Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel

by breavman99

My intentions were to blog every day about this walk, but I hadn’t taken into account the amount of time it takes to set up camp and cook. I’d thought that it might be hard to find a cell signal, but that hasn’t been much of a problem. And the solar panel that’s attached to my pack has been doing a pretty good job of keeping my phone charged. But aside from a few cryptic Facebook posts, I haven’t had much of a chance to share stories of this walk–until now. We have a rest day today, at the Herschel Retreat House, and assuming the cell signal here holds out, I’m going to pass along a few stories and photographs from the first half of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk.

Yes, the first half. We’ve covered some 150 kilometres–and one of the interesting things about this walk is the way that those kinds of numbers become less important over time–and we have about the same distance left before we reach Fort Battleford on the 20th of August. In fact, we usually use Imperial measurements to assess how far we’ve walked, because that’s how the roads we walk along were surveyed back in the nineteenth century: a mile between roads running north-south, and two miles between roads running east-west, except when there’s only a road allowance, or when there’s some kind of obstacle, like a slough or a coulee. Occasionally we walk on roads that deviate from the grid, and that’s always a treat. And sometimes we walk across pastures or on road allowances. But mostly our path takes us along hard, stony grid roads.

Who are “we”? Who is crazy enough to attempt this journey? Well, Hugh Henry from the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society is the primary organizer of this pilgrimage. He’s been planning this journey for more than a year, researching the history of the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, figuring out where it ran and determining a route that follows its path as closely as possible–because most of the trail is now beneath cultivated fields. Hugh has also been talking to landowners about our trek, getting permission for us to camp in their farmyards. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and we’re very grateful to him, because without Hugh, there would be no walk.

The other instigator of this journey is Matthew Anderson, who teaches courses on pilgrimage at Concordia University. Hugh and Matthew organized a walk along the Wood Mountain-Cypress Hills Trail two years ago. I heard about that pilgrimage when it was happening, but at the time I was still a full-time student and couldn’t get away to walk with the group. When I heard about this walk, I was overjoyed, because after walking through the Haldimand Tract last year, I became very interested in the possibility of pilgrimages close to home, pilgrimages that don’t require a flight to Europe or Japan, pilgrimages through the territory where I live–in the case of this walk, Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories in southern Saskatchewan. I contacted Matthew, who put me in touch with Hugh, and I’ve looked forward to this experience for the last year. Matthew leads his students in a pilgrimage to Kahnawake, south of Montreal, every June, and some day I’d like to tag along on that walk.

Harold and Rick walked the Wood Mountain to Cypress Hills pilgrimage in 2015, and they both decided to be part of the current walk. Rick is from Regina. He’s Métis and has led us in smudges and prayers every morning. Before beginning this walk, an elder told me to smudge every day, and Rick has made it possible for me to do that. Harold’s from Swift Current. He’s 81 years young. He would never accept this description of himself–he would wave it away with a dismissive gesture and say it wasn’t accurate– but we all admire his toughness and his wisdom and the speed at which he walks. I find it hard to keep up to him, and invariably he’s the first one to reach our destination. Both Rick and Harold end their walk here in Herschel, and we’re all going to miss them very much.

The other walkers who started out in Swift Current are Don, from Regina; Fred, from Waterloo, Ontario; Connie, from Frontier, Saskatchewan; my partner Christine, from Regina. We were mostly strangers to each other at the beginning of this walk, but we’ve formed a tight Camino family over the past week.

Others have joined us at different times: Phil and Lorne and Kay. Lorne walked with us across the Bad Hills and the Fairview Community Pasture, and his partner, Linda, made dinner for us when we reached the community hall in Greenham, where we spent the night. And we’ve met with local people throughout this journey. Hugh has made presentations to audiences in Kyle and Fiske, and at Greenham we had an impromptu talk on the pilgrimage that Matthew, Harold, and Hugh made in Iceland last year. The interest people have shown in our quixotic trek has been gratifying: cold water or iced tea when we’re thirsty, waves, visits to our campsites. People have shared their knowledge with us and I’ve learned a great deal from them.

Don has to return to Regina for a few days because of work commitments, but he intends to join us again further up the road. The rest of us will lace up our boots tomorrow morning and start walking again.

We’re going to be taking a tour of a local archaeological site in a little bit, and I have to get ready. I’ll post more photographs of our pilgrimage this afternoon. In the mean time, here is a handful of images from yesterday’s walk.