Of the 13 places in Canada that UNESCO has chosen for World Heritage Site designation, the province of Alberta alone has five. Among these, one of the highlights is a so-called buffalo jump, a place where early natives stampeded bison to their deaths over a cliff edge. The UNESCO designation comes not only for the historical site itself, but for the modern interpretive center built here, which I prefer to call by its old-fashioned designation: a museum.
Long before the gun was introduced to the Alberta Plains and even before the appearance (or reappearance, say some) of the horse, First Nation braves had to hunt the buffalo on foot with clubs, bows, and arrows. It was exceedingly dangerous work and often an organized hunt would yield only a few buffalo, perhaps even just one or two beasts. This was hardly enough for an entire village in the way of food, shelter, and other derivatives of the animal, so hunting became an almost continuous burden.
How and when came the ingenious idea of stampeding the buffalo over a cliff we may never know, but the technique is both clever and inspiring. When a herd of buffalo was found in the right position near a cliff, the entire band of men, women, and children gathered to set up the drive. A lane leading to the cliff's edge was established by creating a series of rock mounds to funnel the buffalo toward the spot from which they would fall to their deaths. With the buffalo having notoriously bad eyesight, the animals mistook the alley of rocks and branches as a forest closing in on them.
Braves, women, and children took up positions along the drive lanes, and when a few men (disguised with wolf skins and bear skins) began to chase the herd toward the funnel, it became a channel of terror to the beasts rushing through. After they were stampeded off the cliff, braves went down and finished off the wounded with blows to the skull. Experts today estimate about 100,000 buffalo went over the cliff here.
The somewhat gruesome "smashed in" phrase refers to a person, however, not a buffalo. Eager to get close to the action, one young boy is said to have gotten too close to the pile of buffalo at the bottom of the cliff. A falling bison then apparently smashed in the boy's head.
Today, there is a splendid "interpretive center" that is almost hidden in the cliff. (Celebrity chasers will be glad to learn that the museum was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1987). After you see a short movie describing the hunt, you go to the top of the cliff (reachable mostly by elevator), take a short stroll to the edge, then walk down the five levels of the center to see dioramas and exhibits. You can also take a trail outside to the actual butchering site at the foot of the cliff. A sign warns: "Occasional sightings of cougars and bears. Hike in groups only and make plenty of noise." You can camp out in a teepee from May 15 to September 15 each year. There's a neat restaurant, too, at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Adult admission is C$9, or about $8.
If you don't sleep in a teepee at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you might enjoy staying in nearby Lethbridge at the Ramada Hotel & Suites (2375 Mayor Magrath Drive South, Lethbridge, tel. 877/233-1233 or 403/380-5050, www.ramadalethbridge.ca). This hotel has a large indoor water park, waterslides and wave pool, and gives you 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.