The day I saw the Rockies’ secret

BRUCE HUTCHISON February 28 1959

The day I saw the Rockies’ secret

BRUCE HUTCHISON February 28 1959

The day I saw the Rockies’ secret



Only a man on foot or horseback, led by a mountain man like James Riviere, can see the hidden heart of tin* Rockies. It happened, on a knife’s edge of naked rock in a snowstorm, to a famous Canadian writer

tells of

The day of our great discovery galloped in from the foothills on the black horses of autumn’s first snow cloud. All the converging storms of the continent seemed to move through the funnel of our cramped valley. Around us the Rockies were quilted deep in mist and we could see a scant twenty feet from our sodden tents. Yet this day had a shattering secret to reveal.

James Riviere, the guide, philosopher and familiar spirit of the mountains, removed his six and a half teet of bone and muscle from his sleeping bag long before dawn, lighted a giant bonfire in the rain and informed me confidentially (not to alarm the three other city dudes) that it looked like a spell of weather all right. With a dizzy trail behind us and not even a goat’s track over the continental divide ahead, it might be, said James, a rather sticky business.

He is a man given to understatement. As never before, I detected a shadow of worry on his face of sad-

dle leather. To advance or retreat? From a high knoll James pondered that question, the comfort of his shivering guests, the safety of his pack train and worldly assets.

My noon, he could sec a blue rent in the sky and, far below, the brown carpet of the southern Alberta prairies. If our luck held, he suggested none too confidently, we might make it over the summit by dark.

I.uck didn't appear to be holding very well when our caravan of twelve horses advanced up a perpendicular slide of shale to a knife’s edge of naked rock. I could distinguish only the head of my horse and feel the throb of his bellows between my legs. An opaque stuff, like newly mixed concrete, had expunged the universe. I didn’t know where we were, or how high, hut I judged it would he unwise to fall off at this point.

Then, without warning, came the revelation.

The sun bored through the concrete above us.

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From below, the churning cloud mass was splintered by a single hammer stroke. To the westward the Rockies’ teeth cut cleanly through the murk, but only for a moment. Suddenly the substance of peak and valley was convulsed in hues of blue, white, green and the gold of poplars, a nightmare in technicolor. The planet seemed to lose its solidity, to melt and flow like transparent liquid. A boiling continent spilled out to form new shapes and textures as in the molten day of its birth. Creation was repeating itself.

We crouched upon the shuddering

ridge and blinked into limbo. But we said no word. Gasps of wonder were torn from our lips by a demented wind. This semblance of planetary explosion lasted scarcely fifteen minutes until

everything turned solid and impenetrable


Thus for the first time, though I had crossed and re-crossed them for half a century by train, automobile and airplane, I saw, or began to see, the Rockies.

The spectacle from that ridge was

only a passing freak of weather, an optical delusion, but few men, even men like James, had seen its like. Not one Canadian among ten thousand. I reflected, had really seen or ever would see the Rockies at all, except as a picture of two or, at most, of three dimensions. The vital fourth, in defiance of physics, must be added by the man on foot or horseback.

The Rockies, seen as they can be seen only from their peaks—neither hidden from the road by the first range nor foreshortened from an airplane in mere contour map—are quite unlike their pictures. All photographs, paintings, tourist advertisements, geological charts and written words have failed to convey their true quality.

They no more resemble their accepted image than a French Canadian resembles the usual picture of a quaint habitant, or an Ottawa politician matches a political cartoon. The Rockies, in fact, have become for most of us a caricature like the Canadian personality, a family daguerreotype.

Even if an accurate image is fixed on the eye it changes as rapidly as a stageset under shifting clouds, ever-moving shadows, new color combinations, deepening wrinkles and passing expressions as on a human face.

It has taken me fifty-five years of futile exploration to get my first real look at that welter of rock which rolled in, long ago, from a retching upheaval of the Pacific Ocean’s floor. I am not recording the feats of heroes but only the mild adventures of two soft city men past middle age and their wives, who had reached a summit nearly two miles above sea level and must descend half that distance, through rain, snow, mist and deadfall timber.

The moral of this unheroic tale is simply that any Canadian of reasonable health can see the Rockies, the nation’s most familiar and least known sight, if he can cling to a horse’s back and is willing to spend something less than the

Amid the sidereal loneliness, they felt as safe as “in a squaw’s pocket”

price of a hotel vacation in Banff.

But first one must find a man like James who was fitted for his craft by long apprenticeship. At the age of fifteen he and his brother, a year older—grandsons of a French aristocrat—confronted the great depression with a second-hand .22 rifle and $3.60 worth of groceries. They spent the winter alone in the Rockies and returned with furs worth a fortune of five hundred dollars.

