indians.

During the time Tom Wilson had his trading post on the plains, Paul Beaver of the local Stoney Indians with a hand if young braves were camped on the Cline River and We young men got some whiskey and rum from Wilson, supposedly to mix in their Lynx bait Lo keep it from freezing. The effect of mixing alcohol with the Lynx bait had the undesirable effect of making the young braves rowdy and creating disturbance in camp, so Paul Beaver visited Tom Wilson to tell him not to give the young men whiskey -- not good for them." After a couple of hours visit, punctuated at intervals with "don't give young men whiskey, not good for them" then after a lengthy pause "Maybe little bit whiskey good for old man!"

Old James Simpson, well known guide and outfitter told me that the Christmas of 1903 he snowshoed from his trapline on Sunwapta, now in Jasper Park for five days down the Cline River to spend Christmas with his neighbor, Tom Wilson. The night of his arrival the two friends got gloriously drunk. Next morning was a different story -- Tom sat for a long time in silence then said to his friend Simpson, "When the hell you going home?", whereupon to quote Simpson, "I put on my hat and said 'right now' and snowshoed, 5 days back to my cabin on the Sunwapta." Incidentally, Simpson told me he had a tough return trip and almost didn't make it, but make it he did to live to a ripe old age full of wonderful tales of the West country.

It is a far cry from the old days now since the construction of the road, first to Nordegg then on through the Banff Jasper Highway, it is no problem to reach the Kootenay Plains. The normal way of travel into the plains used to be over the old Indian Trail through Banff Park over the Dolomite, down the Siffleur. It has been my pleasure to have Known an ex-Mounted Policeman, who when stationed in Banff in 1919 used to make an extended patrol by saddle and pack over the aforementioned Indian trail to the Kootenay Plains then up the Cline River over Cline Pass and so on down the Alexander River back to Banff.

In 1912, the late Mr. Farley of Red Deer found a square cave while he and his brother were traveling through the mountains and years later in the 1960's, when he was 75 years of age, he returned to try and locate the same cave, but was unsuccessful, even when assisted by the use of a helicopter. According to Mr. Farley the cave was on the west side of the Saskatchewan River, but it has never been found. Over the years. there have been several references to the square cave & several embellished accounts and descriptions have been published, but all of them which to my knowledge were not in keeping with the account Mr Farley gave to me personally.

About two years after Mr. Farley's last unsuccessful attempt to relocate the square cave, I found a square cave on the East side of the Saskatchewan River at high altitude on a small tributary of the White Rabbit Creek. That is to say I found a cave with a square opening and I could never arrive at a satisfactory explanation as to how the cave came into being in the first place; however, approach and mode of access to the cave is exactly as Mr. Farley described his cave to me. It is possible that his memory of the location, had played him false during the fifty intervening years.

Before the present Bighorn Reserve came into being, the present families, Albrahams', Houses', Wildmans', Beavers', Crawlers', used to live in cabins at various locations on the Kootenay Plains; the remains of their cabins still existed when I went to live up there in 1958.

The Kootenay Plains have known other days and with the direction of the Bighorn Dam and subsequent flooding of the plains -- there may be great recreation facilities -- manmade -- but I feel we are losing a great deal. It is indeed, the passing of an era.

With grateful acknowledgements to the Seattle Public Library, James Simpson and my Indian friends.