While the historical quarry wall had been the centre of the industry for years, nowadays permits were given to smaller quarries on the flats nearer the visitor centre. Pits arranged in two clear straight lines parallel to the main quarry face had been dug down to the pipestone level. They tended to fill up with water in the wet season and the Parks Service had to arrange for these to be drained whenever someone wished to quarry.
In one or two pits I saw recently active workings; some of the craftspeople who worked in the visitor centre maybe. Their tools were scattered around the pits. Here you got a much better picture of the thin seam of the glossy deep pink pipestone. A few fragments of the rock littered the ground, a stark contrast to the grey stone of the quartzite. It is a captivating stone; you could see why it was valued for its beauty by many tribes. It is not just its appearance but the softy smoothness when you held it in your hand is almost magical. It was relatively easy to carve into any shape but some care had to be taken. It could break under pressure. It still meant that the stone could be made into the intricately carved cylinder shapes and drilled with a bowl for the tobacco and a long tube to allow the smoker to drawer. Only the bowl and far end of the pipe would be made of the stone, the rest, where the smoker would chomp down with his teeth, would be wooden. The wooden pipes would be regularly replaced but the pipestone parts could be past down generation to generation.
The stream I was following topples over the quarry edge in a pretty cataract, and it zigzags manically in amongst the quarry workings. The removal of the rock appears piecemeal, of course. The rock has all been hand dug over the centuries by individuals and small groups. Modern equipment could have systematically dug out the overburden easily and sliced off the layer of pipestone in an even manner, but that is not allowed. Various treaties and agreements allow Indians to obtain permits and come and take small amounts of pipestone for pipes, ornaments, jewellery and souvenirs. The result are intricate and artisanal facets to the stone. In a couple of places stacks of quartzite have been left standing away from the main face. One is called the Leaping Rock – the challenge is not the distance from the cliff edge to the stack, more to ensure you manage to check the momentum used to jump the gap so you don’t go shooting off the far side and smash yourself to death on the ground below.
The pathway runs along the bottom of the man made escarpment for a while then steps up in amongst the workings. Some rocks when carved have given the appearance of various characters and animals, and are now preserved. From a particular angle, one face has the appearance of an old woman, not a natural impression but more like the carvings you might see on totem poles. When you first see the excavations by the waterfall they appear modest, but the quarry face goes on for nearly a quarter of a mile, and all the way along you see the rubble, cut blocks and the remaining exposed solid rock showing the excavations are of monumental proportions. All those hands, all those years, all those generations. There was some ingenuity in the excavation. To constantly chip away at the quartzite would take months just to get a small piece of pipestone out. The technique most commonly used was to exploit the natural cracks in the quartzite at the top of the hill; bash down long metal pegs to weaken the joins and using crowbars to lever chunks of rock off, that would tumble down away from the face. There they would be broken up into rubble to be transported away from the face onto the big piles I had seen earlier.