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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter XV

The Pleasures of the Natural Sciences—Interior of the Earth— Thickness of the Crust—Origin and Cause of Mountains—Their Age and Slow Growth—System in Mountain Arrangement—The Cordilleran System— The Canadian Rockies—Comparison 7uith Other Mountain Regions— Climate—Cause of Chinook Finds—Effect of High Latitude on Sun and Moon—Principal Game Animals—Nature of the Forests—Mountain Lakes—Camp Experiences—Effect on the Character.

THOSE who have spent a few weeks or months in a mountain region, such as that of the Canadian Rockies, must soon come to feel an interest in those more striking features of the wilderness which have been constantly revealed. The special character of the mountains, which have given so much pleasure; the climate, on which, in a great measure, every action depends; the fauna, which adds so much of interest to the environment; and the flora, which increases the beauty of every scene—must all excite some degree of interest in those who have passed a short period of time surrounded by nature in her primeval state.

They spend their time to little advantage who do not thus become interested in the wonders of nature. A very slight knowledge of the habits and kinds of birds and animals, the principal characteristics of trees and plants, the nature of minerals, the structure and formation of the earth’s crust, and the laws which govern the circulation of currents in the atmosphere will, in every case, offer wide and boundless fields of research and pleasure. The camper, the huntsman, the explorer, and the mountaineer, armed with such information, will be prepared to spend the many hours of enforced idleness, which frequently occur by reason of fickle weather or a smoky atmosphere, in an interesting and profitable manner.

In the preceding chapters, the details of the flora and fauna, together with digressions on other topics, have been, from time to time, set forth in connection with various exploring excursions.

It is the purpose of this chapter, however, to discuss, in a general and very brief manner, such questions as have a special interest, and to present them in a somewhat more systematic manner than was possible, or natural, in connection with accounts of adventures.

To begin then with the foundation of things, the question first arises as to the origin and cause of mountains.

Astronomy teaches us that the earth is a mass of molten or semi-viscid matter, covered with a crust which has formed from the cooling of the exterior. As to the relative or absolute thickness of this crust, there is much diversity of opinion, but the great majority of estimates ranges between the limits of one hundred and one thousand miles.

The general features of the earth and the formation of mountains—subjects which lie in the province of geology —likewise point to a comparatively thin crust covering a molten interior. Some geologists contend that the centre is likewise solid, and that there is a partially molten layer between the centre and crust. Now as the earth gradually cools by radiation, its volume diminishes, and the solid crust not having the strength to hold up its own weight, is forced to adapt itself to the contracting interior. The pressure thus brought to bear on the thin shell causes wrinkles or folds, so that the earth’s surface is raised in some places and depressed in others. Moreover, the strata are folded, fractured, and thrown one over another as they are compressed, till at length lofty mountain ranges are formed, with all the phenomena of faults, flexures, and the wonderful contortions of the originally horizontal beds, that are to be observed in all mountain regions.

In some respects the mountains on the earth are comparable to the wrinkles on a drying apple, but in size, the highest peaks of the Himalayas and Andes have been compared more justly to the minute roughness on an egg shell.

Thus the mountain ranges of the world which appear so vast and lofty are exceedingly small and insignificant as compared with the great mass of the earth. The strength of the earth’s crust seems incapable of supporting the weight of even these relatively small masses, for the highest peaks in the world never exceed an altitude of five and one half miles, a height which, if represented on a globe of ordinary size, would hardly be observable.

All the great mountain ranges of the world have been raised to their present altitude since the Tertiary Age, but, nevertheless, we must conceive of mountain growth as a very slow and gradual process, a few feet or yards of elevation each century. That mountain chains have been upheaved at one or two violent convulsions of nature, is not in accordance with reason or geological facts. Faults are often found with a displacement of the strata through several thousand feet, a fact that has been used to prove a sudden catastrophe. But it should be held in mind that, after the strata were once fractured and made to slide one on another, the sliding would tend to be repeated at long intervals in this same place. Even then a yielding of but a few inches would be attended by a violent earthquake.

