Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Of Cabins and Summers on the Lake

Squirrels on the deck of the Stringam cabin.

We loved staying at our friends' cabin in Waterton Lakes Park.
So much so that my Dad finally felt we should have our own.
Cabin, I mean.
And the rest of us, picturing days happily spent on the lake, were very easily convinced.
He scouted around for a nice piece of property.
And found one.
On St. Mary Lake, just outside of Glacier National Park, Montana – across the border from the ranch.
It was truly beautiful.
Clear, icy-cold, blue water.
And I do mean icy. Brrr.
Pure air.
Lots of trees.
We fell in love.
The only thing missing was the . . . cabin.
No problem.
Dad would build it.
He chose a design and ordered materials.
They were duly delivered.
And immediately stolen.
Our cabin plans were almost abandoned before they even got off the ground.
So to speak.
But, finally, Dad took a deep breath and ordered some more.
They came.
And this time, they stayed.
He moved in a small travel trailer and we took up residence.
Then began to prepare the land.
It was hot, hard work - cutting down a few of the trees and tearing out brush.
Sweat ran freely.
I know.
Because I was watching carefully, can of black cherry pop in one hand and hot dog in the other.
But before you begin to think I was entirely useless, I must point out that I helped carry some of the rocks over to the lake to help construct our boat dock.
Small rocks.
Really small rocks.
Okay, I was useless.
Before too long, Dad and my brothers had cleared a spot large enough for our cabin.
I don't remember much of the building apart from the sounds of hammering and sawing and the wonderful smell of fresh-cut lumber.
Mom kept me near her.
Across the road from the action.
My reputation for getting in the way was obviously well known.
Moving on . . .
The cabin went up magically.
In no time, we had a master bedroom where my oldest sister could sit and tell us scary stories.
Two smaller bedrooms with bunk beds for the smaller kids to fall out of.
Which they did.
And a wonderful kitchen/dining/living room where Mom could make the food magic happen.
Mmm. Food.
Oh, and there was also a big, open fireplace . . . thing.
I think that, technically, it was a wood stove.
But it was screened on all sides.
Wonderful for gathering around on a cool summer evening.
For visiting.
Something my family excelled at.
The cabin had huge windows facing the lake.
And a large deck.
Another favourite place.
Where we could sit and watch the water.
And dream.
Something else I excelled at.
We spent several summers at the lake.
I remember evenings on the deck, looking out over the water and just breathing in the glorious air.
Splashing around in the frigid water.
Icy cold cans of pop out of the lake.
Games played beside a snapping fire.
Wiener/marshmallow roasts.
Hide and seek in the trees.
Ghost stories.
Visit with the neighbours. (Once, a for-real professional sheepherder drove his flock right past the cabin and we got to see the inside of his wagon.)
It was wonderful.
But it ended.
Several times, when we weren't in residence, the cabin was broken into and vandalized.
The last time, someone smashed the large picture window, leaving blood everywhere.
Dad replaced the window and promptly sold the cabin.
Too bad.
Because it was wonderful way to spend the summer.

There is a codicil.
A year or so after my Dad sold the cabin, a good friend of his stopped him on the street, shook a finger in his face and told him what a bad boy he was.
Bewildered, my Dad frowned at his friend. “What are you talking about?”
The man grinned. “We were boating on the [St. Mary's] lake and decided to drop in and visit with you and Enes. Once we got there, we realized that you weren't home, but I remembered where you hid the key, so I opened the door and we went in to see if you had left any pop in the fridge.” The man shook his head. “I can't tell you how surprised I was to find it full of beer!”
My parents were well known for their tee-totalling habits.
Dad laughed. “I guess you didn't hear that I sold that cabin.”
The man's mouth dropped open.
“Yeah. A year or so ago.”
“So . . . it's not your cabin?”
“So . . . breaking and entering.”
Even when it no longer belonged to us, the cabin continued to entertain.
I miss it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

You Can Go Back

Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes Provincial Park. Paradise.

