The year 1885 was a time of great unrest in western Canada. The old ways were all but gone, with First Nations and Metis people pushed off their traditional ranges. Their push back came with a series of skirmishes and a final pitched battle at Batoche, on the banks of the Saskatchewan. Led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the North-West Rebellion of 1885 spelled the end to frontier days. On the 125th anniversary of those events, Robert Wolfe saddled his Gold Wing and followed the Trail of 1885 into Saskatchewan. The following is from his journal.
The Trail of Eighty-Five
By Robert Wolfe
The year 2010 marked the 125th anniversary of the 1885 North-West Rebellion—an uprising by the Metis people. Some might say it was really a last ditch effort to get Ottawa to hear legitimate concerns and grievances.
I was always interested in the events leading up to the siege of Batoche, where General Middleton’s artillery-supported Regulars overwhelmed Louis Riel’s badly outnumbered Metis sharpshooters. There were six skirmishes leading up to Batoche, and two more after that. These were the battles of Duck Lake, Battleford, Frog Lake, Fort Pitt, Fish Creek, Cut Knife, Frenchman’s Butte, and Loon Lake.
Always looking for an excuse for a ride, I left my home in Spruce Grove, Alberta to visit the Rebellion’s major conflict sites.
Friday, Aug. 6 (480 km)
The road to Poundmaker Cree Nation, west of North Battleford, was 20 km of cold coat, gravel, or some mixture thereof. I got to Chief Poundmaker Historical Centre an hour before posted closing time to find a sign ‘Closed until Monday.’ Seeing tire tracks to the hill, I decided to ride there hoping to evade the cloud of mosquitoes surrounding me. Signs on the hilltop explained the battle of Cut Knife Hill. Being on a reserve I was surprised to see the word “Indians” on the plaques. I thought it was an outdated term.
Colonel Otter and 332 men attacked the Indians in their sleep. Despite having a Gatling gun and two seven-pound guns, he was forced to retreat. I don’t have a drop of aboriginal blood in me, but for some reason as I read the story and viewed the graves, I felt like I was cheering for Poundmaker who stopped his warriors from attacking the retreating soldiers by saying, “They have come here to fight us, and we have fought them. Now let them go.”
Saturday, Aug. 7 (460 km, 55 gravel)
It was already in the mid-teens as I rode 90 km to be at the 9 a.m. opening of Fort Battleford. The cashier explained the “Northwest Resistance of 1885” was really not a rebellion in the typical sense. There were a series of loosely related incidents within a three-month span in 1885. Indians and Metis were involved, but they were not working together in any formal way.
The director explained the seven-pound guns Colonel Otter took to Cut Knife Hill turned out to be not very useful because of cutbacks in military spending. Their wood cart frames were in a severe state of disrepair, and broke when the guns were fired.
The Siege of Fort Battleford really was no “siege.” Facing starvation, Poundmaker headed to Fort Battleford to speak with Indian agent Rae. With many reports of violence in the area, when the citizens of Battleford heard Poundmaker was coming they sought safety inside the fort. Poundmaker and his men camped outside the fort, waiting for Rae to come out and talk to them. Rae never came out, and after two days Poundmaker left without incident. The vacant town was looted, but it’s not clear whether by white bandits, or Cree warriors looking for food. Otter and 543 men arrived in Battleford about a month later and found settlers still inside the fort.
I went to Waldheim to meet my cousin Patrick who said he knew a shortcut to Fort Carlton, an old Hudson’s Bay trading post on the Saskatchewan River near Duck Lake but it involved 25 km of gravel road. I was up for the adventure. It was already in the high 20s with no breeze, so I decided to try out my new Hyperkewl cooling vest. After putting it on, I didn’t think about it again till much later in the day.
Outside the fort was a park area and picnic ground. I found it interesting the early settlers planted maple trees to provide a local supply of sugar.
On the way to Duck Lake I noticed a cairn and some other monuments not on my list. It was First Shots Cairn marking the site of the Battle of Duck Lake. Standing there was one of the highlights of my trip because that is where it all started; the site of the first battle—it was short and decisive in favour of Gabriel Dumont’s forces.
The interpretive centre at Duck Lake with its mural depicting the battle reminded me those who died were people not just names, and they believed in a cause enough to die for it.
The road from Duck Lake to Batoche was supposedly pavement, but was worse than the gravel we had ridden. Many sections were broken and soft, and filled with gravel. There was often loose gravel on portions of pavement: it was like riding on ball bearings.
At Batoche I was reminded of some of the harsh realities of war. Middleton set up at a strategic location on a hill overlooking the South Saskatchewan River where a farm family lived. He had his men burn down the buildings so they could not be used as cover by the Metis, and slaughtered their animals to feed his men, and offered no compensation.
A cairn at the Batoche cemetary commemorates the life of Dumont who “resumed the life of a hunter” when the fighting was done. There was also a grave marker for nine of the rebel “soldiers” who died at Batoche. These were not soldiers but ordinary men who joined the fight based on their strong convictions. I wondered if I would have that passion. It seems to me our society lacks passion and conviction.
