The living mystery of the Rockies
Probably no two word symbols in the English language awaken such vivid mental images or such strong convictions of reality as the words Rocky Mountains. And probably no two word symbols in the English language, or for that matter in any language, are so often used with so little under-
standing of the realities they are supposed to represent. Even to those who are supposed to be authorities, the Rockies are a mighty mystery.
Nobody knows for sure how they got there, who first saw them, how they got their name or how long they have been inhabited. Nobody seems to know exactly where they start and where they end.
Nobody can describe them adequately. Lesser attempts flounder in a confusion of adjectives, and those of great artists link the mountains to phil-
osophy and religion in a subjective way that does not fit the facts. Mountains are supposed, for example. to elevate the souls of men but for every soul elevated by the Rocky Mountains scores have been degraded to vanity, foolishness, greed, fear, murder and even cannibalism. Mountains are supposed also to inspire men to great deeds but for every great deed done at their inspiration the Rockies have inspired a dozen schemes that have been costly, foolhardy, heartbreaking and even wicked.
It says in the Book of Common Prayer that mountains bring peace. But in Canada at least the Rockies have been responsible for more continuous and bitter political squabbles than any other topographical feature on the face of the nation. Poets have often upheld mountains as a symbol of liberty, but the Canadian Rockies, on the contrary, have locked British Columbia behind a wall of costly freight rates, taxes and transportation problems.
The truth about the Rockies is as elusive as the
pinnacle of Mount Brussels, an obdurate giant on the Banff-Jasper highway, which consistently defies the world’s best mountaineers. Certainly the truth cannot be found by studying tourist publications and encyclopedias; these inspire more wonder and bafflement than the mountains themselves. Most of the former say the name “Rocky Mountains’’ comes from the Cree Indian name Asinwati, meaning stony. But this does not explain why the Rockies are known by the same name far below the border of the United States where they are
diffused over a vast section of the continent never inhabited by Cree Indians.
Even more baffling is the lack of agreement about what land area the name is supposed to cover. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, says that the Rockies start in New Mexico and sweep north for twenty-two hundred miles to the Yukon. A booklet published by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources says they start “far below the international boundary and extend to beyond the Liard River.” The
Encyclopedia of Canada, published by the University Associates of Canada in 1937. says they start in New Mexico and go to the Arctic Circle. Other references have them extending from Mexico to Alaska and still others say they are a continuation of the Andes and stretch to the Aleutians.
The Canadian Rockies are one thousand miles long in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, nine hundred miles long according to the Department of Mines and Resources, four hundred and fifty miles long in the Encyclopedia of Canada, and in Chambers’ Encyclopedia their length is not mentioned at all. The Encyclopædia Britannica says they contain fifty peaks surpassing eleven thousand feet. Chambers' says they contain forty peaks between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. The Department of Mines and Resources says they rank third among
the great mountain ranges of the world but other books say they rank fourth after the Himalayas, the Andes and the Alps.
Everybody agrees that Mount Robson, near Jasper, is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies and that it is considerably lower than Mount Everest in the Himalayas, which stands 29,002 feet and is the highest mountain in the world. But the Britannica says in one volume that Mount Robson is 12,972 feet and in another that it is 12,975. Chambers’ favors 12,972 and the Encyclopedia of Canada is off key w ith 13,069.
After floundering in this organized chaos it is a relief to go directly to the mountains. There, confronted by these titanic battlements, it is impossible not to be moved by their many splendors: the lonely sapphire of Lake Moraine ringed by ten
Only the animal denizens can know the remote, real beauty of the Rockies’ loops, veins and marquetry. Few men catch more than a fleeting glimpse from a train.
giants wearing cuirasses of ice and plumes ofj snow; the electrifying descent by CPR train inte« the Kicking Horse canyon; the awesome sentinels along the Banff-Jasper highway, still dressed in the dirty and tattered remnants of the last ice age— to name only three of the most obvious tourist attractions. And it is impossible, also, not to ponder the question, “How did they get there?” But. alas, here is another mystery.
A digest of tourist-literature explanations for the existence of the Rockies has them deposited millions of years ago as sediments in the basin of a sea. Then, at some point in geological time, the sea receded and as the molten centre of the earth cooled, its crust shrank and wrinkled in a manner comparable to the skin of a drying apple. Much later, according to this version, the wrinkles were sculptured by weather and by a succession of vast ice caps that came down from the Arctic and then went back again, leaving vestigial remains like the three-hundred-acre Columbia Icefields. On this relic a tourist can ride a snowmobile for a twodollar fee and then take a short, astonished walk over terrain that pre-dates human life.
