28 July 2008

The Lost Ruins Of Ninaistako

llll ) lllllllllllllllllllllllll The Lost Ruins Of Ninaistako…

Akainaa lives on the hilltop above One Spot ki Dipping Vat Coulees. From his kitchen window, we look out over most of kainaissksaahoyi, eating our boiled eggs with bacon, ki sipping on strong niita’paisiksikimi. The dawn light is just settling upon omiistsi miistakiistsi, ki from our vantage point we can see hundreds of miles of their expanse. Ninaistako seems just a stone’s throw away. High up the valley of its southern flank there is said to be a small compound, the ruins of a misplaced pueblo constructed a few hundred years ago by people from far to the south. They came here to escape Spanish conquest. Akainaa remembers hearing the story from his grandfather, of the strange intruders who rode ponokaomitaiksi, elk-dogs, the first horses any niitsitapii had ever seen, ki of how their small settlement was easily routed both by exposure to the unexpectedly harsh winters ki by the raids of those more familiar with this land, who wanted ponokaomitaiksi for themselves.

It’s hard to say how many generations may have passed since these ruins were last visited. No one alive today has seen them, ki many would dismiss the story outright, having never heard it from their own grandparents. This history may have been forgotten altogether were it not for the technology of satellite imagery, which I first encountered almost twenty years ago in Army intelligence, now available to any household with an internet connection. The ruins were one of the first things akainaa searched for when Google Earth came online. Scanning high up in the valley south of ninaistako, an image came forth of a clearing in the forest, surrounding a pool of spring water. In the northeast quadrant of this clearing, lines suggestive of man-made structures were clearly visible. One of our elders, Makoyiipokaa, noticed something more. “It’s omahkitapii,” he told us, “Bigfoot. That water is his mouth. That dark spot is his eyes. You go up there, you be sure to leave an offering.” Planning for an expedition began.

We finish our eggs ki bacon, akainaa ki niisto, ki load up in my little truck for the drive across the border ki up to the base camp east of ninaistako. Each of us would carry the minimal gear necessary for our overnight hike. In my pack there is a sleeping bag, self-inflating mat, small tarp, parachute line, two canteens, a mess kit, freeze-dried food ki Power Bars, a little fishing kit, waterproof matches, a flashlight, change of clothes, light parka, machete, ki my camera. It didn’t seem like much, but as we sling our packs over our shoulders at base camp ki begin the ascent toward ninaistako ki the long ridge beyond, I realize the extra weight will take some getting used to. It’s been years since I’ve undertaken a hike like this.

The first half of our day is invigorating. The mountain foliage is so vivid, gorged with life, ki there is a spectacular view from our alpine heights. Just below us is the wooded rise where Charcoal hid-out from the mounted police, ki far off in the distance the porcupine hills that he would ride to on horseback during overnight flights that our best riders today would be hard-pressed to duplicate. We can see akainaa’s winter camp in the timber limits, ki the reservoirs for both the Waterton ki St. Mary’s Rivers, Duck Lake, ki all of kainaissksaahkoyi.

A cool breeze whisks away our sweat when we stop to rest, which we do frequently, having all day to trek the twenty or so miles up the valley to our site. Each break allows us an opportunity for reflection, noting the grandeur of the land we inhabit, our gratitude for having gained employment that allows us opportunities to stay connected to such places, ki regret that so few of our friends ki relatives take similar advantage of the unique opportunities available to us. Already, we are planning future expeditions for our students, tossing around curriculum ideas about stories ki practices we might be able to share with them in week-long sojourns along this route. Akainaa diligently photographs of some of the plants that could be introduced as part of an ethnobotanic component of these sessions. At one point, just on the north side of ninaistako, we walk up on a small number bighorn sheep. They are young bucks, feeding, ki don’t seem to mind our presence among them. Other than this, the only wildlife we encounter are small birds, ki the occasional marmot basking in the rocks.

