Guest Writer Lawrence J Burpee
“Gazing around, looking up at the lofty pinnacles above, which seemed to pierce the sky, looking down upon the world … feeling that infinite unspeakable sense of nearness to Heaven, remoteness from earth which comes only on mountain heights … “
~Helen Hunt Jackson
BANFF is probably one of the most cosmopolitan communities in the world. Although its permanent population hardly exceeds one thousand, about 75,000 visitors registered during the season of 1913, coming from every out-of-the-way corner of the globe, Finland and Tasmania, the Isle of Man and the Fiji Islands, Siam, Korea and Japan, Norway, Egypt and the Argentine, New Zealand, Mexico, Turkey and Borneo. In fact, one is rather surprised to find no representative here from Greenland or Terra del Fuego. The bulk of these tourists of course come from other parts of Canada, from the United States, and from the United Kingdom, but practically every country in the world sends its quota, large or small, to this wonderful playground in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
To accommodate all these visitors there are several comfortable hotels in Banff, notably the Banff Springs Hotel, and the Chateau Rundle. The Banff Springs Hotel, which has been repeatedly enlarged to meet the ever-increasing requirements of tourist traffic, stands on the summit of a rocky butte above the junction of the Bow and Spray Rivers, and commands a strikingly beautiful view to the eastward where the Bow has forced a passage between Tunnel Mountain and Mount Rundle. Bow Falls lie immediately beneath, and in the distance the Fairholme Range makes a splendid background.
Of the large number of tourists who visit the Canadian Alps, the majority do not get very far away from Banff. The reason is perhaps not hard to seek. At Banff they find, without any particular effort, delightful views of mountain scenery, with all the comforts and luxuries of eastern pleasure resorts. Comparatively short carriage drives over good roads take them to a dozen points of interest in the immediate neighbourhood. One of the most popular of these is the Cave and Basin, a mile or so up the valley of the Bow, where one may enjoy a plunge into the clear green waters of the pool. Other springs, with a much higher temperature, boil out of the upper slope of Sulphur Mountain, flowing over a series of brilliantly coloured terraces into natural limestone pools. Here, as well as at the Basin, bath-houses have been provided with every appliance for those who seek health or merely pleasure. The drive up to the springs, through the pines, and with ever-widening views of the enchanting valley, is well worth while for its own sake.
A much finer view, however, is to be had from the summit of Tunnel Mountain. One may drive, ride, or if he prefers a little moderate exercise, walk to the summit. The southern face of Tunnel Mountain drops in a sheer precipice nearly a thousand feet to the valley of the Bow. Beyond rises the rugged bulk of Rundle, with the Goat Range in the distance, the Spray winding as a silver thread down the valley, the Bow sweeping down from the northwest, a noble circle of peaks filling the horizon to the northwest and north, the Vermilion Lakes sparkling in their emerald setting, and around to the northeast, a glimpse of Lake Minnewanka.
With a fishing rod, and any other congenial companion, an enjoyable canoe trip may be had to Vermilion Lakes. The way lies up the Bow to Echo Creek, and by this miniature waterway to the lakes. As an afternoon’s paddle nothing more delightful could be imagined, and the fishing is excellent, but the really serious fisherman will prefer the longer trip to Lake Minnewanka where lake trout are to be had of fighting temper and phenomenal size. Fourteen fish of a total weight of forty-three pounds represented one day’s catch of a couple of sportsmen in this lake; sixteen caught the following day weighed forty-eight pounds. These, however, were pygmies beside the gigantic trout landed by Dr. Seward Webb in 1899, which tipped the scales at forty-seven pounds. To silence the incredulous, this monster is still preserved in a glass case at the Minnewanka Chalet.
A drive of nine miles from Banff, skirting the base of Cascade Mountain, lands the traveller on the shores of Lake Minnewanka. On the way he may visit a herd of about 25 buffalo, and enjoy the view from the rustic bridge down into the Devil’s Canyon. The lake is some sixteen miles in length, and one may explore it either in a boat or by chartering the launch provided by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It swings, in the shape of a great sickle, around the base of Mount Inglismaldie, whose dizzy precipices soar some thousands of feet into the sky, with the glorious pinnacles of Mount Peechee in the background.