Beside the comparatively low altitude and very slow growth of mountain chains, there is a system in their arrangement which adds simplicity to the study of this subject. Dana calls attention to the fact that the great mountain chains of the earth are arranged along the borders of continents, and are proportional in height to the size of the oceans near them. The continents of North and South America reveal this law in a striking manner. The stupendous chain of the Andes in South America, and the more extensive Rocky Mountains in North America, stand opposite to the vast Pacific Ocean, and run nearly parallel to its shores, while the lesser systems on the eastern borders of each continent face the lesser area of the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, almost all mountain chains show evidence of a pushing force from the direction of the sea, and a resisting force from the direction of the land.

The erosion of valleys commenced as soon as the strata were elevated above the sea-level, and thus the valleys of the world, being mostly those of erosion, are older than the mountains themselves.

Turning now to the Rocky Mountains or the Cordilleran System of North America, we observe that the chain extends from the region of the City of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, and westward into the Alaskan Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, a total distance of about five thousand miles. The Rocky Mountain system attains its greatest width in the latitude of Colorado, where it extends one thousand miles from east to west. Thence northward, the range becomes narrower toward the International boundary. From this point the system is only about four hundred miles in width, and the eastern range follows a line parallel to the Pacific Coast, nearly to the Arctic Circle.

Having thus very briefly glanced at the cause of mountain chains, the system in their arrangement, and the area covered by the Rocky Mountains of North America, let us turn our attention more particularly to the main features of the chain in its extension through Canada. In all, there are four ranges of mountains composing the Canadian Rockies. The most easterly is the highest and most important, and is, besides, the watershed between the Atlantic and Pacific drainage. Next to the west lie the Selkirk and Gold ranges, which must be grouped together. Near the Pacific Coast is a third range called the Coast Range, while Vancouver Island and the chain of islands extending north represent a fourth range of mountains. Between the two inner of these four ranges, there is a plateau region with an average altitude of 3500 feet.

Our attention centres with peculiar interest on the watershed or Summit Range, as in these mountains are found the grandest scenery and the most lofty peaks, and they are withal the most accessible to the traveller. On the eastern side, the Rocky Mountains rise abruptly from the plains and reach altitudes of 9000 to 11,000 feet. The plain is here, according to Dr. Dawson, about 4350 feet in altitude, while on the western side of the range the altitude of the Columbia valley is only 2450 feet, or nearly 2000 feet lower. The Summit Range is from forty to fifty miles wide in this portion of its course, and is made up of about five sub-ranges. The rivers and streams follow the valleys between these ranges, and find their way out of the mountains by occasional, transverse valleys, cutting through the ranges at right angles, so that every stream has a zigzag course.

It would lead us too far to discuss the formations represented in the strata, and it is more important to learn the altitudes of the mountains above the valleys, and their other physical features, since these characteristics have a more direct bearing on the scenery and on the general nature of the mountains. The highest peaks of the Canadian Rockies rise from 5000 to 7000 feet above the valleys, and rarely surpass 11,000 or 12,000 feet altitude above sea-level. Thus they cannot compare in magnitude with the Himalayas, the Andes, or even the Swiss Alps. They, however, are more accessible than the Himalayas, are far more attractive than the Andes, and afford much greater variety of scenery, together with more beauty of vegetation, than the Alps. No picturesque hamlets adorn these valleys, no herds of cattle with tinkling bells pasture on these hillsides, and no well-made roads or maps guide the tourist to every point of interest; but, on the other hand, the climber may ascend mountains never tried before, the explorer may roam in wild valleys hitherto practically unseen by white men ; and the camper may fish or hunt where no one besides the savage Indian has ever lowered a baited hook or joined in the stealthy chase.

Before leaving the discussion of geology, it would be well to call attention to the wonderful effects of ancient glacial action, everywhere in evidence among these mountains. The countless lakes were, almost without exception, formed in the Quaternary ice invasion. A few of the lakes occupy rock basins, and more are dammed by old terminal moraines, while the vast majority are held in by ridges of drift formed underneath the glaciers where they joined together at the confluence of valleys. Mention has already been made of the evidence of ice action on the summit of Tunnel Mountain, near Banff, showing that the ice was at least iooo feet in thickness, but on the neighboring mountains there are further evidences that the ancient glaciers flooded this valley to a depth of 2700 or 2800 feet. Such evidences may be traced up the valley of the Bow to its source, where the upper surfaces of the glaciers were no less than 8500 or 9000 feet above sea-level, though these ice streams were about the same thickness as at Banff, because the valleys are much higher at this point. Throughout the eastern range, all the valleys were flooded, while only the mountain tops rose above the fields of ice, and the creeping glaciers moved slowly down the valleys and discharged in a great sheet of ice upon the plains to the east.

