“With the news of the proposed railway line, and the advent of survey crews, land speculators and promoters arrived on the scene, and on good authority, it was learned that the railway line passing through the Buffalo Valley district was a possible location for a divisional point. Settlers arrived overnight and built their homes and businesses…”
“…Within the next year a decision was made to locate the divisional point at the little village of Radville a few miles downstream. Upon receipt of this news, the hopes and dreams of many of the businessmen who had spent their savings to establish themselves received a resounding blow. Growth of the little town halted.”
— Radville-Laurier The Yesteryears.*
Brooking is a tucked away place. A scarce five miles or so straight east of my farm, it is in between the Gap and the R.M. of Laurier, though technically it belongs in the latter. The region is a picturesque vale, named Buffalo Valley by the homesteaders, apparently because bison once roamed the area in huge numbers. Brooking, originally called Stowe, was supposed to be a big town. But when the CNR changed its plans, Brooking went bust just as fast as it had boomed. And boom it did. Lumber yards, a hotel, general store, dwelling places – Brooking had all the makings of a proper prairie town. But without the roundhouse, its originally hoped for raison d’être, Brooking petered out.
Sometimes I imagine what would have happened if Brooking had become the big town in the region instead of Radville, how it would have changed the landscape. There would have been a highway built to it. Its growth would have encroached upon the hills of the gentle valley. It would have made noise and bustle. It would have disturbed the peace of the gentle, secluded place. Perhaps it was for the best that a town never really got going there.
And yet, much evidence still abounds which reveals the hopes of its settlers a century ago. A couple of houses remain. Buffalo Valley School, originally a mile or so north of the village, was moved there in the ‘60s to serve as a community centre. On low ground, down by the creek, stands a forlorn but proud elevator. On the north side, the faded Wheat Pool insignia. On the west side, a splashy paint job from 15 years ago when a movie crew rolled in. But much of what was Brooking is now a field, the few scattered buildings a symbol of nostalgia on the part of landowners. They could tear them down, if they wanted to.
Perhaps most famous was the Brooking bridge. It was a cement bridge, a modest yet impressive feat of engineering built to span the creek (is it the Long Creek or the Gibson Creek? I’ve never really been sure, but have heard that the two meet at Brooking) in the winter of 1905-1906. It claimed the distinction of being the first cement bridge built in the province of Saskatchewan. Perhaps not the most thrilling “first” around, but as a youngster I was inordinately proud to live so near to such a unique landmark.
It’s gone now, partially washed away in the floods of 2011. The rest was taken out and replaced by giant steel culverts, which are a dime a dozen and nothing to even remark upon, except perhaps to say that it’s a shame to see them in place of the bridge. I never got around to photographing the bridge, taking for granted its continuing existence, so this grainy black and white photo will have to suffice. I always got a bit of thrill driving over that bridge. It was the first of its kind in the province, after all.
Like all ghost towns, Brooking was once a place where people lived and loved and were sick and died. It was a place where families were raised, grain was hauled, and businesses were run. People stepped off the train onto the platform at Brooking station, and they drove down into its small valley in anticipation of a dance or a ball game or a visit with loved ones or perhaps to get a few things at the store. People picked up their mail in Brooking, dropped off their cream cans in Brooking, had the times of their lives in Brooking, perhaps fell in love in Brooking. Now, people drive through it to reminisce, or to use its lonely road as a shortcut to somewhere else, or to pass some time on a summer evening. As for ghosts in Brooking, I’ve never heard tell of any, but that’s not to say they aren’t there.
Bundling: Couples cuddling under a robe or blanket while returning home in the cutter on a cold winter’s eve.*
exempli gratia: “The fellow would pick up his gal and go for a spin or to a dance if the distance was not too far. The gal would have to hang on to the fellow to stay on the stone boat, if the horse would run or trot, to make the ride a little rough and wonderful. “Bundling” was very common on one of these vehicles.”**
*Happy Valley Happenings. 1983. Big Beaver, SK: Big Beaver Historical Society, 142.
To see the Summer Sky Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie – True Poems flee. – Emily Dickinson
Badlands sky. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
I wrote the first post of this blog on the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Yesterday was the longest day, the summer solstice. Throughout time, humans have marked the solstices and the equinoxes with special rites. They have built monuments precisely aligned with the rising or setting solstice suns. They have gathered in places that are sacred to watch the first or the last rays of the sun on these tipping points in the year.
The summer solstice is a culmination. Though the fullness of summer is still a few weeks away, the solstice marks the time of year when everything reaches toward the sun – every growing thing, every living thing. It is a bittersweet day, for it means that tomorrow the sun’s light recedes from us a bit every day, imperceptibly at first, until darkness comes earlier and we begin to approach the autumnal equinox, when everything has borne fruit and must dig in for winter.
When you live in a rural place where you can see the sun and how it moves throughout the year, this cyclical routine of the sun seeps into your bones, just as the lunar cycle does. We don’t even notice it, usually, because it’s so much a part of us.
