One of my favourite questions is “how do we know what we know?” This fascinates me both as a historian and as an environmental educator. I love seeing range maps for different species. I really enjoy using iNaturalist, and clicking on the profile of a species to see where else other users have logged seeing them. But how did people, historically, get a sense of the range of migratory animals like many bird species? That’s where bird banding comes in.
Bird bands are little metal bands attached around the legs of captured birds. They include text about the bird and where it was banded, and usually direct the finder to send in the band along with information on where the bird was found. They can create discrete data points. Birds first started to be banded in this way in Europe in the 1890s and a decade or two later in North America.
Jack Miner was famous in his day for his bird sanctuary and bird banding projects. He particularly specialized in Canada Geese, which he held as being morally upright (contrasted with predatory birds of prey, which he characterized as villainous and cannibalistic). He has been quoted as saying, “To know the Canada goose is to love him forever. You cannot show me any of his actions that one need be ashamed of, not one.”
Miner certainly anthropomorphized animals and spent many years working to reduce the populations of birds of prey. These were early years in conservation work and different conservation philosophies abounded. Jack Miner in particular very much ascribed to the Christian view that God had placed the animals on the Earth for “Man’s” use. He also didn’t believe in the balance of nature, but that humans should be the ultimate arbiters of which animals should be protected, and which killed, based on their usefulness to humans. He did have some conflict with government scientists who were working to standardize bird banding in the 1920s, as he felt it was important to include Christian messages on his bands.
Jack Miner’s ideas were very influential, and he drew attention to the importance of migratory birds like Canada Geese. In 37 years of bird banding, he did gather useful data on the length of the lives of waterfowl and even crows, their migration routes, and migration seasons. He was recognized in his lifetime, receiving the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to conservation. He was very well-known for managing a bird sanctuary in which he baited in Canada Geese by the hundreds, and even thousands, every year. He apparently also kept pet deer?
Tina Loo has a fascinating essay on Miner’s messy and conflicting role in early scientific bird conservation in Canada in the 1920s through 1940s in her book States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. I definitely recommend it as a good starting point to learn more about this man and his work! In the meantime, I would like to share with you a selection of fascinating and truly delightful photographs of Jack Miner and his geese.
Sometimes you trip over historic sites in the middle of a big city. Sometimes historic sites are just off of major highways. Sometimes it takes a bit of driving down dusty back roads where cell service can be spotty. Sometimes they’re a 20km one-way hike into the back country of a national park.
During the September long weekend this year, I made the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park, along with Carol Crowe and her husband Joe, as well as some friends we made along the way. We hauled in our backpacks of gear, camping two nights overnight, hiking 40 km over three days, ducking around muddy terrain, tripping over roots, and crawling over and under downed trees. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so much, physically, in my life, and now I hunger for more journeys like this. The landscape of northern Saskatchewan has a history, and if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs left behind by those who came before – and you’ll find the occasional historic plaque among the trees.
Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Belaney, was a famous author and conservationist who lived for a short while in Riding Mountain National Park and Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. An Englishman from Hastings, he is also infamous for adopting an “Indian” persona as he believed people would take his messages more seriously coming from that perspective.
He married a Mohawk woman, who became known as Anahareo. Both lived in the cabin along with their daughter, Shirley Dawn, and several pet beavers.
I hiked in to see the cabin – and the three grave sites – with Carol. This was a personal journey for Carol, because Anahareo was her Auntie. We were going for a family visit.
I’d woken up early and was right at the park’s visitor centre at 7am when the building opened to register for our campsite. (On the long weekend we knew that the choice campsites would be snapped up quickly.) We three left the trail head parking lot in the late afternoon, and arrived at our campsite three hours and 6.5km later at Chipewyan portage at about sunset. That evening, there was a spectacular light show: the aurora borealis. It was the first time I’d seen it this season.
The next morning, we had a fortifying meal of pancakes with wild blueberries (gifted to Carol before she left by a relation). We probably lingered too long in the morning, but as a result, we met our neighbours at Sandy Beach campsite that afternoon. They continued on the trail with us to Grey Owl’s cabin that afternoon and evening. We hauled our gear to Sandy Beach, set up camp, quickly packed day packs, and continued.
