History of the Fantasy

How the enthusiasms of the day shape our notions of what Banff is

By Katherine Govier

When Rocky Mountains National Park was created in 1887, this beautiful part of the world was deemed empty. “The Indians seem to have feared and avoided the mountains,” wrote Mabel Williams, the federal civil servant whose rhapsodic guidebooks emerged under the guidance of J. B. Harkin, former journalist and popular first Parks commissioner. Mabel Williams was, of course, wrong. She and others of her day.

Williams is a story in herself, one of a surprising number of mid-life women who in the early years of the 20th century found new meaning for their lives in what is now Banff National Park. Others include the American Quakers Mary Vaux and Mary Schäffer, the runaway aristocrat Catharine Whyte of Boston, backcountry lodge host Lizzie Rummel of Germany and the little-known but fascinating Welsh dowager Mary de la Beche Nicholl—who in her 60s, in 1904, hired mountain guide Jimmy Simpson to help her catch butterflies at Mount Assiniboine.

There are a hundred stories like that, about men and women transforming their lives. Wonderful stories. Many of them scarcely known. And we shall see why. The better known are tucked away in archives and out-of-print books. Even pioneers still in living memory are being pushed offstage, their traces removed. They have gone out of fashion. The current version of Rocky Mountains National Park does not include them. They clutter up the wilderness and get in the way of the animals and give people the idea that humans have had a role here in the wilds.

The Rocky Mountains are essential to our image of ourselves, and to Canada’s image around the world. We have redrawn this image every few decades to suit the fashion, and the human stories are now out of the picture. The mountain parks are managed, like a kingdom, but the managers are no longer distant Ottawa bureaucrats. They are us. And what if we, like Mabel Williams, are wrong? What if we are in the grip of another fantasy?

A century and more ago, the idea of empty mountains was convenient for the dreamers, inviting and seductive. The Rocky Mountains comprised a brilliant kingdom reserved for human pleasure, offering relief from the workaday world, ruled invisibly by men in Ottawa—but known intimately by the natives, weathered trappers, settlers and miners who called them home.

People like Tom Wilson, born in Bond Head, Ontario, near Barrie. He came west at 18 and joined the NWMP at Fort Walsh in 1880, but quit when he became convinced the government was deliberately starving the Indians. He moved on to Banff. Wilson showed the CPR where they should build the Banff Springs Hotel. He guided the sclerotic Major Rogers over the Pass that bears his name. “Give Rogers six plugs of chewing tobacco and five bacon rinds and he’ll travel for two weeks.” By Wilson’s account, Rogers made his trail over the Rockies by killing trees with tobacco juice: “Not many trees along the trail escaped his deadly aim.” Like most of these early guides, Wilson had a good sense of humour and made light of the difficulties. “I never knew how hard a time we had until I read the book,” he said later.

Wilson is said to have been the first white man to see Lake Louise. He was certainly among the very few to witness the trumpeter swans that landed there before human activity drove them to more remote lakes. He worked with native guides, including the “Twin” brothers, Joshua and William. He guided, among many others, the novelist Agnes Laut to Nigel Pass. Her first novel, Lords of the North, and many later books drew on her summers in the Rockies. But there is no biography of Tom Wilson. No monument.

Nor much public information about Arthur O. Wheeler, the land surveyer who founded the Alpine Club of Canada with Winnipeg Free Press reporter Elizabeth Parker in 1906. Unlike its US counterpart, the Alpine Club of Canada always had women members—in Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering, Chic Scott describes “ladies with long skirts and straw hats decorated with flowers”—as well as “men with derby hats and summer straws, some carrying umbrellas.” Stirring prose marked Parker’s contributions to the club: she tells us that “traversing the sources of the great ice rivers and breathing the virgin air above their mute snows is conducive to [a] philosophic [state of] mind.” And while we’re on climbers, what do we know of Edward Wheeler, Arthur’s son, himself a climber and credited with showing George Mallory the best route up Everest (a gesture which Mallory resented for the rest of his life)…?

Mrs. Wheeler and Chief Horse Foot (ca. 1015-1930).

