Hiking can be so different depending on who you go with. For me, it normally consists of selecting a trail that leads to a goal, such as a mountain summit or an incredible view. Other times, it might be to reach a destination. Recently, however, we joined Tim Patterson of Zuc’min guiding for an education hike around Mount Yamnuska in the Kananaskis. While hundreds of other people made their way up the mountain on an extremely well-trodden trail, our small group spent hours in one small area near the bottom, meandering slowly through the forest to learn about all the plants and flowers we normally hike by. While I might admire the beauty of various plants and flowers during one of my typical hikes, I certainly didn’t know about some of the medicinal or even spiritual properties some of them hold. For example, Trembling Aspen is beautiful to look at, but did you know that if you rub the “spores” off of the bark, it can be used as sunscreen? Then again, did you know that the whole Yarrow plant (Achilla millefolium) can be used to make a tea for colds?
I didn’t either until we joined Tim for this enlightening indigenous experience. We learned about the Buffalo Berry and how it got its name. We learned that the Common Wild Rose (Rosa nutkana) is edible but also toxic if you don’t remove the seeds. Then, we stumbled upon a gorgeous meadow of sweetgrass. From here, our education split into two ways. First, we learned that the various plants and flowers we were learning about might mean totally different things to different Indigenous nations. Tim, for example, has no connection with sweetgrass. It’s just not how he was raised. Bernie, on the other hand, another indigenous man that joined us on our tour, looks at sweetgrass as one of the most sacred things in the forest. For him, it’s a very spiritual plant. So spiritual in fact, that he showed us what they do with it when they find it. I’m sure there are many other ways in which they use it, but for this particular moment, we were told to gather 28 laces of sweetgrass, breaking the stems off where they meet the dirt. We then aligned them with each other and braided them into one unit, similar to braided hair. Since my wife and I braided our own, he told us to touch foreheads beforehand and say a prayer to the sweetgrass, asking it to help us with something important. Then, once we had completed the braid, Bernie felt inspired to perform a song for us, an incredible prayer that radiated through us as he hummed a beautiful rhythm throughout the forest. Our actual hike into the meadow was only 15 minutes and yet we spent hours learning about everything we saw along the way, turning it into one of the most enriching hikes we’ve experienced.
Our next adventure was totally different as we drove north to Nordegg to join Girth Hitch Guiding for a Via Ferrata mountain climbing experience. Our guide, Tim Taylor, a proud Métis man, created his company to share adventures that guarantee challenge and growth. This is one of the common threads we found throughout our indigenous adventure. All the guides, whether Métis or First Nation, shared a much deeper connection with their surroundings than we’ve typically experienced. Tim Taylor, for example, has a profound appreciation for the David Thompson corridor. He also has a profound appreciation for what he does, and throughout the day, we came to see him as one of the best guides we’ve experienced. You could tell from start to finish that he cares so deeply for the people he takes on an adventure.
There are two Via Ferratas in the David Thompson region. One is called “From Nordegg with Love” and the other is called “The Fox”. Since The Fox is an easier climb, it’s definitely the recommended option for those new to the sport. Translated to “Iron Path” from Italian, Via Ferrata was invented in Italy during the World War as a way to navigate troops across difficult terrain. Nowadays, they are basically a steel ladder system built into the mountain, providing a very safe way to go mountain climbing. In Alberta, these are the only two Via Ferratas that are accessible to the public. As long as you have the gear and know the rules, you can access them on your own and for no cost. During our day of climbing, it was one of the hottest days of the year, reaching as high as 30 degrees Celcius. While this certainly made it a hot day to be on the side of a mountain, it also helped to provide dramatically clear views of the surrounding beauty. After talking to us about the region, Tim equipped us with the necessary harnesses and helmets while teaching us how to climb and what to be aware of. We then hiked uphill for 30 minutes or so before reaching the first steel ladder and the accompanying steel cable that we would hook our carabiner into. From here on out, we scaled the mountain, climbing upwards of 1000 feet (300 metres) before reaching the top. While climbing up a mountain face can be quite nerve-racking as you look around at all the trees below you, the Via Ferrata system makes you feel very safe. After all, as long as you do it properly, you’re always connected to the steel cable. This is also great for photography, as it allows you to lean off and snap a photo, without the fear of slipping and falling off the mountain. Even my wife, Karla, who gets a little more nervous than I do when it comes to activities like this, had an absolute blast. It was also made easier with Tim in her corner, encouraging her the entire way and making her feel safe at all times. Once at the top, we sat down for incredible world-class views while having a light snack. The colours of Abraham Lake under the bright sun was so vividly turquoise that it almost looked fake in the photos. It’s truly astonishing how beautiful nature can be. After hiking back down the mountain, we stopped at a small mountain stream to splash the cold freshwater in our face, a much-needed refreshment after an entire day under the sun.