We arrived at the cabin later in the afternoon, and immediately set to making a small feast: soup, plus wild blueberries. Carol and Joe made an offering to Anahareo’s spirit at her grave, and we were all able to take in the calm atmosphere at Ajawaan Lake. Loons called, and it was very still. We shared the soup with a few other visitors who made their way to the cabin while we were there.
There are two cabins at the lake: one where Grey Owl lived, and a second up a hill where Anahareo stayed. The lower cabin, famously, has a beaver lodge in it where their pet beavers lived. There are also the grave sites of Anahareo, Grey Owl, and one of their daughters, Shirley Dawn.
We left as it started to get dusky – we had resigned ourselves that we’d be hiking back partially in the dark, but didn’t want to rush away after hiking 20km to get to the site. We didn’t want to waste the soup, but it was balanced precariously on our small camp stove and at one point toppled, spilling out a lot of what remained. (Later, Carol told me that when we accidentally spilled the soup, it may have been Anahareo’s spirit’s way of telling us to get back on the trail so we could get back to camp safely.) We cleaned up the fallen soup (partially because it was an animal attractant, but partially because we needed to burn the remainder back at camp), and headed on our way.
We hurried to North End, and made it there just as the sun set fully. We hiked the final three kilometres of the trail to our campsite in full dark. In retrospect: dangerous. We were tired, and there were many slippery spots and roots along the trail. We stuck together, however, and howled like wolves and sang to both keep our spirits up and to keep large wildlife away. I’ll never forget the eerie feeling of walking, feeling a bit floaty from exhaustion, along a trail that I half-recognized from earlier, flashes of the path visible in the bobbing light from my flashlight. I kept my light on the trail ahead of me, and dreaded flashing it into the woods surrounding me in case it caught the eye-shine of a bear. We rolled into our campsite at about 10:30pm, exhausted but triumphant.
The next day, we breakfasted, and then hiked back the remaining 13km to the trailhead. We were very tired when we got back to the parking lot, but in good spirits. We’d taken off our shoes at lunchtime, when we’d eaten sandwiches on a beach, and we only realized when we got to the vehicles that one of the reasons Carol’s feet hurt so much was that she’d taken some of the beach with her for the final 7km!
In all honesty, I’ve never been so physically challenged in my life, but I am so glad I went, especially with Carol and her partner. I made new friends and experienced a different part of the park that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. It was amazing to get out onto the landscape, despite its potential dangers.
Truly an adventure.
If you want to make the journey yourself, here is my advice:
Know your fitness level and plan accordingly. Exercise in the month(s) ahead of time, make sure your shoes and your backpack are broken in. I recommend doing it over the course of two nights, so you can set up camp at the sites 7km or 13 km in, meaning you hike the remainder of the distance to the cabins with just a small day pack instead of hauling your large bags in 18km one-way to the Northend campsite.
If you decide to paddle in, leave early and plan to be delayed just in case. Kingsmere Lake can get notoriously and dangerously choppy with the slightest wind.
Pack appropriately. When you put everything in your bag, ask yourself: am I willing to carry you for 40km? There is such a thing as over-packing, particularly if you’re carrying them the whole way. Make sure you have the right layers for changing weather conditions. Don’t assume you’ll be able to make a campfire – check to see if the park is in fire ban, and if so plan to bring a small stove. Bring a knife, first aid kid, rope, extra dry socks (I brought twice as many as I’d normally need because there’s nothing better than finishing your hike for the day, setting up camp, and sliding into some fresh dry socks). Remember you’ll be packing out your garbage so bring small bags to put garbage in. I strongly recommend water tablets or a water filter, so you don’t need to haul in enough water for three days. Not sure what to pack? Consult AdventureSmart.ca.
Plan to be out for twice as long as you think you will be, just in case of injury or things taking longer than you plan. Plan to be out after dark – bring a headlamp, and/or a good flashlight, just in case.
Don’t forget your spirit of adventure!
Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl. Markham, ON: Paperjacks Ltd., 1972.
This weekend, I’m heading off to Jasper National Park, so my historian brain immediately thought of the many tourists who have explored the park over the past century. Wildlife, then as now, was a huge draw for visitors, but there was plenty to see and do in Jasper! Here is a historical photo album compiled from various images from my favourite database of historical postcards, Peel’s Prairie Provinces. These photographs largely date from the 1920s through the 1940s, but the wonder at the many sights of Jasper is timeless!
