Thanks to Jessica, a passionate writer from Alberta, for contributing to our backpacker blogs & sharing her love of the Canadian landscape.
There is a narrow road off highway 21, near a Hutterite colony that sells the best chickens. Drive down that road around 20 kilometers and then look to the right—keep looking; don’t blink. Through the dust of the road that casually eroded from paved to gravel somewhere along the way, beyond the sporadic trees and tall grass, you will witness the earth drop away from farmers’ fields and the weight of time slide down steep plateau hills into a deep roaming valley. Welcome to Dry Island Buffalo Jump, one of my favorite places in the world.
Dry Island is named for the flat-topped butte that stands above the Red Deer River. Wind eroded the soft layers of bentonite clay buried beneath untouched native prairie grasses to create this unusual landmass. It has never been surrounded by water, but stands prepared like Noah’s Ark, daring the river to rise up. This is the site of an historic Cree hunting ground, where herds of bison were driven off the cliffs to gather enough meat and natural resources to see a tribe through the winter.
There are two ways to take in Dry Island. First, the viewpoint at the top of the valley, where you look out over the expansive landscape with its raw edges and rolling turns. Stroll along the cliff; read the points-of-interest signs that briefly describe the land, fauna, and history; feel the flutter in your stomach as you picture yourself as a bison chased by ancient hunters before tumbling over the edge onto the rocky bed below. Once you have pictured this place a thousand, a million, a billion years ago (and you will) then follow the steep, barely passable, hair-pin road into the depths of the valley.
Skip some rocks on the river, or scan the banks for birds and critters. Listen for the coyotes. If you have a canoe, use it—there is no place better for a casual paddle. Life slows down here, and it is a different kind of adventure. Once you are finished at the river, do what I love to do the most. Pick a direction, and start walking, because this is the best part of Dry Island. There are no paths. No manicured trails shepherd visitors to the best viewpoints. There are no fences and rails to keep you out or in. Climb through the hills, wander between the trees, experience this place.
People like to talk about the mountains and how they make a person feel small, but there are more ways to be big than simply by being tall. To me, the badlands are the best at making me feel little, both in size and in age. You can see time and history sloshing around this basin and rising over these hills. This is a place of permanence. This is a place I come to remember that I am part of something so much bigger than myself. These are the prairies, and this is my Alberta.
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