Story by Tom Jackson. Photos by Dax Justin/Maureen Newton

Learning to “just be” in the Canadian Badlands

You’ll be forever changed after visiting Cypress Hills, Elkwater, or Medicine Hat

Cypress Hills, Alberta

Mike Park, our guide for the day, admits he can’t say we won’t get stuck in the backcountry adventure. But no problem – life is an adventure! Mike used to be a vice principal in the UK. He came here by way of New Zealand. He has seen a lot of places. “I came looking for something I’d had never seen before. I arrived in the east and drove here to discover the mountains. Just when I thought I was going in the wrong direction, Cypress Hills Provincial Park appeared. I can get with this,” he says. “I did, I forgot to go back. Three years at the ski lodge and two years in the park.”

I get into Mike’s space. “There is a mist coming off the ground”, he says as we start to move. “It’s odd weather this year. We have rain. We never have this much rain! It’s never this green.” As if he’d been in the hills all his life, “we were born from a glacier, an island on the ice. I have 250 species of birds in the heart of cougar country”. The corner of his mouth turns up, “and a few moose.”

I notice a lone gravestone standing in the bush. It reads, Constable Duke Craburn – the first RCMP killed in these parts, 1879.

There is one tree out in a sizable clearing. The survival tree – just like the people who ventured and made this home. The tree continues to grow long after the feast, famine, water, wind and fire. The Survival Tree is casting shelter from the elements for those who pass this way.

Neeraj Mishra came from India. His family is in the hospitality industry. He trained to be an engineer and worked in the oil patch, later returning to the hospitality world, opening the Elkwater Lodge.

“I came looking for the Cypress Hills. I drove with my Uncle for miles and miles on flat land. I didn’t think this was going to work! It took a long time to see the Hills. Now we’re here to stay.” We arrived May, 2016. My wife and I have twin girls, 2.5 years, and a boy, 1 year. I noticed everybody keeps going west if they don’t stop here. But if they stop here, they don’t want to leave”.

I ask Neeraj what keeps him in Elkwater. “I get a chance to engage with people, make them feel important and to serve the guests. I want to be part of a good experience – engagement and bond. I believe if we bond, we forgive mistakes. If not, we won’t.”

Neeraj is a good spirit who will welcome you whether you live here or come here. It will make you better for it.

Elkwater, Alberta

Near Elkwater, Alberta there is Reesor Lake, stocked with trout (no boats allowed). You can also go to Cypress Lake and fish for pike (motor boats allowed). Horseshoe Canyon is great for a hike. Note to self: whatever your choice, be aware if you’re in the mood for homemade ice cream, you best plan your time accordingly. Make sure you have enough or you will be in danger of being out of luck! Here’s the secret: first rush happens at 2:00pm. If you miss that, you will have to plan on 8:00pm. Remember: 2-8 rush for ice cream.

In the evening, you should come to see the stars, the lightning or the meteor showers.

If you’re still curious or adventurous, check out the info center. Find out about the connection between CP and the Little Big Horn, Fort Walsh, Fort Benson, the mystery rocks, dark sky reserve, and Whispering Pines Christian Camp.

Discover the lineage of those who live and have lived here. The Metis/Scots who followed the buffalo and created a winter village that still stands. Ojibwas, Cree, the thunder-breathing hills that echo in Horseshoe Canyon.

You might go to the head of the mountain bridge – the highest point from here to the Atlantic (3,500 ft above sea level). You can see the sweetgrass in Montana from here.

You won’t discover Elkwater if you don’t have time.

Reesor Ranch has been in the family since 1904. Scott left to discover the world in 1991 and found that the world was right here. It’s just him and Theresa here now, almost. The horses, cats, dogs, guests, neighbors, the herd, the wide-open range.

Other than that, nothing changes but the seasons.

Scott looked out at the herd 20 years ago and decided he better go into Calgary and ‘cut out a filly’. Theresa and Scott have been together ever since. The thing that is fluid about these days is the guests.

The Ranch is a beautiful peaceful place to “just be”. About 2,500 guests come to “just be” every year.

Theresa and Scott live to roll out the carpet to the poor and the rich. People arrive here with a lot of handicaps and leave with less when they go. Some come feeling fortified and others to escape the fort.

“It’s simple, safe and frugal here. There was only once when I wondered whether I should get guns and lock the gate. But it was Theresa’s calming that changed all that. Now the biggest worry out here is which piece of tin foil to throw away.

There is history out under the noonday sun and the moon. Artifacts, mystery stones, teepee circles…it is rare we feel comfortable guiding guests as we feel we are the custodians of that history. We have room for 58 guests. If you come here, you come home to the open field and the deep bush. We are at the end of the road. If you lock your doors here, you lock yourself in. We are tied to the land. Some come here to work. When they leave, we all feel lucky they came.” The poem that follows was shared by Scott and written by Scott’s mom:

Medicine Hat, Alberta

Maureen’s Inspire Café, on the corner, began in 1901 and grew from tents to bricks, to the building that is now the heart of Medicine Hat.

It grew from the land, from the new to the old. The good life to the hard life, to empty lives and onto art. Maureen states: “When life got hard, art moved in. I love the Café as I do the Hat!”.

The walls are blessed with Maureen’s view of “halo’d” children and chickens seen from a well bottom as they looked down on her. Years ago, Maureen fell down a well and was trapped for 24 hours. Only her 3-year old son and the chickens knew she was down there. She saw the halo of light around them as they peered down the well. Upon realizing she wouldn’t be rescued, she wiggled her way up the well to safety. The vision and lasting memory of her adventure from the bottom of the well is captured on her canvasses.

Medalta in the Historic Clay District… this century-old ceramic factory in The Hat that has many lives that are captured in clay pots and urns.

In some cases, we stop just long enough to get a sense of its place in history. The proud and astute caretaker tells humble stories and shares secrets that evolve in real time, captured by the eye of magical urns. It’s a magic that can only be experienced first hand.

Tom Jackson
Tom Jackson is an actor, singer, producer, activist and fundraiser. He is known for the Huron Carole, and roles on North of 60, Star Trek and Law & Order. He is a passionate advocate of Canadian food banks and disaster relief efforts, as well as an Ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross. His mantra of being in service to others is secured with his choice to engage if it’s good business, good for the world, and good for the soul.