There are lessons all around us… stories of ninaistako itself, from the ancient time when naapii ki the animals gathered on its peak to escape the floods, to its history as iitaitsiiyiiso’p, a site for vision questing. Indeed, as we round the north side of the mountain, we pass dozens of colourful offerings tied in the trees, ki numerous stone beds where people have fasted ki slept in search of spiritual guidance. Away on the south face of ninaistako, we know, is the cave-home of ksiistsikomiipi’kssi, the thunderbird who once stole a human woman ki hid her in boughs of katoyiss. Ki it was to this location that aapai’stoo, the white raven, from his home on Crowsnest Mountain, sent two mai’stoiksi to battle ksiistsikomm in an event that would define the seasons of kitawahsinnoon ki bring about the first transfer of ninnaimsskaahkoyinnimaan.

Rarely do we have a defined trail to follow. These miistakiistsi, as beautiful as they may be, are unforgiving. Navigating through them, one is at all times either balancing over boulders, trudging along shifting slopes of shale scree, or pushing through stabbing forests of deadwood undergrowth. By the time we near our destination, the miles of precarious footwork have taken their toll. My legs are fairly played-out, ki I continue to stagger forward by momentum alone… like a toddler learning to take its first steps, or a boxer near to collapse. The willpower is there to continue, but the muscles are barely keeping me upright. I figure akainaa is feeling similarly fatigued, because he stumbles more ki more often as we push along. Still, he seems to be doing better than me.

When finally we reach the tree-line above our destination, we split-up to enter the forest in search of the clearing. After a couple of false identifications of smaller clearnings, is akainaa who finds the one we’ve sought, an alpine lakebed, dried with exception of a small spring pool. The clearing is full of grey ki white shale, but no rock walls, no ruins remain where they appeared to be on the satellite imagery. For a moment, we wonder whether it is the right clearing at all. Maybe we needed to search further in. We decide to ditch our packs at this likely location, ki split-up once more, trekking out in opposite directions to confirm that there are no similar clearings in the vicinity. Akainaa heads further up the valley, knowing from our Google map that there is a creek not too far away, ki that if he reaches it he’s gone too far. I move down toward the valley floor, following the dry route of the run-off that would drain away from the lakebed to feed the headwaters of a niitahtaa. Both of us go as far as our respective water sources, finding nothing that would suggest our identification of the clearing was off-base. Reuniting at the lakebed, we compare what we are seeing with the images we’d downloaded from Google Earth. The shape ki dimensions of the clearing are a match in every respect, but for the absence of the walls. Had they been toppled to create the shale rubble that remained? Had it been simply a glitch in the imagery, an odd pixilation causing us to see structure where there was none?

We didn’t have any more time to worry about it. Naato’si had already descended from visibility in the west, ki we would not have light available much longer. We set up our camp on a grassy bank beside the spring, where there is a mud-flat wide enough that we could make a sizeable fire without concern for the integrity of the surrounding forests. We gather wood ki water, start our fire, ki cook a pot of mixed bison chilli ki beef stew. By nightfall, we lay our sleeping-bags out on the grass. I use my inflatable mat, ki akainaa the green boughs of katoyiss. All around our camp are game trails leading to the spring… deer, ponokaiksi, kiaayoiksi. We drink a couple pots of tea ki mark our territory in a circle around the camp. Akainaa sets out dry branches on the trails leading to our sleeping area, so that we will be alerted in the night by anything coming our way. In our final hour by the firelight, akainaa beats time with a stick ki sings some of the old-time songs he knows, commenting between each round about how few young people bother to learn to sing these days. Knowing only the naatoyinihkssiistsi for nitomopistaan, I regret that I don’t have anything to contribute.

Neither of us sleeps well. We’re warm enough, to be sure. But the tea we’d drunk in the evening keeps us hopping in ki out of bed all night, ki the nearly-full face of ko’komiki’somm casts our clearing in a dim, wakeful light. I’m first out of the sack at dawn, but find myself in considerable pain. The stress on my lower back after my legs had played out the day before caused my muscles to seize-up overnight. It takes a while before I’m able to stand up straight ki begin moving around, gathering more wood to feed the morning fire. The way my back feels, I would like to make the decision then ki there to stay put another night in that clearing, let my muscles settle down, ki trek out when I feel better again. But the plan had been just to overnight it, ki I know that if I don’t report in by evening, piipiiaakii will likely have search ki rescue coming up the valley for us by next morning. No rest for the crippled. We’ll have to march out right away.