I have always lived in the shadows of the Rockies.
And by doing so, have been in close proximity to one of many national parks.
Nowadays (real word, I looked it up), that means either the Banff or Jasper National Parks.
In my early years, it was Waterton Lakes.
How our family loved Waterton!
Every summer we spent at least a week there, staying in one of the tiny, rustic cabins perched on the very shore of Upper Waterton Lake or in the beautiful old log cabin which belonged to some good friends.
We would swim in the gi-normous (my word) outdoor community swimming pool. Spend endless hours riding around the town on rented tandem bikes or surreys. Visit Cameron Falls or hike to Cameron Lake. Climb Bear's Hump. Explore Prince of Wales Hotel. Shop.
Then there were the lakes. One could fish (or in my case, soak lures) there. Or boat or 'swim'. (I use this last term lightly because this was a mountain lake, and only a couple of degrees above freezing . . .)
The activities were many and varied.
Paradise for a little girl.
Especially since it was the fifties and crime hadn't been invented yet.
Mom could feed us breakfast and send us out the door, secure in the knowledge that we could play safely throughout the townsite.
Except that we had strict instructions not to go near any wildlife.
And Waterton certainly had that.
It wasn't unusual to open the front door and see a herd of deer lying around the front yard, placidly chewing their cud.
Or to have to retreat into a store because a bear was making its way slowly down main street.
That was especially okay, because ice cream was easily obtained and one could enjoy a treat and a show while one waited for the rangers, or for the bear to move on.
Whichever happened first.
It was no wonder that our annual pilgrimage to Waterton was our most anticipated tradition.
My family went back for a reunion.
I was amazed at what had changed in the years since my last trip.
Oh, there were some fondly remembered places still in existence.
Many of the stores and shops were the same, or at least similar.
The topographical sites were still there. Bear's Hump. Cameron Falls. The hiking paths I had enjoyed as a child.
And the Prince of Wales Hotel still majestically dominated the townsite.
But all else had changed.
We tried renting a tandem bike, but the only one left had a towel for a seat and was so rusted and stiff that riding it was more torture than pleasure.
The swimming pool had disappeared.
In its place stood a great hotel complex.
Our friends' cabin was gone, burned to the ground in a massive and heart-wrenching fire. It, too had been replaced by newer and more modern.
Our little cabins were also gone. The campground had been expanded to include the lot where they had stood.
We wandered around for most of a day, reminiscing.
It was still Waterton.
There was still a lot to see and do.
Watch the deer and other animals wander freely throughout the townsite.
Hike. Explore the great Hotel. Fish. Shop.
'Wade' in the lake. (We now called it for what it was . . .)
Swim in the new hotel's grand indoor pool.
Just not the things we most fondly remembered as children.
Who was it who said, 'You can never go back'?
They were wrong.
You can.
Just be prepared for some changes.

Waterton Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park, and a Biosphere Reserve. The only park in the world that has these three designations.
Visit it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

History Through the Eyes of a Four-Year-Old

Turtle Mountain - After the tragedy

Not far from Calgary, Alberta, and just east of the Crowsnest Pass, lies the small, bustling town of Frank, Alberta, nestled on the floor of a deeply-glaciated valley.
Looming menacingly nearby is Turtle Mountain.
Also nearby is a scene of a destruction of such magnitude that it has never been equalled!
In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, Turtle Mountain collapsed, resulting in the greatest landslide in North American history.
In 100 seconds: at least 76 people were buried alive under tons of massive limestone boulders; three-quarters of the homes in Frank were crushed like balsa wood; over a mile of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completely destroyed; and a river became a lake.
Yet, few people have ever heard about it.                                                                                                                                      - Neil Simpson

My parents were driving out to the coast. Travelling through Frank Slide was a necessity.
In the years after the tragedy, little of the rubble had been disturbed. The giant boulders and pieces of mountain lay where they had fallen, a silent testament to those trapped forever beneath.
The road had been cut through and the railway reconnected.
Little else had been disturbed.
Driving through, one's car dwarfed by the massive chunks of rock, one could easily imagine the horror and heartbreak of that fateful morning.
Unless one was four.
Which I was.
I should mention here that, when our family travelled, the scenery or anything else flying past us outside the car never interested me. Because when I was in a car I was either:
      1. Sick
      2. Oblivious
      3. Sick and oblivious
      4. Asleep
The only thing that could rouse me were the words, “Look! Horses!”
I would leap up instantly, despite being heretofore (real word) comatose and press my nose against the nearest window. “Where!? Where!?”
One or the other of my parents would point out the eagerly anticipated animals.
I would stare at them for as long as time permitted, then collapse back onto the seat with a sigh and return to whatever I had been doing.
I was fairly easily entertained.
But I digress . . .
The road had been long. We had already been travelling for an hour.
I was drowsing on the back seat.
Suddenly, Dad spoke up, “Here we are kids! Frank Slide!”
At almost the same time, my Mom said, “Look at all the rock!”
The tone of voice was the same as what my parents used whenever they pointed out something interesting.
Like horses.
But because the word 'horse' had not actually been used, I was slow to respond.
I must admit that I never even heard my Mom's comment.
I sat up and pressed my face against the window.
I don't know what I was expecting. Dad had said something about a 'slide'.
To me that meant something 'playground-y'.
All I could see were huge rocks.
What kind of playground was this?
Finally, I turned to my parents and said, “Can't see it!”
They burst out laughing.
What was that all about?
Mom pointed out the window. “Can't you see all the rock?”
I glanced outside. “Yeah.”
“Well that's it!”
I looked again. “But I can't see it!”
I don't think they ever figured out that I was talking about the 'slide'.
The real slide. The one Dad had seen.
All they wanted was to look at the stupid rocks.
Parents are so weird.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Would You Like Some Butter With That?

