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Canadian Alpine Journal/Volume 1/Number 2/Untrodden Ways


By Mary T. S. Schaffer.

In the summer of 1907, on June 20th, two women and two guides left the little station of Laggan, Alberta, and started for the vast wilderness to the north. It was cold and raw, snow flew in our not over-jubilant faces, the way was one of grind over fallen timbers and through the most discouraging muskegs. For our trail lay up the Bow Valley, across the summit of the same name, down Mistaya Creek to its junction with the Saskatchewan River, and from thence on by the various branches of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers.

Not as the crow flies, but as the trail winds, we reached in our wanderings a point about 200 miles from Laggan, not far from the junction of the Whirlpool and Athabasca Rivers. In this section there are four distinct streams: the Chaba, which flows up from the south and joins the West Branch of the Athabasca about twelve miles from its own source; a branch which flows from the south-east and joins the Chaba about three miles from the latter's source; the West Branch mentioned above, and the Sun Wapta, which joins the main stream several miles below. About half way up the Chaba, and to the west of it, lies beautiful Fortress Lake, discovered in 1893 by Dr. A. P. Coleman. It is a wild and strikingly picturesque valley, though probably not more so than many similarly situated on the Saskatchewan River. Yet the West Branch appealed to us more; there was a sense of loneliness, of freedom from all touch of human life, a purity, a bloom, which the white man's hand so quickly brushes aside. I say "white," for the red man defiles it no more than does the passing caribou or the wandering bear. His standing teepee-poles but give the touch the artist loves, while the centuries-old hunting trails are filled with soundless stories which interested eyes may easily read as they follow in the wake of the feet that have gone by and will never return.

Fortress Lake, Alberta.jpg

Mary T. S. Schaffer, Photo

Fortress Lake

Mount Columbia, Canada.jpg

Mary T. S. Schaffer, Photo

Mount Columbia

As far as I can learn, only one white man has ever penetrated to the end of the West Branch, and this was Jean Habel, a German explorer, who visited it in the summer of 1901. He did not then recognize the superb pyramid of faultless outline which stands guard at the extreme southern limit of the valley as Mt. Columbia, and called it "Gamma." He afterwards published a short article in "Appalachia" with a fine reproduction of Mt. Columbia, but before he could do more, or his work be better known, the pen was laid aside forever; and it was with a feeling of sincere sadness that we passed his long-deserted camps, and realized so vividly the feelings which must have thrilled him as he saw the rich scenic treasures the mountains were unfolding for the first time to human eyes.

Next to being asked if we were not "afraid" in that lonely wilderness, the most common question is: "Did you go where no person had ever been before?" An Indian after all is a " person," and to find a spot where an Indian has not been in that great hunting ground, which has doubtless been hunted over from time immemorial by the plains tribes, would seem an absolute impossibility. The caribou, goat and sheep yet wander in these lonely fastnesses, and a few Indians still come to the haunts of their forefathers; but in the further valleys the teepee-poles are fallen and decayed, and thus the story of the passing of the red man is simply and sadly told. So to that question I can only reply: We found one section, and but one, where it seemed as if not even an Indian's foot had trodden. This was on the north shore of the Athabasca River after the four streams had united. The original explorer had chosen the south and more "muskeggy" ground, where we ourselves were forced to travel to avoid the arduous labor of chopping a trail. This was the only section of the eight or nine hundred miles we travelled where there was a doubt that Indians had gone; at least, it had never been a highway.

From the Athabasca we turned our attention to the sources of the Saskatchewan and Brazeau Rivers, to the " Valley of the Lakes," a branch of the North Fork of the former stream, and to the West Branch, a tributary of the Saskatchewan flowing from the Lyell group. This valley alone is worth a trip, an article to itself, and a more ready pen. It is a valley of gorges and glaciers, magnificent peaks and tumbling waterfalls, and holds a charming lake which we have named "Nashanesen."[1] The climax is reached at the Thompson Pass, where the traveller who has stuck to it through pretty rough "going" is at last rewarded by his first glimpse of Mt. Bryce, and from a shoulder of the mountain the vast ice-fields of Mt. Columbia.

From the West Branch we crossed by Nigel Pass to the Brazeau country lying to the north-east of the Wilcox Pass. Roughly speaking, Brazeau Lake lies in latitude 53° and longitude 117°. It is about six miles long, is wooded round its shores, and at its head stands a fine peak — Mt. Brazeau. Low mountains hem it in on all sides, and. on a calm morning, before the sun has risen or the wind has cast a ripple on its blue-green surface, the sight is one of exquisite beauty.

We no sooner reached the southern shore of the lake than a whole volume was opened for us to read. In a perfect grove among the spruces stood comparatively fresh teepee-poles, while tossed here and there, in every stage of decay, were those which had served their purpose many, many years before. An old trail was beaten deep within the forest, and from this path sprang ancient trees which held their proud boughs to the blue sky above, their lower bark scarred and gashed by hands long laid beneath the sod.

