Photo courtesy of Rudy Wiebe

Finding Alberta

Robert Kroetsch and Rudy Wiebe go in search

By Rudy Wiebe

“Our group included people born in Texas, in Winnipeg, in Japan, in India, in small Saskatchewan towns, in Africa, in something called Toronto. There were even two writers who were born in Calgary.

“We were all Albertans. That was agreed upon and taken for granted. The catch was: where to find Alberta?”

This is how Robert Kroetsch introduces his masterful book Alberta in 1993. In the 300 pages that follow, he elaborates on that question. The physical facts of the province (established: 1905; area: 661,190 km2; population [1993]: 2,574,000 etc., etc.) were perfectly obvious, but for a poet like Bob Kroetsch—as for me, his Alberta friend—the search for much wider responses was necessary. What are we talking about when we talk about “finding Alberta”?

To begin with, neither of us personally chose to be Albertan. Bob’s mother “delivered him,” as we say, on the family homestead near Heisler on June 26, 1927; at age 12 I was carried into Alberta, May 15, 1947, in a brown ’30s Ford. It brought my parents and sister and me from the Saskatchewan homestead where I was born to a house my father had bought in Coaldale. I remember nothing of that first green glimpse of Alberta along Highway 1; there is only the certainty of packed back-seat nausea, the interminable rout of gravel in the wheel wells. But on Saturday, January 10, 1998, when I drove my red Celica on cruise-control pavement out of the Saskatchewan hills and down onto the Alberta prairie at that same spot, in the lowering winter dusk I saw an immense herd of antelope. Spread out along the highway and north over the misty shoulders of the hills, wild antelope, lithe bodies bent to hoofs pawing at the snow or suddenly twitching, jerking their heads up, staring. Pointed grey-white heads, hundreds upon hundreds.

“When the eagle comes,” Pauline said, “we know the Creator is watching over us.”

“Stop—please stop! Look, there’s an eagle—there!”

A Cree Elder, Pauline Shirt, was driving with me home to Edmonton. We had been visiting a mutual friend in the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in the Cypress Hills, and she had looked to the sky while I had noticed only the animals on earth.

The eagle soared over the antelope, riding its giant wings motionless in the silver mist that enveloped everything we could see: bird, animals, snow and the orange thread of sun beyond the line of prairie. We stood together on the edge of the highway, looking, and the cold was fierce as fire.

“When the eagle comes,” Pauline said, “we know the Creator is watching over us. The eagle is his Messenger. He cares for us.”

The eagle’s high body slanted slowly into a relentless circle, and then, gradually, its head became a golden arrow pointing us. As it came on I could see its head tilt, back and forth, as if studying the ground, but then it was lifting, away from us over the antelope in the mist on the darkening hills.

“It’s hunting,” I said. “Looking for the weakest…”

“Yes,” she said. “He cares for us all.”

Our house in Coaldale is still where I look for it in May 2016. A year from now would be the 60th anniversary of our arrival here (three months after Leduc blew in) but, at my age, I better not wait. Still neat and exact: the three side windows facing the street, walls painted white and the asphalt shingles I nailed down a decade before my father died, the single side door. A short grey man answers my knock; when I ask he nods and moves aside for me to come in. We are in the kitchen-dining room lean-to I will never forget, the stove—first wood, then gas, now electric—stands exactly where my mother always made my favourite food, deep-fried kotleten (Russian Mennonite meat patties). I swallow, and I taste them. The grey man says nothing as I look around: the ripped ceiling, the debris and clutter, the incomprehensible, complete ruin of the room. The two doors, one that should open into the living room and the narrow one that once led up steep stairs to Liz and my bedrooms under the eaves, are both closed and suddenly I cannot endure this, I nod, turn, reach for the outside door. He says “I’ve lived here 17 years” and I close the door behind me

