A walk in the park: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

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I watched the sun rise over an ancient Medicine Wheel, and I wept.

I had lost my way twice while stumbling toward this sacred space, first when following the predawn blush in the otherwise black western sky, and again as the horizon pinked in the east.

Later I would find patches of ice on the valley floor, but I wasn’t shivering because of the cold. Sometimes you step into a place or a time that feels like home, and it shivers through you so hard you have to just stand there, or walk the circle, and wonder whether it’s disrespectful to speak a word to the ancestors.

Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Cree, Saulteaux, Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Métis, and countless before them whose names we will never know gathered here, worshipped and hunted here. They had for 6,000 years — some of the archeological dig sites at Wanuskewin are older than the pyramids.

I’m not sure how long I spent at the Medicine Wheel, and even if I could remember everything I said there, in a low whisper, I would not record it here. I stayed until the sky had changed from black to orange and grey to blue and white. When geese broke the morning silence, I said a final, inadequate prayer and stepped back onto the trail that leads into the valley.

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The prairies are not as flat as people think. The plains at Wanuskewin harbour a bowl-shaped valley that dips suddenly from behind a magnificent interpretive centre. What looks like a flat expanse of land from the roadway collapses into buffalo jumps and toward the river.

Here, generations of First Nations gathered not just for the rich bounty of game and plant life but to be protected from freezing winds. It was a wintering and meeting place for nomadic tribes and continues to be an important space to bring together aboriginal peoples and their allies.

With my back to the Medicine Wheel, I walked slowly back to the interpretive centre. The birds were waking in earnest — geese again, and two brown songbirds in the long grass, a call from by the river. There was a fast knocking — a woodpecker, maybe? A beaver? The barking again.

Sound works strangely in this valley, which is marked by ancient tipi rings, an impressive buffalo pound, and a gently curving portion of Opimihaw Creeak, which branches off from the great Saskatchewan River. A bubbling brook flows under and above ground so that one can hear it just over there, but not at all right here. Imagine, a sign urges, what it was like to hear a hundred buffalo come stampeding from the land above. Think of it too hard and your throat will tighten in awe.

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A stand of trees stood out against the grey and brown because there were strips of material wrapped round them. These sacred cloths, some bright, some starting to fade, had been tied in memory of loved ones, as one might light a candle or lay a flower.

As I approached the mouth of the little valley, a herd of something — antelope, I think — went before me. They knew I was there. One kept stopping in her tracks, watching me while she stood still as the medicine boulders.

“It’s okay, lady,” I whispered. “I’m on my way out.”

She lowered her head, seemed to meet my gaze again, and bolted off over the mouth of the valley, after her family. It took a full minute for my breath to return.

four wheels

Wanuskewin Heritage Park6Wanuskewin Heritage Park gets four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five). It is awesome in the purest sense of the word.

It is one of the longest-running archaeological digs in Canada, with sites representing each important archaeological age for the past 6,000 years. Interpretive signs are useful but not intrusive, and written to engage a hiker and encourage them to imagine themselves in another time. Trails are narrow and blend in with the land, which has gentle hills and sweeps down toward the river. Wildlife are curious but keep to themselves.

I wasn’t able to spend much time in the interpretive centre because I was on my way out of town, but everyone I talked to spoke passionately about it. This space, whose name is Cree for “being at peace with oneself,” is clearly a treasure for Saskatonians.

It’s a 15-minute drive from the centre of Saskatoon, just a touch north of airport. It is open year-round and admission is just $4-$8.50. It also boasts events and education programs.


1 Comment

  1. I once discovered a beaver dam in the middle of a forest. It suddenly started to rain very heavily I was surrounded by trees but above me was a dome– the sky. The raindrops bouncing back from the water and the concentric circles they created, with tadpoles everywhere left an indelible impression on me, the sky clearing and the sun shining down made me feel, for the first time in my life, that I was in Church. A real one. I will never forget that sense of the spiritual that I had, and your article reawakened that memory for me.


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