The climate of the Canadian Rockies is exceedingly cold in winter and temperate in summer, but the air is at all times so dry that changes of temperature are not felt as in lowland regions. The rainfall in summer is light, and rarely attended by heavy showers. The amount of snow and rainfall varies locally in a remarkable manner, by reason of the mountains themselves. Thus the maximum winter depth of the snow in the Bow valley may be two or three feet, when up in the higher regions, only five or six miles distant, the depth will approach fifteen or twenty feet. That mountains have a great influence on the climate and the amount of rainfall, is universally admitted. In fact, climate and mountains are mutually dependent one on the other. A range of mountains near the sea coast, if the circulation of the atmosphere carries the moist air over them, will cause a great precipitation of rain and snow, and, vice versa, the amount of precipitation decides the erosive power of streams, and consequently, the altitude and form of the mountains.

One of the most interesting features of the Canadian Rockies is the Chinook wind. These peculiar winds occur at all seasons of the year but are most noticeable in winter. At such times, after a period of intense frost, a wind springs up from the west, directly from the mountains, the temperature rises, and the snow disappears as if by magic. The air is so dry that the snow and moisture evaporate at once, leaving the ground perfectly free of moisture, where a few hours before was a deep covering of snow. Identical winds called Foehn winds occur in Switzerland, and in other mountain regions of the world. The explanation of these winds has been stated by Ferrel and others, but it is difficult of demonstration to those who do not understand the laws governing condensation and evaporation of moisture in our atmosphere. Most of these laws may be clearly illustrated by an experiment not very difficult to perform. A stout glass cylinder, closed at one end, is fitted with a closely fitting plunger. Now if a tuft of cotton, moistened with ether, be placed in the cylinder, and the plunger be suddenly and forcibly pushed in, the cotton will take fire. The compression of the air raises the temperature so that the cotton ignites. The experiment might have been reversed, and the plunger pulled suddenly outwards so as to rarefy the enclosed air. In this case the temperature of the air would have been much reduced, and, if there were sufficient moisture, it would condense on the sides of the cylinder or form a cloud of vapor. These experiments are exceedingly valuable, as they demonstrate the laws of temperature under changing pressure. Moreover, it shows how cold air discharges its moisture in the form of a mist, and thus illustrates the formation of the clouds in the upper cold regions of our atmosphere. Now the circulation of the air in the Canadian Rockies is, in general, from the Pacific Ocean across the mountains in an easterly direction. It is, of course, interfered with by the circular cyclonic storms which, from time to time, pass over the mountains. But when one or both causes of air motion compel the wind to blow from the west towards the east, the moist currents are forced to ascend and flow over the mountains. In this case the air becomes colder as it rises, mist and clouds are formed, and rain or snow falls, especially on the mountains themselves. As the air descends on the eastern side it becomes warmer in the increasing pressure, and the clouds evaporate and disappear. Now this air is much drier than when it left the other side of the mountains, because a great deal of rain and snow have been precipitated from it. Moreover, the latent heat given out as the clouds form, raises the temperature of the air above the normal temperature of those altitudes. This air gains heat as it descends, and is subjected to the increasing pressure of lower altitudes, and it finally appears as a warm and very dry wind on the east side of the mountains. Such a wind evaporates the snow, and causes it to disappear in a remarkably rapid manner.

The cause of Chinook winds is thus not difficult of explanation, if one understands the effects of atmospheric pressure and condensation. The latent heat given out by the condensing vapors and falling rain is of course equal to the heat furnished by the sun, when it was evaporating the surface waters of the ocean, and rendering the air full of invisible water vapor.

The aspect of the sky and clouds is one of the most beautiful features of the mountains. Except when obscured by the smoke of forest fires, the sky is at all times of that deep hue rarely seen near the sea-coast or in lowland regions. The dark blue extends without apparent paleness to the very horizon, while the zenith is of such a deep color, especially when seen from the summit of a lofty mountain, as to suggest the blackness of interstellar space. Against such a background, the brilliant cumulus clouds stand out in striking contrast, and every internal movement of the forming or dissolving vapors, as they rise, and descend, or curl about, is distinctly seen, because the clouds are so near.

