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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter II. Trails of the Waputik


(Emerald Lake, the Blaeberry and the Bow. Traverse of Mount Gordon)

“Snow-draped 'peaks we passed by, and turquoise lakes set amidst the old pinewoods and ringed round by gaunt precipices, and above} the snow. Wonderful waterfalls that plunged sheer for hundreds of feet into rock-cut canyons where the wild waters raged in fierce tumult. Sometimes the whole undergrowth amidst the black stems of the burnt forest would be aglow with the many coloured ‘painter’s brush/ or a mass of gold orange daisies would have their colour set against the black satin stems of the charred trunks and a sapphire blue sky. The lure of the wilds always called us onward ”

J. Norman Collie

Emerald Lake is a Happy Hunting-ground for the traveller who has not the time or the experience for wandering far from the railroad. When the train comes down from Lake Louise, across the Great Divide at the pass of Kicking Horse, and has puffed through the spiral tunnels, below the peaks of Cathedral and Stephen,1 with a glimpse of far-flung mountains in Yoho Valley; when you have come to Field and been driven across the river and through that glorious arcade of slender jack-pines to the Chalet beside the rippling, green water, with a shining mountain-range beyond—then only have you found the threshold of true contentment.

Perhaps as you came over the Divide, at Kicking Horse summit, you noticed a small monument at the water-parting. It is dedicated to the memory of Sir James Hector, physician and explorer with the Palliser Expedition, sent out by the British Government, in 1857, to explore the country for possible railroad routes. The pass (5329 feet), was discovered by Dr. Hector in 1858, after he had set out from Bow Fort, crossed the Continental Divide through Vermilion Pass, and reached the headwaters of the Kootenay. Thence, he tells us, they traversed a height of land, and descended the Beaverfoot to its mouth, “a large flat, where the wide valley terminated, dividing into two branch valleys, one from the northwest and the other to the southwest. Here we met a large stream, equal in size to Bow River where we crossed it. The river descends the valley from the northwest, and, on entering the wide valley of Beaverfoot River, turns back on its course at a very sharp angle, receives that river as a tributary, and flows off to the southwest through the other valley.”

Hereabouts occurred an incident of near-tragedy. Hector goes on to state:1 “One of our pack-horses, to escape the fallen timber, plunged into the stream, luckily where it formed an eddy, but the banks were so steep that we had great difficulty in getting him out. In attempting to recatch my own horse, which had strayed off while we were engaged with the one in the river, he kicked me in the chest, but I had luckily got close to him before he struck out, so that I did not get the full force of the blow. However, it knocked me down and rendered me senseless for some time. After travelling a mile along the left bank of the river from the N. W., which because of the accident the men had named Kicking Horse River, we crossed to the opposite side. We passed many small lakes, and at last reached a small stream flowing to the east, and were again on the Saskatchewan slope of the mountains.”

There is another approach to Emerald Lake, quite as interesting and even more spectacular. In a short hour one may motor from Field to the charming bun-galow-camp at Takakkaw, stopping for a moment where the glacial Yoho River makes a foaming junction with the Kicking Horse. You will know when camp is near by the roar of water—Takakkaw Fall, coming from the Daly glacier more than two thousand feet above. Winding and twisting in an age-worn groove, it makes a little leap toward the brink of the precipice and drops its plunging volume sheerly for a thousand feet, arching outward again in a great curve of spray and falling five hundred feet more to Yoho River. It is the highest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies, and one may spend hours watching the play of colours on the brilliant spray—the shimmering rainbows at the river’s edge, that cling in the rising mist.

