Al Oeming’s Cats

One of the legendary places in the Ministik area was Al Oeming’s Alberta Game Farm. It operated from 1959 to 1980 (when it was rebranded “Polar Park”). The 1,400-acre facility started at Highway 14 and Range Road 223 and grew to house hundreds of exotic species. The most famous of his animals were the cheetahs.

Al Oeming visited Kathy Kerr’s grade 6 class with his cheetah after Miss Kerr wrote him asking him questions on wolves in 1971. (Credit: Edmonton Journal)

Fun with the Cheetahs

When Al Oeming first brought cheetahs to his Game Farm, he had them in a large enclosure and wanted to give them some stimulation and exercise. So, he rigged up a long clothesline arrangement on two bicycle wheels across the enclosure and suspended a broom from it at one point. The setup was powered by an electric motor with stops at each end to make the broom go back and forth.

The cats enjoyed chasing the broom and swatting at it much like tetherball. They were thus conditioned to play with brooms and he had that arrangement in their enclosure for as long as he had the Game Farm.

Al had one older, well trained, cheetah that he used to take out in public for demonstration and public relations purposes. He used to take her to schools. When I was teaching, he brought her into my classroom to show the class and tell them about cheetahs. At one point he had me get down on all fours beside my desk to allow the cheetah to step on my back to get on top of my desk. It was a delightful stunt and the children loved it but the cheetah certainly did not require me as a stepping stone as they can jump many times higher than my desk.

Al would typically show his cheetah in schools during the last period of the day, then take it to the staff room to show the teachers and have a visit while the children left for home. Then, when everyone was gone, he would take the animal to his car and go home.

One time, a few years later, he took his cheetah to Ministik School and showed it there. After the showing, he took the cheetah to the staff room as was his routine, while all the children boarded their buses and left the school yard.

As Al was walking his cheetah off leash and at heel to his station wagon, the school caretaker, unaware of the presence of the cat on the premises, opened the back door of the gym and proceeded to shake out his dust mop. Upon seeing this, the cheetah, thinking it was play time, broke heel and headed for the attractive dust mop at high speed. The caretaker spotted the cheetah at the last minute, dropped the mop and slammed the door to save himself, getting the fright of his life.

The Cougars

The Game Farm had a large enclosure of cougars with many vertical trees and numerous horizontal ones secured among them at about ten or twelve feet in the air for the cougars to lounge on. On one visit, there was a family group with an infant in a stroller viewing the cougars through the double fence and from behind a low rail barrier outside that. Because it was such a large enclosure and there were many cougars there lounging in various poses, it was very interesting and it took some time for people to pass this area.

At one point, a young cougar left his lounging spot and was soon stalking the family group, with his tail twitching. When the family group moved over, he also changed his course. Soon, an older cougar slipped down from her perch in a horizontal tree and positioned herself, nonchalantly, between Junior and the family. As Junior crept by she gave him a stiff cuff sending him rolling and looking very indignant and self-righteous.

Once again the family moved over and soon Junior was again stalking, but with one eye cautiously on Mama and one eye on the intended prey, trying to appear innocent. Someone suspected that the cougar was eyeing the tender infant in the stroller and when they moved over about eight feet more, they left the stroller where it was and, sure enough, the cougar was focused directly on the tender morsel behind the fences and did not even miss the presence of the rest of the family.

This family shall remain nameless to protect the innocent and the reputation of the father for using his child as “cougar bait” in the name of research.

Visit the Edmonton Journal’s photo gallery for more photos from the Game Farm

The One about the Compass

There was a story about a man, nearing retirement, who was casting about for ideas regarding what he might do after his retirement. He read about a man named Tates who had developed a new compass and was wanting to sell the rights to it to someone who was interested in marketing it.

He managed to get the rights to it and was marketing it when he went out on a hike one day and failed to return. His wife reported him missing and lost, so Search and Rescue went out in search of him.

They were soon able to find him and the ranger told the wife that he had been found in good health and that they were bringing him out.

His wife said that she couldn’t understand how he could get lost as she knew that he always had a compass with him. The ranger said that the husband should get rid of that Tates compass.

So the wife asked how he knew that her husband had a Tates. The ranger told her that it was common knowledge among the rangers and Search and Rescue people that “He who has a Tates is lost.”

Hiking Memories: Ministik Sanctuary

Mysterious noises

During the 1970s when I started hiking on the Waskahegan trails, one of my favorite areas was the Ministik Sanctuary. On a few occasions when I was camped in the area with Panuq, my large Malamute, I would be awakened very early in the morning to a YEEOWL which I was never sure if I imagined or really heard.