It isn’t long before akainaa crawls out of the sack, grinning from ear to ear when he sees how stiff I am, seventeen years his junior. We cook up a can of corned-beef for breakfast, ki wash it down with instant coffee. All the while, I’m hoping my back will loosen up before we finish eating, but it doesn’t. Just before hitting the trail, we decide to take one last scan around the surrounding forest, to see if we can find any signs of the ruins we’ve come so far in search of. We figure the best place to look will be in the highlands just east of the clearing. It’s an area that would be relatively safe from flooding, as well as clear from rock falls coming off the surrounding miistakiistsi. Sure enough, we only just breach the treeline when we come upon a wall of rock about four feet high, grown over with moss, grass, ki katoyiistsi. Akainaa pulls back some moss ki earth to expose a wall made partially with bedrock, raised higher by tightly fitted stones. This wall runs about ten yards eastward, then takes a ninety-degree turn to the south, where it seems to form a chamber of roughly ten by fifteen meters that’s clear of trees. From this position, similar walls can be seen in the immediate area.

We may have found what we came looking for after all. Unfortunately, I’m in too much pain to really enjoy it, ki maintain instead a concern that we’ll need to start walking soon in order to make it back out of the valley before nightfall. We take a number of pictures of the chamber we’ve found, ki of the one rock wall akainaa exposed, then set off downhill, following the dry gully that I’d walked the previous evening. Where this gully meets with the narrow niitahtaa that courses down the valley, we encounter an odd stone cairn, about three feet high ki eight meters long, constructed with round cobbles rather than the jagged mountain rock that’s so much more prolific in the area. This will be another site we’ll have to return to in a future visit. Perhaps, we speculate, it holds the remains of those who lived in the ruined settlement.

Our plan for the day is to follow game trails alongside anni niitahtaa as it moves down the valley, ki to either cut up the south slope under ninaistako to base camp, or just continue following the valley out to the highway, where we can catch a ride back to our vehicle. We’re tired of stumbling along rocky slopes, ki believe the riverside route might be more forgiving. We’re wrong.

From morning to mid-day, we push ki shove ki crawl our way through the dense deadwood underbrush. Each time we think we’ve found a good trail, it leads us only to more obstacles. At one point, we come to a cliff that stretches from one side of the valley to the other. Our only option is to find a smaller drop from which to lower first our packs ki then ourselves down with ropes. It’s a brutal journey, punctuated by the beauty of waterfalls ki alpine meadows that simply can’t be enjoyed any other way.

What began as an intellectual mission only a day before quickly transforms today into a kind of passage through the re-discovery of our own bodies, both their strengths ki limitations. Ki we begin to discuss how this encounter with koistominnoonistsi comprises another form of “learning from place” that our students desperately need exposure to. Had akainaa ki niisto not carried with us each a background of prior experience in successfully negotiating various outdoor ordeals, it is likely we would underestimate our true abilities. In other words, we would not have the confidence to know that, despite whatever barriers we might encounter, we could walk out of there.

We’d both seen it before. In fact, just a couple years ago I’d brought three students out to climb ninaistako, young men, two of whom were in far better physical shape than myself. All three gave up at various points of the ascent, leaving only myself to place the offering we’d brought on top of the mountain. These students quit not out of respect for ninaistako itself, as aitapissko, a place with a strong spiritual presence… which I might have appreciated. Rather, they seemed to succumb to a mixture of fatigue ki its associated fear. Now, it’s true that there are real dangers in climbing miistakiistsi, in hiking ki camping the backcountry, in negotiating along or across certain waters, etc. A wrong move in any of these contexts might bring swift ki traumatic injury, or worse. Ki some would argue, for instance, that my students, in turning back, perceived their personal limitations ki wisely elected to quit prematurely rather than subject themselves to potential bodily harm. But on the other hand, there are situations we all encounter in life, often at unexpected or inopportune moments, where our survivability is tested. It is at these moments when a habit of retreat or avoidance can prove every bit as deadly. Ironically, the only way to ensure that one will be meet a life or death challenge with composure ki confidence is to occasionally hazard this darkness in training.

