Tales from the Canadian Rockies
John I. Jackson was a library technician at the University of Toronto.
Brian Patton, writer and photographer, is the author of Pathways of the Canadian Rockies and co-author of The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. His enthusiasm for this region finds new and emphatic expression in Tales from the Canadian Rockies. In a chronologically ordered anthology, Patton presents two centuries of writing about the Canadian Rockies: from the mysticism of pre-contact Indians to the adventure of railroaders pressing through the passes; from the austere eloquence of the journals of the early explorers to the blank verse of modern poets.
Here is the wonderful Shuswap legend of their first encounter with whites, including a very accurate description of a hangover! Here also is the story of the dogged determination, in the face of almost unbelievable adversity, which revealed the great passes through the mountain barrier. The building of the CPR, itself a great story, introduced an entirely new genre to the Rocky Mountain literature — the train ride. Lady Agnes Macdonald’s account of her trip west in 1886 is a delightful inventory of the pleasures and perils of the Steam Age. The increased access to the magnificent scenery of the Rockies, which the railroad afforded, lured a wide range of characters, and groups of characters, to the mountains. “Hollywood at Lake Louise” describes the 1927 sojourn of director Ernst Lubitsch and his film crew, including actor John Barrymore, to film King of the Mountains. In contrast, “Shoot-out,” the story of a 1935 multiple murder, long-distance chase, and final confrontation, reminds us of the occasions when the Rockies have seemed to offer refuge to those beyond society’s pale.
The cast of characters presented by Patton is richly diverse. The strength of character of the explorers Mackenzie and Thompson is unerringly revealed in excerpts from their journals. Dr. James Hector, whose misadventure with a reluctant pack animal served to name the Kicking Horse Pass, is fondly remembered by his Métis interpreter as being able to “walk, ride, or tramp snowshoes with the best of our men,” and as never falling back on his position to “soften his share of the hardships.” Artist Paul Kane’s account of a crossing of the Athabasca Trail in the fall of 1845 is rich in detail and demonstrates a fine aesthetic sense. “Christmas Dinner” tells the incredible story of pioneer guide and outfitter Tom Wilson’s seventy-mile snowshoe trek over varied and difficult terrain to enjoy Christmas dinner with his family. It nearly cost him his life.
The special flora and fauna of the region have not been overlooked by Patton. Accounts range from that of botanist David Douglas, of Douglas fir fame, to Andy Russell’s pursuit of the grizzly bear. By far the most humorous is Edward Roper’s 1886 anecdote of mosquito activity at Banff. He is not consoled by a resident’s assurance that “they don’t trouble in cold weather”!
Inevitably, the real stars of this anthology are the mountains themselves. Ringing through each selection is the sense of grandeur and majesty which they inspire. Romantic flights are tempered, however, with sufficient reference to the awesome silence, isolation, and barrenness of the Rockies to keep readers well aware of the realities.
The book is well illustrated with relevant photographs, many from the Archives of the Canadian Rockies. A notable flaw is the omission of any kind of map that would ease the confusion of place names for those whose awareness of the geography of the region begins and ends at Banff. The brief biographical notes on the contributors are interesting and useful. In all, this is an intelligent contribution to Canadiana that should appeal to readers from a range of disciplines.