But this theory of how the mountains were formed is largely guesswork. The Rockies, say F K. North and G. G. L. Henderson in an article published by the Alberta Society of Petroleum Geologists, “offer the most spectacular succession of sedimentary rocks to be found at the surface anywhere in Canada.” They are a geological feature distinct from the plains to the east and the Columbia mountains to the west—the Purcells the Selkirks, the Monashees, the Cariboos and the Cassiars, all more or less parallel to each other but striking the Rockies at an angle. But how the peaks of the Rockies came to be raised, twisted and overturned into their present marvelous shapes is still a mystery.
"The exact mechanics of Rocky Mountain de formation are outside our understanding at present,” North and Henderson say. They complain that vast sections on each side of the Continental Divide are still unmapped geologically, that in much of the available literature on the Rockies the stratigraphy is “so unbelievably complex thal it defies analysis,” and that “the structure has been made to appear so simple that there is no apparent reason why the mountains exist.”
If the Rockies are a mystery to empirical science they are still more elusive to the frail grasp of imagination. Most published descriptions do little more than prove that Ruskin was right when he said that mountains have
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The living mystery of the Rockies continued from page 18
Miners from the Cariboo would wash their feet in champagne, eat ten-pound notes as pills
“a general gift of exciting the poetical and inventive faculties in peculiarly solemn tones of mind.” A CPR timetable of 1887, for example, talks of “‘solitary peaks on their way to heaven” and a modern one promises its passengers “an outdoor symphony of cascades, rapids and mountain trails and scenic grandeur.
A popular tourist book gets even more lost in mixed metaphor with “tremendous peaks lifting their foreheads beyond the clouds,” “fearful canyons hiding their feet in unimaginable depths,” “great leviathan glaciers creeping down from frozen desolation,” and ‘“airy veils of silvery waterfalls transformed by moonlight into a veritable palace of dreams."
Who first saw these wonders and who first lived among them is yet another mystery. Many writers, including Dr. George M. Dawson of the Canadian geological survey, seem to think the Indians did not live in the Rockies until early in the nineteenth century. But this does not explain David 1 hompson s account of finding herds of wild horses in the Columbia valley in 1807. It does not satisfy Prof. Charles Borden of the University of British Columbia, who thinks prehistoric man may have lived in the Rocky Mountain trench; and it does not explain how Bruno Engler, a mountaineer at Banff, came to discover a cave decorated with wall paintings which a Calgary archaeologist believes are more than one thousand years old.
Whatever the answer to these mysteries it seems fairly plain that the history of Rocky Mountain habitation by white men falls into four main chapters, much as the mountains themselves fall into four main topographical divisions. I he foothills might reasonably be compared to the period of early exploration; the crazy, twisted front ranges to the age of lunacy known as the gold rush; the massive, horizontally uplifted main ranges to the massive thrust of the CPR railway, and the complicated western ranges to the final chapter of mountain history, with the sweet wine of plenty in its silver-lined cloud always ready to fall with the drenching suddenness of mountain rain.
Three railway lines cross the mountains: the Crowsnest Pass line of the CPR to the south, the CNR through Yellowhead Pass at Jasper to the north, and the main line of the CPR through Kicking Horse Pass near Banff, said to offer the finest scenery of any railway in the world. Leaving Calgary on this line the train travels for seventy miles through tranquil-looking foothills whose hidden contortions bear comparison to the romanticized story of the white man’s discovery of the Rockies. This is usually told as a testament to disinterested heroism but for the most part it is really a shabby tale of rivalry, failure and frustrated hope.
in their forays into the Rockies Mackenzie and Fraser both failed to find what they were looking for—an overland passage to the Pacific. Thompson found the Columbia River but it never became a fur-trading route. Many travelers followed these pioneers of the fur trade but their discoveries did little more than strengthen the belief that these wild wonders of the new world were irrevocably opposed to humanity.