In those days Al Oeming had his Game Farm operating in the Ministik area and nearly every farmer and acreage owner in the area had young people who had worked at the Game Farm at one time or another.

Local people told me that it was common but quiet knowledge among them that nearly every year a cougar or two would slip out of captivity into the crown land between Elk Island Park and Miquelon Lake. The cougars were never heard about again as they apparently never caused any trouble at any of the farms in the area because game was plentiful. It was likely one of these cougars that I would have heard in the wee hours of the morning.

On a number of occasions when I was camping alone in the area and sitting by my campfire having my tea in the evening, Panuq would sit twenty or more feet from the fire facing the dark of the forest and growl. I never thought anything of it at the time but there was likely a cougar hanging around that only he was aware of. It was only later that I mentioned it to some of the local people.

If it was, indeed, a Game Farm cougar, it would have had exposure to humans and perhaps was curious about our presence. Maybe it thought that I might have a spare haunch of meat to throw to it—as they did at the Game Farm.

Traces of settlement

There is a tall chimney in the area. I enjoyed exploring around it and speculating about what existed there many years ago. The cabin had burned down, leaving the chimney as a reminder and a landmark. Trees had grown through the old bed-springs and further back in the area were signs that suggested the presence of a barn and feed, likely a haystack.

South of the cabin at the edge of what would have been the shoreline of Ministik Lake were remains of a pier or some such structure that suggested a boat or a canoe would have been tied up there.

Another exciting discovery was that along the wide trail leading through the woods northward from the cabin there were smooth rocks lining the trail indicating to me the presence of a woman at the cabin. When I first saw it, there were still traces of what was likely whitewash on the rocks suggesting that efforts were made to beautify the area and perhaps make the trail more visible in the dark.

That trail may have led to another important structure—the outhouse.

…And skiing

My all-time favorite ski tour was in Ministik Sanctuary. I would ski from the correction line to the old fire tower and then ski hard back to the road, taking advantage of the difference in elevation for a speedy return run.

It was always an exhilarating experience!

The Story of Wanisan Shelter

When it was determined that a shelter in the Wanisan Lake area would be desirable, it was naturally Stan Skirrow who scouted around and selected the location.

The location he chose was ideal for several reasons: It was not too distant from a road, it had a fairly open aspect and a great view, and it was favoured by wildlife. Wildlife naturally gravitate to location like these and use them as rest areas, because for one thing, these areas are relatively free of insects.

The location is on Crown land and so a lease agreement with the Alberta Government was duly worked out and signed.

Materials arrive with some help

A major stipulation of the lease was that we had to erect two outdoor toilets—one for each gender. We were unable to convince the government that one unisex toilet would do nicely. The law required two toilets, period. This was notwithstanding the fact that participants of any group, whether hiking or skiing, would simply drop back briefly and avail themselves of the cover of bushes to answer the call of nature along their way.

Fortunately, arrangements were made with a school group who made a project of building two lightweight sectional toilets for us. The group also delivered and erected them.

Logs for the shelter were also obtained as a project. The Canadian Army secured them in the Alberta foothills and delivered to them to the lakeshore.

But we still needed to float the logs across the lake to the site. This was my first involvement with the Wanisan project. A work party led by Stan Skirrow, as I recall, and comprising high school students with a boat, was formed to tow the logs across to the shelter site. The floating logs were contained by a boom and several of the boys set off with the boat to tow the logs across.

They immediately developed engine trouble and spent much time trying to get the motor going. They finally gave up and proceeded to row the boat, towing the logs across.

Once across, they were met by the rest of the gang who immediately hauled the logs ashore and stacked them. I cannot remember the names of any of the others who were present that day.

Autumn work

Summer turned to autumn, and on a Friday evening after work, a work party assembled to pour the footings for the proposed shelter. I am guessing, but the half-dozen of us present would likely have included Stan Skirrow, of course, and probably Stan Peters, Jim Drouin, and Vince DeJong. I regret having no photos or listing of names of those present.

The plan was to take all the materials across the lake by canoe. Into the canoe went the bags of ready-mix cement, the shovels and lumber, miscellaneous tools, and the wheelbarrow in which to mix the cement.

Stan Peters and I paddled, and when we got to the building site, the others, who had left and hiked along the lake while we were loading the canoe, already had the locations laid for the footings. The forms were made quickly and the cement was transported from the shore to the site.

At this time of year the algae was very thick and heavy so we had to paddle out past the algae to get clear water to mix with the cement. Several trips with five gallon pails did the trick and soon the footings were poured in place.