We found James and his wife, Gabrielle, at their ranch three years ago— the man built on the general lines of a skyscraper, in sharp angles and fiat, muscular planes: the woman strikingly handsome and as graceful as a ballerina. Reluctantly he agreed to take us into the mountains but not until we had spent two days netting a dozen worthless trout that were imprisoned in a backwater of Carpenter Creek, and had returned them to safe water before they suffocated.

Polite but plainly skeptical, James proposed what he called a comfortable jaunt of four days. They were enough to disprove all our notions about the Rockies.

From the ranch my wife and I had looked up at peaks and hummocks where, we thought, no one but a trained mountain climber or a goat could possibly go. We were up there, on horseback, a few hours later, looking down.

After a night in a fairy glade, James put us to a preliminary test on a slide of sharp, pink shale which seemed to fall directly into British Columbia. As our lungs worked badly at this elevation, our feet weighed too much and our heads reeled, the guide kept close, ready to catch us if we slipped on the shifting rocks. We made it.

Now James’ somewhat chilly manner changed. To his obvious amusement, the tottering old couple from the city had qualified for serious work. As a mark of his new regard he led us at dusk into a circular basin and pointed to an upright cliff. There a baby mountain sheep was drinking its dinner of mother's milk. Ewe and lamb did not see us but, at James’ shout, they raced along the trackless wall for a full mile as if it had been a sidewalk. No man, 1 assumed, could travel such terrain. 1 was wrong, though.

A couple of days showed me that if James’ kingdom was restricted, barely thirty miles square, it was infinitely varied. It comprised many separate provinces. climates, geological zones, different forms of vegetation and numerous inhabitants. None but James was human. To this man, who alone knew its every peak, valley, stream, pass and camping place, it was a miniscule nation, and he was king.

All my former impressions of the Rockies had been blurred by mechanical journeys, distorted by glass windows or turned into a movie montage by the speed of airplanes.

l ike most people, I had missed the wild loops, veins and marquetry of the rocks, those portraits of earth's beginnings, the variations of color through the entire spectrum, the diversity of the flowers, the poplars dwarfed to a height of half a foot, the pines gnarled in monster shapes, the timber burned long ago and now standing white and shiny like a petrified forest, the wheeling eagles, whistling marmots, moose, sheep, elk. goat, rock rabbits and other citizens of James' kingdom.

Well, our education had begun — a freshman s course, no more — but, de-

termined to graduate, we found ourselves, the following year, on that ridge above Castle River, fog-bound, wet, cold and, I suspected, lost.

We were not lost. James pushed his huge chestnut horse over some boulders the size of freight cars and began to descend into the mist. He was traveling fast. We had a long way to go and the remains of the historic Castle River fire lay between us and camp.

Soon we encountered this chaos of black jackstraws, still sound and almost impenetrable in the dry, upland air after twenty years. Now we saw our craftsmen at work.

In the sudden dusk of the ravine James and his able colleague—a jolly, irrepressible little man built of steel springs and named Harold Fisher—chopped a trail through the deadfall with such axemanship as I had never seen in the west-coast woods. It was pitch-black as we emerged from the tangle and the icy rain had penetrated our packs and bones. Half an hour later James and Harold had the tents up, the collapsible stove going and a big bonfire drying our spare clothes on a line of lariats.

My wife had forgotten to pack my extra pants but I wore her plaid slacks while she thrust her legs into a Cowichan Indian sweater. The resulting tableau, together with a red-hot dinner and the contents of a bottle supplied by the kindly Alberta government, aroused a certain merriment.

Dr. Gordon Grant, the distinguished Victoria surgeon, equestrian and musician, shook the water from his mouth organ and played Singing in the Rain, accompanied by an enthusiastic chorus of five voices. We also discovered the musician in the mountaineer. As Harold informed us, breaking an old confidence, James was a renowned fiddler at country dances. He now unloosed a soft tenor in some old cowboy songs long antedating the spurious modern variety.

As the crow (lies, we were only a dozen miles from the nearest prairie towns but our camp lay in sidereal loneliness, a pinpoint of light in the void.

That was the first thing I had learned about the real Rockies—every deep rift is hermetically sealed, every cavity, however close to some road or town, is a cell of perfect solitude. Civilization lay

immeasurably distant from us that night. “You’re as safe here,” said Harold, "as in a squaw’s inside pocket.” That sounded safe enough.

Another fact unmentioned in the tourist advertisements appeared before midnight. The water buckets froze outside our tent, the Dipper wheeled up behind a ragged pinnacle, the yellow disk of a harvest moon turned the Rockies to solid silver, reef on reef, the canyon walls were carved with the statues, effigies and delicate groining of a Gothiccathedral. For good measure the northern lights offered a gaudy show of fireworks. Next morning the sun casually replastered the cathedral with crimson ochre.

We now faced a trail James described as “a little wee bit tough” and which Harold considered “a pretty damn hard git.”