A set of civilian graves caught my attention: the graves of six children between the ages of five months and seven years. These members of the Hrycuik family all died March 5, 1959. Later I would learn the children, and the babysitter, had died in a house fire while their parents were at a funeral.
Near Batoche is Fish Creek National Historic Site. For Patrick on his Electra Glide and me on my Gold Wing, getting there meant dealing with 16 kilometres of gravel road and then a two-track dirt trail—more of a trail actually that a farmer might use to move his machinery to and from the fields. The trail led us to a cairn marking Fish Creek. It is, without exaggeration, in the middle of a hay field. Patrick looked at me and said, “I can’t think of a single person who would have ridden their bike with me here.” I replied, “Most people wouldn’t drive their car here! Thanks for sharing this adventure with me.”
Near the cairn in the hay field is a deep ravine called Tourond’s Coulee. This is where the Battle of Fish Creek actually took place. It was a major victory for the Metis and Indians, but turned out to be too little too late.
Physically, the coulee is pierced by a rugged, steep, narrow trail serviced by a single-lane wood bridge and a warning sign that says “Impassable when wet.” I’d wager we are the only people to ride touring motorcycles in there.
From there we rode another 15 km on gravel to catch Hwy 41 to Saskatoon.
By now it was about 7p.m., and the temperature had dropped to about 22C. My vest was doing such a good job that I was actually getting cold!
Sunday Aug. 8 (610 km)
On a day of heavy rains, I headed down the wet gravel road to Frenchman Butte Historic Site, the site of the battle. After about 200 yards of slipping and sliding, I knew I would not be able to ride six km like that. My boots slipped in the mud, and I almost fell, but was able to get the bike turned around on the crowned road and ride back to the pavement, disappointed not to get to the battle site.
Next I went to the gravel turnoff to Fort Pitt, another old HBC trading post on the North Saskatchewan, about 16 km east of the Alberta border. It looked every bit as bad as the last gravel road. I walked down the road a little way. It was very slippery walking, and after walking only 15 yards I knew it was not passable on my bike. I was disappointed again; two sites in one day I could not get to. I rode to Marwayne and got a room at the Marwayne Hotel. Built in 1926, it has lots of character.
Monday Aug. 9 (480 km)
The sun was shining in the morning. A dog lazily wandered the street like he owned the place, another small town experience. Hoping it may have dried enough for me to ride, I decided to check out an alternate road to Fort Pitt. The gravel road was in far worse shape than the two I had declined to ride the day before.
On the way to Frog Lake I backtracked to check out Snake Hill on Hwy 897 where the Vermillion and North Saskatchewan Rivers converge. It was a scenic ride, but the road has no shoulders so there was no good place to stop and admire the scene.
The Frog Lake site was not well marked and quite run down. The Frog Lake Massacre, Apr. 2, 1885, is one of the best-known and most influential events of the resistance. I thought it disrespectful to not keep the site up, as I pondered the nine lives lost that day. After the rebellion, six Cree men were hung for their role in the massacre. They were hung with two other Cree condemned for a murder Mar. 29, in what was the largest mass execution in Canadian history.
Prologue: May 27, 2012
Weather and scheduling finally converged, allowing me the opportunity to visit the two 1885 Rebellion battle sites rain had held me from in 2010. Both sites are accessible by gravel only. In total, I rode my Gold Wing over 40 km on gravel. A 35-kmh wind with 50-kmh gusts added to the adventure. On gravel I prefer to ride at least 40 kmh to get the gyroscopic effect of the wheels. Alas, bone-jarring bumps and gusting crosswinds forced me to ride under 30 most of the way.
Poor, or no signage make finding Fort Pitt a challenge.
Typical of many old fort sites, there are no buildings, just outlines of foundations and plaques. But I got what I came for: to stand at the place of the “official” start of the rebellion, and ponder the battle. It ended with a victory for the Cree, who burned the fort and took the townspeople hostage.
Good signage directed me to Frenchman’s Butte Historic Site, the location of the second last battle, five days before the official end of the rebellion. Walking the trails, I lost count, but there are over 40 rifle pits still very visible. Many eerily were about the size and shape of graves.
My goal to visit all the battle sites of the 1885 rebellion has now been achieved. I am glad for it. Beyond an excuse to ride my bike, the journey helped bring the Rebellion alive.
Return to the Trails of ‘85
This summer the Geezers on Wheezers vintage motorcycle tour will explore the sites and trails of the 1885 North-west Rebellion in Saskatchewan.
Organized by the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group, Saskatchewan Section, the ride convenes July 29 in the town of old Battleford.
Over the course of the four-day tour, riders will work their way southeast toward the historic town and battle-site of Batoche.
Since the first Geezer’s rally in 2001, the event has always been dedicated to the proposition that slower is better and decrepit is where it’s at. This tour will be no exception. The pace will be just right for enjoying Saskatchewan scenery and history by taking “the road less traveled” at speeds geared to the slowest bikes and the frailest riders. Weather permitting, there will be at least one traditional ferry crossing and some gravel road riding, but there are paved options. For family members traveling on four wheels there are daily activities planned, and because there will be a dedicated chase vehicle, no one will have to interrupt their day rescuing some grumpy old codger nursing an equally cantankerous bike.