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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter VIII

The Selkirks—Geographical Position of the Range—Good Cheer of the Glacier House—Charming Situation—Comparison between the Selkirks and Rockies—Early Mountain Ascents—Density of the Forest—Ascent of Eagle Peak—A Magnificent Panorama—A Descent in the Darkness— Account of a Terrible Experience on Eagle Peak—Trails through the Forest—Future Popularity of the Selkirks—The Forest Primeval—An Epitome of Human Life—Age of Trees—Forests Dependc7it on Humidity.

WEST of that chain of the Rocky Mountains which forms the crest or backbone of the continent, lies, another system of mountains called the Selkirk Range. Having many features in common with the mountains to the east, this range has, nevertheless, certain constant characteristics of vegetation and geological formation, so that the traveller who is but slightly familiar with them should never be at a loss in regard to his surroundings.

The position of this range in relation to the other mountains of the great Cordilleran System is not difficult to understand. The Selkirks may be said to begin in northwestern Montana between the Summit Range and the Bitter Root Mountains, and, trending in a northwestward direction through British Columbia about three hundred miles, they approach the main range and apparently merge into it near the Athabasca Pass. The most remarkable feature of the range is the manner in which it compels the great Columbia River to run northward for fifty leagues on its eastern side, before it allows a passage to the west, so that the northern portions of the range are entirely hemmed in by this large river, flowing in opposite directions on either side. Another feature of great interest in regard to the drainage is the relation between the Columbia and Kootanie rivers. The latter river is one of the chief tributaries to the upper Columbia, and flows southward to a point one mile and a half from the head waters of the Columbia, which it passes on its journey southward, while the Columbia flows in the opposite direction. The water of the Kootanie is actually higher than that of the Columbia a t this point, and as the two rivers are only separated by a low, level plain, it was once proposed to cut a channel between and divert the Kootanie into the Columbia.

The traveller is always glad to find himself at the Glacier House in the heart of the Selkirks. This is more especially true, if in previous years, he has visited this charming spot and become in some degree familiar with the place. The railroad makes a large loop round a narrow valley and sweeps apparently close to the great glacier of the Selkirks, a vast sea of ice that glistens in a silvery white sheen and appears to rise above the forests as one looks southward. There is something pre-eminently comfortable and homelike about the Glacier House. The effect is indefinable, and one hardly knows whether the general style of an English inn, or the genuine hospitality that one receives, is the chief cause. One always feels at home in this wild little spot, and scarcely realizes that civilization is so far distant.

The rush of summer guests called for the erection of an annex, so that there are now two hotels for the accommodation of tourists. The Glacier House is located near the railroad, and occupies a small, nearly level, place at the bottom of one of those deep and narrow valleys characteristic of the Selkirks. Those who have visited the Franconia Notch in the White Mountains would be somewhat reminded of that beautiful spot upon first seeing the surroundings of Glacier. The ground in front of the hotel has been levelled and is rendered beautiful by a thick carpet of turf. In summer it is fragrant and almost snowy in appearance from the multitude of white clover blossoms. This garden spot in the wilderness is still further adorned by fountains, which break the continuity of the greensward, and are fed by cascades that may be seen descending the opposite mountain side in many a leap, through a total distance of 1800 feet.

But this small area, that man has improved and rendered more suitable to his comfort, is surrounded on all sides by a wilderness, perhaps better described as a little explored range of mountains separated by deep gorges and covered with dense forests. It is like the Alps of Switzerland and the Black Forest combined. There are snow-clad peaks, large glaciers, and neve regions of vast extent in the higher altitudes, while the valleys below are dark and sombre in their covering of deep, cool forests. The main range of the Rockies presents no such rankness of vegetable growth—mosses, ferns, and lichens covering every available surface on tree trunks and boulders—nor such huge trees as those found everywhere in the Selkirks.

Moreover, the mountains of the Selkirk Range probably average 1000 feet lower than in the corresponding parts of the main range, but nevertheless they seem white and brilliant in their mantles of everlasting- snow and sparkling glaciers. Finally, one observes that the railroad track is covered at frequent intervals by snow-sheds of considerable length, constructed of heavy beams and massive timbers, in order to withstand the terrible force and weight of winter snow-slides and avalanches. In the main range of the Rockies there are no snow sheds. The question naturally arises—What is the reason of all these differences from the more eastern ranges?