Around 1858, exactly when and where
and by whom is another mystery, gold was discovered on the Fraser and the implacable peaks, their secrets still intact, looked down on a new invasion by white men. It was an era convulsed by lunatic passions of greed and risk-taking as far above the sober strivings of the fur traders as the wild contorted front ranges are above the stunted foothills. It was an era of the swindle when men asked to be duped and when they embraced death and disaster as lightly as a mountain shrugs a thousand tons of rock off a crenelated shoulder.
The crudest swindle of all was that devised by the Overland Transit Company, an English organization that lured the unsuspecting to the wilds of Canada by advertising “ships like palaces” going across the Atlantic, “luxurious stages” over the prairies and “comfortable caravans" from Edmonton to the gold fields of the Cariboo. Miraculously some of the victims reached the foothills, their enthusiasm undiminished. One Overlander’s diary records that the Miette Rivetnear Jasper “contained not only gold but precious stones” and another says “the mountains have enough coal for all England for a thousand years.” But, as they struggled on foot front Jasper toward the Cariboo, the Overlanders were destined to be duped once more, this time by the Rockies. Most of them died. On the bodies of some was evidence of cannibalism. Of the few who survived none is known to have found gold.
Other prospectors, who left testaments to their widely scattered origins in mountain creeks named Glasgow, Galway, Rome, Liverpool, Limerick, Lisbon and Paris, were luckier. For them, said a writer of the day, “it was a halcyon era when gold dust was accounted nothing and miners who had spent six weeks in Cariboo would come down to the capital and call for all the champagne in a hotel to wash their feet, eat ten-pound notes as pills or as a sandwich with a slice of pork, or light their pipes with them." But how much gold they took out of the mountains is another mystery. The archives of British Columbia put it at approximately nine million dollars. Around Cranbrook the favored figure is twenty million.
However much it was, the gold rush was over in ten years. A dozen towns like Barkerville, once the biggest city northwest of Chicago, vanished as though swept away by an avalanche. All that
remains is ruins scattered over the mountains; ruins without beauty or the dignity of age; neglected graves, rubble heaps and sagging phantom shacks, their glassless windows staring in dismay at the natural wonders that destroyed them.
The outcome of the gold rush was a movement to secure the treasures of the west in a united Canada, and when it came the mountains watched a period in their history as different from those that went before and came after as the main ranges are different from those to the east and those to the west. British Columbia, a crown colony since 1858, agreed to join the new confederation of Canada—provided a railway was built over the mountains. The wors* barriers to this project were the main ranges of the Rockies, a formidable chain stretching from Mount Assiniboine in the south to Mount Robson in.the north and familiar, on picture postcards at least, all over the world.
These ranges differ from the other ranges in the Rocky Mountain system because of their great height, just as the historical period of the railroad differs from other periods because of the colossal dimensions of the undertaking. The main ranges contain nearly all the glaciers in the system.
“Not worth keeping”
In the period of the railroad reposed all the icy fears for the future of Canada as a nation. And as the main ranges, unlike the convulsed and overturned ranges to the east and the west, seem to have been pushed up horizontally from beneath the earth’s surface by two straight lines of underlying thrust, one from the east and one from the west, so was the railroad finally built by two straight lines of thrust, one from the east and one from the west.
But before construction began in what Rupert Brooke once called “this horrid wilderness,” nine years elapsed, eleven surveys were made, a government fell. Confederation was almost wrecked and the Rockies had swallowed up more dollars than there were people in the insecure nation. By 1879 British Columbia was threatening to secede and in 1881 the federal government handed the problem of crossing the Rockies to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In Canada, as elsewhere, the plans of these daring capitalists aroused derisive skepti-
cism. “It is impossible to believe that they are such fools as to put their money in this mad project,” said a writer in the English magazine Truth. “I would as soon credit them with a willingness to subscribe hard cash in support of a scheme to utilize icebergs. British Columbia is a barren, cold mountain country that is not worth keeping. It would never have been inhabited at all unless by trappers and had not the gold fever taken mining adventurers there. Fifty railroads would not galvanize it into prosperity.”
But on May 23, 1887, in spite of criticism and delay, the first through passenger train reached an exultant Vancouver, blazing with bunting and excited proclamations such as “Labor Vincit Omnia,” "Orient Greets Occident” and “Confederation Accomplished.” The train itself, three cars and a sleeper, looked like a honky-tonk girl decked out in every frill and feather in her wardrobe. Painted faces of Queen Victoria stared from the headlights. Flags and evergreens covered the sides of the engine and the tender. Legends girdled the smokestack: “Montreal Greets Terminal City,” “Ocean to Ocean,” “Our National Highway.” A crowd of thousands gave three cheers for the queen, for the engineer, the fireman, the mayor, the CPR, Canada and Confederation, and above their cheers the Vancouver city band played See the Conquering Hero Comes.
