I am fascinated by intersections and wayfinding. Not just city intersections and directional signage (though, as an urbanist, those interest me too) but the historical intersections and overlay of generations. And our ways of finding meaningful spaces in place and time.
My magnet, the geography that draws me back time and again, is the rough and inhospitable country of west-central Alberta, Canada. Brazeau County is the heart of the Pembina oil field. As such, its thick woodlands are crisscrossed with oil industry survey lines, pipelines, well heads and service roads. There is some logging activity but much of the terrain is boggy, producing stunted trees and brush not suitable for commercial forestry.
For many generations, people have moved through the area – but very few stay. Indigenous people, fur traders, map makers, homesteaders, oil explorers – they came, they exploited what they could, and they moved on.
I lived there myself, for one school year, at the highly impressionable age of eight. Now, every few years, I am drawn back to explore those intersections of time and place.
I headed out in my rented 4×4 twice this week, with a goal of getting down to the remote pasture alongside Blue Rapids, on the North Saskatchewan River, south-west of Drayton Valley. That was also the location of Boggy Hall, a fur trading post used for a few years by Alexander Henry, David Thompson and others.
It’s a maze: that crisscrossed interlay of oil lease roads does not necessarily follow the north-south / east-west axis. Without a lease roads map in hand, I cobbled together destinations based on historic maps of fur traders’ routes, current County maps, and “good old Google.” Cell coverage extends into much of the region so I had intermittent use of Google Maps satellite images.
My first day ended just short of a serious looking mud-hole. It’s been a wet year in western Alberta and the clay service roads offer less and less gravel the further back you go into the woods. When wet, the narrow clay surfaces invite even a 4×4 to slide sideways down into a watery ditch.
Day two I got lucky. With fresh rains, I had decided to stick to actual numbered roads with a sprinkling of gravel, when I came unexpectedly upon this intersection. Bogey Hall, the sign said. I won’t quibble – Bogey must mean Boggy. I turned up a service road (like all the others, copiously marked with ‘private, commercial use only’ signs forbidding trespassers). I’m not a trespasser, I figure, I’m a writer. We writers don’t read well.
Decisions. These lease roads present many. Every few hundred metres there are more intersections, more branches, more options. Most are easily ruled out – you can see the well head (and dead-end) just up the way.
I also knew from my cobbled together maps that my destination was due east, about eight kilometres.
About four km in I come upon another interesting intersection. What possessed some joker to plant a stop sign out here, at the j
unction of two mucky trails where vehicles must meet once every few weeks?
Sliding and slashing, bumping and slipping, I managed to find my way to the crest of land just above the river valley. Just then, my cell reception came back and Google Maps confirmed I was at Boggy Hall. (An interesting aside is to wonder who supplied the data that Google used to mark this location, given that there are no known remnants of the post.)
A final decision point: I study the hill down into the riverside pasture and decide that indeed I should be able to four-wheel it back out. I lock into low gear and slide the Dakota down onto the flats.
In 1811, Alexander Henry wrote, “At this place we had an establishment a few years ago… but Beaver getting scarce we abandoned the place in the Fall of the year 1808. The situation of the House is very pleasant, having a beautiful Meadow on one side, sufficiently large for a horse race, the whole is bound in by tall poplars, aspen and pine.”
Indeed it is very pleasant. That beautiful meadow is what my grandparents called “the place at Blue Rapids.” Interestingly, canoeists on the North Saskatchewan now remark that Blue Rapids no longer has any significant rapids. Rivers evolve too.
The stories of this idyllic spot are stories of searching, of hardship, of misadventure. In the late fall of 1809, famed fur trade map maker David Thompson seems to have lost his way (for the only time in his career) here. Stopped at Boggy Hall, he was intending to make an expedition over the Rocky Mountains to trade with the Kootenays. A Piegan blockade meant he couldn’t proceed up the North Saskatchewan through Howse Pass. He attempted a cross-country shotcut, through this dense and tangled terrain, but missed his mark and had to retreat back to Boggy Hall.
My siblings and I speculate on what drove our grandparents – with my dad (age 4) to trek by horse from their still-young farm west of Edmonton to this small pasture hidden in the woods on the banks of the river. Were they trying to ‘get away’ from the rush of land development in Alberta, or did they see them as pioneer developers, opening up yet another frontier?
I suspect the latter, given that they came back to the region 40 years later to build a hotel in Lodgepole, when the first oil boom was flaring.
Today, the meadow bears the imprint of yet another wave of explorer / developers – the oil and gas industry. Three well heads grace the pasture area. There are a few cattle pens – signs that someone has grazed stock here in recent years. It must have been drier years than this one because I can’t imagine a cattle truck getting in and out of here this year.
Why do I come here? I stand in the rich, wet green and wonder. It’s a quiet place, still. A breeze in the trees, waving the tall grasses of the pasture. We humans look for signs, for ideas. We explore. Wayfinding. We exploit. We might settle, ever so briefly.
Then we move on. Our generations intersect, sometimes without knowing.
All Photos © Lorne Daniel. All Rights Reserved.