Akainaa ki niisto both agree that our students would benefit from the cultivation self-assured knowledge that comes through time spent in the isolation of our local backcountry. Here, a day or two of walking can carry one far beyond the range of cell phone towers, into a region so vast ki unpopulated that the possibility of swift rescue is very slim indeed. Here, the sublime beauty of nature can – as quick as a heartbeat – be morphed psychologically into a nightmarish landscape of predators ki impossible obstacles. In the past, our young men were all ritually compelled to face this darkness through the practice of aitsiiyiiso’p, a minimal four-night isolation of fasting ki thirsting in places far removed from other human beings… sites known, rather, to be frequented by both wildlife ki ghosts. Ki it was through their experiences in these places that they would acquire the gifts that might help them successfully negotiate the kinds of life ki death trials that can befall any of us in the perceived safety of our everyday lives. Moreover, the self-assured confidence gained through passage of these ritualized ordeals is beneficial for the whole of our community in a variety of mundane ways. We always need the leadership of those for whom phrases like “I can’t” or “we have to be realistic” are less familiar. While the compulsive exercise of aitsiiyiiso’p itself might not be popularly received in the context of our formal education system – it being retained today in the community as a “personal choice”, i.e. matter of religious preference – we could conceivably put it out there as an option, ki otherwise skirt nearer the experience by hosting week-long sojourns into the backcountry with a minimal number of students in various seasons.

Conversing about these ideas as we fight our way down the valley, akainaa ki niisto eventually reach the upper lake, ki there find a trail maintained by Glacier Park that makes our hike for the remainder of the day considerably less treacherous. Still, my back muscles are seizing. My feet are damp with sweat, swollen, ki aching. My eyes sting from sweat. For some hours as we move along the upper lake, then the lower lake, then along the trail beyond, we’re in what akainaa aptly calls “survival mode”. All we know is that we have to keep moving, despite what our bodies desire. Each time we sit down for a breather, there’s a real danger that we’ll pass-out on the trailside ki not wake up again until late in the evening. It’s a lucky thing that we’re both in decent shape, ki well-accustomed to pushing through such exhaustion. It’s hard to imagine anyone else we work with being able to withstand such an ordeal. Ki if we had gone out in a party of three or four, instead of just the two of us, it’s unlikely we would have been able to make it in ki out in two days.

It had been a mistake not to plan for a longer excursion. We could have used an extra day at the site of the ruins. Ki there were other things we’d hoped to accomplish along the route, in terms of collecting plant photographs ki samples for our ethnobotany curriculum, as well as roots ki other items useful to ceremony. We do take some photographs… but there is a lot more we could achieve if we had just a day or two more to work with. All the same, the expedition has not in any sense been a failure. We’ve located the ruins that were the primary objective of this exercise. Moreover, though, we’re able to renew a knowledge about ourselves that neither of us has visited for awhile. We realize that the hardships of simple movement through rugged territory brings about its own lessons ki rewards, extremely beneficial for personal ki community development. Ki as we hike along the final stretch, a dirt road that winds out of the forest ki through a cattle pasture, we’re already envisioning our return… the possibility of spending more time at the ruins, ki of testing a curriculum of hunting, fishing, gathering, construction of survival shelters, ki other traditional practices. This, we figure, we must ensure to accomplish before the fall weather sets in.

It’s a tremendous relief when we finally catch site of the highway, ki its slow but steady tourist traffic running between Babb ki Waterton. Akainaa catches a signal with his cell phone ki calls opiitaam, Tamara, to come pick us up at roadside. We lay there, in the shadows of trees, dozing off ki gazing at passing cars, until she arrives. Then, after picking up my little truck again, the three of us travel down to St. Mary’s for dinner. The food is good, but I don’t enjoy it. Something about the log cabin we’re sitting in makes me feel claustrophobic. I think it’s the stale air. Already, I miss being outside ki exposed. Driving home, I put all my windows down to invite the wind.