Ready for the trail, Jasper Park Lodge. Photographed and Copyrighted by F.H. Slark, Jasper Alberta, c1925.peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC008092.html
A handsome buck, Jasper Park. Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper, Alberta, circa 1940. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC007912.html
Feeding the deer – Jasper National Park. Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper, Alberta, circa 1940. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC008223.html
Feeding the deer, Jasper Park. Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper, Alberta, 1947. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC008224.html
Moose – Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, circa 1943. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC008232.html
The Narrows, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta. Vancouver: Published by The Camera Products Co., 1731 Dunbar Street, Vancouver, B.C, circa 1930. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC014529.html
Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.
When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along. Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:
“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”
When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?
“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”
– H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In
What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)
Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.
When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull. Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?
To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.
Throughout my childhood, growing up in Canada, my family would often go on summer camping trips. We always used tents, not trailers (also known as RVs or Caravans), as I think that my dad always considered having a vehicle with a kitchen and a washroom inside it cheating. We also loved going for walks in the woods any day, and I have fond memories of my father pointing out animal tracks, animal scat, and various plants. He would quiz my siblings and I on the identification of various flora and fauna. (I still remember feeling ashamed at hesitating and not being able to immediately identify a poplar tree in junior high.) We grew up watching nature shows, and reading through big illustrated books of North American animals. We were always aware of wild animals and their habits. They behaved nothing like the animals with big eyes and squeaky voices we saw in cartoons on TV.
Whenever we’d go to the Rockies, we were always told about bear safety: by my father, in books, in cheaply printed pamphlets, and by park rangers and guides. I actually can’t recall a time where I ever thought that feeding a bear was a good idea. I grew up with the idea that wild animals should always be assumed to be just that: wild. They didn’t need human food. I have clear memories of struggling with the special bear-proof garbage bins in Jasper (littering is also something I have always thought of as a cardinal sin) and while we never hoisted bags of food up trees, I can’t recall the first time someone told me about the practice. I think that I picked up bear safety advice through osmosis.
That’s why, when I’m perusing images on Peel’s Prairie Provinces or other collections of old photographs of the Rockies, I’m shocked by photographs like the ones below. Fully half if not more of the early postcards with “bears” as a keyword on Peel’s Prairie Provinces portray some evidence of human influence or interference. What is pictured runs so counter to what I was always taught was good practice. I was also amazed at the sheer number of these historical images, and their variety. I suppose having a chance to interact with bears was a huge attraction in the park in the early twentieth century, as I’m sure some consider it now. People come to “commune with nature” or what have you. However, so many of these pictures, while shenanigan-filled and fascinating, leave me with unanswered questions. Crazy things are happening in front of the camera, to be sure, but the pictures only tell a small fragment of the story. Here are some of the most intriguing images of bears misbehaving that I ran across:
Is this the photographer’s car? Did they lure the bear into the car with food to get this photograph? Did it get in their accidentally and did the photographer just take advantage of a great photo opportunity? Or did someone have to let it in? The passenger side door appears to be open…
Real life “Teddy Bear Picnics” are never as full of charm and magic as the song. Dangerous! This “nuisance” ground is pictured in many postcards. Was trash laid out explicitly for the purpose of attracting bears to be photographed by tourists? Or was it to attempt to prevent the bears from strolling through the town site and only became popular with photographers after the fact?
Innocence is no excuse. I’m having flashbacks to my first summer job at a cabin place out by Hinton, AB – I had to babysit the manager’s kids a few times in between housekeeping and bussing tables at the restaurant, and the cherubic three year old approached a full grown moose in much the same manner, though she didn’t get nearly as close. Please don’t encourage your kids to do this, no matter how “cool” you think the resulting photograph would be.
Whose cup is that? Is this bear somebody’s pet? Is it the bear‘s cup?? Is there anything in it? Beer, perhaps? (I have read at least one historical account of a saloon owner with a pet bear giving it enough beer to get it drunk. Apparently drunk bears were entertaining.)
Possibly in the Banff zoo? Whose hand is that, and what is it holding that the bear finds so fascinating?
Again, what is this man holding? Is it the tourist getting room service, or the bear?
Now please, and I can’t stress this enough: these are historical photographs. Yes, they are amusing (uh, in general? Not all of them?), but they should be amusing because of their incongruity and ridiculousness. These are wild animals behaving in ways that they shouldn’t be because of human intervention. Please do not feed the bears. Or any wild animals, for that matter. Not even – especially not even – if it makes a good photograph.
