A jaunt in the Alberta foothills

Summer is in full swing here in the Canadian Rockies, and that means I transition my art practice a little from the intense creation of art to seeking out inspiration.

Julia Cameron writes, in one of my favorite creative-how-to books “The Artist’s Way”, that a wonderful way to embrace creativity is to commit to a weekly artist date. In an ideal world, this is a solo activity that means visiting creative places (like art museums or beautiful landscapes) by yourself and drinking in the inspiration you find there.

Linda Cote-prairie foothillsDuring the summer, when my two pre-teen children are out of school for July and August,  my art practice is one long artist play date, although I am not often alone. For my boys, who like to complain about hiking, I position the days as an adventure in exploration. But, to me, it’s a way to see new scenery, take photos, connect with nature and chase my artist’s muse.

This week, we visited a place we’ve often gone, but one that is always fun to return to: the prairie foothills just east of where we live between Canmore and Cochrane. Although it wasn’t a comprehensive tour, we hit some highlights I’d like to share…for those who live nearby and those who live across the world. Here is a taste of our day.

First Stop: Historic McDougall Church

We took the less-travelled Highway 1A from Canmore, past Exshaw and on to Cochrane. About 40 kilometers west of Cochrane is McDougall Church, clearly visible from the road, and perched up above the Bow River. This website has a lot more information, but basically the church was built in 1875 in the Carpenter Gothic style with its pointed arch windows and front door. It is the first building in Alberta built in this style that still remains today on its original site. The church is named for the McDougall family, early Methodist missionaries in the area.

Linda Cote-McDougall Church

Although it wasn’t open this day, we love to look around this beautiful landmark.

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The iconic view of McDougall Church, with the wooden fencing leading up to the church.

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The whole church building, taken from the back. Now it is primarily used for weddings.

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In the yard of the church was Showy Locoweed, typical of grasslands in Alberta.

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Another church-yard wildflower: the beautiful Brown-Eyed Susan.

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McDougall Church’s lovely location nestled in the foothills of Alberta, just west of Cochrane.

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In the churchyard, a profusion of prairie wildflowers: Brown-Eyed Susans and Common Harebells. In the background: the Rocky Mountains to the west.

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Goatsbeard gone to seed on the grounds of the McDougall Church.

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The steeple of McDougall Church.

Second Stop: Cochrane Ranche Historic Site

We hopped back into the car and drove the short distance to Cochrane, and found a nice place to stop for lunch at the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site, located on the western edge of Cochrane, Alberta. The grounds are beautifully cared for and there are several picnic tables for weary road travelers.

Newly added since our last visit is a community garden showcasing vegetables typical of the gardens tended by pioneering prairie farm families. The plot is grown for the local schools and community, and excess produce is donated to social programs.

Linda Cote-Cochrane Garden

The community garden at the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site, complete with scarecrow.

The area has a loop walk that takes you through lush forest growth of white spruce and aspen, then sandstone outcrops and prairie grasslands filled with wildflowers. On top of the hill overlooking the Ranche is a statue of a rancher on horseback which celebrates the pioneers who began ranching in this area in the 1880s. Ranching is an industry that continues in the prairie foothills today.

Linda Cote-Cochrane Ranche

The bronze statue “Men of Vision” by Malcolm J. MacKenzie stands on top of the hill overlooking the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site.

The area is covered in wildflowers, one of my favorite things to spot (and photograph) when out in nature. Many of the native plants and flowers were used by our area’s First Nations people, like Wild Bergamont (for bronchitis and stomach pains) and Prickly Rose (the leaves were used for tea and the berries were dried for beads).

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Beautiful wildflowers on our walk: Wild Bergamont (purple), Brown-Eyed Susans (orange/yellow) and Potentilla bushes (yellow, background).

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Bull Thistle can be found across the plains, foothills, montane, and subalpine regions.

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Canada Thistle, an invasive weed that annoys many local farmers, still produces a beautiful flower.

Linda Cote-Cochrane Ranche Flowers

Although this looks like a Dandelion, it is actually Goatsbeard, a biannual weed.

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The Wild Rose or Prickly Rose: this flower was adopted by the Province of Alberta as its official floral emblem in 1930.

Third Stop: MacKay’s Ice Cream

No trip to Cochrane would be complete without a stop at the locally famous MacKay’s Ice Cream, in business since 1948. The ice cream is made in Cochrane using the original recipe of Grandma (Christina) MacKay who opened the shop. Today, MacKay’s is still owned and operated by the granddaughter of the founders.

It’s located in Cochrane’s dowtown historic district in the building that was the general store owned by James and Christina MacKay. Soon after taking over the store in the mid-1940s, the owners began making and selling ice cream to attract the locals plus the day-trippers from Calgary’s growing city (it’s about 38 kilometers from downtown Calgary to Cochrane).

I remember many a trip as a young girl, piled in my dad’s station wagon with my three brothers, heading out for a day in the mountains with a stop at MacKay’s on the way home. Today, we carried on the tradition, completing our day outside with a stop for a delicious cone.

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My boys wait in excited anticipation for their “cookie dough” ice cream.

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Pins on aworld map inside MacKay’s Ice Cream with the heading “How Far Have You Come For Ice Cream?”.

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An old-fashioned bottle cap remover at MacKay’s.

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Mackay’s iconic store front sign. This year marks their 64th year in business.

Linda Cote-MacKays Ice Cream Cones

A MacKay’s tradition: the clinking of the cones. If the tastes mingle, all the better.

It was a great day out in the foothills of Alberta. We came home tired and satisfied, and I have the photos to prove it!

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The view on the way home: the lovely transition between the prairie foothills and the Rocky Mountains.

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