The answer to the question is that the climate is more humid. The snowfall in winter is so great that it remains all summer at much lower altitudes than in the Rockies, and supplies glaciers, which descend perhaps a thousand feet nearer to sea-level. The moisture from this deep covering of snow, saturates the ground as it melts in the spring, and, in addition to frequent, heavy summer rains, nourishes the rich forests of these mountains. Moreover, the atmosphere is always slightly moister than it is to the east, and does not tend to dry up the ground or evaporate the mountain snows so rapidly as in the summit range.

The eastward movement of the atmosphere, carrying up moisture from the Pacific, causes a great condensation of clouds and a heavy rainfall as the air currents pass over the Selkirks, and leaves the atmosphere robbed of a great part of its moisture to pass over the next range to the east.

Almost all the differences between the Selkirks and the Rockies proper, spring from the single cause of a moister climate. The principal features of extensive snow fields and luxuriant forests can be readily understood. May not the deep, narrow valleys of the Selkirks be likewise explained from the more rapid action and greater erosive power of the mountain streams in cutting down their channels?

Whatever may be the cause of all these phenomena, the results are very apparent. Any one who has visited the Selkirks for an extended period has, without doubt, spent many a day within doors writing his diary or enjoying the pleasure of music or literature, while the rain is falling constantly, and the clouds and vapors hang low on the mountain sides. The manner in which the clouds come sweeping up the Illicellewaet valley at the base of Mount Cheops and turn toward the flanks of Eagle Peak or Mount Sir Donald is very impressive. Certainly the cloud effects in the Selkirks are magnificent beyond all description.

Nevertheless, it is not encouraging to have a friend step off the train and announce the fact that he has been enjoying fine weather for several days in the Rocky Mountains, some fifty or sixty miles to the east, while you have been confined to the house by a long period of rain.

Often, too, the climber or explorer becomes fretful under long confinement, and, taking advantage of an apparent clearing away of clouds and a promise of fair weather, when far from the hotel, is caught in a sudden downpour, and realizes the truth of that scriptural passage which was apparently written concerning a similar region —“They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rock for want of a shelter.”

When the railroad first made this region accessible to tourists, the Selkirks rapidly acquired a remarkable popularity, especially among mountain climbers. In this early period several parties came over from England and other countries of Europe with the express purpose of making mountain ascents. Such parties were those of Dr. Green and the two Swiss climbers. Huber and Sulzer. A good idea of the difficulties presented by the higher peaks to skilled mountaineers may be had from the fact that Dr. Green and his party only succeeded in reaching the summit of one high peak, while Huber and Sulzer left the Hermit Range in defeat, though they succeeded in reaching the top of the sharp rock peak, Mount Sir Donald, the Matterhorn of the Selkirks.

One of the chief difficulties to overcome is the penetration of the forest belt below the tree line. No one who has not tried a Selkirk forest has any conception of its nature in this respect. There are huge tree trunks lying on or near the ground, which have been thrown down by the precipitate fury of some winter snow slide, or have fallen by the natural processes of death and decay. These great obstacles are ofttimes covered with a slippery coating of moss and lichens, while the ground is fairly concealed by a rank growth of ferns, and plants in countless variety. The density of the underbrush is rendered still more trying to the mountaineer by reason of a plant of the Ginseng family, which from its terrible nature is most fitly named the Devil’s Club, for it is armed with thousands of long needle-like spines. This plant grows five or six feet high, with a stout stem bearing a few leaves of large size. The spines, which are an inch or more in length, project in every direction like an array of quills on a porcupine, and are strong enough to penetrate the skin and flesh with surprising facility. The alder bushes attain a peculiar growth in the Selkirks; each bush consists of a bunch of long slender stems, which spread out from the ground in every direction, ofttimes with nearly prostrate branches, which interlace and form a wellnigh impassable hedge. The alder bushes are found most numerous on bare slopes of the mountains, where snow slides have stripped down the forests; or in ravines, where the crumbling earth gives no certain foothold to larger and nobler trees.