It was a hard git all right. We rode through a pungent spruce forest up to a bald hogback where even lichens could not grow on the polished surface, and, under a sweltering sky, looked across a litter of white peaks southward to Montana and northward, as it seemed, to Jasper. Unique and clearly distinguishable among them, Castle Mountain loomed to the westward like a badly built crow’s nest—forever unapproachable, as I supposed. Again I was wrong.

Precious few men have seen such a sight. No man had ridden here for more than twenty years, but we were soon to see something still more unlikely.

At the moment we had little time for scenery. Even a herd of elk far below, a bear wallowing in an inkpot lake and a dozen sheep grazing in a meadow could not divert our eyes and imagination from the ridge ahead of us.

It wriggled in corkscrew spirals, not ten feet wide, and dropped in taut plumb line on both sides toward an infinity of green spruce and yellow poplar. As James dismounted and led his horse I guessed we were approaching the hard git. After we had crawled to the end of the ridge I concluded that James had finally lost his way, or his senses.

He stood at the rim of a shale slide at least a mile wide and apparently vertical. No track of sheep or goat was visible on this precipice of broken rock Surely no creature had ever crossed it!

James waited for the cavalcade to catch up with him, remarked that he had ridden here in his youth, warned us to keep our eyes fixed on our feet, gave us an encouraging grin and plunged ahead.

The dudes in conference agreed that their guide was crazy. A band of white goats, seen through our glasses a thousand feet lower down—reversing the customary position of men and goats — looked up at us and, solemnly wagging their beards, confirmed our diagnosis.

There was nothing for it but to follow James, now a black speck on the slide. The horses advanced slowly, eyes wild, nostrils pink and distended. We needed two good hours to cover that mile as the horses’ hoofs sank deep into the fine rubble and we slithered along their footprints, expecting at any moment to roll after a few rocks that bounded down and splashed, a long minute afterward, in a lake of cobalt blue.

In this thin air, some nine thousand feet above the sea, ten yards was all we could walk without a pause for painful breath. Grant felt our pulses now and then, discerned a blue tinge on our lips and briefly explained the limited resources of the human heart after middle age. A hard git.

In fact, there was no danger. We had run much worse risks on the TransCanada highway. If our footing had slipped the clinging shale would have held us after a brief descent.

Still, on reaching the end of the slide at nightfall, we felt we had graduated, with at least second-class honors, from the Riviere course in mountain climbing for old folks.

Our camping place on Yarrow Creek was luxuriously furnished with a meadow of grass for the horses, trees to shelter our tents, some large grizzly tracks not more than ten minutes old and a shower bath, dripping a hundred feet from the snow into a pool of stone, for the benefit of the ladies.

They were left in nude privacy, but the Honorable T. C. Davis, then Canadian ambassador to Japan, who was crossing the Rockies by air, affirms that from his plane he could see two radiant dewdrops, or forked icicles, or glistening jewels, pendant, under the lip of the glacier.

James talked that night about his young days of horse-trading among the Black foot, his life in the tepee of Chief White Swan, his honorary membership in the sun dance, the use of turkey grass for infected wounds and boiled wild strawberry roots for stomach disorders. I didn't know it then but his queer pharmacopoeia had a vital part to play in my life.

Meanwhile, James confessed, our trip had missed the supreme prize. We had found no huckleberries. That was as good an excuse as any for another trip.

Accordingly, last September, a new caravan of seventeen horses, two small colts attending their mothers, a magnificent mongrel dog named Keeno. the four original dudes, a jaded high-court judge, three horsemen and Gabrielle Riviere as cook started out from James Riviere's corral with a ton of groceries, much confusion and a lively tinkle from the bell mares.

While I regarded our arrival there as improbable we were bound for the crow’s nest of Castel Mountain (not to be confused with the better-known peak at Banff which was renamed Eisenhower). Why were we going to what all the natives call the “Castel"? Solely, said James, to pick huckleberries. Since man ceased to be purely a carnivore I doubt that anyone ever traveled so far, veru-

cally, as we were doing now to taste a black berry no larger than a pea.

Three easy days and three brutal summits brought us to a dismal forest. The Castel, said James, pointing westward, was just over there. We could see nothing above the trees but an upended slab of basalt. As usual, the Rockies hid their treasures jealously from those who travel, as most men do, in the valleys.

The climb out of the forest was the hardest git so far. Instructed by James, we leaned over the horses’ necks, clutching their manes, to ease their hind quarters. They paused, and their bellows worked with anguish at every turn on the trackless hill.

Of a sudden we emerged from the timber and found ourselves in Coleridge’s deep, romantic chasm, as holy and enchanted as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover, as that poet had it.

The Rockies’ version was much superior to that of the original text. Coleridge had never seen anything like this, nor had Kublai Khan. All the Canadians who have visited the chasm could be packed in one small corner of it.

