Claresholm is a gas and hamburger stop on Highway 2, in the heart of Alberta’s farming country.
The road is called Deer Foot Trail as it leaves Calgary, when it is a busy freeway, but then quietens down as it winds through the rolling countryside. I pass groups of houses that seem scattered randomly, farm houses and barns surrounded by a clump of trees planted generations ago, children literally sheltered by their great-grandparents. What lives do they live, so far from the nearest neighbor?
The horse was once vital to connect them. Nowadays, it is easy to think the massive trucks driving frozen steaks to market along this highway and so many others in North America are the real modern cowboys. Place names such as Meadow Creek, Picture Butte and the Unesco site of Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, just south of Claresholm, hint at the frontier history of this vast plain. The jump has been used for nearly 6,000 years by the people of the Great Plains to drive buffalo to their deaths. It is an atmospheric and windswept place that my imagination yearns to fill with herds of buffalo. Instead, I am driven away by itchy clouds of mosquitoes.
At Fort Macleod, a reconstruction of the original 19th-century frontier fort is the main attraction. Students dressed in the red uniforms of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) put on a musical ride three times a day, drawing warm applause from the handful of visitors. The NWMP were the forerunners of the famous “Mounties” and first brought British law and order to the frontier.
“The NWMP were put into place to supervise relations with the First Nations and the settlers,” says Sergeant Morgan Gunderson, a working policeman who also oversees the ride. “There were Bluecoats – the US Army - across the border and the First Nations had a negative relation with them, so that was an issue at first with the Redcoats. But they developed a peaceful co-existence between both sides.
“The biggest problem back then was whisky trading and petty theft. We still deal with the same sort of things but the problems now are lots of domestics and traffic offenses. You want people to abide by the rules so everyone can function within the community.
“Growing up, it was the cool thing to be a fort rider. I used to come down as a four- or five-year-old and watch in awe from beyond the fence. The fort is the epicenter of the community, so when you are riding around you feel like you are carrying on an important tradition. And you are paid for riding horses. Other people pay to ride horses.”
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