Consider this photograph, taken when I was on holiday in Jasper National Park three years ago with my family.
I’m quite proud of it. It’s a beautiful view, if I do say so myself. The way the trees and the mountains frame the island, the richness of the colours of the water and the plant life, the starkness of the lighting because of the storm clouds, the stillness of the water… Only I could have taken this photograph, right? It’s a big lake. There has to be thousands of possible shots for tourists to take, right?
Nope. I’d wager that many people who have visited Maligne Lake have taken a photograph almost precisely like this one, at least in terms of composition. Do a quick Google Image Search, keywords “Maligne Lake.” Fully half, if not more, of the photographs are narrow variations on the theme of this small island. And this isn’t anything new.
Maybe the photographs are in black and white, or are coloured by hand. Perhaps the resolution changes with the settings and/or quality of the camera, or there is more or less snow or greenery depending on the season. Maybe the trees on the island have grown, or there is a different log floating in the foreground. There are slight changes in angle based on the photographer’s height, or perhaps it is framed slightly differently according to the photographer’s eye for the scene. Nevertheless, in composition and choice of subject there is a striking consistency in shots taken at Maligne Lake. If you further refine your Google image search to “Maligne Lake Spirit Island”, the similarities in composition are even more narrow.
Why is this the case? Is this the photograph that Jasper’s tourism industry “wants” you to take?
Historian David E. Nye, in “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon”, speaks to the initial difficultly Americans had in attracting tourists to the Grand Canyon. Put simply, it was too big. Ironic, I suppose, because that’s its biggest draw, today. When you imagine the Grand Canyon, you picture “bigness” in your head. But unless it’s the new “Skywalk”, do you “picture” any particular aspect of the Grand Canyon? Since the nineteenth century – well, since the popular rise of tourism period – tourism and photography have been intrinsically linked. It’s a cliché; tourists are inseparable from their cameras. They seek out the most photogenic things for the express purpose of capturing their image. The search for the perfect shot becomes bound up in the touristic experience. So much of touristic sites are viewed through the camera lens. What sites become havens for tourists are often determined by how pleasingly they can be photographed.
But what of the things that can’t be photographed? You can’t fit the entirety of the Grand Canyon into one frame, or even a panoramic shot. Nye argues that that is one of the reasons why the Grand Canyon was so slow to become popular: because it was difficult to photograph. The best shots that showed the most depth could only be taken from the bottom of the canyon, where very few tourists visited. Some early photographers tried to treat the canyon as sort of the reverse of the more familiar mountain landscapes, with little success. What do you train your photographic gaze upon, when the subject of your gaze is so gigantic? The photograph needs a focus, particularly something that is unique to the region, if your goal is to attract tourists there and not elsewhere. In the case of other national parks, it could be a geyser or a waterfall… or an island. I think that that’s what’s happening in these photographs of Maligne Lake. The mountain landscape is gorgeous, but a bit too big to comfortably fit into one frame. Or, if you do take a photograph of the mountains, there’s nothing strikingly unique about it. Spirit Island functions as a wonderful focus, and a symbol for this lake in particular. The landscape surrounding it, by contrast, isn’t atypical of the many other dozens of lakes in the region. Spirit Island and the eye-pleasing composition found there is an identifiable image and symbol of the region. Hence, its appearance on hundreds of postcards and in innumerable tourist scrapbooks.
Spirit Island on Maligne Lake resides in Jasper National Park, which is protected by the Canadian government as a preserve of the natural bounty of the Canadian nation. (Fewer people know of the First Nations who were removed from the “park” upon its creation in the early 20th century, to make sure that the land remained untouched and unused… unless you were a tourist.) Today, to get to Spirit Island, you must go by boat – you must buy a ticket, or theoretically rent a canoe, but it’s a long, long paddle over about 15 km of gorgeous landscape if you do. (Few seem to photograph the passage in between the dock and the island. Or, at the very least, they aren’t considered as striking as the ones of Spirit Island.) You are deposited on this island for about 20 minutes to take in “the view”. You would be a foolish tourist indeed to forget to bring your camera out to photograph this place. Why Spirit Island? Why not the mountains around it? Why not use Spirit Island as a platform to get out into the lake? Why not take photographs from the boat? Tourists have the option of moving about the dock or going through the trees… but many don’t seem to do so. Apparently, it has been determined over the years by consensus that this is one of the best views – the best of angles – to capture the spirit of Jasper. It fits neatly into your camera’s frame. It is uniquely identifiable as a place. Hence, its overwhelming representation on postcards of the region.