In 1893, A. and I made an ascent of Eagle Peak. This mountain lies just to the west from the great wedge-shaped rock summit of Mount Sir Donald. The altitude of Eagle Peak is, I believe, a little more than 9400 feet above sea-level, and as the Glacier House is only 4400 feet, the ascent involves a climb of 5000 feet. The name of the mountain is derived from a great crag or cliff near the summit, which appears to lean out from a ridge, and bears a striking resemblance to the head of an eagle. When we were making our ascent we came suddenly on the Eagle itself, which now, on a nearer view, proved to be of colossal size, a great leaning tower, about sixty feet high. Rising from one of the rocky ridges, it reached upwards and outwards till the outermost point seemed to overhang a bottomless abyss, perhaps twenty or twenty-five feet beyond the verge of the precipice.

The ridge just below the summit is a scene of wild confusion, for the rocky ledges have been split up and wedged apart by frost and storms till they appear as giant blocks of stone ten or fifteen feet high, between the crevices of which one may catch glimpses of the valley and forests thousands of feet below.

The view from the summit of Eagle Peak is magnificent and well worth the labor of the climb. The proximity of Mount Sir Donald, which towers more than 1200 feet higher, causes its sullen precipices to appear strikingly grand. The great Illicellewaet neve, with its twenty square

miles or more of unbroken snow fields, stretches out in the distance and forms part of the eastern horizon. The rugged appearance of the Hermit Range to the west, with its sharp ridges and needles, is perhaps the most tumultuous part in all this wild sea of mountain peaks. It has been stated on good authority that from Mount Abbott, a far lower ridge on the farther side of the valley, more than one hundred and twenty individual glaciers may be counted, but there are even more within view from Eagle Peak.

We remained on the summit till nearly three o’clock, and thereby took a great risk, as we learned afterwards to our exceeding regret. Before leaving, however, we built a high cairn and fixed several handkerchiefs among the stones so as to render it, if possible, visible from the valley below.

In our descent we found no trouble till we reached tree line, when the gathering gloom of nightfall, made earlier by a cloudy sky, aroused our apprehensions and led us to a serious mistake. Thinking that it would be better to follow the course of a stream, which had cut out a deep ravine in the mountain side, as there would be more light, for a time at least, we commenced our descent with all speed. We soon found ourselves in a trap, as the sides of the ravine grew constantly deeper and steeper as we descended, and it was at length impossible to get out at all. Floundering about among the long trailing branches of alders, our descent soon became a mixture of sliding, falling, and, indeed, every method of progress save rational walking. The darkness came on rapidly, as the days were short and the twilight much curtailed, it being late in the summer. In an hour it became so absolutely black that the foamy course of the stream "\ve followed was the only visible object, as even the stars were concealed and their light shut out by a heavy covering of dark cloud. Sometimes the long, prostrate branches of the alders would catch our feet in a most exasperating manner, and cause one or the other to slide temporarily head-foremost, till some branch or root could be seized in the hand and the progress arrested. Once I saw a white object, just below me apparently, and thinking it might be a stone, was about to lower myself in fancied security when suddenly I realized that it was the foam of the stream some fifty feet below, and that we were on the edge of a precipice ! At another time I fell headlong through a bush and brought up against some great obstacle around which I wound my leg, not knowing whether it might be a huge grizzly or some other denizen of the forest, when sure enough it moved away, and rolled over my leg. It was a great boulder nearly a yard in diameter.

This nocturnal descent was the most bitter experience I have ever had in mountain climbing, as the anxiety and worry consequent upon each movement were exquisitely painful, and continued three hours. Arrived at the bottom of the slope at ten o’clock p.m., we found ourselves in the mass of fallen logs and debris near the stream, and likewise near the trail. Under the spell of a certain assurance that a few minutes more of toil would bring us out to the trail, we thought nothing of falling into holes four or five feet deep, as we plunged about among the logs, or, when walking on them, occasionally stepped off into space.

We arrived at the Glacier House at 10:30 p.m., where we were surrounded by anxious friends, and regaled by a hot dinner of roasted chickens and all manner of good things, such as one always finds at this most excellent inn. At such times, more than at any other, one appreciates the thoughtfulness and care of a kind host.

