While most Calgarians head west on the weekend, being the contrarians we tend to be, we headed east, on a recent Friday morning, with our ultimate destination being The ‘Hat (aka Medicine Hat). Driving the back roads, we quickly wondered why we don’t do this every weekend – I could have stopped a dozen times to take photos.
Here’s a sampling of what we discovered…
We had to stop in Gleichen for old times’ sake – having lived there from 1981 to 1985. Not much has changed; it is as if time stood still – and a sad reminder of the decline of small prairie towns everywhere.
Our house is still there, looking pretty much the same, though worse for wear. No evidence remains of the “Street Art For Gleichen” project I initiated – the murals are all faded away or painted over and the art park is now Beaupre Park with the historic water tower, a buffalo sculpture and a few picnic tables.
Backstory: The “Street Art For Gleichen” project was just as controversial in Gleichen as Bowfort Towers is in Calgary today. In fact, a key issue was one of the artists used indigenous motifs without any consultation with the Siksika Nation just across the tracks. I was so naïve.
We weren’t planning a stop in Cluny on our way to Blackfoot Crossing but when we saw Pete’s Bakery and the folk art junkyard across the street the car came to a screeching halt. After ogling the extra large cookies, we chose Pete’s strudel, which we ate while wandering around the junkyard resisting the urge to grab a souvenir for our yard.
Soyopowahko (aka Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park)
Five minutes further south on Highway 842 from Cluny is Blackfoot Crossing (Soyopowahko means Blackfoot in their language), a designated national Heritage Site. Its interpretive centre not only documents the complexity of the Treaty Seven (which was signed nearby), but the way of life of the Blackfoot people. The setting is spectacular - on the edge of a cliff looking out over the Bow River Valley.
The building itself is also dramatic with its modern interpretation of a traditional tepee. Its grand entrance has a wonderful overhang that is made of several feather-shaped glass pieces forming a traditional Chief’s headdress that cast a playful and colourful shadow on the wall when the sun shines. The building was designed by Calgary's Rod Goodfellow and is full of references to traditional Blackfoot culture. Link: Blackfoot Crossing Architecture
Upon entering the exhibition area you encounter the entire Treaty Seven reproduced on large illuminated glass panels that form a huge circle in the middle of the exhibition space. (FYI. The original Treaty Seven document is currently located at Fort Calgary). The sheer length and “legalese” language make one wonder if the Chiefs could really have fully understood what they were signing. It was sobering.
There are indeed some interesting artifacts, however the only interactive hands-on display we found was the display buttons you push and the Blackfoot word for various common words is played, then you repeat it and press “playback” to hear how close your pronunciation matches the correct one. Link: Blackfoot Dictionary
My biggest disappointed was that photo taking was not allowed in the exhibition area. This surprised me given most galleries and museums today allow photos without flashes. I realize some of the pieces might be sacred, but a significant free marketing opportunity is lost as people today love to take photos and post them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
We were also puzzled why the Centre is only open Monday to Friday. With Calgary as their biggest market, you would think being open Wednesday to Sunday would make more sense. Why not one weekend per month? We were the only ones there during our 90-minute visit.
Next stop - the world’s tallest tepee (20 storeys tall), originally constructed for Calgary’s 1988 Winter Olympics and located at McMahon Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, is now installed in Medicine Hat. This very impressive structure is located on the edge of the Seven Persons coulee, that includes one of the best Northern Plains archaeological sites – the Saamis Archaeological Site. It is believed 83 million artifacts are buried at the site. I have no idea how they can make this estimate.
Backstory: The name “Medicine Hat” is the English translation of Saamis (SA-MUS), the Blackfoot word for the eagle tail feather headdress worn by medicine men.
The white ghost-like tepee with its 10 large storyboards, explains the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present. Several large circular paintings help create an informative outdoor museum/art gallery. We didn’t do the self-guided walking tour of the archaeological site. Next time.
I couldn’t help but wonder why Calgary didn’t keep the tepee as a legacy of the Olympics. It would have been a great addition to Fort Calgary, which was an important gathering place for First Nations. It could also have been installed on Nose Hill, another important First Nations site. It would have been a spectacular site lit up at night. Medicine Hat's win; Calgary's loss.
Bonus: Be sure to check out the Visitor Center near the tepee - they have an abundance of great information, as well as FREE bikes. Yep, just give them your ID information, leave your vehicle there and quickly you are off exploring the 150+ km of trails in the city. Next time?
Medicine Hats lovely turn-of-the-century historic downtown is a fun place to flaneur. Two of our stops were thrift stores – but unfortunately, we didn’t unearth any treasures. However we did find the world’s largest chess set (behind the Library) and if we had more time, we would have played a game.
We did find the patio at LOCAL (a welcome site given the 30+ sunny day) and enjoyed some local craft beer – Hell’s Basement and Medicine Hat Brewery Company beers were on tap. My favourite was Hell’s Basement’s “Ryes Against The Machine.”
FYI: The Hell’s Basement name comes from a 1907 quote by Rudyard Kipling, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat. And you don’t even think of changing the name of your town. It’s all your own and the only hat of its kind on earth.”
Dunmore Road SE
Most regular Everyday Tourist readers know we love finding off the beaten path spots when we visit a city. In Medicine Hat’s case, it was a small, outdoor shopping mall along Dumore Road SE. Driving by, we spotted a window full of brightly coloured circles. We had to stop. Soon we were inside Rings & Things, a funky accessories/gift/home décor shop with the largest collection of UMBRA products we have ever seen. Turns out the quirky display was made of coloured Styrofoam plates – how simple; how clever.
