Spirit Houses in Willmore Wilderness Park

This week’s blog post is guest-authored by the Willmore Wilderness Preservation and Historical Foundation and features work conducted in the summer of 2016 with the support of the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. We hope you enjoy their fascinating stories and stunning photographs.

Willmore Wilderness Preservation & Historical Foundation is a non-profit society registered under the Alberta Societies Act in 2002. The Foundation became a Registered Charitable Organization in 2003. The Foundation preserves the history of the area; focuses on the advancement of education of the park; restores historical pack trails and sites; and enhances the use of Willmore Wilderness Park for Albertans and visitors alike.

Willmore Wilderness Park has a unique horseback culture, traditions and history that date back to the Canadian Fur Trade. Travelling the old pack trails allows one to be independent and free to stop and make their home in a camp; free to experience the sounds and beauty of the earth. The mountains give many the feeling of being at one with nature. Willmore Wilderness Park offers wide-open spaces, and when accessed with horses or by hiking can nurture a man’s spirit, leaving one with a feeling of connecting to the earth.

Willmore Wilderness Foundation President and Founder Bazil Leonard and Elder Tom Wanyandie pose for a photo at Kvass Flats. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

This project erected three different Spirit Houses in the Willmore Wilderness Park. Historically, Spirit Houses were put over the graves of deceased loved ones, and the practice is still used today. In years gone by, the Rocky Mountain ground was hard to dig a deep grave, so the Spirit Houses protected the remains of the mountain people. The area was only accessible by horseback. The graves are located at Kvass Flats, Muddy Water River, and a remote location at what is locally known as Barry Lake, at the base of Mount DeVeber. Elders and youth spent 23-days travelling on a packstring in Willmore Wilderness Park. The youth were mentored on the traditions of the Rockies by two Elders. The Spirit House erection helped mark and preserve historical gravesites within the Park. Trail staff GPS’d, filmed and photographed all gravesites. The Willmore Wilderness Foundation donated “in kind” horses and equipment.

Spirit House at Kvass Flats

The first Spirit House was erected at Kvass Flats. The grave was that of a young girl about 12-years of age who died of pneumonia. She was the sister of the late Louis Delorme, and was buried at the Kvass location in the early 1900s. The grave is situated in a picturesque bench overlooking the winding Smoky River valley, with a breathtaking mountainous backdrop.

The young girl was the granddaughter of Pierre Delorme, who is buried at Big Grave Flats in Willmore Wilderness Park. We also believe she was a descendant of an earlier Pierre Delorme, one the “Canadian Voyageurs” who travelled with Alexander Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean in 1789. The late Ishbel Hargreaves Cochrane remembered an original Spirit House in this location when she travelled to the area in the 1940s.

Tom Wanyandie and Martin Hallock’s families came with the fur trade from Quebec in the early 1800s. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

In the fall of 2015, backpackers took the stones from the gravesite and built a fire ring, for camping. They burnt some of the logs that were located at the grave. The campers did not notice a handmade cross that laid beside the grave. Ashes of a Cree Elder were laid to rest at the same location in 2010, with a metal memorial, so it was hard to understand the desecration of the little girl’s grave that was located so close to the memorial.

Tom Wanyandie and Martin Hallock nail the cross to the newly-constructed spirit house. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

Elder Tom Wanyandie blessed the grave with Holy Water that he obtained from Lac Ste. Anne. He also said a prayer after the cross was erected on the grave. Two teenage boys were hired as trail hands by the Willmore Wilderness Foundation; Martin Hallock (17-yrs) and Payton Hallock (13-yrs) were selected as they were both related to the little girl. Elder Tom Wanyandie is also a member of the extended family of the young girl who was buried at the gravesite.

Spirit House at the Muddy Water River

 The second Spirit House was that of an infant. It is situated in a secluded but stunning location overlooking the Muddy Water River. It has a spectacular view of Turret Ridge.

Constructing the new spirit house at Muddy Water River. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

No one who is living has any memory of who the infant may have been. There was one old story where an older man from Grande Prairie had abducted a young girl, and disappeared into the wilderness during the World War II era.  In the mid-1940s, Elder Emil Moberly noted some smoke across the Muddy Water River and arranged for someone to report the incident to the RCMP, as they were making the 100-mile trek to Entrance, Alberta (located near the present day town of Hinton). The RCMP travelled to the Smoky Region with a dog team, and went to the Muddy Water River, where they found the older man and the young girl. They charged this man with the abduction, and he was sentenced to a stint in prison. The girl waited for the man to be released, and the pair were married. They had a family together, and a fulfilling life as a couple. It is possible the grave could have been that of a young baby or it could have been a stillborn infant of the couple when they were hiding in their winter camp on the Muddy Water River.

Elder Tom Wanyandie and the horses at Muddy Water River. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

Elder Tom Wanyandie blessed the baby’s grave with Holy Water. He also said a prayer after the cross was erected on the grave. Martin Hallock and Payton Hallock were also in attendance. The teens assisted with the cleaning of the gravesite and erecting the Spirit House.

Spirit House at Barry Lake

The third grave was located on a small beautiful mountain lake that mirrors a reflection of Mount DeVeber. Though not officially named as such, the Willmore Wilderness Foundation refers to it as Barry Lake in honour of Dr. Barry DeVeber, the grandson of Senator Leverett George DeVeber (for whom the mountain is named). Four mountains were named after the first four Senators of Alberta. They include: Mount Hardisty, Mount DeVeber, Mount Talbot and Mount Lougheed.

Dilapitated log spirit house; Elder Tom Wanyandie believes the grave is that of a trapper. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

There is a very clear dilapidated Spirit House located on the shore of Barry Lake. It was made of logs and is about 6-feet in length. The Elders and youth were only able to pack in four-foot lengths of board on horseback, and placed a new spirit house directly over the old log one.

Elder Tom Wanyandie believed the grave was that of a trapper. It is located on a travel corridor that goes from the mouth of the Jackpine River and over to Me and Charlie Creek, and on to the Dry Canyon and Sheep Creek trails.

Youth participated in the historic horseback culture skills that included basic horsemanship training, saddling, packing skills and more. Martin and Payton Hallock are capable of packing and saddling horses on their own. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

Elder Tom Wanyandie blessed the trapper’s grave with Holy Water and said a prayer. Martin Hallock left tobacco and said a prayer as a tribute to the trapper. Payton Hallock was also present and assisted in the clearing, building and blessing of the grave.

This project was funded in part by a Heritage Awareness grant by the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. The Foundation is the Government of Alberta’s primary window for heritage preservation funding. Heritage Awareness grants provide funding to various forms of initiatives that preserve, interpret, promote awareness, produce new understanding or add to the knowledge base of Alberta’s history.

 For more information about the grants available through AHRF, please visit https://www.culturetourism.alberta.ca/heritage-and-museums/grants-and-recognition/default.aspx

Title image caption: The newly-constructed spirit house marks the location of the Delmore child’s resting place in Kvass Flats. Photo credit: Susan Feddema-Leonard, Willmore Wilderness Foundation.

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