Our experience on Eagle Peak, trying as it was, could not equal that of two gentlemen who, in 1894, made an attempt to scale the mountain. Unfortunately they failed to reach the summit, and, worse still, were benighted among the crags and cliffs at a high altitude, where they spent the night in misery. Finding themselves in their attempt unable to advance farther for some reason or other, they were descending, when it suddenly occurred to them that they were on a different ledge from any they had seen hitherto. Nightfall was bringing rapidly increasing darkness, and it seemed impossible, at length, either to proceed farther or even to retrace the steps by which they had come. Here, then, on a narrow ledge overlooking a precipice, the awful depths of which were rendered still more terrible in the obscurity of gathering gloom, and with their feet dangling over the verge, they were forced to remain motionless, and wear out the long night in cold and sleepless suffering. The next morning a search party was organized, and they were conducted back to the comforts of the Glacier House, much to the relief of their anxious friends, but nearly prostrated by their terrible experience.

Later, we made an ascent of Mount Cheops, a striking peak with a most perfect representation of a pyramid forming its summit. The view is fine but not worth the labor of the climb, as the ascent of the lower slopes seems interminably long and tedious by reason of the underbrush and steep slope. Like Eagle Peak, the summit revealed no evidence of previous conquests, and it will probably be a long time before any one will be so far led astray as to make a similar attempt.

Trails and good foot-paths lead from the Glacier House to points of interest in the vicinity. The chief resort is the Great Glacier itself, where one may witness all the phenomena of a large ice stream, or ascend to the vast neve, and wander about on a nearly level, and apparently limitless, snow field.

Mount Abbott is an easy and favorite climb, and is often successfully attempted by women who are endowed with considerable strength and endurance. On the way, a small pool, called Marion Lake, is passed. It nestles among the cliffs and forests on the mountain side far above the valley. It is the only lake I know of in the Selkirks. This is one of the remarkable differences between the Selkirks and the Summit Range of the Rockies : the absence of lakes in one region, and their great number in the other. The great majority of lakes in the Rockies are very small and often do not deserve the name, as they are mere pools a few yards across. But their small size in no way detracts from their beauty, and it is most unfortunate that the Selkirks possess so few of these, the most charming of all features in mountain landscapes.

The Selkirks are but little known, because the dense forests and the immense size of the fallen logs forbid the use of horses almost altogether, and will ever prevent the mountaineer from making extended journeys into the lesser known parts of the mountains, unless trails are cut and kept in good order. At present all provisions, blankets, and tents must be packed on men’s backs, a method that is both laborious and expensive.

It must eventually result, however, that these mountains will prove a most popular resort for climbers and sportsmen. The attractions for either class are very great. For the mountaineer, they present all the grandeur and beauty of the Swiss Alps, with difficulties of snow and rock climbing sufficient to add zest to the sport. The multitude of unclimbed peaks likewise offers great opportunities for those ambitious for new conquests. The immense annual snowfall causes many of the higher peaks to assume an appearance of dazzling beauty and brilliancy, while the Alpine splendor of these higher altitudes is strongly contrasted with the dark-green color of the forested valleys.

For the sportsmen, too, there are abundant opportunities to hunt the larger game. On the mountains are numerous herds of mountain goats and sheep, while the forests abound in bears—the black bear and the grizzly or silver tip. During the berry season, these animals frequent the valleys and are often seen by the railroad men even near the Glacier House. One gentleman had the good fortune to shoot a black bear from a window of the hotel last year. Of course, there is practically no danger from even the grizzly bear in this immediate vicinity, as they have learned to fear man from being frequently shot at, and have long since lost the ferocity which they sometimes show in extremely wild and unfrequented regions.

No mention has yet been made of the kind of trees to be found in a Selkirk forest. Almost all the varieties of coniferous trees observed in the Rockies, except the Lyall’s larch, occur in the Selkirks, though each variety attains much larger size. The cedar, the hemlock, the Douglas fir, and the Engelmann’s spruce are most conspicuous and form the chief part of the forest trees. Each of these species here attains a diameter of from three feet upward, even to six or seven, and a height of from 150 to 200 feet.

Nothing is more enjoyable than to take one of the mountain trails and enter the depths of the forest, there to rest in quiet contemplation where trees alone are visible in the limited circle of view. On a quiet afternoon, when all is calm and not a breath of air is stirring, the long, gray moss hangs in pendent tufts from the lower branches of the giant trees, and one feels that this is indeed another Acadian forest of which Longfellow sings:

“This is the forest primeval.
The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,—
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.”

Such indeed is a Selkirk forest.

