Guest Writer Lawrence J Burpee
“Emerald slopes became so tall they touched the clouds, and showers painted diamond waterfalls that sluiced down cliff sides.” ~Victoria Kahler
CHATTING one evening with the genial Superintendent of Jasper Park, into whose sympathetic ear we had been pouring our ardent desire to see some portion of the mountains that was at least comparatively unknown, he replied: “I know the very place you want—Maligne Lake, off to the south of here. I can get you a good guide and outfit to-night, and you can start in the morning.” The name did not sound very inviting; rather suggested that some one had seen the lake and condemned it. It appeared, however, that the name was really given to the river by which the waters of the lake are carried down to the Athabaska [Athabasca], and that the Indians had their own good reasons for pronouncing it “bad.” We lived to commend their verdict. As for the lake, it would be as reasonable to call it “Maligne” as to give such a name to a choice corner of paradise. That, however, is getting a little ahead of the story.
The following morning the guide and his helper with the outfit were waiting for us on the other side of the Athabaska. We and our packs were punted across, the pack-horses were loaded, we climbed on our ponies and started off for the undiscovered country, as it pleased us to call it, with mountains smiling down upon us, a radiant sky overhead, and unutterable joy in our hearts.
The trail—it is painful to admit that there was a trail, and an excellent one at that—led up the valley of the Athabaska to Buffalo Prairie, where we made our first camp after an easy day’s journey. Buffalo Prairie is a beautiful meadow set among the rolling hills that break the level of the long valley, with that first consideration to those who travel in the mountains, an abundance of feed for the horses, and with wonderful views of the great guardian peaks, Geikie, Hardisty, the Three Sisters, and a great company of glittering giants as yet unnamed. To one who comes from the east where every little hillock has its name, it is startling to find oneself gazing reverently at a majestic pyramid of rock and ice soaring a mile or so into the sky, and learn from the indifferent guide that it is merely one of the thousand nameless mountains.
The following morning we were off early, to the infinite disgust of the horses who were revelling in the good feed of the prairie. There was a long day’s journey ahead up to and over Bighorn Pass, and a good deal of uncertainty as to where we might find any sort of a camping ground on the other side of the mountains. For a time we continued our way up the valley of the Athabaska, and then began the long slow climb up to the pass, over 8000 feet above the sea. As we topped one hill after another, sometimes travelling through patches of jack pine, sometimes up the dry bed of a mountain stream, there opened up new and ever more glorious views of the great ranges on either side. High up on the trail we had to turn aside to make room for a long pack train on its way down to Jasper. Hideous confusion would result if the two outfits were allowed to get entangled, only to be made right after much expenditure of time and pungent language. Finally the last pack-horse went by with a picturesque packer jogging along in the rear, and we began the last and heaviest grind up to the pass. The trail wound into the pass, and up and ever up, until we must get off the plucky little beasts and lead them the final stage, puffing and panting as we stumbled along through the heavy loose shale until at last we stood on the summit, and with a last glance back at the peaks off toward Athabaska Pass turned down through an alpine meadow, and in the midst of a swirling snowstorm, toward the valley of the Maligne.
For hours we toiled around the shoulders of hills of loose shale, or through miles of muskeg, or fallen timber, sometimes mounted, oftener on foot leading our hard-worked ponies, until at long last with the sun below the horizon we found on a steep hillside a little feed for the horses, and water for our kettles. The tent had to be pitched on the trail, the only relatively clear spot that could be found, and we trusted to Providence not to send another outfit along in the middle of the night to walk over us. It had been a long heavy day’s travel, and after our supper of bannocks and bacon … we turned in and slept as only those may sleep who travel on the wilderness trail.
Our tent has been spoken of, but it was more properly a tepee—not the tepee that you see in pictures of Indian life, made of skins neatly sewn together and perhaps ornamented with rude drawings—but a modern compromise, of the old Indian form but made of strong cotton [canvas].
Some of the guides in the mountains much prefer the tepee to the tent in any of its familiar forms. Others will have none of it. Our own experience led us to the conclusion that the tepee is without a rival in a good tepee country, that is one where suitable tepee poles are abundant, but there are occasions when you have to camp in a district where poles are as hard to find as needles in a haystack, and the resources of the language seem ludicrously inadequate as you limp about the camp in an ever-widening circle hunting for something that will support the thrice-damnable tepee for the night.
If you are fortunate enough to find a sufficient number of long, straight, slender poles among the fallen timber (in the parks you are not permitted to cut down trees for the purpose), it is a matter of but a very few minutes to stack them in position, stretch the cotton over the frame, and lace the front with a handful of small twigs, leaving an opening at the top. Then you make the beds around the circle, and build your camp fire in the middle. On a cold night, and particularly on a cold, rainy night, one blesses the Indian who first invented the tepee. Instead of shivering outside around a fire that will not burn, you have your fire with you in a large roomy tent, and can cook your meals and eat them in comfort. And who that has experienced it can forget the evening around the tepee fire, resting tired bodies on luxurious beds … and swapping yarns until it is time to roll up in the thick, warm Hudson Bay blankets and sleep until dawn, or until the smell of frying bacon awakens one to another day’s adventures.
