Sundance Lodges reside in a restricted spiritual retreat on the Kootenay Plains near the Siffleur Wilderness Area in Bighorn Backcountry, Alberta, Canada.
The Kootenay Plains are fragile and pristine grasslands surrounded by meadows and forest in an area south of Abraham Lake and wedged between the Siffleur Wilderness Area and the south portion of the Job/Cline Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ). Reference 'The Public Land Use Zones of Bighorn Backcountry Map' provided free in 2015 by the Alberta Government.
A private and restricted area near Two O'Clock Creek is set aside as a Stoney First Nations Land Allotment. Entrance from roadside is gated, fenced and guarded.
In ancient times, the unique and isolated grasslands attracted grazing animals and later became hunting and gathering places for indigenous people and traders. The name of this special area is derived from original, known occupancy by the Kootenay Indians. For many years the Kootenay Indians, from what is now British Columbia, participated in fur trade with a small Northwest Company Post located at Kootenay Plains. In 1806 the area was occupied by the Blackfoot People. The current area is divided by the David Thompson Highway. There is a major parking area on the south side of the highway which serves as trailhead access for the excellent hike to Siffleur Falls. The north side of the highway hosts the Kootenay Plains Cavalcade Group Camp (by reservation) and Alberta Forest Service campsites at Two O'Clock Creek. (Reference: Hiking Alberta's David Thompson Country, 2nd Edition by Pat Kariel and Eric Schneider).
My entrance into Sundance Lodges is through forest onto the grassy plains. To me, it is sacred land and the visit requires no less reverence and respect than would be appropriate for entering any public place of worship and celebration. Currently there are no ceremonies underway and there is no evidence of presence beyond my own. The large area is backed by magnificent cliffs and rolling forest surrounded by towering mountains. There are skeletons of lodges, draped with colorful prayer flags for as far as the eye can see. I begin my tour with meticulous care. The only thing I will leave are footprints and they may be difficult to find. The only thing I will take is photographs. It is a matter of respect that my visit remains invisible.
Periodically, individual trees are adorned with colorful cloth. The tree may be a memorial to an ancient relative or a specific event. In addition to the skeletons of the large sweat lodges, there are numerous smaller, more permanent structures which appear to be corrals or storage locations.
Major structures are constructed from branches. Coverings have been removed for reuse at future celebrations. The wooden remains are left to be reclaimed by nature in the same tradition that has existed for thousands of years.
Climbing walls are predominant to the north.
The walk is fascinating. Each celebration area is surrounded by open grassland where tipis or tents would provide temporary residence for individual families throughout the course of the ceremonies. Rock rings and ashes lie testament as evidence of fire pits. The degree of structure decay will determine the time of the event. Some are near complete decay which would require decades of exposure to nature.
After visiting each site, another site in the distance beckons to be investigated. The sunny, still weather being enjoyed is in stark contrast to the dark clouds and heavy weather surrounding Sundance Lodges. A primitive road assists transition from one forest-enclosed grassland meadow to another.
The urge to perpetually continue the adventure is overwhelming, however time and potentially stormy weather truncate further investigation beyond a huge pristine meadow where the camera's long lens captures the remnants of a shelter for horses. It may be possible this entire field was a dedicated pasture for the care and feeding of horses.
Reluctantly, the journey back begins.
The primitive road which will exit from the area is easy walking. New perspectives on decaying lodges unfold as dynamic weather builds over surrounding mountains.
Primitive road morphs to more established, sandy road heading south and west towards intersection with the David Thompson Highway. Near the highway, other roads veer away to many additional ceremonial sites from past celebratory events. The complex is huge and signifies gatherings over centuries. The urge to continue discovery is overwhelming.
Back at the David Thompson Highway, interesting ground cover over plains of pebbled stone creates tapestries of art. The parking area on the south side of the highway is crowded with vehicles. The official access road to Sundance Lodges tracks parallel to the highway and guarded gates define the entrance to and exit from the segregated area. No Trespassing signs are prominent at the entrance. Permission for access is important. Public access is not permitted when spiritual celebrations are underway.
The remaining short walk west to the car provides magnificent sweeping vistas of surrounding powerful weather.
What began as a benign walk to stretch legs and enjoy magnificent surrounding scenery around Kootenay Plains has, by extraordinary circumstance, extended the adventure substantially to absorb the entire morning.
The drive west continues west on the David Thompson Highway to my next destination at The Crossing in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Photographs for this hike and extraordinary privilege at Sundance Lodges occurred on the morning of Monday, July 27, 2015.