A circular bowl of glistening stone contained a grassy glen and a merry brook. Straight above us. as if about to fall at any moment, stood the astounding triple architecture ofthe Castel—a pointed Egyptian pyramid, then a formal Georgian frieze and finally the thin battlements of a medieval donjon keep, meticulously carved and decorated by bulbous statues from Epstein’s chisel.

Though James allowed it was “pretty,” it would not suffice. The huckleberries grew around the next corner. He said that as if we were now close to God. Maybe we were.

So we toiled around the foundations of the donjon and just as we reached the far side of the ridge the Rockies unloosed their curse upon the invader. That old concrete mixture poured into the valley beneath us. engulfed the Castel, soaked us with rain and pricked our skins with sharp white pellets.

James pointed down to timberline and observed that we’d better reach its protection before night or we might spend the winter in a snowdrift. This was a bitter blow. We rode downward through such a ripe harvest of huckleberries on their flaming hushes that the horses' hoofs were soon stained with old burgundy, but we could not pause to pick a single one.

T hree sweaters, a windbreaker and a slicker did not preserve me from the cold. My chattering teeth were heard above the gale that screeched among the battlements.

Dr. Grant diagnosed my chill as the work of some obscure germ, for which he had no medicine, and took a dim medical view of my prospects. James paused to assure me that he would soon effect a cure with Indian medicine. His comfort w'as well meant hut somewhat cold as we were blown down an endless wind tunnel.

Even after we had our tents up in the timber, a fire going and the best wares of the Alberta government broached, I shivered by the stove, experienced a paroxysm of nausea and bravely gave instructions for my burial beside a pleasant stream.

Grant talked privately to James about the chance of getting a helicopter to rescue me. James said nothing but set out with a shovel and soon returned with a bunch of wild strawberry roots which Gay plunged into boiling water.

While the physician looked doubtful, a kind of brown, tasteless tea was poured into me and I slept soundly until dawn,

whereupon I awakened in perfect health to eat the customary ten flapjacks. The noble red man’s medicine has my profound respect.

Since the Rockies had withdrawn their curse and smiled in hot sunshine we devised a final absurdity—we would return and pick the huckleberries.

It took half a day’s climb to reach the base of the Castel but only half an hour in the harvest field to collect two big pails of fruit and fill ourselves with sweet elixir. James had not misled us. There is no flavor on earth like that of the huckleberry growing safely out of man’s reach at least seven thousand feet above sea level.

Gay Riviere, that lovely lady who well earned our affectionate name of Toujours Gai, had stayed in camp and rolled out pastry under an empty ketchup bottle. Now she produced huckleberry pies of ethereal quality, half a pie for each of us. This, we agreed, was her masterpiece, but it wasn't.

For breakfast she plunged a quart of huckleberries into her flapjack mix, whose oozing hue and indescribable relish empurpled our faces and delayed our departure until noon.

As I watched James pack for the last hard git 1 began to appreciate at last his craftsmanship of many skills — his sense of geography and weather; his patient training and study of every horse as a separate psychological problem until man and animal communicated by mental telepathy; his diamond hitch tied as a surgeon ties a suture; his campfires built in safe pits, their embers covered with a foot of earth and all rubbish burned or buried; his tent poles neatly piled for future use—no trace of human passage left behind except our footprints.

We had been promised today some “pretty fair to middlin’ scenery." After James had cut our way through a thicket

of dwarf pine, we approached a barren mound, not high as it seemed, but swept by such a wind that the horses leaned and lurched against it as against a steep hill. A short mile and a long, gasping hour carried us to the top. Our reward seemed adequate. On the swirling crest of Prairie Bluff we surveyed as never before the immensity of Canada.

To the west, in ranks of blue and white, marched the Rockies, their highest peaks apparently below us. To the east we looked down on the yellow linoleum floor of the prairies. Eighty miles away floated the Sweet Grass Hills.

Our diameter of vision was at least two hundred miles. One might see further from an airplane but it would be a picture only, static and lifeless. From Prairie Bluff, with its wind and tattered cloud rack, its stinging scent of pine, juniper and wheat fields, its cold and aching stone, the picture had become reality. 1 leave it at that, since words, photographs, maps and measurements are meaningless.

Too soon we parted with the Rivieres and became civilized again. Remembering that we had passed ten days without a bath, we stopped at the first wayside garage to be hosed off with live steam and we took a last, long look at the range behind James’ back yard.

The Rockies were wasting away, stone by stone, grain by grain, in their countless æons of erosion. Some day they would be leveled to fiat conformity like mankind. Well, they probably would last our time. So, we hoped, would James and his kingdom.

Anyway, though we had done nothing dangerous or heroic, had covered only the distance of an hour’s automobile drive, nevertheless our narrow lives had acquired a fourth dimension. Unlike most Canadians, we had seen the Rockies and their breed. ★