This morning on the hillside overlooking the Maligne Valley proved to be a Red Letter day in our calendar. The sun had been rather unkind since we left Jasper, but now as we scrambled out of the tepee, we looked up into a cloudless sky. Far below a noisy little creek hailed us cheerily as it hurried down from the mountains to join the Maligne. In the distance we had glimpses of the river itself, and beyond uprose an extraordinary wall of rock a thousand feet or more in height, shutting in the valley and running on one side toward Maligne Lake and on the other far off into the hazy distance toward the Athabaska.
Our plans were to climb up the valley to Maligne Lake, take advantage of the kindly sun to secure a few pictures, and then make our way back to last night’s camp and down the valley to Medicine Lake. East of Medicine Lake we had heard of a wonderful little body of water called Jack Lake, famous not so much because of its beauty as for the extraordinary abundance of its trout.
A ride of an hour or so, up and down hill, through fallen timber, muskeg and acres of boulders, with finally a most delightful gallop through a piece of virgin timber, brought us unexpectedly out on to a point of land overlooking Maligne Lake. We had read Mrs. Schäffer’s enthusiastic description of the lake [Mary TS Schäffer, Old Indian Trails (1911)], but were hardly prepared for the perfectly glorious sight that lay before us: a lake of the most exquisite blue, mirroring on one side a high ridge clothed to the water’s edge in dark green timber, and on the other a noble range of mountains climbing up and up in graceful towers and pinnacles sharply outlined against a cloudless sky. Beside us was an ideal camping ground, and then and there we vowed to come back to this spot some day, with several weeks to the good, and really make the acquaintance of Maligne Lake, if one must call anything so gracious and beautiful by such an inappropriate name.
Among the trees by the lake side we caught a glimpse of a tent, but the owner was nowhere in sight. We afterwards learned that he was one of the forest rangers, who rejoiced in the picturesque name of Arizona Pete. How Arizona Pete had wandered so far from the land of alkali plains and canyons no one seemed to know, but it was apparent that he had accumulated in his travels a fund of hair-raising stories of which Pete was the hero. If one heard of a riotously impossible exploit, and it was not attributed to that mythical hero of the northwest, Paul Bunion, one knew at once that it must be one of the adventures of Arizona Pete.
Turning our backs most reluctantly on Maligne Lake, we rode back to our deserted camp, and north toward Medicine Lake following what by courtesy was called a trail but was actually nothing but a few blazes pointing the way through a perfect wilderness of fallen timber. How the ponies, with all their marvellous intelligence and matchless endurance dragged themselves and us through the miles of hopelessly tangled logs that covered ridge and valley nearly every foot of the way to Medicine Lake, none of us could ever understand. However, we did at last reach the mouth of the river where it emptied into the lake.
Our proposed camping ground was in sight, a little cove on the eastern side of the lake, with feed of sorts for the horses, and the prospect of poles for the tepees; but we had still to cross the river and the situation looked discouraging. There was said to be a ford here, but the water had risen within the last few days and the sagacious ponies sniffed at it disapprovingly. We tried one place after another, until finally as a last resource the guide mounted the pluckiest and most sure-footed of the bunch and coaxed him out into the raging stream. Step by step they won their way to the other side, and the rest, having seen that the thing could be done, followed willingly enough. We all got over with nothing worse than a wetting, and the precious provisions escaped even that. Twenty minutes brought us to the camping ground, and our troubles were over for that day.
A plunge in the icy waters of Medicine Lake the following morning, followed by a hasty breakfast, and we were off for Jack Lake eight or ten miles to the east. The guide knew that the trail led off from a creek near the camp, but we must hunt for the exact spot where it began. It sounds simple enough, but in reality it was not at all simple. The trail had not been much used, and the creek from which it started ran through a dense thicket of alder. There was nothing to do but circle around until we found it. So we did, sometimes ploughing through the bush, sometimes splashing up the creek, until at last a cry from the guide told us that the elusive trail was found, and we could get on our way.
A few hundred yards brought us to the edge of the timber, and we plunged from bright sunlight into the shade of the primæval forest, where ancient cedars with venerable beards rose on every side from a carpet of deep, emerald moss. On we jogged for several miles, winding through the forest, now and then crossing a clear woodland stream, and climbing gradually up into a pass through the mountains. Presently we emerged from the trees with bold cliffs rising on either side carved into fantastic shapes. We dropped down into a secluded valley, with an emerald lake in the centre surrounded by velvet meadows, dark green timber beyond stretching up to the foot of white cliffs which rose abruptly on every side. Except for an eagle soaring far above there was no sign of life in the valley, and the silence was so absolute that one unconsciously lowered one’s voice as if on the threshold of some awe-inspiring temple.