When the work was done, we sat by the fire and enjoyed our lunch contemplating the beautiful evening for some time after the sun set. As the fire died down we packed the remaining materials into the canoe and Stan and I set off across the lake while the others walked back. We left the wheelbarrow inverted in the canoe, with the handles sticking out forward and the wheel up. Then paddling away, it dawned on us that this being autumn, it was hunting season. We grew antsy about the possibility of some hunter walking along the lake and seeing our profile in the water, mistaking it for a moose and taking a shot at us. We paddled harder and talked loudly until we got to the other side.

Winter hauling

That winter the dimensional lumber was purchased and deposited at an access point at the south west corner of the frozen lake. We would have to truck it across. The cabin unit on the truck was filled to the top with the lumber.

Then on a Saturday morning, a work party assembled at the edge of the lake. Present were Stan Skirrow, Jim Drouin, Gene Miskiw, Len Black and his son Rob, who owned the truck, and a friend of Rob.

There was a brisk wind that day and snow was drifting constantly. We first had to shovel a long route through the snowdrifts to get the truck onto the lake. Once there, the truck was able to make way across the lake quite well and we all rode along, some of us on the tailgate.

At the building site, we were unable to drive very close to the shore due to the heavy snow and there again we had to shovel a narrow path to enable us to carry the lumber to the site and stack it on some logs. The snow in some spots was hip deep and the increasing drifting was creating little cornices which would break off with our passing as the wind continued to pick up.

After the truck was unloaded we discovered that we were unable to make way again without the traction that was provided by the weight of the lumber. The hardpack on the ice was not hard enough to support the truck. It offered too much resistance for the amount of traction available on the ice beneath. Our old tracks were filled in with hardpack that also offered too much resistance on the already polished ice beneath. With some experimentation we found that the only way to move forward was to scuff the snow out of the incoming tracks with our feet for a distance, then get on the tailgate for ballast and take a run with the truck as far as it would go. Then we would repeat the operation over and over. Eventually we made it all the way back across the lake over a mile away where, once again, we had to do some shoveling to get the truck off the lake.

This whole operation took us a number of hours of hard work. Eventually we arrived at Len Black’s place, tired and hungry. Pat Black, who was getting very concerned as we were so long overdue, was waiting for us with a large pot of chili.

Construction

In the following summer, 1976, serious construction of the shelter was undertaken. Unfortunately, I have no photos or names of the participants other than a few which show Stan Skirrow, Stan Peters and Vince DeJong at the site. Some weekends my family and I camped there and did some work, sometimes with a family friend, Gilbert Hemmes. The location has always been one of my favorite places on the trail.

Whenever I worked at the site we would always take across by canoe anything required for the other side. Sometimes it was tools and whatever shorter lumber we could fit into the canoe, with plywood across the gunwales and then sixteen- foot lumber diagonally on top of that with our camping gear and a garbage can or two.

On one occasion Stan Peters and I had an incredible load which included six inches of plywood across the gunwales. We had some cement blocks in the hold for the shelter foundation, which significantly added to the weight. We tried to estimate the weight of the load including our own weight and were fairly certain that it approached 1000 pounds. We had only three inches of freeboard left and were happy to have calm water for the trip across.

Animal invasion

Once the shelter was built, we had, for a time, a problem with horses taking refuge in the shelter and creating a mess. So we had to bar the entrance against them.

Another winter hauling adventure

One year, we were hauling boardwalk lumber by snowmobile to a location beyond the shelter. A friend and I picked up the lumber and delivered it to the edge of the lake, and we went back to Sherwood Park to pick up the snowmobiles and sled so we could haul the lumber to its destination.

When we started hauling the lumber across the lake we found that progress was very difficult. Because it was such a lovely warm March day, the deep snow was wet and sticky. We had so much difficulty trying to get off the lake that we decided to give up. We were exercising the Law of Diminishing Returns. We knew it would be much easier when the snow was dry, so there was no point in trying to do it the hard way.

The loaded sled was already partially buried in the deep snow. All we had to do was throw on some more snow to camouflage it and we left it behind for the day. Early the next day, we came back while the snow was still frozen and dry. We broke the sled free, and away we went. That day we made several trips—with ease—until we completed the job. We finished the day at the shelter, having our lunch in beautiful sunshine.

Epilogue

For over forty years, Wanisan Shelter has been a treasured place on the Waskahegan Trail. Each year, since 2017, we’ve held of a Saturday evening hike and barbecue in the late spring. With a 5 o’clock start time, there are plenty of hours and many opportunities to see beavers and muskrats active on the ponds between the shelter and the Blackfoot Recreation Area. After the walk, we gather around the campfire to roast our dinners and tell stories about the trail.

You can see more of Gene’s photos on the Wanisan Shelter album on Flickr.