From Takakkaw, a well-kept trail rises to Yoho Pass and leads down again to Emerald Lake which is spread out below. If the day be still young, it is pleasant to stroll about on higher levels—the height of Takakkaw becomes apparent, and its glacial sources are in view. The Yoho Valley is revealed, with peaks of the Continental Divide beyond—Balfour, Gordon, and all the rest—mantled in the icefield of the Waputik. Across the basin containing Emerald Lake, in the west, is the Presidential Range; its rising summits and glacier-hung cliffs are constantly in view if one follows the trail toward Burgess Pass. Mount Burgess is the rocky peak so conspicuous from the lake shore, and flanks the low, wooded saddle which itself is right above the Kicking Horse and Field village. To reach it, the trail leads along the cliffs of Mount Wapta and affords splendid distant views into the south, where rise the mountains of the Ottertail. It will perhaps be late in the day and the sunset a thing to remember: the sun-flickering gone from the lake and the green turned to a dull, filmy blue; the cliffs of Burgess rosy with light; the Presidential Range a silhouette against an orange sky. In the long shadows of gathering twilight, the trail leads down to Field or toward the lighted windows of Emerald Lake Chalet.

Immediately north of Kicking Horse Pass, the Waputik Range continues the Continental Divide to Howse Pass. Only a little of it is seen from Yoho Valley, but, in its northern portion, the icefields mantling the range have a combined area of more than forty square miles, draining chiefly to Bow River, a South Saskatchewan headwater.

We ate our lunch in the Yoho Valley, Howard Palmer and I, beside the river’s bank at Takakkaw. It was July 4, 1922, and we walked the Burgess Pass trail back to Field as a bit of training before leaving for prospective climbs in the Freshfield Group. It was a calm, warm day, and we were not yet in the best of condition; still we were down in the village in five hours and thought well of ourselves.

While the entire body of snow and ice is more or less continuous, it is arbitrarily divided into two portions—the Waputik Icefield, extending along the crest of the continental watershed from Bath Creek to Balfour Glacier; and the Wapta Icefield, triangular in shape, continuing from Balfour and Yoho Glaciers to Baker Glacier and other tongues at its northern apex.

At Field, we were joined by our guide and friend, Edward Feuz, Jr., well known for his many first-ascents in the Alps of Canada. Two days later found us on the trail, our pack-train of seventeen horses being under the care of Jim Simpson, who for more than twenty years has pioneered these mountains. Bill Baptie was the horse-wrangler, and Tommy Frayne our cook. Saddington—we never did learn his first name, as he answered always to the nickname of “Mouse”—a youngster of fifteen, came along to wash dishes and help keep the straying horses in line.

On the first day we went only as far as Amiskwi2 River, tributary to the Kicking Horse, through heavy timber, but on a good trail which demanded no cutting. It is the beginning of the western approach to Howse Pass, seldom travelled, but forming one of the few routes which permit progress close in on the western slope of the main range. For the most part, the steep British Columbia side with heavy undergrowth, stimulated by the great precipitation on the western slope, serves as an efficient barrier to travel with horses. We crossed Emerald and Kiwetinok Creeks, with bits of steep work in their canyon beds; and from our campground, in the evening, looked across the river to ridges and rocky summits of the northern Van Horne Range.

It took us all the next day to reach Amiskwi, or Baker, Pass. There are heavily timbered stretches, where one rides for many minutes with no view save patches of blue sky and slants of sunlight in the tree-tops; then a sharp descent to a rushing stream: the horses splash through the milky glacial water, and one catches a glimpse of snow-peaks far up the valley. Northland trails are ever thrilling, with a prospect that changes constantly. We gazed up at peaks bordering on Yoho Valley, and at the flying-buttresses of Mount McArthur, so conspicuous for miles along. The forest is dense; in places there are windfalls, the tree-trunks piled up and interlaced like gigantic jackstraws. If they lie across the trail, packs may be caught or snagged awry, and the axe comes into play. Jim would be off his horse—he was in the lead—making the chips fly and the woods resound with the echo of his chopping. The way is soon clear, the horses urged into line—there is a trail vocabulary especially designed for wayward cayuses—and the outfit swings along, with sunlight shafting down as through clouds after a summer storm.