Edmonton, October 1967: I met Robert Kroetsch for the first time. My wife Tena and I had decided to return to Alberta after four years of my teaching creative writing in Indiana; he was still teaching in upstate New York, but we were both western Canada homestead kids with immigrant forebears whose mother tongue was German; we’d both graduated in English from the University of Alberta, and during the later 1950s wrote novels for theses—he a Ph.D. at Iowa, I an M.A. at Alberta. By 1967 we had both published two novels with large publishers and were furiously working on thirds. In fact, he was taking a “break” from his novel to finish a commissioned volume in “The Traveller’s Canada” series, Alberta; the manuscript would be complete by Christmas and published in 1968. He visited my university writing classes—he told us he had “a kind of mad missionary impulse to preach ‘writing’ to young westerners”—and we explored parkland Alberta all the way to Heisler and his Kroetsch grandparents’ beautiful 1905 farm site; we read each other’s books and talked, talked. After holiday celebrations with countless Kroetsch–Weller relatives, he and his wife and two small daughters left for England, where he could continue wrestling with The Studhorse Man. He wrote me he longed for Alberta—“I need the sun on my neck, the occasional blizzard”—and that he would “not miss the beautiful Sussex countryside in which we, at the moment, live. There are no sloughs in Sussex.”

I left Coaldale when I was 18. Like every immigrant child, but smart enough, I’d long been told I would want to become a medical doctor. In September 1953, Arts and Science faculty classes at the University of Alberta, Calgary Branch, were taught in Second World War barracks that stood on the present site of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. The English 2 classroom looked south down the Bow Valley to where “Robin Hood Flour” stuck up out of a carpet of city roofs. Calgary: 130,000 people. So huge to me then, its houses covered the hills even beyond the river.

It was English poetry that first hooked me. Sidney, Shakespeare, Wyatt, Donne, Herbert… and love, forever love, their only topic. I finally cornered the English prof, Wilfred Watson, smoking a long cigarette between buildings, and asked him what I did not dare in class: “Why is it, just all the time, love?”

He coughed, chuckled a little. He would not look at me, but after some time he questioned the sky,

“What else is there?”

Now, in 2016, when you drive over the crest of De Winton Hill, the city of Calgary fills the landscape. To get to Edmonton, you avoid Calgary altogether by following Highway 201 east and north, the snow line of the western Rockies hidden by endless banks of houses. And you remember: you are driving the Pan American Highway that stretches 30,000 km (18,600 miles) or more—depending on which route you follow—the length of two continents from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. You’ve driven parts of it north from Edmonton to Dawson City, to Inuvik, or south to Colorado, and also long desert stretches in Paraguay and Chile: a lifetime would be long enough to complete it, if only you had dared. As you did dare in 1954.

How far can you see in Alberta? That depends on your imaginative eye; on not allowing your gaze to be “reduced by realism.”

Wilfred Watson in Calgary was explicating metaphor and simile, but then he stopped, stared out the window at the houses squared into blocks over the Bow River hills. We knew nothing of his writing; we found him consistently strange but had no inkling that within a year his book, Friday’s Child, would win the Governor General’s award for poetry. Now he said, “Look at that.” Obediently we all did. “Do you see it?” he asked. The city’s folded landscape of river and rooftops was so familiar, no one knew what to answer. “Don’t you see?” he said, as I abruptly recognized his hands were shaping tombstones in air. “It’s a graveyard.”

The easily memorized reasons and proofs and laws of physics, chemistry, zoology; compared to this sudden, questionable, seeing beyond our classroom window. I’d been fenced into hands-on work all my short life—weeding gardens, carrying firewood, hoeing beets, milking cows and cutting hay in Saskatchewan sloughs, being “rod and chain” and shovel man for the engineers laying sewers in Coaldale, heaving cases of Coca-Cola bottles off a truck and dragging dolly loads into restaurants in Crowsnest Pass and Waterton National Park, walking 2×4 house walls in Lethbridge and pounding spikes into rafters—but I had also been nurtured on singing, on prayer and spiritual contemplation, on story, especially the stories of escaping communism, on listening to the Bible, the poetry of the Psalms and Isaiah. So this particular illogic of image, this mystery of physical vision and the numinous words spoken over it—which inevitably revealed themselves again whenever I looked—would not let me go all that university term. Nor the summer months of mixing concrete while the sun burned me dark as Alberta mud, a relentless need I finally had to try and explain to my parents in Mennonite Low German: I didn’t want to study any more science. I was going to switch to arts.