After walking around below a mountain to learn about plants and flowers as well as climbing to the top of a mountain, our third Indigenous adventure would take us south once again for a day with Painted Warriors. Popular with people looking to go camping, learn archery, and practice survival skills, Painted Warriors is located on a ranch that’s about 20-minutes south of Sundre. Operated in part by Tracey Klettl, a descendant of the Cree and Mohawk people from the area which is now Jasper National Park, we once again had a “connected” experience. First, we learned how to start a fire using a Ferro Rod, which is essentially a combination of traditional and modern technology. We had to do this first because we had to get the coals hot enough to cook our lunch, which ended up being delicious elk steaks. Then, it was time to practice archery. Rather than simply teach us how to shoot an arrow, we first learned about ethical hunting. While archery can certainly be a sport, many people, both today and throughout history, have used it to hunt animals. However, as Painted Warriors explained to us, it was not something taken lightly by the First Nations. For them, they often began learning how to shoot around the age of four or five. It takes many years for someone to become skilled enough to hunt and kill animals with a bow and arrow. This is because they had to be precise enough to take down the animal in one shot. If the arrow did not hit the animal in a precise location, it would simply be injured, causing it much more pain and suffering, which is something the Indigenous people do not agree with. Therefore, only once they could prove their accuracy were they allowed to go hunting for the community. While you may or may not agree with hunting, it’s a part of life, and I respect the notion of making it as quick and as painless as possible for the animal.
To start our lesson, we fired arrows at targets. We were taught how to stand, how to aim, and how to properly shoot the arrow. Then, after we hit our targets, we got to go into the forest and practise 3D archery, utilizing their life-like animal targets. We didn’t have time to “hunt” all 20 targets that they have, but instead, we focused on the bear. Although most First Nation groups don’t typically hunt bear due to them being sacred, it’s a nice big target for beginners. Each animal had the markings of where it should be hit to ensure a fast kill. Any shot outside of that target would simply injure the animal. It took us a few shots, but I did end up getting a direct kill with my last shot. My training worked. Still, many arrows missed the target, so it’s a good thing our elk steaks were already being cooked on the fire, otherwise, it would have been a hungry afternoon. After lunch, we switched gears and did some horseback riding. However, rather than going for a typical trail ride, which can be done anywhere, we had a more “connected” experience with the horses, learning how to groom them, saddle them, and connect with them on a more personal level. We walked beside them, making sure they were aware of us as we walked forward, backward, and came to a stop. Then, once we did that, we hopped on and rode them around the property, enjoying both a slow-paced walk and a faster trot. For anyone truly wanting to learn how to ride, it definitely makes sense to really learn about horses and how to develop a relationship with them. While anyone can join a trail ride, it’s another experience to really connect with your horse and develop trust between each other.
Connection is what I found to be the bond between each of the Indigenous adventures we participated in throughout Alberta. Whether it was learning about the connection between plants and the various First Nations that roam these areas, the connection between a guide and his clients on their journey through transformational adventure, or the connection between a horse and its rider or even a hunter and its prey, our indigenous adventures taught us to be more connected to everything we do. Whether it’s being mindful of the nature around us, or even between the experience and ourselves, anything can become more enlightening if we simply pay attention. Rather than focus on the destination, focus on the journey. From scaling a mountain to picking sweetgrass with friends, be in the moment and appreciate every breath.
For more information in Indigenous tourism in Alberta, check out www.destinationindigenous.ca.
For more on what to do in Alberta and beyond, check out these articles below:
- Banff to Jasper
- Calgary to Banff
- Things to Do in Banff
- Things to Do in Calgary
- Things to Do in Edmonton