Amiskwi trail parallels the western wall of the Waputiks; the pass (6535 feet) is not a useful one for mountaineering as it is scarcely possible to penetrate the range from this side. In the evening we ascended the high ridge east of the pass—Ensign Station— whence we obtained a magnificent view of the entire area. Across the deep valley of Trapper Creek, apparently impassable for horses, we looked to the summit of Mount Baker (10,441 feet), and to Mount Ayesha (10,026 feet), with its little blue lake high in a rock-bowl. Mount Collie (10,315 feet) adjoins it closely and connects its southern ridge by a glacier-saddle with the peak once named for the German explorer Habel, but known since the war by the more cumbersome title of Mount des Poilus. It is possible that climbers might cross to the Collie-Habel col;5 but cliffs and timber would cause much delay if horses were taken into Trapper Creek. To the west, we had vistas of Mount Laussedat (10,035 feet) and the high peaks along Blaeberry River; while, farther north, the southern walls of the Freshfield Group rose grandly, tinged with the deep rose and purple shades that precede twilight.

The descent from Amiskwi Pass to the Blaeberry is over one of the steepest trails in the mountains. For a short distance from the pass summit, one zigzags up a side-hill of open woods whence an impressive view is had of Mount Mummery, a white giant, rising across the valley into two splendid peaks, above a curling green glacier cleft by dark morainal lines. Mount Cairnes (10,120 feet), with its massive ice-crown, stands out prominently in the southern Fresh-fields. Then comes the down-trail, steep and muddy, slippery for beast and man, three thousand feet to the river below. A black bear preceded us, and from his uneven, sprawling track we concluded that he was in somewhat of a hurry; at least we never caught up with him and our pace was by no means slow and dignified.

We forded the Blaeberry, our long procession of horses trailing neck-deep through the water, and camped in the meadows beyond. All afternoon, a second bear—perhaps a neighbour of the Amiskwi traveller—wandered about our campground, and we could see the tips of his ears above the scrub bush as he cautiously raised up to investigate our presence. One of the boys chased him; he clambered up to the top of a tall pine and sat disconsolately on a limb, whimpering.

Our way to Howse Pass3 lay up the Blaeberry Valley, crossing and recrossing the diminishing stream as we neared the summit. There are sharp little rocky peaks to be seen at the head of Cairnes Creek, and a waterfall in a canyon farther along. Much of the trail is washed out by the shifting river; what is left becomes a tangle of undergrowth and obstructive timber, keeping Jim out of his saddle and axes flashing. Camp was made below Mount Conway, in a beautiful meadow not far from the pass summit, and we spent the afternoon in making a visit to the cirque4 below Conway Glacier. On the very summit of Howse Pass a stop was made to photograph a fat grey owl, that sat sleepily on the lowest limb of a fire-killed tree and hissed at us when we reached toward him.

We were just at the base of Howse Peak (10,800 feet), the highest of the Waputiks, a serenely beautiful snow peak which had been in view as we came up the Blaeberry and which flanks the pass on the eastern side. The range of the Waputiks here diverges from the main watershed, and extends into Alberta the peaks of Chephren—the western summit usually known as the “White Pyramid”—Kaufmann, and Sarbach, which fill the Howse-Mistaya river-angle. From the pass we ascended the timber cutting, marking the Divide, through the forest for about a mile, and then spent a difficult hour in the dense bush working out to the basin of Conway Creek above the deep canyon into wrhich the stream descends. The basin is a large one, extending into the heart of the Freshfield Group; a precipitous hanging glacier cascades down from the north face of Conway, while the main tongue curls over a terminal cliff several hundred feet in height and sends down slender waterfalls to the cirque in which we stood.

Evening by the campfire; crystal, with the last rays of sunshine back of the spire of Mount Forbes. Summer evening is a long twilight, never growing dark, and on this night a full moon rises, shedding its silvery glory over the meadow. We can hear the distant jingle of bells as the horses move slowly through the marsh-grass. The guides tell stories of old explorers who passed this way in the long-ago; tales so fantastic that if the shade of David Thompson or of Dr. Hector had walked in to listen, we should have been unsurprised. If spirits return to haunt the best-loved places may they not have joined us as invisible guests?

