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Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park brings Canadian history alive



Photography by Louise Christie

Anyone who contends that Canadian history is dull will likely experience a change of heart during a visit to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Take a day to ramble along the Trans Canada Trail as it rolls past an oasis of lakes and forests spread high above the bald prairie. Soak up the landscape just as Native Americans and newly arrived European adventurers did in the late 19th century. The park straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan border a four-hour drive southeast of Calgary  is the ideal place to take the true measure of the changes since then. To spend time there is to share in the Cypress Hills story - whether from the comfort of a bike seat or by simply placing your footsteps where the likes of Lakota Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull and the fledgling North-West Mounted Police once roamed.

During a recent sojourn in the park, Larry Emrick, a Vancouver-based member of the Mounted Forces Association of Canada, a commemorative group that honours the tradition of Canada's horseback constabulary, found himself exploring on foot rather than in the saddle.

"The Cypress Hills are stunning from all aspects," he told Pique . "It's awe-inspiring to be able to share a place where history was made. The older I get, the more I find that an enhanced sense of history comes with age - as does an appreciation for gentler hiking trails," the retired journalist said with a smile.

"Part of the magic is simply standing here, not reliving history so much as experiencing the same environment. I get as much kick out of looking south into the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana as I do at Fort Rodd Hill in Victoria staring across into the States at the Olympic Mountains. These were both bastions for establishing Canadian sovereignty."

The natural history of the Cypress Hills predates the settlement of the West by many millennia. Therein lies its charm. During the most recent ice age, these slopes - at 1,400 metres, the highest points of land between the Rockies and Labrador - were left untouched by glaciation. Although the surrounding prairie was levelled flat, Cypress Hills provided a refuge for an abundance of wildlife then, as it does today. The buffalo may have perished, but a wide mélange of species - from brown pelicans and badgers to burrowing owls and swift foxes - are often spotted while making your way quietly along a network of ridge trails. This being partly Alberta, don't be surprised to spot a herd of cattle grazing in the poplar-and-evergreen forests as well.

As hard as you try, what you won't find are cypress trees. The Blackfoot, one of the original tribes that hunted and over-wintered in the sheltering coulees, called this place the Pine Hills. French-speaking traders, the first non-Natives to explore the region, translated pine as "cypress." By the time a detachment of North-West Mounted Police arrived in the 1870s to clamp down on the cross-border smuggling of whiskey, the region was already notated on maps under its current handle.