The idea that is at length developed in the mind, by a long rest in one of these deep and sombre forests, is that of the majesty, and silent, motionless power of vegetation. The creations of the vegetable world stand on all sides. They wellnigh cover the ground ; they limit the horizon, and conceal the sky. The tall cedars have a shreddy bark that hangs in long strips on their tapering boles and makes the strongest contrast with the rough bark of the firs. What could be more unlike, too, among evergreens, than the spreading fanlike foliage of the cedars, the needle-like leaves of the firs, and the delicate spray of the hemlocks?

What a vast amount of energy has been preserved in these forest giants ; with what a crash they would fall to the ground; and what a quantity of heat—which they have stored up from the sun through hundreds of summers— would they give out when burned slowly in a fireplace! If we examine a single needle, or a thin shaving of wood, under the microscope, and obtain a glimpse of the complexity of the cells and pores with which this vegetable life is carried on; or consider the wonderful processes by which the flowers are fertilized, and the cones mature, so that the species may never die out and then regard the immensity of the whole forest stretching boundless in every direction, all constructed from an infinity of atoms, the mind and -imagination are soon led beyond their., depth.

Now let the pure, cold light of science, with its precise and exact laws, fade away into the warm, mellow glow of romance, till we picture the forest as an epitome of human life, with its struggles, its suffering, and the slow but certain progress from infancy to old age and death. For here, among the forest trees, are every age and condition represented. Beneath, are young trees, vigorous and full of promise, hoping, as it were, some day to push their highest branches above the general plane of tree tops and share the life-giving sun, though, during the struggle, many will surely weaken and die in the pale and inefficient light beneath the older trees. Then there are the larger trees in the full glory of their prime, with massive trunks, straight and tall, giving promise of many years of life yet to come; and finally, the giants of the forest, their branches torn off by storms or their trunks rent and scarred by lightning. Everything about the oldest trees betokens the slow decay and all-conquering death, which is gradually sapping their life blood and pointing to their certain, final destruction. The long, gray moss, gently waving in the faintest breath of air, hangs from every limb, and makes these venerable monarchs resemble bearded patriarchs, which have stood here perhaps a thousand years battling with the elements, the wind, and the lightning, silent witnesses to the relentless progress of the seasons.

Trees have, however, all the qualifications of living forever. There is no reason why a tree should ever die, were it not for some unnatural cause, such as the fury of a storm, the rending power of lightning, or the destructive influence of insects and parasites. In California, in the Mariposa Grove, some of the giant redwood trees are twenty-five hundred years old. They began to grow when Solon was making laws for the ancient Greeks. These wonderful groves of California are, however, exceptional, and have survived by reason of the clemency of the climate and the fact that the aromatic redwood is avoided by insects. In most forests, the laws of chance and probability rarely allow the sturdiest trees to run the gamut of more than a few hundred years, and if they attain a thousand years, it is their “fourscore—by reason of strength.”

In the Selkirks, one sees the ground covered with huge tree trunks in all stages of decay, slowly moldering away into a newer and richer soil; some have yielded to the natural processes of decay, others to accident or forest fires, while in some places winter avalanches have cut off the tops of the trees forty or fifty feet above the ground, and left nothing but a maze of tall stumps where once stood a noble forest.

The Selkirk forests are dense and sometimes almost magnificent in their luxuriance, and vastly surpass the forests of the eastern range in the variety of species, the size of the trees, and the luxuriant rankness of vegetable growth. At the same time they do not approach the almost tropical vigor and grandeur of the Pacific Coast forests, where a green carpet of moss covers the trunks and branches of the huge trees, and even ferns find nourishment in this rich covering, aided by the reeking, humid atmosphere, on branches forty or fifty feet above the ground. In such a forest, the ferns and brakes reach a height of six or eight feet above the ground, the various mosses attain a remarkable development, and hang in long, green tresses, a yard in length, from every branch, and exaggerate the size of the smaller branches, while the beautiful tufts of the Hypnum mosses appear like the fronds of small ferns, so large do they become.

The forests of the Summit Range, the Selkirks, and the Pacific Coast are almost perfect indexes of the humidity of the climate. The Selkirk forests are less vigorous than those of the Pacific coast, but more so than the light and comparatively open forests of the Summit Range, where the climate is much drier.

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