ABOUT PARADISE, AND LOONS, AND A BIG BEAR
From Tuesday to Friday the three of us, I and brother John and sister Grace, indulged ourselves. We pried open the dusty cerebral archives of our relatives and we visited our family’s historic sites. Some of that I’ve already posted. And we found a day to chase Canada’s history.
Wednesday morning the three of us sped northward. During childhood we had lived in Lloydminster district. We’d never even heard of Loon Lake or Big Bear. But I had heard of Paradise Hill. I imagined it must be close to Eden. I meant to find out.
The flat plains melded into the rolling parkland of the West. We crossed the North Saskatchewan River, and the elevator and water tower of Paradise Hill hove into view. Its claim to fame is the World’s Largest Red River Cart – the plaque said the prairie soil still held the ruts of the old-time carts. We asked a local where we could find them – she had never heard of them.
Paradise Hill. A charming village spread over the slope of small mountain. No one was home. A pleasant place to live, but no paradise. Everyone knows paradise is home.
We were looking for the site of the last military engagement in Canada between the Indians and the white men. On April 2, 1885, members of Chief Big Bear’s band had massacred nine people in Frog Lake, Alberta. The aging Big Bear had been helpless to prevent the slaughter, for the young men were led by the war chief, Wandering Spirit.
The white men caught up with the warriors and non-combatants at Makwa Lake. People with little respect for history call it the Battle of Loon Lake. Baloney. It was the Skirmish of Makwa Lake. (Loon Lake is not a body of water; it is a village several miles away.) The site of the fighting was later named Steele Narrows. Because . . . Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police led the white guys.
Yes, Inspector Samuel B. Steele, who later achieved international fame as the Hero of the Klondike Gold Rush, was leading a contingent of Mounties and civilians. The Cree had just crossed a narrows in the lake when Steele’s Scouts fired upon them.
The outcome of the encounter was two scouts wounded and five Indians killed. Steele gave up and the Indians got away. This has been recorded as a victory for the white men.
The official website for Steele Narrows Provincial Park states there were three wounded whites and three dead Indians. Baloney. These “historical” interpretations are written by summer students and know-nothing consultants who fail to credit their Wikipedia sources. You have to turn to a local author for the facts.
The local author in whom I have complete confidence is Douglas W. Light, who published Footprints in the Dust in North Battleford in 1987. It is a day-by-day account of the North-West Rebellion. His grandfather was a member of the N.W.M.P.; his playmates, Métis and Indians; his playground, the historic sites of the N-W Rebellion. His exhaustive research spanned a lifetime.
He gives the actual names of the white and Indian casualties at Steele Narrows: there were two whites wounded and five Indians killed.
Anyway, John and Grace and I had to find Steele Narrows. Of course there were no directional signs. The car’s GPS was useless. So we winged it over gravel roads through dense bush. We arrived at a little clearing which served as a parking lot and boat launch. A sign said this was a Provincial Park.
A dirt-and-log stairway climbed a steep hill through a swath in the forest. We paused several times before we reached the top where we could study the interpretive signs. We tried to imagine the scenario on June 3rd, 1885. It’s hard to believe this hilltop was a factor in the skirmish, for we could not even see the narrows – a sort of creek joining two ponds of Makwa Lake.
The main scene of action had to be the area of the parking lot. Of course, if you are a consultant and knowledgeable about parking lots, you conclude that a hilltop is a more appropriate location for a battle. I figure the “battle” was a case of individual riflemen squatting behind tree trunks and windfalls and taking potshots at one another. The Indians held the high ground across the narrows.
We drove over Steele Narrows and after several miles came to the little village of Loon Lake. We asked around and found George, who opened the tiny museum for us. What a find! Artifacts dating back to 1885! I challenge you to find a professional historian that knows about this place. George, a retired teacher, prattled on and on about the Rebellion.
Next stop: St. Walburg. Many years ago I recalled visiting St. Walburg with our late father. He had memories of it from the ’30s. We found a delightful museum in an old church. Well, the three of us found St. Walburg, and we found a museum in a church. There was a list of telephone contacts tacked to the door. Next door, in a real church, they were conducting funeral services. We couldn’t raise anyone by phone. As we stood there helplessly, a passer-by said, Everyone’s at the funeral! So we left.
It wasn’t the right church/museum anyway. The geography wasn’t right. I’ll have to dig out my notes on that long-ago trip.
Next stop: Frenchman Butte, overlooking the North Saskatchewan. (No, I did not forget an apostrophe S. ) The museum grounds looked deserted. We accosted a lady who was leaving. She reluctantly opened the main building. I never saw all that stuff when I visited in ’96! Lots of 1885 memorabilia. Not too far away, the white guys and the Indians had mixed it up on May 28th. The lady soon warmed to the task of interpreting the exhibits. The highlight for me: a memoir by George Gwynne Mann, one of Big Bear’s hostages. Mann’s niece, Ethel, who had typed up his handwritten manuscript, bestowed a copy on me. In person. (P.S. All of the hostages had been released unharmed.)
Southward we sped.
We had a family reunion to attend.