The trail led down the valley, skirting the shores of the lake, wandered through a bit of wood and brought us out on the shores of another lake, finally into the timber again, and up out of the valley through a gap in the mountains. Then for an hour or two we were lost in the forest, following the trail as it wound about and about in the seemingly casual and aimless fashion of wood trails. It did not appear at the moment very important that it should lead anywhere. The air was fragrant with the smell of pine and cedar and of a temperature that left absolutely nothing to be desired; the great trees were far enough apart to afford delightful vistas down long avenues whose mossy carpet was kissed by sunbeams filtering through the evergreen branches far above; the trail was clear and unencumbered, in wonderful contrast to our experience of the previous day; and we were quite content to jog along care-free and at peace with the world.
Finally a flash of blue through the trees warned us that we were drawing near Jack Lake. We followed its shore for a mile or so, or rather climbed along the face of the steep hillside that did duty for shore on this side, and rounding the eastern end came out on a broad meadow, with a new log shack in the foreground, a fringe of trees in the middle distance, and a noble range of mountains filling in the background. The owner of the shack, a young forest ranger, rushed out to welcome us with the almost pathetic exuberance of one who had not had anybody but his dog to talk to for several weeks.
When we had satisfied for the time his hunger for news of the outside world, we produced our rods and requested him to produce his trout. He grinned at the rods, and showed us his own—a stout stick with a heavy cord tied to one end, and at the end of the cord a bent horseshoe nail. “The bull trout here,” he said, “don’t like fancy rods.” One of us stuck manfully to his treasured equipment; the other borrowed the ranger’s stick and attached to it his heaviest line. Our hooks we learned were much too delicate for the purpose, but finally we managed to dig up a heavy pike hook for one line and a spoon for the other. With a lump of fat pork for bait, we followed the ranger down the banks of a creek running out of the lake, until we reached a deep, still pool. He pointed silently to the pool, and we gasped. The pool was literally alive with big trout from two to four or five pounds. The lines barely touched the water before there was a fierce rush. The trout were fighting for the bait. A huge fellow on each line, a brief struggle, and both were safely landed. Within ten minutes we had more than the party could eat in the next two or three days, and were throwing back all but the largest fish. The climax came when we ran out of pork, and one of us half jokingly made a cast with the spoon and no bait, and landed a 4-pounder on each naked hook. After that we gave it up, and tried the lake, hoping for trout that would give us something a little more like sport; but there for some reason or other, probably because the water in shore was shallow and we had no way of getting out into the lake, we ran to the other extreme, and had not a nibble in an hour’s fishing. Although the story of our experience on the creek is absolutely authentic, we feel sadly enough that it is useless to hope that any one who has not visited Jack Lake will credit the story. The world is full of Doubting Thomases, and fish stories are fish stories. Nevertheless, this one is true.
The following morning we retraced our steps to Medicine Lake, and after several hours’ most painful scrambling along its precipitous banks—where some enemy had told us there was a trail—we reached its northern end, and camped for the night. Maligne Lake and Medicine Lake drain into the Athabaska by Maligne River, but at the northern end of the second lake, where one would expect to find a considerable stream flowing out, the shore runs around smoothly to the western side without a break. The lake empties through a subterranean channel, and reappears in springs some miles down the valley, where the Maligne, hitherto a small creek, suddenly develops into a respectable river.
We had been advised to return to the Athabaska by a direct trail from Jack Lake, but our evil genius prompted us to try the Maligne River route which would bring us out near Jasper. Never did the shortest way round prove more conclusively the longest way home. For nine long hours we toiled down that interminable valley without rest or food, crossing the river back and forth innumerable times, scrambling up banks so steep that we had to go on hands and knees with our faithful little nags struggling up after us, and then finding in disgust that we had to slide down again to the rocky bed of the river, worrying through miles of fallen timber, miles of muskeg, miles of wiry bushes that slapped us viciously in the face as we forced a way through, and ripped our clothing until we looked more like stage tramps than fairly respectable travellers. The expected trail proved to be nothing but a few experimental blazes on the trees; experimental surely, as we found more than once to our cost, following the blazes to a standstill in a blind lead, and turning back in our tracks for perhaps half a mile to where the “trail” branched off to the other side of the valley. That day we became temporary converts to the theory that the pathless wilderness was no place for sane mortals.
However, every lane must have its turning, and at last we hailed with shouts of joy the familiar gorge of the Maligne, which we had visited from Jasper some time before. From the gorge over to the Athabaska we had a good trail, a boat ferried us across after our swimming horses, and we were back again at the Hotel Fitzhugh, raiding the neighbouring store ….
“I like geography best … because your mountains & rivers know the secret. Pay no attention to boundaries.” ~Brian Andreas
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* Chapter 12 “Out of the World” from Lawrence J Burpee, Among the Canadian Alps (Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1914). Photos, quotes added.