Who else is fantasizing about getting away from it all and running away to the mountains? I’m lucky in that I live in a national park (though in the stereotypically unmountainous province of Saskatchewan) so I have been spending a lot of time hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, but there’s something about those mountains that are calling me. I’m sure to visit once travel becomes advisable once more! In the meantime, I’m doing historical background research on female artists and mountaineers active in the Canadian Rockies about a century ago, to support the Rockies Repeat art project and documentary. I’m trying not to get too rosy-eyed and nostalgic over the aesthetics and experience of being a tourist in the mountains in the early decades of the 20th century, because it wasn’t without its issues (not the least of which was an Imperial mindset and casual racism), but the enthusiasm that these men and women embraced the outdoor lifestyle is delightful.
In my archival investigations, I ran across this great souvenir newspaper from one of the first meetings of the Alpine Club of Canada, in 1907, and I was charmed by some of the very relatable humour about camp life. Here are a few of my favourite elements:
FASHION NOTES The best kind of gloves to use when climbing are those belonging to your friend. For hot-headed individuals, hats with holes throughout the crown are advised by our leading medical authorities. Patchwork is rapidly growing in Dame Fashion’s favor. The crazier the better. A great variety of shades are popular for the complexion, but perhaps the favorite is crushed strawberry. INTERIOR DECORATIONS The bare appearance of the ordinary tent-pole may be relieved by graceful drapings of knickers, sheets, hose, blouses, etc. In ordinary cases a large number of such garments are required to produce the most artistic effect. The most handsome mantel drapings are composed of puttees [leg wrappings], preferably wet, which should be festooned at suitable intervals from the roof of the tent. Graceful hanging pots may be made by tying ordinary climbing boots together and suspending them from any desirable point. Any plant may be grown in these, but the cactus is said to thrive best.
A gentleman of the quill called at one of the ladies’ tents early on Wednesday morning, greatly to their consternation. He was soon after promptly killed and his body thrown in the river. It is understood his name was Mr. Pork. U. Pine, of Moraine Lake.
WOMAN’S PAGE By Lady Paradise
Dear Lady Paradise, when is it proper for a young gentleman to put his feet round a lady’s waist when glissading? Mollie. Dear Mollie: Before doing this, my dear, you must be sure that you have been properly introduced by a Presbyterian minister, or, failing him, by the camp cook.
Please tell me, dear Lady Paradise, the proper etiquette in connection with the use of the rubber cup, when climbing. –Bill Always give it first, Bill, to the lady who you know has the most chocolate concealed about her person.
Further Readingon the Experience of Early Travellers in the Canadian Rockies
MacLaren, I.S., Ed. Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2007.
Reichwein, Pearlann. Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2014.
Skidmore, Colleen, Ed. This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006.
Skidmore, Colleen. Women Wilderness Photography: Searching for Mary Schäffer. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2017.
Seton-Thompson, Grace Gallatin. A Woman Tenderfoot. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1900.
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.
Parks Canada manages both national parks and national historic sites. Often people, even employees of Parks Canada, think of there being a strong division between the two: some sites are all about nature, other sites are all about history. Biologists and ecologists work in national parks and historians work for historic sites and never the twain shall meet. However, national historic sites have natural conservation issues, and of course national parks do have a history. For all that people like to talk about the “untouched wilderness” of national parks, framing their photographs to exclude the hundreds of tourists that surround them, these natural spaces have had a human presence for generations – longer than they’ve been national parks, often by thousands of years. I’m particularly interested in signs of past historical events in “natural” landscapes. That’s why I was delighted to learn of Yoho National Park’s Walk-In-The-Past trail.
You can access it from the Kicking Horse Campground. Depending on how quickly you walk and how long you linger to contemplate the past, it takes about an hour and a half to hike. You can pick up a nifty self-guided pamphlet from the visitor centre in the town of Field and read more about the history of the place as you pass numbered signs.
Follow the same path hundreds of railway workers took generations ago.
A modern railway cuts across the historical trail.
Handy signs like this pointed the way where the path may have been unclear.
The first section of the trail follows a path used by railroad workers over 100 years ago as they travelled from camp to their worksite up the mountain. The path crosses over a modern train track at about the halfway point. You walk along a section that was originally cleared for an old rail line – dangerously steep for the time but fairly gentle by the standards of mountain hikes. (My friend and I had huffed and puffed our way up the Iceline Trail the day before, so that was our point of reference.) Evidence of coal dust left behind by the steam engines is still visible in the dirt along the path.
The final stop at the top of this hill is an old steam engine. Interestingly, it’s gage is actually narrower than all of the train tracks that exist in the valley and could never run on them; it was in fact a smaller train used to haul rocks away as they were digging the now famous spiral tunnels. Its rusting hulk is an interesting and physical reminder of the valley’s not so distant past.
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