Mrs. Wheeler and Chief Horse Foot (ca. 1015-1930). (Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

More inclined to the public eye was Jimmy Simpson, a miscreant teenage poacher who arrived from Lincolnshire in 1896. He learned the ropes from his idol, Bill Peyto, a wild man who once carried a lynx into a bar on Banff Avenue. Simpson put the capital he’d inherited into packhorses and led big-game hunters, US industrialists, atomic scientists and many others on summer trips through the Rockies. He laid out the route of the Banff–Jasper highway, and in his 60s travelled with zoologist Ian McTaggart Cowan, sharing his knowledge of bighorn sheep. Simpson built Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. His fraught relationship with Parks management fills volumes at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Intensely physical and practical, Simpson was not immune to mystical experience. “I went out in a cabin at the head of the Alexandra River. …It was a beautiful winter night, nice and warm. I was thinking what a beautiful country it was. I heard music orchestration came out of the southwest. It passed right over me, I heard it die away going to the NE. That was before radio or anything. It was not supposition or anything like that. I could hear the violins. There are so many amazing things in the world we don’t know anything about.”

That’s an almost perfect expression of the popular 19th-century European notion of the sublime—spiritual transformation before the grandeur and pitilessness of nature. From the time the last spike was driven, CPR trains rolled west across the prairie, filled with the heartsick, the disillusioned, the pent-up, the extraneous and the man on the make. The dream brought mountaineers such as Edward Whymper, greatly past his prime. “He’d sit in camp and drink No. 4 Scotch all day and send his four crack Swiss guides to climb a mountain,” said Simpson. “When they came back to camp and reported he’d then sit down and write a damn fine article for the CPR.”

Empty? A convenient fiction, to say the least. Wide open, maybe. How else would there have been the kind of collecting that saw Burgess shale fossils shipped off to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, just as fast as the packhorses could get them down the trail? Curiously, in the first decades of the 20th century, the “disappearing red man” was added to the romance, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that the “nonexistent Indian” narrative had become untenable. Now, according to government pamphlets, native peoples had bequested charming legends, and their half-buried dwellings sat at the base of Mount Rundle “where now the tourist plays golf.”

The hot springs at Banff, “discovered” by white settlers and eventually becoming the property of the federal government, had been in use for millennia. Trails and passes, same thing. Archaeological digs begun in the 1970s at the Vermilion Lakes reveal nearly 11,000 years of human use. True, archaelogists had not begun to dig in Mabel Williams’s day, but she was wrong even according to what was known in her time.

But the mountain parks—vast, inspiring, “empty” and uncharted—had a purpose, and the purpose was to heal and soothe white people. When Jasper National Park was created, the Métis were evicted. The case of Ewan Moberly and his family is now cited as an example of the great unfairness of government. He and his people (defined as “half-breeds” and “squatters” although there was at the time no possibility of their registering title to their lands) were trespassing on a dream. >>

Whatever did not serve the dream was removed. Bounties were put on wolves and coyotes, because those species were thought to reduce the numbers of the animals hunters preferred. The government moved with absolute certainty that it was correct.

And the idea of emptiness, of sacredness, was only the first fantasy of the Rockies. Soon after the first blush of discovery came the idea that natural beauty would salve the soul. Since then we have seen spiritual balm commercialized. When tourism proved overwhelming, we adopted the eco-fantasy and its child, the wildlife fantasy. They are most of them wonderful ideas. Too bad they threaten to cancel each other out.

Emptiness was only the first fantasy. Then came “spiritual balm.” Then commercial Banff. Then eco-fantasy…

I’ve been reading about the first white people in these mountains, in letters and diaries at the farsighted, privately founded Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. On audiotapes created by the Luxton Foundation I’ve heard the high falsetto “Oh sure!” of Jimmy Simpson, and the thoughtful tones of Louis Trono, a musician who was born in Bankhead, the coal-mining town that once stood above Lake Minnewanka. Men worked in coal mines all day, then showered off the soot and donned white ties to play in a swing band at the Banff Springs Hotel. What lives! And so recent, less than 150 years ago.

It’s true that Mary Schäffer’s memoirs are tinged with romanticism. In fact, many of these “first” people, pioneers and adventurers, can be a bit tiresome. They were the entitled: they had it to themselves. They arrived when the park was pristine; their glorious adventuring can get irritating. They were suckers for the sublime. Their narratives repeat myths of the vanishing “red man,” the hunted-out game, encroaching civilization. I wonder if the current attitude toward them is tinged with envy. Why should they have had freedoms we don’t? But it is hard to disagree that roads and railways—the national dream—have led to the decline of Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay parks. The mountains have been democratized. They are for the people, and there are too many of us.

The road to democracy in the Rocky Mountain parks has been a twisting one. Promoting the health of Canadians weary of their cities and in need of fresh air and beautiful scenery seemed simple. But there was a question of industry: include it because the railways need coal? Exclude it because it’s ugly? What about forests? In 1911 the Dominion Forest Reserves & Parks Act defined parks as surrounded by forest reserves. Parks would encourage development; reserves would “look to the exclusion of people.” The inner Rocky Mountains Park was shrunk to about 40 per cent of its former area.

