Alberta’s Wild, Wild West

This Canadian province teems with exhibits and sites that tell tales of the Old West.

By: By Janice Mucalov

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The Details

Glenbow Museum

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Heritage Park

The Wild West is alive and stompin’ in Alberta, Canada. This is the land where the mighty Blackfoot nation hunted buffalo, cowboys roamed and pioneering settlers staked out cattle ranches. While its most famous Western event is the Calgary Stampede — a 10-day extravaganza of chuckwagon races, steer wrestling and other outdoor Western entertainment that attracts more than 1 million visitors each year — other attractions also celebrate the province’s Wild West heritage and are well worth a visit.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Many moons ago, according to native legend, a young brave stood under a ledge watching countless buffalo plunge to their death as his people chased them over the precipice above him. But as the bodies mounted, he became trapped between the animals and the cliff. When his people came to butcher the carcasses, they found him with his skull crushed by the weight of the buffalo. The place was thusly named “Head-Smashed-In.”

For 5,700 years, aboriginal people used the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump as a place to kill bison. Today, clients can learn about their buffalo-hunting culture at a seven-tiered interpretive center erected at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Located near Fort MacLeod, the center is built into the side of ancient sandstone cliffs. Inside, an 80-seat theater features a new high-definition reenactment of a buffalo jump, complete with surround-sound and computer-generated special effects. Native guides also talk about the history of the jump and how buffalo sustained their people’s way of life.

Outside are two trails leading to the actual kill-site cliff, where a deposit of bones at its base is some 40 feet deep. Clients can see the small stone piles built as drive lanes to help the hunters herd the buffalo to the cliff, as well as the flat prairie area where hunters camped to butcher their kill. On Wednesdays in July and August, native drumming and dancing is performed at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and is always a hit.

Glenbow Museum
Walk into a real Blackfoot tipi and listen to an elder whisper tales of ancient ways. See a scarlet dress uniform from the 1876 North West Mounted Police. Marvel at an early 1900’s white elk-hide Blackfoot suit. At Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, clients can see, smell, hear and touch Alberta’s native and pioneering history. As Western Canada’s largest museum, it boasts more than 93,000 square feet of exhibition space with more than 1 million artifacts and 31,000 works of art.

The third floor is especially evocative. In the Blackfoot Gallery, a circular narrative path guides you through the history of the Blackfoot-speaking people, who have lived for thousands of years on the Alberta plains. Also on the third floor is “Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta.” This dynamic new gallery tells the province’s history through the stories of 48 particularly adventurous men and women. Men such as Fred Bagley who, at 15, joined the North West Mounted Police in 1874, and became its youngest member.

Other must-sees include a fantastic driftwood and metal Inuit Yupik mask; rawhide containers used by other First Nations people; and a collection of historic ranching and farming tools, including an early 20th-century pair of horse spurs.

Heritage Park

Alberta’s Heritage Park is a recreation of a frontier town. // © 2010 Heritage Park Historical Village

Alberta’s Heritage Park is a recreation of a frontier town. // © 2010 Heritage Park Historical Village

At Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary, clients can step back in time to 1860 and discover “How the West Was Once.” More than 150 buildings, staffed with some 300 actor/interpreters in period costumes, recreate an 1860’s fur trading fort, an 1880’s ranching community and a town from 1910. Many of the buildings are genuine and were transported to the site.

The visit starts with a ride to the park gates on an electric streetcar. Once inside, clients should get an overall tour of the park on the authentic thundering steam train or by horse-drawn wagon. They’ll also want to board the S.S. Moyie Sternwheeler, a paddlewheel boat that takes you out on the Glenmore Reservoir.

Within the park, clients can roam from a sod house and simple trapper’s cabin to stately sandstone mansions. In the kitchen of the farmhouse, costumed women make jelly on a wood-fired stove. There’s also a working blacksmith, a one-room schoolhouse, an old dentist’s office, a newly refurbished log opera house, an old-fashioned candy store (jelly beans anyone?) and an antique midway with a restored Ferris wheel, carousel and other early 20th-century rides.

The park is open daily from May 22 to Sept. 6, and only on weekends from Sept. 11 to Oct. 11.

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