But the echoes of joy had scarcely subsided when the link between the oceans began showing signs of strain over the mountains. Train crews demanded higher wages in the mountain division, known as the graveyard of the CPR and built at a cost, say some accounts, of two hundred and fifty lives. For the big pull between Lake Louise and Revelstoke, firemen shoveled as much as thirty tons of coal in a hundred and forty miles.
The first shipment of freight, eighteen thousand half-chests of tea, made not a cent of profit. Anguished protests from the shareholders in Britain were soon being repeated by businessmen in B. C.. and before the century ended a select committee of the legislature was busy enquiring into differential tariffs. This committee found rates "so high that it was proved beyond a doubt that a mule train could compete successfully alongside the railroad, a state of things which cannot be said to exist in any other part of the world.”
From then until 1949, when it was abolished, the mountain differential freight rate was an issue as big as the mountains themselves, with a structure even more complicated and mysterious. Even now tariffs on goods hauled by rail over the mountains are so complex that when I was in Vancouver last summer I was told there were only three men who could explain them to me. One was dead. One didn’t think he could spare the time. The third was in Ottawa starring in a new edition of that interminable circus known to every Canadian as an enquiry into freight rates by the Board of Transport Commissioners.
This still unsettled wrangle about freight rates points up another comparison between the main ranges and the period of the railroad. The main ranges carry the Continental Divide, which separates water flowing east from water
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flowing west. Similarly the CPR. started to unite British Columbia to the rest of Canada, ended by establishing forever the insurmountable barrier between them.
The western ranges, according to North and Henderson, are marked by structures unlike any others in the Canadian Rockies. Similarly, the final chapter of Rocky Mountain history is as complex and contradictory as the wonderland of some titanic Alice where there is always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never any jam today.
At the turn of the century a new mining boom rode in on the railway. In the distorting mists of mountain optimism most of the properties looked better than they were, like one mine, owned by Tiffany’s of New York, which was said to “contain enough silver to make all Canada’s railway tracks of silver instead of steel.” This mine failed for the same reason that many other mines failed—the fluctuating price of base metals did not justify extracting the ore and transporting it over mountains to the railway.
But yesterday's disasters have done nothing to dim today's confidence in tomorrow. Prospectors are still after the fortunes in silver, lead, zinc, coal, gypsum and magnesite that the Rockies are said to contain. One Vancouver mining man estimates that this year more than two hundred companies have survey plans for the Rockies.
Thomas Elliott, of the B. C.-Yukon Chamber of Mines, says today’s scrutiny is focused mainly on the Rocky Mountain Trench, a remarkable trough from two to ten miles wide and twelve hundred miles long that runs parallel to the Rockies, separates them from the interior ranges and is, according to North and Henderson, “the most important single lineament in the Rocky Mountain system.” With its incalculable wealth in minerals, timber and water power and with sixteen opposing scientific theories to explain its origin, the trench is the most tantalizing mystery of the mountains.
The illusion that it is somehow tied up with a bountiful tomorrow is like Cleopatra—age cannot wither it. Nine rivers drain it, two of the largest being the Kootenay and the great Columbia, which rises in the Rockies, empties into the Pacific below the border of the U. S. and has a hydro-electric power potential of thirty-five million kilowatts.
Sixty years ago a peppery little Austrian named Adolph Baillie-Grohman swore he could change the economy of the Canadian west by building a canal to divert the source of the Kootenay into the Columbia, a development involving flood control, reclamation, irrigation, navigation and industrial expansion. Today, Gen. A. G. L. McNaughton, chairman of the International Joint Commission, says he can change the economy of the Canadian west by building a canal to divert the source of the Columbia into the Thompson to achieve similar results.
Because it was a danger to the CPR railway grade, Baillie-Grohman’s scheme dried up in the fierce heat of politics. Gen. McNaughton’s canal may suffer the same fate because the U. S. government is protesting that it will cut off the flow of water over American dams on the Columbia. The U. S. also opposes Canada’s plan to harness the Columbia with a storage dam at Mica Creek, and while the politicians squabble residents of the Rockies watch history repeating itself and prepare once more to be stranded in their valleys, waiting for a new bonanza.
