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For the last twenty miles east of the Creek the country was very dry, and shewed signs of drought but the soil was rich and the grass tall. At our crossing, the creek flowed from the southeast, but a short distance lower down, it turned almost due east and then north, until it emptied into the Qu'appelle.
West of Moose Jaw Creek the country changed at once, and four miles south of our crossing passed into sand hills which extended as low mounds from that point westward and northward.
For thirty miles west from the creek the country was very dry, and frequently sand and gravel hills were seen with occasional patches of cactus, Opuntia Missouriensis where the surface was sandy; but much good soil covered with rich grass was also passed. To the south of our line of travel the country was more hilly than to the north.
As we neared the base of the Coteau, alkaline plants became common, and small brackish lakes frequent, these being the usual harbingers of the approach to the Third Prairie Steppe, or Coteau. At every point where I have touched the Coteau I have noticed saline soil which has evidently been formed from the washing away of the face of the hills.
A journey of twenty-eight miles, through a broken hilly country brought us to the head of Old Wives Lakes, which lie in a depression between the hills. The head of the northern Lake, is a series of detached alkaline ponds with mud margins and very brackish water.
The waters of the Lakes are quite clear, but very salt. Strange to say, environed by the before mentioned salt pools a spring of excellent water was found not 100 yards from the head of the northern lake. This Lake is quite shallow for a long distance out, and the eastern side for many miles is much indented by points and bays. The western side is less broken, and is backed by higher hills than those which rise to the east. The twenty-eight miles of broken country passed through before reaching the lake, is well suited for pasturage, as there is abundance of water both fresh and brackish in the hills, and the soil is of varying character, sand or gravel prevailing.
Passing west from Old Wives Lakes, the hills change their character and run in parallel ranges, from northeast to southwest with abundance of good pure water in ponds. Occasional swampy lakes varied the scenery. For about twenty-one miles west of the lakes, very little of the land could be claimed as agricultural, but all is excellent pasture.
In the fifty-one miles referred to above, the leading grasses were all of the most valuable kinds for pasture. They were noted for their value in the folowing order.
Stipa spartea (wild oats as named in Manitoba), took the lead, as indeed it does on all fairly dry and rich soils from Fort Ellice to the Rocky Mountains. This grass is preferred at all seasons by horses when travelling on the prairies, except late in July and August when its seeds are ripe. After the frosts come, horses always seek for this grass, and it is this species that constitutes the principal buffalo grass of the great plains. The other or more southern buffalo grass (Bouteloua oligostachya), easily known by its curling leaves, and peculiar panicles of flowers was seen in some abundance on the drier knolls, but it is only found in quantity where the soil is inclined to be arid, or much further to the southwest. Triticum repens (Couch or Quick grass), is always found where the soil is a strong clay, and wherever it is abundant, sand is not to be found. Kaleria cristata and Poa coesia grasses which have a tendency to grow in bunches, and are hence often classed as “ bunch grasses,” were comparatively common on the dry hills. These five species may be said to constitute the bulk of the western pastures, but more especially the three first mentioned. Artemisia
(Canadian sage brush), was met with in some abundance on the clay plain, twenty miles west of Old Wives Lakes, and is the same plant as that found by Palliser, nearly in the same longitude, at the Elbow of the South Saskatchewan, and called by him Artemisia tridentata, or the true American sage brush, which in reality never crosses our boundary east of the Rocky Mountains. This plant is no proof of aridity of climate as it is found only on Cretaceous clay, and wherever that crops out it is sure to be seen. At the present time it is growing at the base of the hill on the left bank of the Assiniboine, just opposite the mouth of the Qu'Appelle at Fort Ellice, and as a proof that even the presence of the cactus does not always indicate aridity of climate, I may state that anyone may find cactus growing in the Qu'Appelle Valley, just south of where the Carlton road ascends out of it. Here then are the two plants, which former writers cited as proofs of the aridity of the climate of our western plains, found growing in the neighborhood of Fort Ellice where the rain-fall is known to be abundant, because here they find a suitable soil--the first mentioned, clay, the latter clay and sand with a suitable amount of alkaline matter.
Twenty-five miles west of Old Wives Lakes, is a fine large fresh-water lake, called Bullrush Lake, which is at least eight miles long and five broad. Three creeks enter it from the north and west, and another discharges its surplus waters from the south end. Clay cliffs over sixty feet high, are along the eastern side, and its waters, even at less than a rod from the shore, are very deep. At the north end of the lake, the trail from the Elbow joins the other coming from Qu'Appelle. Four miles east of the lake, good agricultural land was entered upon, which extended all around it. As we rounded the north end a sluggish stream was crossed, and beyond it another with water standing in deep pools. These streams come from the north. About two miles to the south another
and larger stream was found coming from the hills and emptying into the head of the lake. Crossing the plain and a narrow range of hills with a rich, sandy loam surface soil, we descended into another valley and here found Strong Current Creek flowing to the east. Within a short distance, it turns to the north and enters a range of hills which shuts in the valley on that side. The creek flowed down a valley from the west and meandered through it, having banks about ten feet high. Its bed was thirty yards wide, but there was flowing water only over part of it. A few willows grow in its bed, and these were the only brush seen in seventy-six miles, as not a bush exists around any of the lakes spoken of.
Nearly the whole of the tract lying between the Cypress Hills and Old Wives Lakes, has excellent soil, and at times spreads out into wide, slightly undulating plains, covered with tall, rich grass. In other parts high rolling hills with deep valleys, having a northwest and southeast direction, are met with. Old Wives Creek receives the drainage of all these hills, but it is only in spring that any flow of water passes over its stony bed. The highest land is always to the north and west, and some of the ridges or narrow plateaux passed over, were found even higher than the eastern end of the Cypress Hills. Occasionally brackish lakes were seen, but water of any description was not abundant, although we never suffered from the want of it. The last twenty miles was over a gently undulating plain, with fair soil and but little water. As we approached the Cypress Hills, they rose before us bodily from the plain to the height of 400 feet, with the various ravines which penetrated the eastern face of the escarpment filled with wood. Along their base were the usual alkaline ponds and poor soil, but these were much restricted as Strong Current Creek was found flowing south along the base of the hills. After passing three miles south of our camp, it turns boldly to the north, so that before reaching the hills we were compelled to cross it twice in less than two miles. Blue hills shut in the horizon to the north; twenty-five miles to the southeast lay the high ridges we had left the preceding day, and an interminable plain stretched away to the south, while in our front were the Cypress Hills themselves.