“Don’t whistle at the Northern Lights”, warned Lilyrose, a 73-years-young Métis Knowledge Holder and Teacher at Métis Crossing Cultural Centre in Alberta. “Or the spirits will come down and snatch you!”
Henk and I were on a safari-style tour of Métis Crossing’s Wildlife Park with Lilyrose, who had agreed to drive us around the property even though it was her day off. We explained that we had come to Métis Crossing specifically to experience their new year-round Sky Watching Domes – glamping pods with acrylic roof panels that were designed to give visitors a beds-eye view of the heavens – so Henk and I naturally were curious to learn more about how the Métis interpreted the skies.
Admittedly no expert in star lore, Lilyrose did share that the Northern Lights were believed by many Indigenous people to be the spirits of their ancestors, and whistling was supposed to make them dance. But if they come down too low, she explained, they can snatch you up, so she was always told not to do that. “And they do snap and crackle”, she added, as if to emphasize her point.
Henk and I were intrigued: with a night in a Sky Watching Dome to look forward to, we were hopeful we’d get the chance to see if this were true for ourselves…
Connecting Culture Through Nature at Métis Crossing
It’s no surprise that Métis Crossing is an ideal place for star gazing, with its remote, rural location northeast of Edmonton and its almost total lack of light pollution. But the Sky Watching Domes were added here to offer something more than just a view on the heavens; they were meant to provide a more intimate sense of place, something that is very important to the founders of Métis Crossing. Everything from the architecture of the Lodge to the different activities offered here is designed to help visitors better understand some of the key components of Métis culture. And having worked here for years as a Program Director, Lilyrose has been instrumental in cultivating those visitor connections.
One of these is the importance of the land and its native plants and animals. “Respect the animals”, counselled Lilyrose, as we continued our drive through forested paddocks where we were hoping to spot Ghost, a rare white bull elk hiding amongst the trees. “And the plants, too: they know more than the animals, because they were put here first by the Creator.”
Ghost turned out to be more elusive than you would imagine, because surprisingly, white elk can disappear rather easily between the pale trunks of the trees. We did catch a glimpse of him through the trees, but were luckier still to catch this younger white elk on video.
Water is just as integral to Métis Crossing’s existence, as the North Saskatchewan River runs right in front of the property, which historically brought Indigenous, Métis and European people here to trade and to connect to the Victoria Trail overland route.
Today, modern day guests can ‘Paddle Into the Past’ on canoe excursions that help bring the history of these voyageurs to life in a way no history book every could – or did.
Métis Crossing was also a main crossing point for the buffalo, which sustained Métis people for generations, and is of particular importance to the Indigenous identity. That importance is part of the reason why the Crossing maintains 3 herds of bison here, including the rare white buffalo, which like the white elk, are revered because of their unusual colouring. Today thanks to an understanding of genetic markers and selective breeding, visitors are able to see an entire herd of these spirit animals and get up close and personal with these blonde beauties.
The latest addition to Métis Crossing are the Sky Watching Domes which were opened to the public in the fall of 2023. Beyond just providing a unique and luxurious way to sleep under the stars, the Domes are an innovative way to more intimately connect visitors with the heavens above. The stars were critical in helping to guide Métis hunters and traders as they travelled across the land, and the Domes are another way of bringing that part of their culture to life. Half of the Domes are oriented facing north with views of the ‘Coming Home’ star (Polaris), while others face the southern sky above the river.
Learning About the Métis
For Henk and I, our visit to Métis Crossing would shed light on more than just a different interpretation of the heavens: we realized we had much to learn about the Métis people themselves. Like many other Canadians, our knowledge of the Métis was limited to a preconception that they were the children of relationships formed between First Nations women and French fur traders. We didn’t realize that the Métis include influences from many European cultures, not just the French, and that they represent a unique and distinct culture that is theirs alone. In fact, to be considered Métis, an individual must meet certain criteria that reflect their unique culture, language, way of life, and most importantly a link to the ancestors who helped establish their self-government.
There are Métis people all across Canada but in Alberta in particular the Métis have been recognized for generations and have been associated specifically with Louis Riel, a ‘rebel’ who fought for the rights and freedoms of the Métis in the last half of the 19th century.
Learning more about the Métis begins at the Cultural Gathering Centre, the centrepiece of this property that was designed by Métis architect Tiffany Shaw-Collinge who took inspiration from the fur trade era’s river lot homes. This huge open space functions as the administrative centre for Métis Crossing, a gathering place for conferences and celebrations, and is home to a gift shop featuring Métis artwork and books. Historical displays also help bring the history of the Métis in Alberta to life, and there’s always a welcome cup of tea waiting for visitors.
The uniqueness of Métis culture can be seen in some of the examples of art on display here, especially flower motifs which play a big role in Métis embroidery and beadwork, so much so that the Dakota and Cree referred to them as the ‘Flower Beadwork People’.
Fiddle music is also a huge part of Métis culture, and dancing and storytelling went hand in hand with any musical gathering or celebration. The Métis were a celebratory people, and where there was a fiddle, there was a party.
