Fort Walsh, at Cypress Hills in south Saskatchewan, served an important historical role in the development of Western Canada.
Early morning departure from three excellent days of accommodation at Days Inn in Medicine Hat begins the drive southeast along the TransCanada Highway in Big Sky country across rolling, predominantly monotonous and soothing prairie landscape from Medicine Hat in Alberta.
Accommodation at the Maple Creek Motor Inn at Maple Creek, Saskatchewan will provide convenient access south to the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The other, Alberta side of this unique, isolated and spectacular park is commonly accessed from Elkwater, Alberta.
Cypress Hills is a spectacular area of elevated land that soars above seemingly endless, surrounding stretches of rolling prairie. The unique area was left undisturbed by ancient glaciers which carved surrounding land flat.
Unexpected news on arrival finds Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park closed due to the fire hazard created by the extraordinary 2017 hot and dry summer. The only access beyond paid RV camping is for the Fort Walsh National Historic Site at the southeast corner of the park. Access details must be followed carefully. There are many opportunities to end up elsewhere and apparently this is a very common occurrence.
Meticulously detailed instructions lead south and west through the small and memorable, remote town of Maple Creek for a turn right (west) at the hospital followed 3 KM (1⅞ miles) later by a left turn south on Hwy 271.
Highway 271 south, after a 3 KM jog west from the corner at the hospital, on Hwy 21, heads south past the famous Cypress Hills Vineyard and Winery which, unfortunately, is closed to public access, because by this time, a glass of wine may begin to appear very attractive. There may be people still out there praying for a gas station. Watch carefully for scarce and critical signage. Enough written.
Fort Walsh is at the end of a series of twists and turns gaining rapid altitude through towering forest to an elevated prairie surface where copious cattle rightfully roam, before descent on well-signed road.
Established in 1875, Fort Walsh became the largest and most influential fort the North-West Mounted Police occupied during early years of Western development. The location became a meeting place and crossroads for many different people, including Mounties, First Nations, Métis, fur traders and whiskey traders. The North-West Mounted Police avoided much of the violence that often characterized other frontiers by application of diplomacy, conciliation and dialogue.
The lengthy approach turns left at a wooden, fence-protected kiosk for descent past the cemetery to the inviting reconstruction of the walled fort. Reception, information and the Canteen occupy the building immediately to the right inside the entrance.
An excellent interpretive program has just begun under outdoor canopy adjacent to the Commanders cabin in the watchtower corner of the compound. The impeccable detail achieved in this meticulous example of the reconstructed fort is extremely impressive and representative of the original complex.
The natural progression from the Commander's HQ leads to a progression of white-painted log cabins. Good attempt has been made to make the facility wheelchair accessible. The initial cabin hosts a ramp to modern washroom facility. The subsequent cabin is a reconstruction of the former bathing house. Published interpretive information explains components long ago rendered obsolete.
History buffs will be impressed with enlargements of period photographs and detailed scale models of the original fort complex in the meeting room before this fort was closed in 1883 after only 8 years of service.
Adjacent buildings contain recreations of the cookhouse and mess hall as well as bunkhouse accommodation.
A walking tour of the Fort Walsh buildings includes the immaculately recreated building for weapons and ammunition storage as well as the meticulously recreated blacksmith's workshop. Detail is impressive and for those with a substantially better developed attention span than mine, the presentation surrounding the facility will bring the folklore to life.
The largest building contains stables for the black horses which became established as the ongoing standard for RCMP mounts to current day. Racks of saddles and the reconstructed workshop for horseshoe creation and maintenance accompany a host of the gear, tools and tack required to maintain a stable of working horses. All heat and light was supplied by wood stoves and kerosene lamps.
Gates past the livery open out to the re-creation of a tepee village reflecting the working relationship between soldiers and indigenous people. A small cluster of cabins outside the tall walls of the fort are accompanied by a vegetable garden and chopping blocks for wood fuel. Lofty and diverse surrounding landscape combines grassland competing with deciduous and evergreen forest.
On the circular route path returning to the fort's main entrance there is cleared pathway to the site of the original village which quickly sprang up to serve traffic created by the fort's existence. The frontier settlement grew to host about 40 log cabins and a population near 1,000 which served as a meeting place for freighters, hunters, fur traders, explorers and vagabonds.
At its height of development, the settlement included two hotels, a restaurant, several billiard halls and the services of a barber, a tailor, a laundry and a blacksmith. The fort and surrounding lands would periodically host up to 5,000 people. Virtually nothing remains beyond the small creek except old basement depressions and small clearings.
The nearby historical cemetery represents the era plus, more recent additions include local residents in the area. A massive stone cairn contains historical information on a brass plaque and many of the ancient tombstones help to reveal the character of the time.
The tour around the fort and surrounding land is an often interrupted hiking experience on its own but there are formal hiking trails in the immediate vicinity which can be enjoyed in addition to surveying the fort.
The trail-head for the Métis Trail is located at the picnic site and provides access along Battle Creek suitable for any family. This easy trail is also wheelchair and stroller compatible.
The Backcountry Trail is a 5 KM (3⅛ mile) trail which leads to the Cypress Hills Massacre National Historic Site with some elevation differential. The formal loop allows return on a more forgiving return via an easier 2.5 KM (1.6 mile) access road return to the fort. There is also an opportunity to seek out the Parks Canada Red Chairs at the end of a short, steep, trail which provides outstanding views of the Fort Walsh National Historic Site and surrounding hills.