But it doesn’t have to be photographed in this way. Observe:
In case you haven’t guessed, this photograph was also taken at Spirit Island – it’s visible in the right of the frame. I had moved about five or ten metres to the left to take this shot. I believe it to also be a fine photograph. The mountains and the island dip down towards the centre of the frame, and the land also meets the water at precisely the middle of the shot. We can see the reflections of the mountains and the sky in the water. I like it, but it’s not a “postcard-worthy” shot. This photograph isn’t nearly as iconic as, well, the photograph of Spirit Island that’s on all of the postcards where the island appears front and centre.
Oh, and as an ultimate sign of betrayal and false advertising: Spirit Island? It isn’t even an island most of the time, except when there’s spring melt-off. It’s a peninsula. I suppose “Spirit Peninsula” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Post-Script: If you have never been to this region of the Canadian Rockies, you were probably pronouncing the word “Maligne” in your head like the word “malign”, and are probably wondering why such a beautiful area is referred to by a word with such negative connotations (“evil or malignant in disposition, nature, intent or influence”). It is in fact pronounced more like the original French, “Ma Ligne” (I guess on a map it kind of looks like a straight line?). To clarify, for the monolingual anglophones among us, it is pronounced more like like “mah-lean”, as in “lean meat.”
Further Reading (and Viewing):
Nye, David E. “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon.” In Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz. London: I.B. Tauris: 2003.
Last semester, you may recall I was working on a project on the subject of the Vimy Ridge sculptures, which involved my own experience as a tourist to Vimy Ridge as well as archival research here in Ottawa. I have also already written about another interesting find in the Canadian War Museum archive. Often, in the course of performing archival research, the juiciest of finds are completely accidental; they happen to be place in the same fond as something else your search terms (or friendly neighborhood archivist) pulled out for you. It’s the pleasant surprise of running across something so unexpected that can really make these documents so memorable to individual researchers.
This is one such document. Now, to refresh your memory, the Vimy Ridge monument in North-Eastern France was meant to commemorate those Canadians who died in France during the Great War but whose bodies were never found. It was not completed and unveiled until 1936. (Incidentally, the dedication of this monument was one of the few major public events that King Edward VI performed during his short reign that year.) Several thousand Canadian veterans and their families attended the unveiling ceremony, travelling vast distances by boat and train. Called the Vimy Pilgrims, they were shown around England and Northern France in grand style in highly scheduled programs, ending with a visit at Buckingham Palace in London. This photo album documents one such journey of the family of a Canadian veteran, Corporal Henry Botel.
In many ways, particularly in the poses and “types” of images, these photos resemble the same sort of ones that would be taken on a family holiday to Europe today, for all that they were taken 77 years ago. There are shots of famous monuments from the ferry/steamship, triangles of family members photographed in groups in front of various landscapes, the family with their luggage, photos of travelling acquaintances, and of course crowds of other tourists swarming an “important” site with the relevant friend or family member in the foreground.
Paging through the album, it was odd for me to retrace these family’s steps in photographs. I do not know these people, but I know these places. That is my personal connection to this album. I have unwittingly visited most of the locations pictured in their album, just over seventy-five years later. I have followed this route, which is roughly depicted in chronological order (which was easy to verify, as the War Museum’s archive also contains their printed itinerary.) After a series of images of them leaving Montreal by ship, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu when I turned the page and suddenly saw a photograph taken at train station in Amiens (pictured above, centre). I have visited this city before, and I have distinct memories of pacing up and down the platform (and, once, racing down it to make a connection, after my train got in late) in between transfers. The look and style of the trains and the passengers may have changed, but the backdrop hadn’t. The structure of the platform, and even the sign announcing the stop’s name, hasn’t changed overmuch in the last seventy years. The Botel family also visited Rouen, a city to which I feel particularly attached after living there for seven months last year. I recognized the style of housing and the city’s coat of arms immediately, though the foreground contained many more smartly dressed men in caps that I remember being there. And of course there are the photographs of the Vimy memorial itself; then, recently built, but when I visited it, recently restored. The marble gleams like new in my own memory and my photographs, matching these images from three quarters of a century ago. I felt like the photographs in this album could have been taken by me. Minus, of course, the tremendously large crowds of men in uniform and their neatly-dressed wives and children.