Another delightful drive leads past the Cave and Basin and around the northern end of Sulphur Mountain to Sundance Canyon, a weird little gorge through which Sundance Creek rushes down to its junction with the Bow. The plateau above the gorge was at one time a favourite Indian camping ground, and the scene of the barbaric Sun Dance.
On the northern bank of the Bow, high up above the river, stand a number of those fantastic natural monuments called Hoodoos, an excellent view of which may be gained by taking the drive around the Loop to the foot of Mount Rundle.
So far we have been confined to points of interest at no great distance from the village of Banff, and reached in each case by well-built carriage roads. Back and forth over these roads throughout the season drive streams of pilgrims, absorbing to a greater or less extent the manifold beauties of mountain, lake and river, wild canyon and sunny meadow, sombre pine woods and mountain slopes blazing with the rainbow colours of countless wildflowers; but above all, drinking in the glorious sunlight and revivifying air of the mountains. The great majority will always prefer to worship nature from the comfortable if somewhat crowded seat of a tally-ho, with a luxurious hotel to return to in the evening, and after all why should one blame them; but there will always be some who prefer the wild mountain trail to the macadamized road, the cayuse with all his idiosyncrasies to the upholstered coach, and the camp-fire to all the luxuries of a modern hotel.
Fortunately there are to-day, and will be for some years to come, many miles of trail for each mile of road within the confines of the Canadian National Parks. The present policy seems to be to gradually develop the trails into carriage roads, but one may venture the hope that this policy will not be carried too far. The thought of driving to the foot of Mount Assiniboine on a motor bus, and having its glories profaned by a professional guide perhaps through a megaphone, is too painful to admit.
The evolution of mountain roads is an interesting problem in itself. The foundation is nearly always an Indian trail, one of those ancient thoroughfares that run hither and thither throughout the mountains, following the courses of innumerable streams, and winding up over mountain passes and down again to the valleys that lie beyond. There is a peculiar thrill of excitement in falling unexpectedly upon one of these relics of other days. The imagination leaps back to the time when Indian hunters followed them in search of elk and deer, mountain goat and bighorn. With the exception of a handful of Stonies, whose days are numbered, the Indian no longer hunts in the mountains; and the trails he once followed are now mostly covered with underbrush or blocked with fallen timber.
The first step in the conversion of an Indian trail into a modern road is to cut through the down timber. Expert axemen are sent out for this work, which varies according to circumstances from the cutting out of an occasional log to the hewing of a path through a tangle of fallen trees ten or fifteen feet high. Wherever possible the latter is of course left severely alone, but it sometimes happens that no way around the obstacle can be found and there is nothing for it but to cut out a path. The huge game of jack-straws may cover only a few yards, or it may extend for several miles.
Incidentally the axemen straighten the trail more or less. The practice among the Indians, and after them the fur-traders and white trappers, was to follow an old trail until a fallen tree blocked the way. It would have to be a formidable obstacle to stop the average cayuse, but occasionally even that professional acrobat was brought to a standstill. The rider in such case never cut his way through if it could be avoided. He followed the lines of least resistance, turned right or left through the standing timber until he had won around the fallen tree and back to the trail again. The next man took the new path, until he was perhaps brought up by a later windfall and in his turn added another twist to the devious course of the original trail. It can readily be imagined that these forest thoroughfares did not at any period of their history represent the shortest route between any two points; and it may as well be admitted here that the policy of every man for himself in trail-making is as active to-day as it was a hundred years ago. Each one of us who has camped in unfamiliar valleys of the mountains must plead guilty to the same selfish practice. Hurrying along the trail, anxious perhaps to reach a certain camping-ground before dark, the temptation to flank a fallen tree rather than laboriously cut through it, is irresistible. The thought is there, though we may not admit it, that we may never come this way again, and the next man must look out for himself.
It remains for the trail-makers to unravel the tangled skein and reduce it to something very remotely resembling a straight line. Having cut through the fallen timber and roughly bridged the deeper creeks, the result is a good pack trail. This is widened and cleared from year to year; levelled, graded and provided with substantial bridges, to convert it into a carriage road; and finally macadamized. And as the picturesque trail is converted into the eminently modern and respectable macadamized road, the equally picturesque pack-train disappears and in its place we see, and smell, that emblem of the twentieth century, the automobile.
