“Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story”

After years of work, I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story!

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Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.

Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.

While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:

One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.

I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.

When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.

Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.

We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.

Please enjoy! Don’t hesitate to contact me to start a conversation about the fascinating history of bison conservation.

Bears Behaving Badly (And the Humans That Encourage Them)

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:

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 11779: Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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…

Taylor G. Morris (Photographer) . Bear - Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940.
Postcard 8070:  Bear – Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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?

Weiss J.A (Photographer) . "Hello You". Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 8197: “Hello You”. Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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.

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinnamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].
Postcard 9354: Cinnamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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.)

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].
Postcard 9352:  Cinamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
 Possibly in the Banff zoo? Whose hand is that, and what is it holding that the bear finds so fascinating?

Postcard 9355. Harmon Byron (Photographer) . A day's hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. (Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.)
Postcard 9355: A day’s hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Yes, Harmon, I respect you as a photographer and everything, and I understand it was a different time and all and you kind of had to be there, but… I’m not proud of you for being proud of this. Now I have to go and watch cheerful clips from Brother Bear and their anthropomorphized animals to make myself feel better.

Postcard 8196  Johnston Tom H. (Photographer) . Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941].  Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 8196: Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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.

Further Resources

Post Script: I deliberately excluded most of the hunting photographs from this list, because this post is too lighthearted for such things. But believe you me, they definitely exist.

Hidden Treasures of Banff: A log shouldn’t be this exciting – but this isn’t just any log

I probably shouldn’t have gotten so excited about this hunk of wood. However, if you are a historian of the fur trade – and are interested in the history of Fort Edmonton in particular – you too may have possibly done a little happy dance in the Parks Canada museum in Banff too, as I did on Wednesday:

The log in question.
The log in question.
(Note: yes, that is a reflection from a flash photograph on the glass of the window case. The Parks Canada employee at the desk was explicitly giving visitors permission to use flash in the building. I needed it to get a good photo, but felt guilty doing so, as it’s normally such a faux-pas due to conservation issues. I thought that I would confess my sin before anybody formed negative impressions of me.)

Now, at first glance this appears to be a relatively unremarkable piece of wood. There are a few letters in it: GS, IR, and 1841. Who cares? Well, as it turns out, I do. Maybe you should too.

According to the framed newspaper article accompanying this piece, the GS and the IR allegedly are from George Simpson and John Rowand… also known as Sir George Simpson, who ruled the Hudson’s Bay Company as its governor with an iron fist for several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, and his friend, the hugely influential Chief Factor John Rowand of Fort Edmonton, who controlled one of the largest fur trading posts West of Lower Fort Garry. Rowand looms large in all of the stories costumed historical interpreters tell at Fort Edmonton Park, and for good reason. He was a fascinating figure. He was also portrayed for many years by an awesome friend of mine (who also played my pretend husband at the Fort when in his labouring outfit for one season). I feel like I know John Rowand. I have, however, never seen anything written in his own hand, until this week. To be honest, I was more pleased to see John Rowand’s initials than Sir George Simpson’s, who is arguably more famous. (Hey, they named my junior high school after him, at least?) In fact, the artifact is known as the “Simpson Register.”

The story the newspaper article tells is that this hunk of wood was found near the Continental Divide (the point in the Rockies where the rivers start to separate and flow either to the Pacific or Atlantic). It was retrieved by Lade Brewster, of the Brewster family of Banff, who are well known in the region as outfitters, in 1904, and was passed down in the family until it was finally donated to the museum in which it now stands.

Now, it is entirely possible that this piece of wood isn’t authentic. It wasn’t rediscovered until several generations after it was allegedly carved by these two historical figures in 1841. However, the timeline fits; this would have been around the time Rowand and Simpson were heading West to visit Hawaii (yes, the HBC had a post there). They were quite good friends, though they disagreed on some policy, particularly with regards to First Nations women. Rowand was loyal to his wife Louise D’Umpreville, a mixed blood woman, for over thirty years, and had many children with her, but I really could write a whole post just listing all of the nasty things Simpson called native ladies (including “bits of brown” and “circulating pieces of copper”). Regardless, carving their initials into this log on the date specified is an entirely plausible thing for them to have done to mark their friendship and travels, particularly near such an important site. They were marking that they were there; in the days before snapshot photography, carving one’s initials was a good way of going about doing so.

To be fair, I really, really want it to be what the museum says it is. It makes me happy to have come so close to such an object which had been seen, touched, and altered by historical figures I have only read about. This is the kind of encounter that an online exhibition cannot replicate: the physical experience of being in the presence of something that was once touched by someone you admire in history. It’s almost a religious experience: visiting the tombs of famous men and woman, gazing upon the handwriting in the manuscript of a famous document, seeing the texture of the paint and the imprint of a paintbrush in a famous work of art… digital copies cannot replicate that experience. With certain historical documents and artifacts – such as, for example, the Declaration of Independence on display in Washington, D.C., – you literally get the awed feeling of being in a temple, which is accentuated by the architecture but originates in the attitudes of the people visiting the site. Now, for me, surrounded by taxidermied animals (facing this case is a giant stuffed beaver, staring out at you with glass eyes), it wasn’t quite so hushed and awe-inspiring. But I did feel giddy for over ten minutes afterwards.

Where to find this exciting piece of wood: Banff Park Museum National Historic Site of Canada, on Banff Avenue, near the river, in the Banff townsite in Banff National Park. (Banff is a running theme, here.) It is a lovely wooden building from 1903, full of taxidermied animals behind antique glass cases. On the second floor, there is a curio case, full of items donated by citizens of Banff over the years. In this case is this piece of wood with a newspaper article accompanying it, which contains the alleged story.

Here, have a few other shots of the museum for the road. Note: the glass is over a century old as well!