I used to love it as a kid, that’s all I really remember of this place. My childhood almost seems so distant these days that I’m not really sure what really happened and what was part of my elaborate imagination. I’m sure I used to come here through. I have family that lives right down the Milk River. We used to come up to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park with inner tubes and then float down the river back towards their house. We used to talk about the water snakes that swam through here, see if we could freak out my sister or brother. I have a vague memory of climbing up through the sandstone hoodoos too; of finally reaching the top and dangling my feet over the edge and watching the view, felling like I’d conquered the world.
I used to love coming down to Southern Alberta as a kid. It felt so far away from home and exotic. My hometown is settled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, along rivers that carve through Tamarac forests. Here, just outside of the town of Milk River, this hoodoo-dotted coolie is the only break in an otherwise flat prairie landscape that runs from Manitoba all the way to the edge of the mountains. In these great sandstone formations, rattlesnakes tremor and sharp thistle protects the edges of the path. For a child, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park feels like a giant playground, and in many ways it is.
Today, I’m back here again, and again reminded of what makes Alberta such a brilliant place to travel: its diversity. I left the edge of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains in the morning, and by midday I’m here in the dry heat of the desert and prairies looking down on a valley of still water and stone figures.
Though the place doesn’t look as familiar as I expected it, I set off the same way I must have a kid. I search out the tallest pillar of sand and climb to the top of it in search of a view, or if nothing else the feeling that I’m on the top of the world. I follow the twists and turns of the sandstone sculptures, meandering myself without fear of losing “the path”.
I walk down to the stone carvings that give this place its name. Blocked by a barricade of steel wire, there are carvings in the rock depicting a battle that once must have taken place down here on the flats. Indigenous people have occupied the lands in this region for over 11,000 years, and this petroglyph must have been here for a significant part of that time.
As if the barrier of steel protecting the art wasn’t enough, I hear a rattlesnake start to warn its presence. I step back slowly but curiously and see it on the path. Of course, with all the luck of an unprepared photographer, I’ve only brought my wide angle lens, and wouldn’t dare get close to this meter-long snake. I turn, and climb back up through the valley of hoodoos to my car and drive away.
Writing on Stone Provincial Park has changed a lot since I was a kid. It’s more regulated, slightly more monitored, there’s a big new visitor’s center, and there might even be more tourists than there were before. However, the beauty of this part of Alberta is that it’s so far off the beaten path that only the committed travellers really make it out here. It will never overflow with tourists, and visitors will always be made feel like kids wandering through the playground of hoodoos in nature’s jungle gym.