In Her Footsteps

On The Trail With Buffalo Stone Woman

I feel the burn in my legs almost immediately as we start to hike up the slight but unrelenting slope of the mountain.

"They're leg-burners that's for sure," says Heather Black, owner of Buffalo Stone Women Indige-Scape Tours.

Heather offers hikes with an Indigenous perspective in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains. My travel companion and I have joined her for a walk at Grassi Lakes, a popular hike just outside Canmore.

Although I've never been to the Rocky Mountains and I am not much of a hiker, Heather's calm, welcoming, and reassuring presence makes me feel immediately at ease.

"Our people have been walking these paths since the beginning of time," she says. Heather is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which consists of four Nations: Piikani, Siiksika, Amskapi Pikuni and, Heather's Nation, Akainai (Kaínai, or Blood).

"The mountains are our medicine," she says.

The landscape is magical, having been transformed overnight by freshly fallen snow. But what makes the morning hike special to me is Heather. Her knowledge of, and reverence for, the landscape helps to form my first experience in the Rockies in the best possible way.

Listen to Heather Black describe her tours:

Over the course of the 3-hour experience with Heather, we had many conversations: about family, about what Truth and Reconciliation means in practice, about life and connection with nature.

For me, these conversations open up new ways of thinking and I'm grateful to Heather for her openness and willingness to share so much of herself.

We pause periodically for Heather to point out the flora that is critical to her Nation, such as Juniper, Birch, and Sweet Pine, and their traditional uses.

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When we reach the Grassi Lakes, we pause to take in the views. On the one side is a mountain vista, showing us the path we had taken from the parking lot to here, and the town of Canmore in the distance:

On the other side, are the lakes. They are a particular shade of greenish-blue that I have never seen before, created as sunlight hits the silt particles of these mountain lakes:

We are here at an interesting time (mid-November), as the snow has dusted the landscape but not yet frozen the lakes.

Heather hikes these mountains regularly throughout the year, sometimes with large groups and sometimes with a friend. But with each visit, she sees and experiences the landscape in a new way.

"Nature is alive," she says. "It isn't just something to snap a picture of and move on."

After we've had a chance to take in the view, Heather leads us to a private area next to large boulders and leads us in a Traditional Smudge, a ritual of cleansing and purification.

As she prepares the space, we munch on a traditional bison pemmican strip, similar to jerky, flavoured with maple and Saskatoon berry.

Heather hands us handmade leather rounds that she meticulously makes just for her guests and shows us how to thread them into pouches, which we then fill with sage. They are ours to take home.

She then gently shows us how to run our hands in circles over the fire and how to cleanse. She gives us privacy for our own prayers.

As I run my hands in four circles over the smoke, I get unexpectedly emotional. I take a moment to appreciate the grandeur of these ancient mountains, the history of the people who have walked here for thousands of years, and the pure beauty of life.

The mountains are medicine.

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Photo: Travel Alberta/Lauren Bath

Photo: Travel Alberta/Lauren Bath