“What do they do there, that ‘arts’?” my father asked. I was their youngest child, the only one (of seven) able to attend school past Grade 9, so the structured life of a profession….

What indeed. I fumbled, “Read… Jeschijchte….” Luckily that word means both “history” and “story,” so I didn’t need to elaborate.

“Just read,” my mother said. “But… what will you become, then?”

Indeed, what? Nevertheless, I dared it, September 1954. Riding the Greyhound north through Calgary for second-year university in Edmonton I was apprehensive, almost afraid, very nearly happy. The delight and wonder of it: “It’s a graveyard.”

Do you see it? How far can you see in Alberta? That depends on your imaginative eye; on, as Bob Kroetsch once said, not allowing your gaze to be “reduced by realism.” For example, when you drive the Pan American Highway (sometimes called the Queen E 2) from Edmonton toward Calgary and come up over Antler Hill south of Red Deer and behold!—there’s the shining line of the Rocky Mountains, there, and you try to look back some 55 or 80 million years to when tectonic forces shoved continental plates over each other, crumpling, bunching them up like carpet on the rock floor of the Canadian Shield into those 3,000 miles of peaks. Or when you drive up between the folds of the Wolf Ear Hills north of Hardisty and stop to look east, the long fields of wheat and golden canola and hay become the rolling earth uncovered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet melting back to the Arctic some 15,000 years ago. Or when I walk from my log house down into the valley of Strawberry Creek and scoop a handful of coal from the thick seam in its cliffs, I see infinitely farther—140 million years or so—in the plant veins that rub into flecks of black between my fingers.

Our downstream neighbour Bruce Morden once told me of the mastodon bone he found exposed in a Strawberry Creek bend; 100,000 years old, the university profs told him. Long gone now, but the beaver, the unstoppable beaver he trapped on our adjoining lands with their curved dams and lakes and huge heaped houses, relentlessly gnawing down and peeling for supper any sprout of aspen and alder and willow, well, they were still here, more than ever; a million years ago, the profs had told him, they were giants weighing 300 pounds with cutting teeth six inches long.

“One and a half is long enough,” I said, and we laughed together. “But I wrapped chicken wire around that big poplar, they won’t get that one!”

“Never know,” Bruce said, “them buggers.”

And 20 years later, my neighbour has returned to the earth and I come along the same trail and—WHAT!—the tree is down, a shredded trunk heaved high in the air with its great green crown dropped perfectly into the pond behind the beavers’ secondary dam. They have clawed aside the wire mesh—rusted?—the wire still stands there, crumpled open around a gnawed two-foot stump—how many nights of work? Giant splinters stick up out of the stump, ripped from the trunk when it crashed down and tipped over the cliff into the water, splinters bright as shredded paper.

Twenty years; relentless Alberta animals.

“The Traveller’s Canada” book Alberta, Bob’s wondrously detailed exploration of our geography and history and psyche, would be 25 years old in 1993. It seemed that in the quarter of a century since our Centennial celebrations, Alberta had transformed itself into a province second to none in Canada. He and I hatched an idea: Why not bring out a new edition, updated? NeWest Press immediately agreed, so we planned our travel.

