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Badlands Barns

A barn in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

A few weeks ago my friend Teresa and her son accompanied me on a surveying excursion in the deep south. The south eastern corner of the R.M. of the Gap dips into the Big Muddy Valley, one of my favourite places in the world.

The Littlest Barn Hunter squints in the Sask sun.

This area, also known as the Big Muddy Badlands due to its general unsuitability for farming, has long been a region of mystery and intrigue. It is the home of prickly pear cactus, the odd rattlesnake and thousands of acres of unbroken prairie cut through with coulees, streams and draws.

These rolling hills soon drop into the Big Muddy Valley to the south.

For thousands of years it was inhabited by great roaming herds of bison, and First Nations people left their mark with hundreds of teepee rings as well as a turtle effigy and a bison effigy, apparently the only extant of its kind in North America. Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man who led his people to victory against George Custer in 1876 sought refuge just west of the Big Muddy near the present day towns of Wood Mountain and Willow Bunch. When the Canadian government compelled them to return to the United States in 1881, Sitting Bull and his people rode through the Big Muddy on their way back across the border.

In the past century it was the haven of outlaws like Dutch Henry and the Wild Bunch, the Sam Kelly Gang, and was even stop number one on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s infamous Outlaw Trail, a series of stops modelled on the Pony Express where outlaws on the run could procure fresh mounts and a bit of grub from friendly ranchers.

Big Muddy Lake, which gave its name to the surrounding region, has long been a landmark in the region, and was used by outlaws to evade Northwest Mounted Police officers.
The barn hunting crew found other historic buildings of note, including this one-room schoolhouse, “Big Four” School in the southernmost reaches of the R.M. of the Gap.

There are plenty of legends about these men who rustled cattles and stole horses, making use of the international border to do their dirty work in both Canada and the United States, often managing to elude law enforcement officers on both sides of the line.

After increased settlement and a stepped-up Northwest Mounted Police force in the area forced the outlaws out of the region, the Big Muddy settled into its new incarnation as the home of pioneer families, most of whom adopted a ranching way of life since the rough terrain is not well-suited to farming. It has always been a sparsely populated area, but still many people call this area home.

This big beauty of a barn slowly decays in its badlands surroundings.

The barn hunting crew surveyed the parts of the Gap that lie within the Big Muddy region, and then we explored a bit further afield in the R.M.s of Surprise Valley and Bengough to do a bit of sightseeing not strictly related to barns. As we traversed the badlands, I was struck by how diverse is the landscape within my study area. As I mentioned on a previous post, I am attempting to survey all the existing barns, no matter their current state in the rural municipalities of Laurier and the Gap, an area of 324 square miles. This is a huge area, no doubt, and every time I venture forth on a surveying trip I lament its vastness. But it is still just a small area of Saskatchewan, which demonstrates how diverse this province is, and how much work is out there for would-be barn hunters!

We found just a few badlands barns on this area, and their styles are not unique to the area, but rather indicative of what I am finding to be a fairly homogenous barn style.

This barn, and the farmstead to which it belongs, seem comfortably nestled in their little corner of the badlands.

There are some exceptions, but so far in the area I have survived, by far the most popular barn type is the gambrel roof style, what locals refer to as a “hip-roofed barn.” These are the barns that everyone recognises as barns. As I survey more barns in the area, continue to measure, and conduct research in the archives, I am coming to a better understanding of why this type of barn is so predominant in this region. But you will have to wait for a future blog post to find out!

An exception to the predominant gambrel style, this gable roof barn was no doubt the centre of its farmstead in years past.     

Note: The Big Muddy Valley contains many fascinating natural and manmade features, not to mention much intangible cultural heritage in the form of stories and legends. However, much of the Big Muddy is under private ownership. To learn more about these sites and how you can visit them, please visit I have participated in this tour and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Big Muddy.

The crown jewel of the Big Muddy is Castle Butte, located south of Bengough. Though out of my study area, it deserves special mention anyway due to its badlands grandeur. 

One comment on “Badlands Barns

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful photography Kristen… I love the western words… coulees, streams and draws.

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