Touring the Unknown Badlands

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Red Deer River Valley, north of Drumheller.  The edge of the Badlands.

A few weeks ago friend Terry and I had the privilege of having a personal tour of the Drumheller environs.  Our guide was Ralph, who was born in the area and lived his young life there until he went to university in Edmonton.  I have been to Drumheller innumerable times in my life, including one period in 1964 when, as a summer student for Alberta Gas Trunkline, I was on a survey crew working nearby.  We lived in a Drumheller motel and ate at the restaurants in town.

I wondered if I was going to learn much new; nevertheless, I’ve learned that when a resident invites me for a tour of his stomping grounds I always come away with a better understanding of the area.  This trip was no exception.

I’ve used the term “badlands" in the title as it provides a familiar locater to where we went that day.  Although we were in some of the “badlands" in the Red Deer River Valley, most of what we saw was anything but bad.

The day started with a drive to Drumheller, on roads alongside miles of cultivated farmland on good soil.  The day was sunny and warm — perfect.  We went a bit north on the highway to Carbon and then wound our way down the Red Deer River Valley to the Bleriot Ferry.  I’ve known about this ferry for a long time, but had never taken the time to cross the river on it as it is so close to the bridges of Drumheller.  What a treat it was to see and travel on this old waterway crossing that has been in use since 1913.  It is a cable ferry manned by one older gentleman.  Actually, he was my age.  When am I going to get used to the fact that I really am ‘of a certain age’?  We had an informative chat with him during our five minute water passage to the other side.  I was amazed to learn about the large number of vehicles and people that cross on the ferry once summer arrives.

The ferry crossing is named after Andre Bleriot who farmed nearby at the start of the 20th century.  That name might seem familiar, because Andre’s brother, Louis Bleriot, was the person who created the Bleriot monoplane and became the first person to fly across the English Channel in 1909 in a heavier-than-air aircraft.

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     Bleriot Ferry

Once on the other side of the Red Deer River, we thanked our boatman and headed south, wandering along a back road into Drumheller.

Driving through Drumheller, I pointed out all the places I’d eaten at and the motel I used to live in back in the 60’s.  I asked Ralph where we were going to eat.  He said ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ and carried on south of the Drumheller on the road to Dorothy.  When we reached the turnoff to Wayne, we turned and headed up a side valley from the Red Deer River.  It turned out that this is the valley that the CNR tracks navigate on the way from the flat prairie above down to bottom of the Red Deer River Valley.  It is also the river course to the Rosebud River.  This used to be the CNR mainline between Calgary and Edmonton.  I was saddened to see that the rails had been recently torn up and the old ties were spread in piles along the old railway bed.  I never did take this line during my university days when I used to travel between Edmonton and Calgary as it took more time than the CPR trip.  Now I wish I had.

As we drove over the 11 bridges that are required to navigate over the winding course of the Rosebud river on our way to Wayne, we saw many of the locations that used to have operational mines.  At some we could still see remnants of the old mine shaft equipment.  Many of the men that worked those mines made Wayne their home.  Ralph said that it was tough living and the coal dust from the mining and processing used to put a cover on everything in the valley.  I thought of the coal mining towns Natal and Michelle located in the Crowsnest Pass area of southern Alberta in the 1950’s.  I drove through there with my parents and remember the blackened ground and buildings created from the coal dust settling out of the air.  I could imagine what it must have been like in Wayne in those days.  Very similar, I’m sure.

The drive up the valley is on paved road and the scenery is similar to that of the Red Deer River valley we had just left, but much more enclosed.  Ralph pointed out several coal tipples where the sub-bituminous was dumped into waiting rail cars.  Some of the mining spoil piles were still evident.

I wish I had known about that road when I was still riding my motorcycle.  That would have been a fun ride.  I’ve since learned that it is a favourite with many motorcyclists travelling for the day out of Calgary.

We soon arrived at Wayne and went into The Last Chance Saloon (est. 1913).  It is attached to the Rosedeer Hotel, which offers rooms to let, but we were there for lunch.

Remnants of the Village of Wayne with the Rosedeer Hotel and Last Chance Saloon in the environs of the valley

The walls of the saloon are covered with eclectic items ranging from old cameras to railway spikes.  In addition, there are photos of the Wayne valley at the time that the mines were still operational.  Our service was quick yet chatty.  Ralph engaged our waitress’s repartee, which was frank and open, and we all had a good laugh.  Our food was good, but the highlight was their apple pie.  The chef used cut apples for filling, thank goodness.  “No canned stuff here,” our waitress said.  “When we say homemade, we mean it!”  She even brought me some Cheddar cheese to have with my pie.  It’s a prairie thing to have cheese with apple pie and I love it.  By the way, just in case those who have followed my travel notes in the past were wondering about coffee, I must report that I would not go out of my way for a cup of coffee at the Last Chance Saloon.  There is nothing special about it.

As we ate, Ralph’s cousin, who is still farming in the area, walked in the door.  He and Ralph did a bit of catching up.  His cousin said that the land is very dry this year and if there isn’t some good rain soon they will have to write off the crop.  That brought home to me the yearly risks involved in making a living off the land.  It is a tough business, but it can also be rewarding.  For some, they treasure being able to live outside large cities.

After lunch we drove out of the valley and along the roads that separate the fields at the top of the valley.

Looking west, up the Rosebud Creek valley - Rosedeer Hotel on the right

This area was settled mostly by Danes and many of them were related, in one way or another, to Ralph, so he knew all the best places to go.  He took us to a unique coulee that came up from the Rosebud River Valley.  Looking out on that coulee one might have thought they were looking at a mountain valley.  There were evergreens growing on the North facing slopes and there was a small stream gurgling along the bottom of the coulee.  I couldn’t help but think how comfortable it would be for a writer to have a small home on the end of this coulee as a quiet and picturesque getaway.

Finally, we visited the historic Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Dalum to see where Ralph's family used to attend church when he was a young boy.  The church is still in use.  In the loft end of the church was a stained glass window on the balcony floor that was donated by members of his family in memory of one of their own.

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     Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Dalum, AB 

We then ambled our way back to Calgary, looking back over our shoulder from time to time, casting our eyes over planted and greening fields, dotted with farm yard buildings and homes, as far as the eye could see.

Reflecting on the day, I can say that I now have more than a visual record of that part of our country.  For me, it is a powerful addition to have a memory associated with people from both the past and present.