However, let us not meet trouble half-way. There are still, thank fortune, many miles of trail in the Canadian national parks which the most enterprising automobile could not possibly negotiate, and many more miles of wonderful mountain country that as yet are even trailess. From the main road which follows the Bow River, and roughly speaking runs southeast and northwest through the centre of the Banff Park, good trails branch off on either side up every important valley. Portions of some of these have been converted into roads, such as those to Lake Minnewanka, Sundance Canyon and up Spray River. From the Chalet at the western end of Lake Minnewanka, where the road now ends, a trail has been opened along the north shore of the lake to its eastern extremity, through the Devil’s Gap and Ghost Valley, and across the South Fork of Ghost River to the Stony Indian Reserve, which lies just outside the Park.
Ghost Valley is a weird, uncanny canyon, the scene of many wild Indian legends. It is believed to mark the ancient valley of the Bow, Minnewanka and a couple of smaller lakes being the sole remaining relics of the channel. No water now runs through Ghost Valley, though mountain torrents and waterfalls dash down its precipitous sides. Each disappears in its limestone bed, which must cover a network of subterranean channels. The mountains end abruptly in the Devil’s Gap, from which one looks out on the plains, or rather on the border land between plain and mountain. A few miles to the north rises a grim peak known as the Devil’s Head, and the whole country is studded with Hoodoos and other strange natural features appropriate to such a region.
Sir George Simpson, who entered the mountains by the Devil’s Gap on his expedition of 1841, camped by the side of Lake Minnewanka, which he named Lake Peechee after his guide, a chief of the Mountain Crees. Peechee is still remembered in the splendid peak which rises behind Mount Inglismaldie. Ghost Valley was the scene of an exploit of which Sir George Simpson tells the story.
A Cree and his squaw had been tracked into the valley by five warriors of a hostile tribe. “On perceiving the odds that were against him, the man gave himself up for lost, observing to the woman that as they could die but once they had better make up their minds to submit to their present fate without resistance. The wife, however, replied that as they had but one life to lose, they were the more decidedly bound to defend it to the last, even under the most desperate circumstances; adding that, as they were young and by no means pitiful, they had an additional motive for preventing their hearts from becoming small. Then, suiting the action to the word, the heroine brought the foremost warrior to the earth with a bullet, while the husband, animated by a mixture of shame and hope, disposed of two more of the enemy with his arrows. The fourth, who had by this time come to pretty close quarters, was ready to take vengeance on the courageous woman with uplifted tomahawk, when he stumbled and fell; and in the twinkling of an eye the dagger of his intended victim was buried in his heart. Dismayed at the death of his four companions, the sole survivor of the assailing party saved himself by flight, after wounding his male opponent by a ball in the arm.”
Other trails lead up Cascade River from the Minnewanka road, and over the Park boundaries to the Panther River country, connecting also at Sawback Creek with the Forty Mile trail; and up the east bank of Spray River, and between the Goat Range and the Three Sisters, to Trout Lakes, connecting with the road which follows the west bank of the Spray, and continuing on to the foot of Mount Assiniboine, just over the Park boundaries, which on this southwestern side follow the height of land. Another runs from the end of the Sundance Canyon road up Healy Creek to Simpson Pass, with a branch trail to Fatigue Mountain on the divide; while others again take you up Redearth Creek to Shadow Lake and one of the giants of this part of the Rockies, Mount Ball, and by way of Johnston Creek to the Sawback Range and its wonderful glaciers. It is impossible to give any real impression of the marvellous region through which these mountain trails lead you, of its scores of great peaks whose turrets, spires or domes climb into the very heavens, of its snow-fields and glaciers, bleak mountain passes and exquisite alpine meadows carpeted with millions of flowers, its primæval forests and rushing torrents, sparkling waterfalls and emerald or turquoise lakes. To appreciate the mountains, you must come and see them at first hand, and to see them at their very best, you must take tent and pony and provisions … and get well out on the trail, away from hotels and railways and every suggestion of the artificial life you have left behind you.
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.” ~Ansel Adams
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* Chapter 3 “In and About Banff” from Lawrence J Burpee, Among the Canadian Alps (Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1914). Photos, quotes added.