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Erratics Rock

by Dave Yanko

Near the boat launch at Elbow marina on Lake Diefenbaker there's an unobtrusive cairn commemorating, of all things, a rock.

Before the Qu'Appelle and South Saskatchewan rivers were dammed in the 1960s to create the Diefenbaker reservoir for the nearby Coteau Creek hydroelectric plant, the rock was blown to smithereens with explosives. That took the wind out of the sails of those who wanted to save it due to its sacred status in traditional Cree culture. Conservationists hoped the huge Mistaseni rock could be removed from the valley, intact, before flooding.

"Looking back now, I know that it wasn't practical to move it,'' says Joan Soggie, an Elbow-area resident who wanted to see Mistaseni saved. "It was full of cracks. It would have been like moving a house that was falling apart."

But it was worth considering, said Soggie: "The Native people had lost so much.''

Hepburn erratic
- all photographs courtesy Saskatchewan Archaeological Society
This large glacial erratic is located near Hepburn, Saskatchewan.

Mistaseni and the area surrounding it were rich in culture and lore. According to a legend retold by Deanna Christensen in her book Ahtahkakoop, the rock was once a person, a Cree male who was raised by buffalo. As an infant, he slipped unnoticed from his parents' travois only to be discovered by the large creatures, who raised him to adulthood. Later in life, when his buffalo father was mortally wounded by hunters, the young man chose to transform himself into a buffalo, and then a rock, rather than spend his life fleeing the Cree.

The Cree grew to revere Mistaseni and the valley surrounding it became the setting for sacred ceremonies such as the Sun Dance; even Saulteaux, Blackfoot and Assiniboia bands made long pilgrimages to the valley of the buffalo rock. When geologist Henry Hind visited the area in the 1850s, he found the boulder adorned with "offerings to Manitou'', including beads, tobacco and fragments of cloth.

Herschel erratic.
Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, adorn the face of this erratic at Herschel.

Except for the lakeside cairn and the odd memento salvaged from its shattered mass, Mistaseni is now gone, its pieces submerged under a popular recreational lake. However, other big boulders remain. Found across central and southern Saskatchewan, and beyond, these huge "glacial erratics" may well have their own tales to tell about people from long ago. Tim Jones and Lorne Lepp, of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, want to find out.

"The stories associated with a lot of these rocks -- the first sightings by settlers and the offerings found, and the fact that we find archaeological remains around most of them that we've looked at -- all of this suggests these big rocks were regarded as something very special,'' says Jones.

Jones and Lepp are asking for help in pinpointing the locations of these boulders (see bottom), which would enable them to complete their list and begin studies. Large, known erratics are located at Cudworth, Hazlet, Hepburn, Outlook and Rockhaven. Unfortunately, one of the biggest in the province, the "Young erratic" near Little Manitou Lake, has become a canvas for graffiti artists.

"You know, there's 'Grad '98', 'Grad '99'," says Lepp, adding: "We want to try to get people to treat these with respect.''

Geologist need no such urgings. They know the stone behemoths have tales to tell about Saskatchewan's natural history, as well her human past. They know that glacial erratics, so named because they were sheared from northern bedrock and strewn across the prairie by glaciers, can offer clues to the location of valuable mineral deposits.

Hazlet erratic.
Some of the big boulders, like this one at Hazlet, are local tourist attractions.

Walter Kupsch, professor emeritus of geology at the University of Saskatchewan and former head of the geological sciences department there, recalls accepting an additional position after arriving in 1950 to work at the university.

"(The Government of Saskatchewan) wondered if there were any tar sands in the northwestern part of the province, like they have in the Fort McMurray area of Alberta," Kupsch recalled in an interview. "My assignment was to find out whether there were some erratics that came from that area.''

Kupsch said that he, too, enlisted the public to help him find large boulders. He did not find evidence of tar sand formations in the erratics he studied, but he did survey Mistaseni before its destruction. He also looked at the Young erratic and estimated its weight to be 750 tons. That means it was moved at least 350 kms (210 miles), Kupsch reported, because that's the distance to the closest similar source of rock.

After hitchhiking a ride from northern Saskatchewan to its current location, the Young erratic was left buried underground near a large glacial lake about 10,000 years ago, according to Saskatoon geologist Frank McDougall. The hefty erratic was unearthed when rising lake waters burst over a ridge creating a powerful flow of water that cut Little Manitou Lake valley and exposed the Young and other erratics in the process.

Glacial retreat.
- courtesy Illinois State Museum
The retreat of the glaciers from 18,000 years ago.

"There was probably 70 feet of till, or more, over top of it,'' says McDougall, who wrote a guide to the geological features of the Little Manitou Lake area. Even today, he said, a depression in the earth surrounding the huge rock is widest on the side that received the full force of the flow.

Jones, meanwhile, says it's unfortunate so few of the large glacial erratics have been researched, given the natural and human history revealed by those that have.

"It's time to begin putting things together so we can understand more about this interesting aspect of our history.''

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