A prominent Calgary oilman out on a Sunday morning walk was gored to death by a bison bull the day I arrived in town. Locals explained that it was the mating season, so the 71-year-old gentleman was walking at a dangerous time and got too close (about 15 feet) to the buffalo, which was grazing on public land.
Fortunately, you won't see all that many buffalo around Alberta, and if you keep your distance, you won't be bothered. But buffalo aren't the only things to watch out for. Down along the Alberta-U.S. border, you are asked to "save our snakes" by watching out for rattlesnakes. Similar to the problem of alligators sunning themselves on the highway between Miami and Tampa down in Florida, try to avoid those basking on the paved and graveled roads.
While touring the province, I didn't encounter any snakes, but I did come across riveting examples of early First Nations culture. (First Nations is the term Canadians use to describe their aboriginal population, which in the U.S. go by the term Native Americans). Here are some highlights.
National Historic Sites & Parks
Blackfoot Crossing National Historic Site (Blackfoot Crossing, near Cluny, tel. 888/654-6274 or 403/734-5171; www.blackfootcrossing.ca).
The interpretive center/museum at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park is said to be the world's largest Blackfoot exhibit. It's also the place where the Canadian Government forced the tribe to sign away most of its rights in 1877 so that the railway could be built through their lands. While here, you can experience a short program of authentic dances (as I did), sleep in a teepee (unless you get rained out, as I did), and take an outdoor tour, either escorted or self-guided. Among the dances I witnessed were the Chicken Dance (imitating prairie chickens), Men's Fancy Dance (very athletic), Women's Jingle Dance (bells on the ankles) and the Grass Dance (trampling the grass before setting up camp). The Siksika people, as the Blackfoot call themselves, are an energetic group of hosts, I concluded.
Among the highlights here are Chief Crowfoot's last teepee site, Chief Poundmaker's monument, and the Earthlodge Village site belived to have been built by Mandan people in the mid-1700s. The Blackfoot exhibits are housed in several huge teepees inside the Great Hall of the museum.
If you want to rent a teepee to sleep in, it will cost you C$300 (about $273) for two people. Each additional person costs C$50 (about $45.40) up to a maximum of eight adults or 10 children per teepee. No pets, alcohol, or drugs are allowed. Introductory classes include basic Blackfoot language lessons, as well as how to set up a real teepee and how to make a hand drum.
Open daily in summer, weekdays in winter. Admission for adults C$10 (about $9) plus tax; free for children under 7.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (Milk River, about 69 miles southeast of Lethbridge, tel. 403/647-2364; www.albertaparks.ca)
Down near the U.S. border and in that part of Alberta called the Canadian Badlands is a place with the greatest concentration of rock art created by Plains Indians in North America. There are more than 50 rock art sites here, with thousands of figures. These sites are not petroglyphs in the sense of being symbols of a language, but are actual pictures. The Blackfoot people consider this a sacred landscape; you can only visit by guided tour. The guide on my tour began his talk with a short prayer to the spirits of his people, and then ended by offering a small bit of tobacco to the earth.
There's a reconstructed Northwest Mounted Police Post, a big campground, and plenty of hoodoos (a mushroom-shape sandstone feature sculpted when the rock erodes from frost and windy rain; the result is unusual-looking capped rock shapes). During my visit, a sign posted in the reception center said hikers had recently spotted bobcats and yellow-bellied marmot (a kind of rodent). The same evening, a local tribal elder was scheduled to tell stories of her childhood in the area.
The site is open only from mid-May through Labor Day. Adult admission is C$8 (about $7.25).
If you don't sleep in a teepee at Blackfoot Crossing, you might enjoy the Ramada Hotel & Suites in Lethbridge (2375 Mayor Magrath Drive South, tel. 877/233-1233 or 403/380-5050; www.ramadalethbridge.ca). I spent two nights here when my reserved teepee was flooded out in an unusual summer storm. This hotel has a large indoor water park with waterslides and a wave pool. The room rate includes free continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, in-room movies, and more. No restaurant at the moment, however. Rooms from C$149 (about $135).
The official website of Travel Alberta is www.travelalberta.com.