Gateposts moved. And what was allowed through the gates changed. Cars had been prohibited; in 1910 they were allowed in. Bankhead was part of the fantasy, with electric lights and running water and a school and churches and a hotel: the houses were better built than those in Banff. Tourists might come and have a look. But Bankhead operated for little more than 10 years. In 1922 there was a strike. The CPR closed the mine and the whole town was demolished, the better buildings hauled on flatbed trucks to Banff. The town was erased.

By this time it seemed parks were losing focus. As a chapter by Alan MacEachern in A Century of Parks Canada notes, Mabel Williams, by her own admission, came up with the next great idea. She found some minutes of the Scenic & Historic Preservation Society of America: one of the “old chaps” got up and said, “You know, when you think of it, these beautiful places are worth money. [They] bring people in to see them.” She carried the idea to her boss. “Tourist traffic” became the rationale for parks in the face of government indifference. Harkin even came up with a figure: scenery was worth $13.88 an acre (wheatfields came in at $4.91).

So parks were for tourists. During the 1920s, promotional literature brought in the glamorous visitors, the golf courses, the movie stars. But these large tracts of “empty” land, out of sight of most Canadians, had a dark side. Already, during the First World War, Ukrainian-Canadians had been interned at Castle Mountain. In the 1930s a large government tent city of the unemployed assembled around Morley. In the 1940s the parks were pretty well left alone—except as prisoner of war camps. During the Second World War, German prisoners cleared what is now Barrier Lake. You can see the guard tower of Camp 130 in the Kananaskis and walk through the bush to see the lines of the barbed wire fences that marked the playing field. But of the tent city, of the First World War camp at Cave & Basin in Banff townsite, there is nothing. It is as if they never existed.

After the war, in the late 1940s and 1950s, Canadian families pulled up to the gates in their cars. You could roll down the window and feed a bear, or watch them eat at the town dump in Jasper, as I did. I encountered the parks in the late 1950s. It was wonderful to ride up to Sunshine in a Brewster bus with skis rattling in the outside rack. On certain hairpin turns, you had to get out and stand off the road while the men pushed.

The thing was, everyone caught on. By the 1960s the campgrounds were overflowing. Tunnel Mountain campground in Banff was party city. Ski resorts burgeoned, and sewage seeped into the creeks below Sunshine Village. Ecological notions were in the air, although park wardens still had the authority to shoot predators on sight. Scientists were invoked, strangely for the first time.

We’ve seen the dangers of whole landscapes guided by the hand of manguided by politics and fashion.

At the 1968 conference “Canadian National Parks: Today and Tomorrow,” the highly respected zoologist Ian McTaggart Cowan—who had roamed for several summers with Jimmy Simpson—laid it out bluntly. “Ecological considerations had almost no part in the establishment of the Canadian National Parks.” He cited past mistakes in managing parks, such as selling off the land in the river valleys, areas the large mammals needed. He talked about fighting wildfires, because by then we knew wildfires were beneficial for forest areas. We might have learned this from native peoples, but we did not pay attention at the time—it was not fashionable to do so. He pointed out the conflicting motives in parks management, and his timing was right.

The idea of parks protecting nature took hold. Public consultations were arranged. By 2000 a new National Parks Act held as its first priority the “maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity.”

The billboard catches your eye when you leave Calgary driving west: “You are in Grizzly Country.” Never mind that, says The Grizzly Manifesto author Jeff Gailus; the bears are safer living outside park boundaries altogether, for instance in northern Alberta. In this scheme of things, people are an impediment to nature. Either we’re “windshield visitors” or we’re clogging up the campgrounds and leaving our footprints and endangering wildlife.

Parks now have a dual mandate of conservation and recreation. If these ideas aren’t mutually defeating, they are at least hard to reconcile. In the 21st century, voices of environmentalism and of science have become louder. They have contributed much to the conversation. New protections are in place. But now there is a profession of parks people and a new language. You can’t draw a line around a piece of nature and save it: this is, in the parlance of the professionals, “othering” nature. “Islandizing” nature. Parks are “the incarceration of wilderness.” If we are not nature’s jailers, then we are its defilers.

And so we are asked to leave Eden. But what about the pioneers who made places for us to adventure? What about the Rocky Mountain Parks belonging, as in the original vision, to the people of Canada? What about the tranformative power of this wild place, for people?