Also in the mall was McBrides Bakery a Medicine Hat institution, unfortunately it was closed on Friday night when we discovered Rings & Things, so we headed back first thing Saturday morning. It is famous for its giant apple fritters and tasty croissants. Definitely worth the trip back - and a “must visit” when in The ‘Hat (not far off the TransCanada Highway, it might even be worth a stop if just passing through).
Also in the mall was an interesting home décor store Kerry Jayms Lighting and Décor and (on good authority) Dress Your Lashes Fashion Accessories is also worth a visit.
Too much to see and do…too little time!
Not Tell Hotel Fun
The ’Hat has retained some of its mid-century motel charm along the TransCanada Highway. We enjoyed our stayed at the Travelodge with its coloured silhouette running lights that give it a bit of a Las Vegas vibe at night. It was very popular with families with its pool with a waterslide.
Not sure why but we got the huge family room with two queen beds and a bunk bed with double on bottom, but it would be perfect for a family travelling with a grandparent or two.
Hutterite Culture Market
Entering the Saturday farmers’ market at Medicine Hat’s Rodeo Grounds is like entering a different culture with the presence of Hutterites from several colonies selling their vegetables. We arrived early and unbeknownst to us, we entered through a side door (we later learned it was for vendors) and had the place to ourselves for about 20 minutes. We had no idea that there were probably 100 people lined up to get in at the public entrance. We not only loved the great produce at great prices, but the sellers mostly young Hutterite women, with their charming demeanour and colourful dresses.
Note: Wouldn’t it be great if the Calgary Stampede could find a way to host a weekend market at Stampede Park from after Stampede to Thanksgiving? After all, it started as an agricultural fair.
Windmill Garden Centre & Butterfly Garden
This place is huge…would be very fun to be there in the spring when its full of bedding out plants. Still, it was fun to look at the perennials and the garden giftware. The Butterfly Garden was a bit of a disappointment as there were only a few butterflies when we visited. I was told they get a fresh shipment of butterflies about every two weeks with the number and variety of varying each time. Too bad the admission price doesn’t vary with the number of butterflies on view. If butterflies are your thing, check when they are getting their shipment and time your visit accordingly.
The Medalta Pottery is indeed an innovative industrial museum, art gallery and contemporary ceramic arts facility. We arrived Saturday morning, took a quick look around and decided to come back for the 1:00pm guided tour to get a better appreciation for the history of the site. (Note: Unfortunately, the 60 to 75-minute guided tours are only offered on weekends at 1 pm.)
Medicine Hat had three things going for it that lead to it producing 75% of Canada’s pottery products early in the 20th century.
- First, a ready supply of natural gas provided a reliable source of heat for the kilns.
- Second, an abundant supply of clay (for centuries the South Saskatchewan River deposited alluvial silt along its banks. As early as 1885 these clays deposits were tested for their brick-making potential and found to be of excellent quality.
- Third, the railway was right there enabling easy shipping across the country.
Though, many of the clay products factories in Medicine Hat were small businesses, two large-scale plants dominated the industry - Medicine Hat Brick & Tile and Alberta Clay Products.
Today, Medalta is the setting for a living, working museum, vibrant education centre, contemporary art gallery and 12,000 square foot contemporary ceramics studio for visiting artists from around the world.
Give yourself at least two hours to take the tour, then explore the museum and wander the site.
If you happen to be in Medicine Hat on a Thursday in the summer – bonus! A vibrant farmers’ market (4:30 to 8:30pm) on site includes food trucks, artisans, live music and a bar.
Backstory: One of our reasons for this trip was see if we could get more information on set of vintage “Jill” pattern plates by Hycroft as an exhaustive Google search yielded no information. While we couldn’t get any help from the weekend staff, we were given a name and contact information, who provided much helpful information.
Do we keep them or Kijiji them, that is the question?
Walk In The Park
I took a walk with a buddy at the park-like Medicine Hat Golf & Country Club, with its beautiful century old trees and South Saskatchewan River vistas. While Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” I would argue, “ Golf is a good walk enhanced by 14 clubs.”
For nature walk purists, there is Police Point Park, a 400-acre natural reserve bordered on three sides by the South Saskatchewan River. One of its signature attractions is its ancient, gnarled (the result of past floods) cottonwood trees. Great for photos and bird watching. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, American Kestrel, Juncos, House Finches, Bald Eagles, Blue Herons and several types of owls have all been seen.
Where to Eat & Drink
LOCAL - best patio and great beer. Lots of shade - critical when summer temperatures are routinely above 30 degrees in a city boasting 330 days of sunshine.
Inspire – bright charming corner bistro / art gallery. Good soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts. We are still drooling over the carrot cake.
Thai Orchid Room - we didn’t make it to the Orchid but we have it on good authority (including CBC restaurant reviewer John Gilchrist) it is outstanding. He loved the extensive, traditional, authentic menu with an extensive tea list and great service, rating it 8 out of 10.
Heartwood – located in the old Eaton’s store downtown, the soups are to “die for” (signature soup is roasted red pepper and tomato) and staff is very friendly. Note: Not open weekends.
Station Coffee – best spot for a coffee, popular breakfast spot, good vibe, gluten free and vegetarian options - get there early. Hot tip: try the caramel latte.
If you live in Calgary, next time you are considering a (long) day road trip or weekend getaway, consider The ‘Hat. If you are passing through on the TransCanada Highway, give yourself some time to explore the city.