Sunday, July 5, 1992: Bob with a suitcase full of notebooks flies in to Edmonton;

Monday: we drive south via the Peace Hills (Wetaskiwin, and Maskepetoon’s peace treaties), the Medicine Lodge Hills, Didsbury (where my parents arrived from the Soviet Union in 1930) to Calgary; friend and writer Aritha van Herk welcomes us with broiled steaks;

Tuesday: Stampede day. Bucking horses, blacksmiths hammering, chuckwagons imitating millennia of chariot races, a $20 casino bet played and played until all is lost, cowgirl/boy lamenting poetry;

Wednesday: to The Gap where the Oldman River breaks through the Livingstone Range, and two cowboys packing salt blocks for communal summer pastures; Crowsnest Pass, backyard bachelor shacks and coal;

Thursday: to Lethbridge via the Siksika First Nation; fields big as countries, and grain elevators, abandoned farmsteads and one-room schools; my sister Liz and husband Nick; artist Isabel Hamilton talks Arctic painting and McIntyre Ranch;

Friday: enormous ranch on the Milk River ridge; Bob jots in his notebook “Some of the bulls aren’t doing their job”; Settler Days ice cream in Coaldale; the small house once my home; the cemetery where my parents are buried;

Saturday: east and north; pelicans on the Oldman River; cattle and antelope on prairie; Jenner Rodeo with an Australian rodeo clown in the arena; Bull’s Forehead Hill (Big Bear’s power bundle vision, 1840); Buffalo Trail north to Consort with k.d. lang lemon pie memories; Sounding Lake dry as bone (Big Bear’s futile Treaty 6 debate with Liard, 1878); Vermilion, and Bob’s sister Pat and husband Harley;

Sunday: three hours at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, and then to Edmonton; almost 3,000 km. Notebook refill.

Today’s Pan American Highway down the length of Alberta, 1,523 km from Indian Cabins on the 60th parallel to Coutts on the 49th, roughly follows the Ice Age corridor that, over the millennia, melted between the two immense continental ice sheets, the western Cordilleran and the eastern Laurentide. That is how Homo sapiens hunters spread throughout the Americas, by following the corridor south. West of Calgary, in a bend of Highway 68 above Sibbald Flats, is the earliest site yet found of humans living here. Eleven thousand years ago, the ashes and stones of their campfires, fluted spear points and arrows. Here, backed against the warm southern slope of the plateau, they would look out over the flats for animals—antelope, bison, elk—they could stalk and surround in their communal hunts for food.

Monday, July 13, 1992: our Travel Alberta journey continues, north from Edmonton to Athabasca, Slave Lake, Highway 88 through boreal forest over the Buffalo Head Hills to Tallcree Reserve and finally HBC Fort Vermilion (1788);

Tuesday: Fort Vermilion Experimental Farm (where our Edmonton apple tree came from), High Level, north to Meander River and west to boreal oil: Zama City (Hakan Sahin fixes our flat tire) and Rainbow Lake;

Wednesday: Assumption Dene Tha’ Reserve (band manager Steve Didzena, residential school survivor), Manning (in town, my niece Eunice), Dixonville (on ranch, my brother Dan and wife Isola), Grande Prairie;

Thursday: Pacific Rim Balloon Competition, Japanese balloonists: “This is the world’s perfect place for hot-air ballooning!” Beaverlodge (artist Euphemia McNaught), Wapiti River, Big Horn Highway to Grande Cache, quiet motel rest;

Friday: Hinton, south on Coal Branch Highway to Robb, Cadomin (bat cave), Luscar (open pit coal), Mountain Park (hillside cemetery and mountains); Bob’s notebooks stacked in the back seat; cross-country forestry road; Drayton Valley and Strawberry Creek Lodge;

Saturday, July 18, 1992: at the lodge, writers on retreat, writing; Leduc (Bob’s sister Kay and husband Al), Edmonton (Strathcona Hotel, rowdy beer), streets already in waiting for THE FRINGE ALSO RISES! More than 6,000 km of pavement and crushed gravel and we’re still laughing together.