The latest and most grandiose proposal to harness the treasures of the trench comes from Axel Wenner-Gren, the
Swedish millionaire, whose hobby is planning to alter countries. Wenner-Gren says he intends to build a four-hundred-mile monorail in the north and also to build schools, hospitals, pulp mills, a smelter and a six-hundred-rnillion-dollar electrical development on the Peace River.
Fifty years ago Randolph Bruce, a former lieutenant-governor of B. C., had similar Utopian dreams for the southern pari of the trench. Bruce planned to irrigate and subdivide a large tract of land in the Windermere valley. This he touted all over England in a profusion of promises for the best of all possible worlds: ideal climate, beautiful scenery, schools, hospitals, clubs and an easy living to be made from raising sheep and polo ponies, growing “strawberries six to the pound,” “big luscious apples for the prairies,” and “oats eighty bushels to the acre.”
Bruce enticed to his Garden of Eden a colony of tenderly bred English aristocrats with Chippendale bureaus, Tudor four-posters, grand pianos, Georgian silver and no farming experience.
Even if they could have grown anything on the arid soil there was no way of getting it to markets. The main problem then, was the same as it is now—lack of transportation.
“Best of all,” gloated a colonization leaflet in 1910, “is the road, clean over the mountains, from Banff to Windermere, which will be finished in the spring." But the road was not finished till many years later. And the TransCanada highway, which has been a dream for a generation, is still part of the mellifluous mirage of the future. Started in 1935 and re-routed in 1955, it won t be finished until 1961, if then.
and on the other main roads in the Rockies construction gangs are as much a part of the scenery as mendicant bears.
In spite of the roads, nearly a million tourists travel to the Rockies every summer where over five million acres of spectacular alpine scenery has been protected for their pleasure in six national parks. The Rockies are the cradle of Canada’s national parks system: in 1887 the government appropriated ten square miles at Banff to reserve for the nation the right to exploit the hot mineral springs. Geologists don’t know whether these mysterious mountain phenomena are part of the hot liquid strata beneath the earth’s crust or whether they come from streams passing over heated rock mass at great depth. The water was once thought to have miraculous curative powers, although two English travelers reported in 1886 that “its only value consisted in killing anything less hardy than a grizzly bear that ventured to taste it.” Today official literature speaks very guardedly about the springs, admitting that the water is radioactive, but avoiding reference to the recent claims of nuclear scientists that all radioactivity is genetically harmful.
However, the days when the ailing came to the Rockies in thousands to take the waters, when the energetic disappeared for weeks on long pack trips, when the healthy dined in full dress and the King of Siam arrived with his retinue in a private train and took over a wing of the Banff Springs Hotel, all belong to the faded vision of yesterday’s plenty. Today, in the era of the common man, the car has replaced the horse, the luxury hotel has given way to the motel and the leisurely vacation to the one-night stand. Most tourists whisk over the main travel
routes in cars, buses or trains, going into conventional ecstasies when they pause briefly to admire the scenery, usually through the lens of a camera. They rarely climb mountains, as they did in the past, preferring instead to get their panoramic views from a ski lift in Banff that does more business in summer than in winter.
The favorite travel months are July and August when the weather, according to official literature, is supposed to be ideal. But weather is evidently another mystery of the mountains; in 1957 it rained every day during July and August while September, supposed to be unpredictable, was flawless. Peerless day succeeded peerless day with the sky bluer than a postcard, the air crisp as a cucumber and the sun bubbling like champagne on the emerald water of lake and stream and on the apricot leaves of the humble, quaking aspen. On such a day the Rockies are ravishing. Gaunt and windbitten they ride over everything like giant Valkyrie in white helmets and green timber cloaks with starched lace flounces of new snow at their stratified bosoms and around their furrowed old throats necklaces of golden larch.
On such a day too they look timeless and tranquil but geologists say they are neither. They are still on the move, as they have been for millions of years, and the verdict of science is that one day they will go, just like everything else. But that day is far in the unknown and unknowable future. Meanwhile, as men scramble about on their bases striving to understand them, to cross them, to harness their power and to fell or mine their wealth, they remain unconquered, towering in silent, inscrutable rebuke under a derisive sky.