Next day was July 10th, and we descended the canyon of Conway Creek to its junction with Freshfield and Forbes Brooks; with many little fords, and fine glimpses of the snowy Waputiks behind us. We emerged into a spacious amphitheatre of joining streams, from which flows Howse River. A hotel would have been here, had original plans matured and the railroad come this way; but now there are only gravel-flats, with magenta fireweed, and game tracks crossing and recrossing. South is the entrance to the Freshfield Group, while westward, the massive outlines of Coronation Mountain, the green saddle of Bush Pass, and the grim towering peak of Forbes, complete a delightful and impressive panorama.

We were riding leisurely along, admiring the beautiful prospect, when suddenly Jim, ahead of me, began to urge his horse into full gallop. We followed closely, and on a small gravel-cliff had the unusual experience of catching a baby goat, that apparently had strayed from home. The little animal was headed off by a horse on each side and a stream in front. When several of us approached, the kid gave a frightened leap, fell in the water and was rescued, kicking and struggling in the arms of Tommy. It really was only coincidence that the cook should have made the catch, but the wee beast no doubt expected immediate consignment to the pot. It was interesting to see that the animal remained limp, as if dead, as long as it was held tightly; but ready to stiffen like a steel spring and bolt if the chance offered. We soon released it, and in our last glimpse it was proceeding with all speed, but with a damp and injured air, down the Saskatchewan gravel-bars.

As the Freshfield Group, where we spent the days following, is described later,8 we shall here continue on the Waputik trails. It was July 21st when we descended Howse River to a point below the Glacier Lake stream. Alpine flora gives the river-flats a gay appearance and game tracks are everywhere —moose, bear, deer, and goat trails winding back and forth. Every evening we had watched, through binoculars, the big billy-goats come out to feed on the high alpland above the cliffs. And once, as we came late into camp, a cow moose with her calf plunged back into the timber.

Since crossing the Divide, at Howse Pass, we were again in Alberta. Next morning, rounding the base of Mount Sarbach, we reached Mistaya5 River not far from the main Forks of the North Saskatchewan. It was a chilly day, with fog and showers, one of the few on which we travelled in the rain. A trail on the west bank of the stream avoids the old difficult fords, and, at evening, camp was made at the base of Chephren. Clearing weather cheered us, and we fairly revelled in the gorgeous spectacle presented by the Kaufmann Peaks and the towers of Murchison, all agleam with new snow, sparkling above the violet-tinted cliffs of a shadowed valley.

The headwaters of the North Saskatchewan— North Fork and Mistaya Rivers—parallel the Continental Divide, in a broad, heavily-forested trench which continues, across Bow Pass, to the upper Bow Valley, a South Saskatchewan tributary. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can be found such a number of large and beautiful lakes as those which are found here, directly below the escarpment of a great mountain chain. Close to camp, the Wildfowl Lakes reflect the rocky pinnacles that rise on the eastern side of the Mistaya, and which give way to slightly lower and more separated summits which buttress Bow Pass. Howse Peak and the Waputiks form a stupendous, unbroken wall on the west. Trail to Bow Lake was followed on the next day; a trail of gradual rise, with undulant, pine-crested hillocks, whence one obtains glimpses into sequestered nooks, corners of sapphire lakes, and occasionally, northward, the expanse of one of the most extensive valley views of the Rockies— from Bow sources to peaks near Nigel Pass and Bra-zeau headwaters. There are a few gaps in the Waputik wall, through which we could see distant snowy peaks, beyond the precipices of Mount Patterson (10,490 feet) with their slender, interlocking icefalls.6 From the summit of Bow Pass it is but a short walk to a rocky bluff above the ultramarine expanse of Peyto Lake, with a view of the glacier and its ice-arch; one follows the course of Mistaya River to the Saskatchewan Forks—spread out like a map—with the snows of Mount Wilson visible beyond.

