White settlers on the plains were to rely on the buffalo for warmth as well. Those vast herds had been drastically reduced to a pitiful few, and those no longer roamed the plains. Fortunately for the early homesteaders, the buffalo had left contributions on the grasses which had sustained the herds. Their dried defecations were collected and burned for heat in pioneer stoves. These “buffalo chips” were a perfect solution to the lack of firewood.
There were buffalo bones as well, mainly skulls, some with horns attached, and many shoulder blades. In the late 1800’s, settlers were paid five dollars a ton for bones of the over sixty million beasts that had been indiscriminately slaughtered, destroying the native peoples’ proud way of life and forcing them to rely on handouts from those who had come, taken the land, and in such a short time, completely altered the Canadian prairies.
In the pasture to the east of our farm, Arny Holben found a buffalo skull and carried it home where it lay for years in our back yard. Several of us found horns at one time or other, all of which we toted home and added to the collection of you-name-it piled around the steps at the back entrance of the farm house.
I have the skull of a buffalo with one horn attached which we found in the pasture. I would doubt that many more buffalo bones are to be found anywhere on the prairie that remains. And there is precious little of it left. The vast oceans of grass have been replaced with another inland sea; a sea of waving prairie grains which are neatly bisected by roads and fences, and spotted with islands of cultivated trees surrounding neat farm yards.
Trees on the prairie around the Sklapsky homestead could only be found beside the sloughs, natural depressions in the land where runoff water pooled. Wild fowl: many types of ducks and Canadian honkers, snows and lesser Canada geese, gulls, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, grebes and mud hens contributed in their droppings and their plumage, seeds which grew and flourished to a limited extent along boundaries of these natural ponds. Thus the prairies were dotted in places with stands of poplar, willow, and a few maples which provided shelter and nesting sites for woodland birds. Cattails, sedges and bulrushes lined the shores, and water weeds grew from soft muddy bottoms, while fragrant wild sage lent a pungent bouquet to the air.
Sloughs were wonderful natural laboratories which Mother Nature cultivated. Frog and toad eggs grew into tadpoles or polliwogs, wrigglers developed into blood-thirsty mosquitoes, nymphs developed, crawled out along the foliage and eventually flew off in the form of dragonflies which dined on adult mosquitoes. These pond dwellers and other insects led the water fowl, who in turn fed the coyotes, wolves, foxes and people who came to the plains.
Foxes, coyotes and badgers also dined regularly on the gopher, that shrill voiced little rodent who digs up the land, and completes the total picture of the prairie. Gophers flourished with the planting of tender grains. Comical to watch, their little tan bodies punctuate the prairie like the miniature exclamation marks their shrill squeaks seem to demand. Hawks, skilled navigators of the prairie sky, along with badgers and foxes were efficient hunters of these small rodents, until the lush planting of cultivated fields set up a delicatessen, which in turn led to a population explosion. Farmers soon found that a colony of gophers could clear a large section of grain while it was in the tender early stages of growth: another affliction for the homesteader.
In Mother’s memoirs there is mention of the Old Battleford Trail. This trail stretched from North Battleford to Swift Current, and was originally made by the moccasin clad feet of the first human inhabitants, the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, but predominantly the Cree. These early people formed this trail as they journeyed from the North Branch of the Saskatchewan River to the South Branch of the same and on down to the Missouri. Freighters used this ancient trail from 1883 until the rail road was extended to Saskatoon from Regina in 1890. Red River carts traversed the plains on this trail, carried millions of pounds of goods, and cut deep ruts into the tough prairie sod. These ruts crossed the homestead quarter of Frank Sklapsky, running between the barn and the house. On the prairie, the small amount that has not been broken up, you can still make out these indentations. The Northwest Mounted Police traversed the prairies, checking on the inhabitants, to ensure all was as it was supposed to be, and they too, used the Old Battleford Trail.