Fresh, Tasty, and good for the hands . . .?
Picture credit:

We had manners in our family.
Bad manners are still manners, aren't they?
Let me restart.
We had good manners in our family.
And some bad dinnertime pranks.

The evening meal was always special at the Stringam Ranch.
Mom was a terrific cook so the food was always good.
The conversation, with two parents, six kids and assorted hired men would be endless and, if not brilliant, at least entertaining.
The day's ranchwork was done, so the men were happy and relaxed.
And the pranks and hijinks were ongoing.
There were several tricks that ocurred regularly.
But the favourite had to do with the butter.
With such a large group at mealtimes, much passing of dishes from hand to hand was expected.
And necessary.
Most of it was done politely. With a nod and a 'thanks'.
The meal proceeded smoothly.
But occassionally, someone would decide to 'liven things up a bit'.
And this usually accompanied the passing of the butter.
Now, the butter at the Stringam table was always freshly churned and delicious.
And went with everything.
So it was passed frequently.
Now, I should point out here that it was good manners to receive a passed dish directly, especially if one had asked to have it passed. Thus, if one requested the butter, one should then take the dish right from the passer's hand.
Common courtesy.
But the trick at the Stringam table was to pass it in just such a manner that the receiver's thumb would get stuck in the butter.
Okay I don't know what that's called.
Common dis-courtesy?
Or just plain funny.
Inevitably, nearly everyone at the table would end up, at one point or another, with their thumb in the butter.
Good thing Mom made everyone scrub up 'doctor style' before meals or we might have gotten more than nutrition served with our food.
But I digress . . .
With 'butter dipping' a common prank, it was inevitable that the receivers would get more and more creative with their receiving.
A nod and a simple gesture to set the butter down on the table was usually the first attempt.
It was inevitably ignored as the passer waited patiently for a more polite method of transferrance.
Finally, the receiver would put out his or her hand, thumb tucked as far out of sight as possible.
It can be done.
It just isn't very comfortable.
Inevitably, no matter how hard the receiver would try to avoid, one digit or another would go in the butter.
And the passer would happily return to their meal, content in the knowledge that they had contributed to the evening's fun-filled mealtime.
While the receiver carefully wiped their fingers on their napkin.
Oh, I forgot to mention – napkins were a necessary part of the every meal.
Moving on . . .
Finally, because the prank became such a common part of the meals, people stopped receiving.
The passer could sit there forever with the butter dish in their hand.
No one would reach out to take it.
In fact, people had been know to simply put out their knife and take a bit of butter while the passer was still holding it.
Unheard of!
But clever.
But one night, my brother forgot the new order of things.
He asked my Dad for the butter and put out his hand to take it.
He did remember to tuck in his thumb.
Dad regarded the outstretched hand for a moment.
No visible thumb.
What to do?
Finally, he simply turned the entire dish over and set it, butter side down, on Jerry's hand.
Mission accomplished.
Dad went back to eating.
Jerry went to wash.
After that, no one went butter-dipping anymore.
Who could top that?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not Just the News . . .