Bow Lake is the most pleasant of camping places. Our tents were in a grove of old trees near the water’s edge, where white-tailed deer came down to drink, heedless of our presence. Just opposite, Bow icefall cascades downward through the gap between Portal and St. Nicholas Peaks, the broken ice-snout coming almost to the lake. Trout abound in the lake, big Dolly Varden, but the larger ones always ruined our primitive tackle: a splash, a bit of line flicking skyward on the end of a green pole, a man sitting down with unexpected suddenness, and language usually reserved for private conversation with the horses! Across the lake a wall of cliff, beginning at Bow Peak, supports the Crowfoot Glacier; and, through a gap farther east, the snow slopes of Mount Hector rise to a sharp peak.

The distance from Bow Lake to the railroad, twenty-six miles, is broken by a camp on Hector slide, north of which looms the jagged ridge of towers making up Dolomite Peak. Down the valley one sees the peacock-blue water of Hector Lake, and the delta made by the entering streams from the glaciers of Balfour. And finally, through a rift in the clouds, the groups above Lake Louise burst into view, Mount Temple and the Victoria ridge rising above all the rest. The home-corral is near; the cayuses sense it, and shy skittishly as the long-drawn whistle of a locomotive is heard far down the valley.

From Bow Lake a year later, in 1923, we reached rail by a decided variant of this route and succeeded in annexing one more adventure of the Waputik trail. We had come back from the Columbia Icefield, Dr. Ladd, Conrad Kain, and I, and wished to avoid a repetition of the final day’s ride. So, deciding to penetrate the mountain group and climb across to Takakkaw, we left the horses, on July 24th, Simpson taking the pack-train by trail to Lake Louise.

In an hour we had rounded the lake to the gloomy canyon below the Bow icefall. So narrow is the stream-cut gorge that not far from the glacier a single gigantic stone forms a bridge, on which one may sit and look down into the roaring cauldron of water below. Ascending the rocky ledges beside the ice, we quickly gained height and eventually were able to cut our way across the top of the fall to the Wapta neve.11 It presents a broad expanse, somewhat crevassed, with long-ridged peaks rising from the snow. Across the long slopes behind St. Nicholas and Olive we tramped, to Vulture Col—its curious summit blocks suggesting an enormous bird rising from a nest—and thence up the smooth, slanted slabs to the summit of Mount Gordon.12 The weather was cloudless, but in the soft snow we had taken nearly eight hours from our lake camp. From our elevation of 10,336 feet, we again paid our respects to old friends in the north, from Freshfield to Columbia. Across the Balfour Glaciers we looked down to Hector Lake, with cloud shadows moving lazily across; to the Ottertail Group, and the peaks of Yoho.

We entertained the audacious idea of going on to ascend Balfour, and actually started for it; but a rumble of thunder, when we had glissaded to Balfour Pass, warned us that we had accomplished enough for one day. Leaving Diableret Glacier we ran down past


two lovely waterfalls at the head of Waves Creek, the lower fall foaming and spraying through a series of basins worn in the sandstone. We were not to go free. A violent electric storm, with pelting hail, overtook us. The retreat of Yoho Glacier makes it impossible to cross the ice-snout as in former years. We made vain attempts to ford Yoho River; even when roped together, the current was too swift for us. Conrad went clear under, and came up looking like an alpine Neptune arising from the deep—still holding his pipe between his teeth!

Finally we crossed the canyon, lower down, making the passage roped, over a slanted log, with serious damage to soaked clothing. Water rose and bridges went out. The stream from Twin Falls, although one of the twins gave up the ghost some years ago, was a raging torrent. We built a rickety structure from logs and got over somehow; then wandered through the drenched brush to find the trail, and finally arrived at Takakkaw as daylight was fading. A last flash of lightning and a peal of thunder, resounding toward Little Yoho, was as if Jupiter Pluvius and the witches of the Trolltinder were having a final laugh at us. But we had defied these evil spirits and had attained to knowledge of the fairy-like splendor of the Waputik.


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