The high latitude of this region has, of course, a considerable effect on the length of the days. Near the summer solstice the twilight is faintly visible all night, and the sun is below the horizon only a little more than six hours. The moon, however, is rarely visible in the summer months, because when near the full it occupies that part of the ecliptic opposite the sun, which, in this latitude, is much depressed. In consequence, the full moon runs her short arc so near the horizon that the high mountains shut out all view of her. In winter, these conditions are reversed, and the moon shines from the clear and frosty sky with unusual brilliancy, for many hours continuously, while the low-lying sun leaves many of the deeper mountain valleys without the benefit of his slanting rays for several months together. .

It would be impossible to enumerate even the principal varieties of game animals, birds, and fish that inhabit this region. The mountain goat and sheep have been mentioned in previous chapters, and many of the interesting animals frequently met with have been described in more or less detail. The ordinary explorer or camper will see very little of the larger game, as he moves along with a noisy train of pack-horses and shouting men to drive them. He may occasionally see a bear, or catch sight of an elk or caribou, but the wary moose and the other members of the deer tribe will rarely or never be seen without an organized hunt. The camper will come to rely on the smaller game to give variety to his camp fare. Chief among these will be the grouse, of which there are six species in the Canadian Rockies. One variety is tame, or rather very stupid, and may be knocked down with stones, or snared with a strong elastic noose at the end of a pole. These birds are so numerous in the forests that one may always rely on getting a brace for dinner, after a little search, and I have even seen them walking about on the main street of Banff, where, of course, they are protected by law. Most of the mountain streams abound in trout, except where a high waterfall below has intercepted their coming up the stream. The larger lakes likewise afford fine fishing, and in many cases swarm with lake trout of a remarkable size. The camper will often obtain wild fowl, the black duck, mallards, and teal, in his excursions. Outside of these game birds and fish, there is little left for him to rely on, unless he chooses to dine on marmots and porcupines. These are often extolled by travellers as most excellent eating, but I have tried them both, and would prefer to leave my share to others, while there is anything else on hand.

The vegetation of the Canadian Rockies deserves a few remarks. The principal trees are all conifers. There are about six or seven species of these in the eastern range, and several more in the Selkirks. The paucity in the variety of deciduous trees in the Rocky Mountains, i and the great number of conifers on the Pacific slope of North America, are in striking contrast to the wonderful number of deciduous species in the forests east of the Mississippi River. In the latter region, the number of species of forest trees is nowhere exceeded in the world, outside of tropical regions. Another remarkable fact in this connection was stated by Gray. He calls attention to the fact that there is a greater similarity, and affinity of species, between the Atlantic Coast trees and those of far distant Japan, than with those of the Pacific slope.

In the Canadian Rockies, trees cease to grow at altitudes above 7500 feet, under the most favorable circumstances, and the average tree line is in reality about 7000 feet. Bushes of the heath family and Alpine plants, however, reach much higher, while dwarfed flowering herbs may be found in blossom as high as 8700 or 8800 feet. I once found a small mat of bright yellow sedums on the summit of a mountain, 9100 feet above sea-level, but this was an exceptional case. Above this altitude, various stone-gray, bright yellow, or red lichens, are the only sign of vegetable life. Nevertheless, in such cheerless regions of high altitudes, one sees a considerable variety of insect life—butterflies, wasps, mosquitoes, and spiders. The latter insects may sometimes be seen crawling about on the snow after winter has commenced, and naturalists have often described them 'as one of the most abundant insects on barren, volcanic islands of the Atlantic Ocean, where there is scarcely a trace of vegetation.

The pleasures of camping in the Canadian Rockies are almost infinite in their variety. They vary with the locality and the scenic interest of the surroundings, and suffer a constant change of mood and aspect with the changing weather. There is an exhilarating buoyancy in the mountain air that conspires to make all things appear as though seen through some cheerful medium, and where nature is so lavish with countless things of rare interest on every side, one comes at length to regard all other places unworthy of comparison. The formation of these mountains is such as to present an infinite variation of outline and altitude, such as one observes in almost no other mountain region of the world. The mountaineer may stand on the summit of a lofty peak and behold a sea of mountains extending fifty or one hundred miles in every direction, with no plains or distant ocean to suggest a limit to their extent. Such a vast area, nearly half a thousand miles in width, and thousands of miles in length, presents an extent of mountain ranges such as are found in no other part of the world.

