By Calli Naish
One glimpse of a turquoise-blue glacial lake peeking out from between the peaks is enough to remind you that the Rocky Mountains offer more wonder than one could ever hope to uncover in a lifetime. For over one hundred years, visitors from across the globe have come to discover the secrets that linger atop the summits and within the valleys.
Fishing near Banff, Byron Harmon/photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Byron Harmon fond (V263/na-448)
Known as the “greatest land geographer that ever lived,” David Thompson mapped 3.9 million square km of North America and went blind in one eye from constantly staring at the sun and the stars while navigating. He travelled from the Bow River Foothills to British Columbia by way of the mountain river systems to extend the fur trade routes to the Pacific. Accompanied by his wife and three young children (see our magazine for tips on surviving your own family road trip) he navigated the Columbia River and established Kootenae House outside of Kootenay National Park.
The many rivers, lakes and streams surrounding the Columbia River are known for having an abundance of trout, and the East Kootenays have become world renowned for fly fishing. Kootenay Troutfitters and Kimberley Fly Fishing offer tours for beginner and experienced anglers. If you won’t be travelling as far west as Thompson did, you can fish the Rockies on your own, or with Banff Fishing Unlimited. No matter where you cast your line, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by the timeless beauty of the mountains.
As tales of the early Rocky Mountain explorers and surveyors made their way east, the Canadian Pacific Railway moved west across the Great Divide into British Columbia, bringing curious travellers with it. Seizing entrepreneurial opportunity, Tom Wilson (known for his rediscovery of Lake Louise and Emerald Lake) started a guiding and packing outfit in Banff, providing guides to accompany surveyors, mountaineers and climbers on their expeditions. Two of his most notable guides were Bill Peyto and Jimmy Simpson.
The town of Field, BC, was first established in 1880 and it quickly attracted visitors who wanted to explore the natural wonders of the area now known as Yoho National Park. Experience the allure for yourself by hiking around Emerald Lake or by renting a canoe from Emerald Sports to paddle on the emerald-coloured water.
Bill Peyto was one of the foremost guides of the early days of tourism in the Rockies. He wore two pairs of pants, slept with a pistol under his pillow, and is rumoured to have once brought a wild lynx into a bar. He crossed Bow Summit to find an oddly shaped lake that would later become his namesake, and he was one of the first Park Wardens in Banff. He also guided the early climbers who dreamed of completing first ascents of Rocky Mountain peaks. In 1901 he guided one such climber, James Outram, to Mount Assiniboine where Outram became the first climber to summit the “Matterhorn of the Rockies.”
Bill Peyto bringing live lynx to zoo [Banff], ca. 1915, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Don Harmon fond (V265/123/na66-467)
If you’ve come to the Rockies for the heights that Outram sought, head to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort or Mount Norquay for a guided via Ferrata climb. At Kicking Horse, experienced climbers can tackle “465 m of pure bliss,” and newcomers can try a more progressive route. If you find the climbing daunting, opt for a walk across the suspension bridge instead. The via Ferrata routes at Norquay range from beginner to advanced, accommodating all types of adventurers.
If you’d rather sightsee than climb, take the short hike to the Peyto Lake Lookout, north of Lake Lousie on the west side of the Icefields Parkway, and see the same sights that Bill Peyto witnessed over a century ago. Adept hikers can explore the surrounding trails or scramble up higher for an even better view of the famous wolf-shaped lake.
After covering most of Canada and the western United States as a railcar stowaway, Jimmy Simpson eventually settled in the Rockies. He had been inspired by a brief encounter with Bill Peyto and was “determined to emulate [him] or die trying.” Originally hired for his cooking skills, Simpson joined Tom Wilson’s guiding outfit and soon learned how to expertly ride and pack cayuses (mountain ponies). He became a revered packer and guide, leading scientists and big game hunters, as well as famous climbers and mountaineers. Simpson traversed so much of the Rockies that Mary Shäffer wrote of him, “Jim’s axe in this country has done more to make the old trails passable for future comers than any other…”
Jimmy Simpson, ca. 1908, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Jim Simpson family fond (V577/5/pg63/na66-265)
Stretching between Banff and Jasper National Parks, and crossing the Continental Divide, the Columbia Icefield has been fascinating visitors for centuries. You can experience the marvel for yourself by booking an icefield tour or by walking the Glacier Skywalk, which overlooks part of the largest field of ice in the Rocky Mountains.
Simpson’s mountain exploits would not have been possible without his pack horses, and although there are now many ways to explore the Rockies, doing so by horseback still offers an experience unlike any other. Tour the Bow Valley with Banff Trail Riders and you can catch a glimpse of the Cave and Basin while you ride along the Bow River. In Lake Louise you can head out with Brewster Adventures and ride to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, or to the Plain of the Six Glaciers. And if you are in Jasper you can ride along the Athabasca River with Jasper Park Stables.
When Jimmy Simpson first saw Bow Lake in 1898, he regarded it as the most beautiful place he had seen in Canada and vowed that he’d “build a shack” there someday. Visit Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, his “shack” on Bow Lake, and appreciate the same beauty he was inspired by over a century ago.
Mary Schäffer studied flower painting and began her Rocky Mountain adventures around Banff, Laggan (now Lake Louise) and Field, examining the flora of the mountains with her husband, who studied botany. Although her early travels did not take her far from the railway tracks, she ventured further into the wilderness with each return trip, ultimately setting her sights on finding an elusive lake. In July of 1908, after two summers of exploration, her party finally found itself on the shores of Chaba Imne, the fabled lake that had previously been known only to the Cree and Stoney People. And on a shaky, hand-crafted raft that they called the “HMS Chaba,” they sailed out on Chaba Imne, or as it is now known, Maligne Lake.
Though most people now come to Jasper by car, you can still explore the area in the same way the first tourists did: by train. Sundog Tours offers rail tours along the Fraser River with views of Rearguard Falls, Mount Robson (the highest peak in the Rockies), and the Cariboo Mountains.
While, the HMS Chaba had to be abandoned on the shores of the lake, there are thankfully a number of different (and more reliable) ways to discover Maligne Lake. You can rent a canoe from the Maligne Lake Boathouse or book a cruise and tour down the lake to Spirit Island, one of the most iconic locations in Jasper National Park. If you’d rather explore from the shore, visit the Maligne Lake Chalet or hike the Mary Shäffer Loop. By boat or by boot, be sure you keep your eyes peeled for the wildflowers that brought Mary Shäffer to the Rockies.
Travel has come a long way from canoes and pack trains, but the mountains still offer the same mysterious wilderness that drew the earliest visitors to the Canadian Rockies at a time when travelling the mountains was as much about survival as it was about exploration.
The historical photos in this story have been generously provided by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
The Whyte Museum is celebrating 50 years of sharing the history and culture of the Rocky Mountains.