Then there are pages like the above. Again, I recognize the place – or at least the type of place. Military cemeteries in Europe tend to resemble each other very closely, with their rows upon rows of near identical gravestones. My great uncle fought in the Great War and survived until the 1970s (though he made it out with one less leg than he had gone in with). I had no grave to visit, and three quarters of a century later, I had very little personal or familial emotional connection to these cemeteries. That was very much not the case for the Botel family. Often, the compiler of the album scribbles a quick explanation – sometimes just a date, or a place – to accompany the photograph. In this case, the photograph is of the little girl who is so often pictured elsewhere in the album: Frances Botel, the veteran’s daughter. She is pictured here next to a neat row of war graves. The caption reads “Charlie’s grave, Aubigny, France.” (Likely Aubigny-au-Bac, which is in the Nord Pas de Calais, a very war-torn region.) The girl smiles awkwardly, head tilted at an odd angle, squinting in the sun. The site is important to the family; Charlie’s identity would have been self-evident for the photographer and for the compiler. She would be too young to remember the war or this long-lost Charlie, but it was felt to be important to visit and be photographed visiting this site. To me, it is odd that they should be smiling in a graveyard, but perhaps that’s just what you do when someone points a camera at you: you smile.
Martha Langford in Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums speaks of photo albums almost in the same terms of oral histories; they are performances. Photo albums are ideally understood when it is mediated by someone who knows its contents intimately. These unpublished albums are generally compiled for a very small, private audience: friends, family, and those who would appreciate its contents. Because of this limited audience, often photo albums have few, if any captions, and the people and places that appear most often are often the least labelled, because their names would have been obvious to the observer. It was the odd locations and passing acquaintances, those who wouldn’t necessarily be immediately recognized, that are labelled. Ironically, in the very act of preservation, by donating a family photo album to an archive, one divorces this set of images from much of its meaning, because the album is separated from that source of oral, unwritten information.
That being said, under what circumstances are albums acquired by archives? Are they donated by family members who want their family history preserved? Or are they donated, alternatively, by family members for whom the album no longer holds any meaning or personal memories? Or do they find their way into the archive in a more roundabout way, through antique markets and specialty collectors, as mere examples of intriguing or “typical” examples of an age?
Henry Botel died in 1977. Judging by the control number, a large collection of his documents from the time of the war through to the Vimy Pilgrimage were donated en masse to the War Museum in 2010. Taken together, the curator and researcher can learn from the additional documents that the mysterious “Charlie” whose grave was visited was Charlie Murphy of the 75th Battalion. Such information can only be found by reading through the supplementary documents provided with the album, which could also have been missing this and other crucial information. These documents together tell a very compelling and fascinating story, full of at times surprising, contradictory reminders of the era: an advertisement in their Vimy Pilgrimage Guide for the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin appears alongside ads for European tourism with captions like “This time… in peace”. However, are these supplemental textual documents any substitute for an oral narrative? Reading photo albums is really a performance, best done by someone who was there, or who knows the people picture, pointing and explaining throughout all of the little details that might otherwise be overlooked or remain unknown.
This photograph album is only one of many holdings on the subject of Corporal Botel’s family’s trip to Vimy Ridge held by the Canadian War Museum. Inquire with your friendly neighbourhood archivist to take a look at them for yourself!
Chambers, Deborah. “Family as Place: Family Photograph Albums and the Domestication of Public and Private Space” in Picturing Place: Photography and the geographical imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Hucker, Jacqueline. “‘After the Agony in Stony Places’: The Meaning and Significance of the Vimy Monument.” Vimy Ridge: a Canadian Reassessment. Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Michael Bechthold and Andrew Iarocci. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.
Langford, Martha. Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.
Scott, Jill. “Vimy Ridge Memorial: Stone with a Story.” Queen’s Quarterly 114, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 506-519.
“The Vimy Ridge War Memorial Unveiled.” The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1936. (If anybody is desirous of a PDF scan of this edition, I happen to have one! Feel free to message me.)