A sacred place in southern Saskatchewan is the Big Muddy Badlands, also known as the Big Muddy Valley, or more simply, just the Big Muddy. This is a place of spectacular beauty, of exhilarating history. The Big Muddy was the Wild West. Outlaws, cattle rustling, horse thieving, rum running, it all happened there. Sitting Bull rode through it. Countless horses and cattle have grazed its grasses. Before all of this, the aboriginal peoples considered it a holy place, judging by the amount of effigies found there. Thousands of tipi rings stand in silent testimony of lives lived there for thousands of years.
The Big Muddy will be referred to again and again in this blog, I’m sure. It is a place of mystery and magic and legends and lore. It is one of my favourite places on earth, perhaps second only to the Gap country, its nearest neighbour to the east.
I travelled with good friends to the Big Muddy the evening of the solstice to watch the sun set at its late hour. No monuments are needed to mark the sacred solstice in the Big Muddy. The landscape itself is the most perfect venue imaginable for such a rite. The Big Muddy is a place of light and shadow, of constant contrasts. It is the only place I wanted to be to watch the sun set on the Longest Day.
Badland buttes. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Grass, Sky, Song. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Clouds over a coulee. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
By the shores of Big Muddy Lake. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Badlands flora. Kristin Catherwood. June 21. 2014.
Solstice shadows. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Big Muddy Lake. Krisitn Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Hole in the Wall. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
The last light of the sun. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
“The sensually descriptive folk names which people attach to the flora, fauna, and topographical features of a place provide a similar view of the local knowledge and interpretation of the physical components of that place, as do a few types of place-based narrative – like local legends and tall tales – which rely for much of their meaning on the nature of their physical setting. Such lore goes beyond cartographic symbols to get its hands dirty among the things that the symbols represent”
– Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place*
By Shawn Catherwood
Stink Lake is what we call it. I’m sure there is a proper name for this elegant body of water. Whatever that name is, it is not of importance to me. The name we gave it is all too perfect. This so called lake has quite the distinct smell that one would not pass by without commenting on that foreign stench traveling through their nostrils. Don’t be thrown off, this lake is as beautiful as it gets this close to home.
Just a meagre three miles from the place I call home, I turn my steering wheel and smoothly slide along the gravel as I turn onto the goat trail that will take me to the majestic Stink Lake. The koisha weeds scrape the bottom of the vehicle like sand paper. I try not to focus my attention to the chilling century old house alongside the trail, as the glassless windows seem to be watching me trespass into this pocket of the world.
I trek a few hundred yards down to the sand where I have arrived just in time for the mysterious ball of fire in the sky to recede below the horizon. I sit there in silence, taking everything in. The rolling hills of the gap in which a glacier passed through millions of years ago are in the background, the golden stubble of a recent wheat field in front. The stench of the lake hangs in the air like fog. I’m not fazed by it because the glare of the sunset on the lake eliminates my other four senses. Motionless, I sit as I take in this beauty. It is now dusk and if I want to escape this foreign corner of the province I need to leave right now before it is too dark. Today there is no full moon to guide me, I’ll be trapped. So I leave, “til’ next time Stink lake”.
Nothing compares to the beauty of this body of water crevassed between fields and hills. It’s a place of complete stillness, it is surreal. To release all emotions and feel nothing but relief and happiness. Stink Lake is as real of a place as there is. A place I can call mine.
There’s nothing I can add to that beautiful piece of writing to describe Stink Lake. It’s beautiful not only because my usually taciturn, practical little brother wrote it – someone who does not enjoy writing or consider himself talented at it (though I would beg to differ), but also it is beautiful because of how strongly centred in place it is. Shawn wrote this for a Grade Twelve English assignment last fall that required students to write about one of their favourite places. We folklorists talk a lot about space and place because we’ve figured out that place is absolutely essential to a community’s sense of identity, as well as to individuals’ sense of who they are. Often we go through our lives without really thinking about what the place we live in means. We absorb it into us, so that it becomes part of us, but we don’t often talk about it except in practical terms.
Stink Lake, as my brother wrote, is just three miles from our farm. It has always held a special place in my imagination. It’s an alkaline lake – hence the stink. There are times, in dry years, when it is empty of water. The last few years have been wet, so it’s full, and it truly is an impressively large body of water in this dry region. During the fall migration, it becomes a centre of bird activity. The cacophony of all the geese, cranes, and other migrators travels over its waters and right into our farm yard. I can hear it at night when I’m falling asleep. During the spring and summer, a squadron of pelicans can usually be found on the lake’s island, which we call Pelican Island, of course.
When I was about eleven, I wrote a dramatic murder mystery story in which the unfortunate victim’s corpse was dumped in Stink Lake. My relatively rare excursions to the shores of Stink Lake are exciting because there are always interesting birds and animals to see, and as my brother captured so well in his essay, there’s just something about the place that stimulates the imagination. It’s not very easy to get to. The stink is not all that strong these days, since the water is so high. In low water years, it smells sulfurous, rotten eggy. I found out recently that the body of water is properly named Cockburn Lake, probably after an early homesteader or a surveyor. But that name evokes nothing. This body of water is known simply as Stink Lake by everyone in the area because, as my brother wrote, “it is as real of a place as there is.”
Stink Lake. Photo: September 14, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.
*Kent C. Ryden. 1993. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 63.