The evening sky over the canola fields stunned me.… “Mom always said, ‘Alberta isn’t heaven, but for us it’s close enough!’ ”

By 2009 Bob was deciding, in his gradual way, to return to live permanently in Alberta—as he had not done since 1947. But even before he settled in Leduc he often visited, and one summer day we were together contemplating tombstones in the Spring Lake Roman Catholic cemetery north of Heisler where his mother’s 1903 settler family, the Wellers, are all buried. Suddenly, between memories, he said, “You know, we should try to find that Iron Creek Hill, where the meteorite once was.”

“You mean… the Manitou Stone?”

“Yes, that one. Old Man Buffalo.”

Days before, we had seen him—known to science as one of the world’s largest iron meteorites (175 kg)—in the Royal Alberta Museum. We were both mesmerized by the shining, pitted shape. “Can you see him?” Bob whispered, and I whispered back, “Yes.” A jagged human head, gleaming black and pockmarked with smallpox scars, the right side a perfect profile of forehead, eyes, long bent nose, the open—speaking—mouth. As light moved over it, the face moved, talking; neither of us understood.

“We could just drive along the creek and look.”

So we drove north and east of Heisler looking for Iron Creek, the Alberta Road Atlas guiding us, and as we eased through Sedgewick, Bob noticed—“Hey!”—the Archives and Gallery Museum. A town of 900 with a local archives and open on Friday? Incredible. While I considered horse harness, he talked to the smiling attendant and in three minutes her copier whirred and she brought us two reports by Allen Ronaghan, one handwritten. Ronaghan had been visiting what he was convinced was the Iron Creek Hill since 1958, and gave its exact location: NW 17–44–10–W4. Well, I could certainly find that. And when we drove east out of town, we recognized it almost immediately: not huge, but rising splendidly solitary beyond the willow twists of the creek, Range Road 105 cut through its base. We parked on the shoulder and climbed, two aging men, as we could.

Green grain and dazzling sky… golden canola… the bushy humps of the Wolf Ear Hills. In a notch beyond them, the unnatural white spots of Hardisty tanks pipelining oil to Oklahoma. And we fumbled through the sad, sad story, again: how in 1866 White missionaries came with a cart to this sacred high place and stole Old Man Buffalo.

Where are the buffalo? Perhaps the men of the band are hunting along the creek, scouring the ravines of the Wolf Ear Hills for any possible animal. Perhaps, as the moon rises red out of the edge of the earth, a woman stands here on the hill, praying, “O Great Spirit, we are dying. Our children cry for food. O Only One, have pity.”

And suddenly: a flash of light splits the sky over her, and out of that exploding light bursts a gigantic ball of fire, a roar such as she has never heard and she collapses in terror as the immense fireball smashes into the valley. The earth shudders as if it were riding a long roll of thunder. A gift from the Great Spirit: “Here, pray here, and I will always care for you. Here.”

How many thousands of prehistoric people saw this unimaginable gift come from the sky? Bob and I stood on the high place where they carried it after they dug it out of the earth, where they prayed and waited to see, anywhere around them, the buffalo herds coming. Their food from the Creator Who Cares. And they came, for generations they came, brought by Old Man Buffalo. Torn away now from his place for over 140 years.

A pickup stopped on the road below us, behind our car. A stocky man got out, bent through the fence and climbed toward us. He said he was Bill Paterson, and his family had lived on this land since 1908. What were we doing on the hill?

We told him. We talked as the clouds travelled over us. Then, still talking, together we gathered and ate purple saskatoons growing down the north slope of the hill.

After Iron Creek Hill, west of Camrose we turned right onto Highway 21, driving north toward Edmonton. The evening sky over the canola fields stunned me. I began to sing a hymn my parents often sang in harmony in that Coaldale house:

Dort ueber jenem Sternenmeer,

dort ist ein schoeneres Land…

Bob glanced at me, so I spoke a bit of it in translation:

There, over yonder sea of stars,

there is a more beautiful land…

And I had to laugh. “Mom always said, ‘Alberta isn’t heaven, but for us it’s close enough!’”

After a mile or so Bob said, “I believe in longing too.” #

Rudy Wiebe received Governor General’s Awards for The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (1994).


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