A couple of things:

How close were we to transforming, anyway? To living in the mountains, as did those first white people? Not very close. In fact, today over 90 per cent of park visitors go no farther than 250 m from a road. And that’s a good thing: if everyone hiked the trails, the backcountry would collapse under the strain. Mind you, no one really knows what the acceptable “load” is on the backcountry. It hasn’t been studied; there’s no money to study it. There are quotas on the numbers of people who can take the amazing hike over Jasper’s Skyline Trail. If that doesn’t discourage you, filthy washrooms and tortuous access—viz. the 9-km disused fire road you have to take to get on or off the trail—put off all but the most devoted. Can Parks have it both ways, reaching out to new visitors while discouraging its oldest friends?

And anyway, those guys from the past were politically incorrect. They hunted grizzlies and bighorn sheep and picked wildflowers. They built their little cabins up in the passes and their shacks by the riverbanks. Their horses gouged out the ground around the trails. The parks that gave them free rein were elitist. You had to have money; activities like skiing and golf were allowed, while others, like snowmobiling, were not.

Time to change the fantasy. Aesthetics are out of fashion. Elites are out of fashion. No one goes to babbling brooks in alpine meadows except in a shampoo ad. New but familiar-sounding utilitarian rationales for national parks abound. In Australia the parks system is directly seen as linked to the health system. “Feeling blue? Touch green.” People are literally prescribed visits to nature if they’re depressed or ill. Are we heading this way?

Parks have been “ablist,” the pundits now say. That is, they aren’t accessible to those with disabilities. So we have wheelchair walks, and we will have the much reviled, much debated, Brewster Skywalk at the Columbia Icefields. We have urban outreach.


Banff’s Wheeler House was demolished in 2011 to expand a wildlife corridor. What stories has the building taken with it? (Courtesy of Neil Young)

The reigning fantasy is one I would call Parks without Borders/Parcs sans frontières. The idea is expansionist. Wildlife migration routes, for instance, lead in and out of parks and have inspired plans to link parks and reach out to more territory. There are plans to bring back bison, to restore Aboriginal presence. There is Y2Y, with its aim to connect all the parks from Yellowstone to Yukon. Remote places, natural and wilder places, seem to promise lessons on how we might manage the rest of our earthly territory. Everywhere, we see clues about what is to come.

Artists have been an enduring presence in the parks since the CPR commissioned Marmaduke Matthews to paint scenery as the tracks pushed west, and the Group of Seven wandered around Yoho’s Lake O’Hara. And the artists are still with us. But they’re not after beauty anymore. Jan Kapitoff paints retreating glaciers out of a concern for climate change. I asked Nancy Townshend, author of the forthcoming Artistic Responses to the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains 1809–2012, what she thought was the new vision. “Maybe parks will save the world,” she said.

But playing God is tricky. You can get tripped up in your ideologies. “Park” as an abstraction defined by words is easy to manipulate; in the execution it’s messier. One keel remains in the wobbling ship that is Parks Canada, and that is the tenet of emptiness. Today no one in Parks management has much use for Banff townsite. It has “zero conservation value,” one Parks insider tells me. Perhaps. But it has huge historical value, and continues to despite the number of teardowns—the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed pavilion, demolished in 1938, is one that comes to mind.

We have seen the dangers of whole landscapes, living environments, guided by the hand of man when the hand of man is guided by politics and fashion, when testimony and the traces of the people who knew the place best are forgotten. I’m just asking: what if, like Mabel Williams, we are wrong?

On a cold, black night in January, I am at The Edge Gallery in Canmore at an exhibition memorializing Wheeler House, which existed, until one year ago, in Banff. It was the summer home of Arthur Wheeler, grandfather of the local climbing community. Wheeler House became a flashpoint in Banff when Parks Canada decided to demolish it. It had been standing vacant for years. Jenny Compton, Arthur’s great-granddaughter, wanted it saved and told the Parks Commissioner she would raise the money.

But the house stood in a newly designated wildlife corridor. So, despite protests and promises, it is gone. The watercolours, photographs and children’s illustrations on the walls of the gallery show a charming log cabin with a pond set among trees. And they are all that remain, a moment in time. Another superintendent, at another moment in time, might have chosen to restore this historic home so that park visitors could visit and learn some human history. But no. He was in the grip of an idea. Wildlife needed its newly defined corridor. People should not clutter the landscape with their dwellings. Nobody lived here. This park is a fresh slate. What will it be now?

Katherine Govier is the author of nine novels and three short story collections, and the editor of two collections of travel essays.


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