The geography of the country favors that circumstance, notably the frequent warm southwest winds known as “Chinooks.” The absence of ranges of high arctic-rim mountains allows air movements from the Arctic areas. This arctic air may indeed be very cold, but they are also very dry – almost desert-like, in fact. The peculiarity of the elbow-like jog in the direction of the high Rockies not very far away to the South of this area, causes the rain and snow to be precipitated to the North of those ranges, which is the southern fringe of the Peace River area. Hence our forests and our lush-grassed prairies.
Again, we enjoy the effects of several low passes through the main chain of the Rockies – the Pine Pass, the Peace Pass and the Laurier Pass. The “Chinook” arises primarily out in the Pacific when eastward-driving storms, carrying moisture from the unfrozen sea, “bump into” the Western mountain chains, where they lose their moisture in the well – known heavy winter coastal rains and snows. The push of air from behind forces these currents up over the mountains. We know that air pressure lessens the higher the altitude, and that glaciers and incredibly deep snows form on those mountaintops.
Still being pushed east by the Pacific airflow, these air masses, now denuded of their moisture, continue to flow, usually from the Southwest. But they are now cold and dropping, and instead of being cooled further, they are becoming warmer through adiabatic heating. Instead of shedding moisture, they are now taking it up. In summer, people may rejoice (if they don’t mind wind) in the bright, dry, breezy days. Natural grasses can withstand many days of drought and heat although some cultivated crops cannot.
But let a Chinook happen in winter and no one can help noticing. Heralded by the clear green cloudless area under the over-hanging clouds in the southwest sky, a swift rush of warm air comes winging in, and in a few hours the snow may disappear entirely or be greatly reduced in depth. The animals come out of whatever shelter has given them protection while they lived on their fat and whatever else they could nibble at. Once more they can paw down to the nutritious native grasses that ripen their seeds in our long summer days.
There are many rivers running easterly in this area, so that their north-side banks are exposed to the warmth of the sun and wind, becoming bare grazing grounds. There is even cactus growing on some of those hot, dry slopes. Also, for various reasons there are patches of natural prairie scattered all over the area, for here we are in the “park-lands”. Just look at some of the local place names: Rose Prairie, Pouce Coupe Prairie, Grande Prairie, Little Prairie, Sunset Prairie, and so on. The Indians extended these natural prairies by firing the bush now and again in spring, until the soil no longer supported trees, and eventually formed natural pastures. As long as new trees made young growth that did not shade out the pasture grasses, the “brush” provided browse for moose, deer, caribou, and what Mackenzie called “elkes”. The abundant muskegs and shallow lakes were always growing in along grassy margins – whereas these tended to dry up in summer in the southern prairies. While the land lacked the “alkali” so prevalent on the prairie, there were numberless places where mineral-bearing water leached out salty substances that the animals needed for digestion. These places are known as “salt-licks” and one shows up right beside the road on the north side of the Alaska Highway just a few miles west of Dawson Creek.
Add to all this the two hundred miles of rough, grass-scarce country between the Peace River and the prairies at the Edmonton latitude, which would deter anything but browsing animals. Our buffalo herds tended to be “landlocked”, and with all they needed to eat – why migrate?
Hence this vast prairie-dotted area became known as the Buffalo Plains, with smaller prairie area stretching on the river flats a long way upriver, (Bear Flats, Halfway, and even up the Halfway itself and other rivers.) Old Indians have said that the Pouce Coupe prairies – stretching back to Fort St. John, Rolla, Rose Prairie, Spirit River and beyond, were the wintering grounds of the buffalo, and earned themselves the name of the Buffalo Plains. The Dawson Creek valley in the vicinity of the present city became known as the Beaver Plains, because the terrain lent itself to numerous beaver dams and the Beaver Indians hunted there. Across these areas the warm winds fanned out, as they do today, favoring man and beasts.
But sometimes the Chinook winds never came at all, and sometimes they rode high over an underlying accumulation of cold air that would not be displace – a temperature inversion. The snow did not melt except high on the hillsides where one can see, even today, bands of conifers whose needles, awakened to life too soon, were then frozen to turn brown in the true springtime. Sometimes the Chinook was very brief, just long enough to make a slushy layer on top, which soon froze to an icy crust. The larger animals would break through, cutting their legs to ribbons and sometimes floundering in the deep snow until they starved or froze. Such conditions happened infrequently enough or far enough apart to preserve some of the herds.
J. G. MacGregor records that Buffalo were plentiful in the Canadian West until the 1870’s. By 1880 they were gone, but they had begun to disappear about 1830. They would not have done so except for the fur traders, who had been paying the natives well to kill extra beasts to make great amounts of pemmican to supply the brigades leaving each spring for the head of Lake Superior.
In the winter of 1830 there was an exceptionally heavy fall of snow. The floundering, starving beasts were pursued by the Indians on snowshoes. By now the counsel of the old ones about killing no more than their immediate needs and leaving some to propagate was forgotten. One “wanton slaughter” accounted for 53. The trader Campbell, at Dunvegan, did his best to get it stopped by refusing to buy more meat than usual. Even so he bought 37,286 pounds of meat for 30,225 Pounds Sterling, or about forty cents a hundred pounds of meat, and then went on the complain of the high cost of living!
Bands of buffalo were not completely exterminated, but lived on only as small herds in sheltered, isolated places. The Indians had to turn to moose, bear and whatever else they could find. From 1829 to 1842 there was no mention at all of any buffalo in the fur-traders’ journals. When the moose, too, became depleted, the Hudson’s Bay Co. began importing cattle. By 1840 the domestic herds above Dunvegan and at Spirit River were supplying meat and butter and doubtless cheese to local forts, and exporting meat to feed the personnel at Fort Chipewyan.
A fairly large herd of Wood Buffalo persisted west and North of Lake Athabasca for which the Federal Government were persuaded to set aside a huge range, now known as the Wood Buffalo Park. Here they have flourished so well that it is necessary to thin them out periodically.
Outside of their sanctuary, the last of the great beasts was reputed to have been shot near Fort St. John in 1906. Rumor has it that the old bull had been kept as a “pet”, for its least few lonely years.
Another local story is that some rancher at Fort St. John later imported a buffalo bull in an attempt to crossbreed cattle. One old timer said he remembered that huge bull in an enormous crate for shipping. The experiment was not a success because the “cattalo” calves had the large buffalo hump and could not be born without killing the cow.
Mackenzie’s Journal makes several references to the “elks and buffaloes” at various places along the Peace in the British Columbia section “and in every direction the elk and the buffalo are seen in possession of the hills and the plains”. The Indians told him that the elk came from the east, and were followed by the buffalo, whereupon the “reindeer” then retired to the long range of highlands that at a considerable distance back, run parallel to the river. He also established that the tents of the Chipewyans were made of “dressed skins of the moose sewn together”. Whether the “elkes” were deer or caribou is not clear from the journal. Whatever the species, there were several kinds of cloven-hoofed animals in great abundance in those days, all suitable for the making of dry-meat. For the quantities of fat the natives needed for energy in cold weather they would rely largely on buffalo and bear. The bears were plentiful and the fat pleasanter to use, being more like lard.