My Dad loved to read the newspaper.
At the breakfast table, after we had finished eating.
Let me rephrase that.
My Dad loved to read the newspaper.
At the breakfast table . . . you get the picture.
Oh, he absorbed the important news stories.
And took note of local and international events and even sales.
But after he had digested the headlines, he would continue to read.
And . . . umm . . . put his own twist upon what he found there.
“Huh. Look at that. Jeffrey James died.”
There would be a pause as everyone in the room tried to decide if they had ever heard that name before.
Finally, some curious soul would ask the question, “Oh? Who was Jeffrey James?”
“Haven't got the slightest idea.”
There would be a general groan and much head shaking.
But that's my Dad.
Sometimes he would embroider a story, improving it for our benefit.
And it wasn't until the story got too outlandish that we would realize it.
“Well, it says here that they're planning a new bridge across the Old Man River near Fort Macleod.”
Again, someone would take the bait. “Really?”
“Yeah. Four lane. The works.”
“Well, it is the Alaska Highway. They probably need the improvement.”
“Well, that'll be nice.”
“Yep. It's just going to hang there. Suspended. Be hard to get on and off of.”
At which time, he would get a smack on the arm.
Or a platter of scrambled eggs upended over his head.
Either or.
Sometimes, Dad would cut the story out of whole cloth.
“Our taxes are going up.”
“Oh, no!”
“Yep. They need the money for a new fund.”
“Yep, the town council Mexico fund.”
“What sort of fund is that?”
“It's the fund where all of the town council get to go to Mexico.”
“What for?”
“Well, to hold their meetings.”
“In Mexico?”
“Well, that doesn't make much sense.”
Or . . .
“Well, look at that. The President of the United States is going up with the next Moon Mission.”
“Well, that sounds dangerous. Why?”
“I guess he wants to see for himself what all of the excitement is about.”
And, for some time we would think that the story was true.
In fact, we were even known to spread the rumour.
With embarrassing, but amusing, results.
You'd think we would learn.
But Dad wouldn't limit himself to making up stories.
Oh, no.
Sometimes, he would improve the staid old news in other ways.
By inserting his favourite poems.
Have I mentioned that he loves to recite?
Little Johnny took a drink,
But he shall drink no more.
'Cause what he thought was H2O,
Was H2SO4!”
We would nod and smile.
That part, we had gotten used to.
Anyone new to the family, however, would be understandably confused.
Once, my almost sister-in-law was seated at the breakfast table with us.
Dad was hidden behind the newspaper, filling us in on the day's happenings.
Suddenly, his tone changed.
The boy stood on the burning deck.
His feet were in the fire.
The Captain said, You're burning up!”
The boy said, “You're a liar!”
She peered timidly around the paper, trying to see where he was reading.
Finally, “Where does it say that?”
Mom rolled her eyes. “No where, dear. It's in his head!”
And still she joined the family.
Go figure.

But that's part of the Stringam legacy.
To this day, I can't simply read the paper.
I especially have great fun with the classifieds.
I guess I just had too good an example.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Don't Die With Your Book Still In You
Carving Angels: A delightful story. An old blind man regains his desire to carve.

World's Best Mountain

Mine. You can look, but remember who it belongs to . . .

Beautiful. Majestic. Snow-capped. Towering.
I love the mountains.
Maybe not as much as my husband, who is a true connoisseur, but why quibble over details?
All my life, I have lived in the 'shadow' of the great Rockys.
They were the immovable, dependable wall to the west of us.
Our friends.
Source of direction.
One distinctive peak, in particular, was familiar to us on the ranch.
It was our nearest neighbour in the immense range. A huge block of stone, standing alone, with a large, rather squared-off top.
Boy scout troops had been know to clamber to its very summit.
Of course, that was in the early days, before safety was invented.
I loved it.
It was my mountain.
I just couldn't remember what it was called.
When we drove west, towards the ranch, it was the beacon, the marker on the horizon that told us we were going in the right direction.
Not a fact that I discovered with my fantastic powers of observation, however.
I had to have it pointed out.
Mom and I were heading towards the ranch.
She was driving.
I was bouncing around in the back seat.
This was before such safety measures as . . . seat belts. Shoulder harnesses.
I had been laying on the back seat, staring up at the roof.
Suddenly, I thought of my mountain.
I don't know why.
I sat up and leaned over the front seat.
That was her usual response. It didn't necessarily mean that her attention was yours, but it was a start.
“What, Dear.”
Okay, the line was open.
“Where's the Old Indian Hill?”
“The what?”
“The Old Indian Hill.”
She laughed.
Well, really!
“Do you mean Old Chief Mountain?”
“Umm, okay.” Whatever. I just knew that the name had something to do with the Native tribes.
“It's right there, Sweetheart. Straight ahead. When we're driving to the ranch, it's right in front of the road.”
She was right. There it was. Rising before us in all its purple glory.
I stared at it.
My mountain.
From then on, whenever we were travelling home, I would look out the windshield for my stalwart, immovable beacon.
My guardian. My defender and protector.
The Blackfoot Tribe called it, Ninastiko.
The white man named it many things.
But, to me, it would always be my beloved 'Indian Hill'.

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