More to Do at Métis Crossing
For first-time visitors to Métis Crossing who want to learn more about this unique culture, a Meet the Métis Experience is a must. On our visit, we were hosted on a tour by Brina, a young woman who grew up in Southern Ontario who only recently discovered her own Métis heritage, which led her to find her own roots in Alberta and eventually to take on a role as a guide at the Crossing.
Brina took us around the property, pointing out items that were iconic in Métis culture, like the Red River carts that were designed and used to haul goods across the Prairies, and often served as travelling homes much like covered wagons. Made entirely of wood with no metal parts, the carts were easy to repair with any available wood, and could even be disassembled and floated across rivers. They did make a loud squeaking noise however, being made of all wood-on-wood parts, but obviously their advantages far outweighed this annoying characteristic.
Disassembly was also built into the design of Métis homes, and two great examples can be seen onsite: the Cromarty Trading Post/home located at Métis Crossing was built using dovetailed joints on the log walls, which meant these structures used no nails and could literally be pulled apart, moved by cart or raft and re-assembled at a new location. In fact, that’s exactly how one of these homes was relocated here.
Inside it’s easy to see how the style of these homes reflects a hybrid culture that incorporated many European features and amenities. Yet there are still distinctly indigenous influences as well. Straddling two cultures was not easy for the Métis, who were labelled Halfbreeds and were unwelcome in European circles, although they did find more acceptance from their First Nations community.
Time to Sleep in a Sky Watching Dome
Spending the day learning about Métis Culture was a real education for both Henk and I, but it was time to check into our Sky Watching Dome and for Henk to set up for some astrophotography. Because our visit to Métis Crossing was in October, Henk and I were both hopeful that we might even get to see Northern Lights, so we kept our fingers crossed and our eyes on the weather app, and focused on enjoying the Dome while waiting for the sky outside to darken.
Our Dome was a perfect suite for 2, with heated floors, air conditioning, a spacious bathroom with all the plush towels and amenities of a luxe hotel room, a kitchenette for making tea and coffee in the mornings, and of course a comfortable king-sized bed positioned right underneath two acrylic roof panels.
This was glamping at its best, tucked between soft, high thread-count sheets and snuggled under a beautiful Métis-designed quilt, with a view of the sky directly above us. And while you can’t really get the best photos of the stars from inside the Domes, nothing beats falling asleep all cozy and comfy under a canopy of stars. Plus, the dark skies were right outside the door where Henk could easily pop in and out to check on his cameras.
I was just drifting off under those stars when Henk popped into the Dome and excitedly announced that the Aurora had appeared! I threw on my coat over my PJs and raced outside, where I couldn’t believe our luck: the skies were dancing, with bright beams of light moving up and down and side to side across the northern horizon. We left the camera to do its time-lapse work while we sat down to simply enjoy the show, as wide-eyed as kids at a fireworks display. And even though our own eyes couldn’t see the brightest greens that the camera sensors could, we were left star-struck nonetheless.
“Feel like whistling?” I asked Henk.
“No, I’m good right where I am,” Henk replied.
Being Present at Métis Crossing
As it turned out, Mother Nature was only getting started and had another surprise in store for us at Métis Crossing: waking up as the first rays of sunrise began to illuminate our Dome, we looked outside and were stunned to see the sky was literally ablaze with colour!
Awestruck again, we couldn’t help but feel grateful: our visit to Métis Crossing had rewarded us with so much more than we had expected. We had come here hoping for an amazing experience viewing the night skies, but in addition to that we had met warm, welcoming individuals, learned more about Métis people, their stories and their culture, and even seen rare spirit animals in the flesh.
If one of the goals of the founders is to create experiences that help visitors forge a connection to this place and the people who call it home, our visit was a resounding success. We can thank Métis Crossing – and the Creator – for that.
Special thanks to Métis Crossing who hosted Henk and I in their Sky Watching Domes on our visit.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR MÉTIS CROSSING
Métis Crossing is located about 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Edmonton. (You’ll know you are getting close when you see a colourful lineup of farm equipment on a nearby farm field on Hwy 855).
Métis Crossing offers dining on-site for breakfasts and lunch at their cafe (dinner by request). The menu is inspired by traditional Métis dishes but with modern twists that also take advantage of local ingredients. There’s even a hydroponic vertical greenhouse on the property where they grow their own greens. Definitely go for the delicious bacon-wrapped bison meatloaf if it’s on the menu – it’s delicious. Other off-site dining options are available in the town of Smoky Lake, a small community with a few restaurants including the Smoky Lake Inn, which was recommended by staff at Métis Crossing.
Métis Crossing is a year-round destination and offers all kinds of activities for visitors, from paddle excursions in the summer to cross-country skiing in the winter. Highly recommended is their signature Wildlife Park tour where you can see rare white bison and white elk, as well as other bison and black Percheron horses.
If the Sky Watching Domes are not your style, Métis Crossing offers modern Lodge rooms as well with beautiful south views over the North Saskatchewan river, or facing north (where you can take advantage of the balcony to watch for Northern Lights.)
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.