The exquisite charm and beauty of the lakes, so numerous in every part of the mountains, is one of the chief delights of the camper. Some are small and solitary, perched in some amphitheatre far up among the mountains, surrounded by rocky walls, and hemmed in by great blocks of stone. Here, no trees withstand the Alpine climate, and the water surface is free of ice only during a short season. A few Alpine flowers and grasses wave in the summer breezes, while the loud whistling marmots, and the picas ever sounding their dismal notes, live among the rocks, and find shelter in their crevices.

Other lakes, at lower altitudes, are concealed among the dark forests, and, with deep waters, richly colored, appear like gems in their seclusion. Here the wild duck, the diver, and the loon resort in search of food, for the sedgy shores abound with water rice, and the waters with fish.

Most of the mountain lakes are small, and hide in secluded valleys, but many are large enough to become rough and angry in a storm, and have beaten out for themselves narrow beaches of gravel and shores lined with sand.

Even the sounds of the mountains and the forests give constant pleasure. There is every quality and volume of sound, from the loud rumble of thunder, or the terrible crash of avalanches, re-echoed among the mountains, to the sharp, interrupted report of falling rocks, the roar of torrents, or the gentle murmur of some purling stream. The sighing of the wind in the forests, the susurrant pines and spruces, the drowsy hum of insects, the ripple of water on the shores of a lake, and the myriad sounds of nature—half heard, half felt—conspire to make up the sum of the camper’s pleasure ; though in a manner so vague and indescribable that they must needs be experienced to be understood.

Nor are all the experiences of camp life attended by pure enjoyment alone. Mountain adventures comprise a multitude of pleasures, mingled many times with disappointment and physical suffering. They comprise all the scale of sensations, from those marked by the pains of extreme exhaustion, physical weakness, hunger, and cold, to those of the greatest exhilaration and pleasure. Fortunately, the sensations of pleasure are by far the more abundant, while those of pain almost invariably follow some rash act or error in judgment.

The effect on the health and strength is, of course, one of the chief advantages of camp life. But there is another beneficial result brought about by this manner of life that is more important, though less often taken into consideration. This is the effect that camp life has on the character. In the first place, one learns the value of perseverance, for without this quality nothing can be accomplished in such a region as the Canadian Rockies. The explorer will realize this when he comes to a long stretch of burnt timber, where his horses flounder in a maze of prostrate trees,; and the climber will feel the need of continued resolution when, after a long and arduous climb to an apparent summit, he reaches it only to find the slope extending indefinitely upwards.

The quality of patience under toil and aggravation while on the march—patience with tired horses and weary men—patience under the distress of wet underbrush, or uncomfortable quarters, or, indeed, when tormented by mosquitoes, is one of the prime requisites of life in the wilderness.

While these qualities are more or less common to every one, they are much developed in mountain camp life. But, perhaps, the ability to judge quickly and well is that characteristic which is most needed among the mountains, and the one which is attended by the most suffering if it is not brought into play. If the explorer or mountaineer decides oh the time of day when he must turn back, and then, under the temptation of seeing a little more, or of reaching another summit, delays his return, let him not bewail his fate if he is caught by darkness in the forest and is compelled to pass a sleepless, hungry night. The laws of nature are inexorable, and while we obey them there is abundant opportunity of pleasure, but if we expose ourselves to the grinding of her vast machinery, one must suffer the consequence. The storm will not abate merely because we are exposed to it, nor will our strength be renewed merely because we are far from camp.

Let the camper surround himself with all the luxuries that are possible without trespassing on the bounds of reason. Let him have a good cook and a good packer ; horses that are used to the trail; a fine camp outfit; comfortable blankets and good tents ; a full supply of cooking utensils, knives, forks, and spoons; above all, let him take an abundant supply of provisions, comprising a large variety of dried fruits and the various cereals, and let each article be of the best quality.

Under such circumstances there is no risk of danger, no opportunity for discomfort, especially if every action is controlled by a moderate amount of judgment; but, on the other hand, the rich experiences among the mountains will prove a store of physical and mental resources, the memory of which will tempt him to revisit these regions year after year.

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