Pyramid Peak from junction of North Fork and Main Saskatchewan.jpg

Mary T. S. Schaffer, Photo

Pyramid Peak

From Junction of North Fork and Main Saskatchewan

Mount Athabasca, from Wilcox Pass.jpg

Mary T. S. Schaffer, Photo

Mount Athabasca

From Wilcox Pass

That it was and yet is a magnificent sheep country, there is little doubt. Its long distance from the now small band of Stony Indians at Morley and the nearly exhausted game country intervening, is probably a sufficient reason for the greater abundance of animal life which we saw there. We had followed a most marvellous Indian trail over the worst bed of boulders I ever met for horses to travel, had climbed on and on, lured by the old trail, until well toward 9,000 feet, when we suddenly surprised a band of sheep. They had probably never seen a human being before. On the defensive at once, they were off like a flash before our astonished gaze, along a bare rock-face and up an almost perpendicular wall covered with ice that the most fearless Swiss guide would not have dared attempt, and over which they bounded as though it were but a meadow of upland grass. Reaching the high and inaccessible crags, they paused, and for a moment gazed upon us far below; then a magnificent ram appeared to take the lead. The others disappeared, but the massive head of the leader, with its great horns, stood motionless against the grey sky, his attitude alert, his body immovable. Only, as we moved back and down the valley, we could discern that he turned to keep us in view. Such a picture! The dreary wastes of naked rock, the cold glistening glaciers all about us, the early snows in the unexposed niches, the dying alpine flowers at our feet, then, high above, clinging to the superb crags outlined against an angry sky, stood that emblem of a noble and fast-disappearing creature—the Rocky Mountain sheep.

From the Brazeau country we made our way back toward Nigel Pass, crossed Cataract Pass and descended Cataract Creek to the Kootenai Plains. Here we rested and revelled in those golden valleys, visited the Indians, and found life a very pleasant matter in that peaceful sunshine after the snows and storms among the more northern valleys.

Yet even here the late September days were stealing. They were coming with the yellowing poplars, and with the laggard dawn. We knew the winter's snows must soon sweep across the higher passes, but begged a few days' respite to visit one spot which beckoned us with its beguiling name. This was the "Valley of the Lakes." James Outram speaks of seeing it from the summit of Mt. Lyell, and says in his book (In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies): "It appeared as a deep enshadowed trough, jewelled with a host of little lakes." The description fascinated us, appealed to our imagination, and we were to have the pleasure of stealing the first secrets of a primeval wilderness. From the camp at the junction of the North Fork and the main Saskatchewan River, we travelled up the east bank of the North Fork for about 13 miles; here, being low water, we easily found a crossing, and followed the west shore for a mile more, when an old Indian trail led directly to the unknown valley. As far as the red man is concerned, it is many years since his moccasined foot has trodden that moss-covered way. The trail remains beaten and worn, but overgrown and impeded with huge fallen trees, and only the blaze of a white man's axe seven or eight feet above the ground showed that a hunter had gone that way in the dead of winter to test his fortune with traps and rifle.

No sooner had we left the river than we plunged into a thick growth of spruce, climbing constantly for two hours. Reaching comparatively level ground, we plodded on amidst closely grown and exasperating pines, so thick and so nearly impregnable that even our now depleted packs could not be forced through until the axe rang and woke the silence which seemed to lie like a pall on every surrounding object. So muffled and dark and still was this bit of primeval forest that no sign of life met us on the way; it seemed that with the passing of the Indian had passed the need for the little people of the wood; and yet, no doubt, bright, terror-stricken eyes were in every direction, watching the movements of the terrible and unaccountable enemy.

After long windings and turnings in the shadows, with no sign of the grass so necessary to our horses, we made our way to the banks of a tumbling torrent which seemed to come from the Lyell ice-fields. From the deathly silence of the forest, our serenade all that night was the rushing, pounding stream as it hurled itself along among the boulders of the river-bed scarce ten feet away. On each side of the very narrow valley avanaches had torn and ripped the trees from their roots in every direction, and amidst this havoc and desolation was the only feed our hungry horses could find, and very poor picking at that. As yet we had seen nothing of the lakes to which Outram had given the lovely name, the name which had lured us through those long, silent, weary hours in the deep, lonely forest.

In a rainy, misty sort of sunshine the next morning, we essayed a climb to look for the lakes. How hot it was when the sun beat down! How steep and tough the avalanche-scarred hillside! How bitter cold the wind from the ice-fields! And our reward, "the lakes like jewels," where were they? Toiling stubbornly onward to the bare cliffs above, we reached the loose unstable scree just beneath them, paused and looked eagerly to the valley below upon a chain of sloughs. Beautiful they were, too, lying in peaceful silence far below, like giant emeralds tossed there by mountain gnomes. From his height of several thousand feet above us the enthusiastic climber had beheld "lakes."

The home stretch lay over Howse and Baker Passes, the latter very beautiful but difficult to travel. It is hard, at best, to leave behind the days of freedom, the constantly shifting panorama of mountains, lakes and rivers, the balsam-laden air; to return to the beaten track, to four walls, and all the cares which know so well how to creep within them. It was a summer of almost continuous cold and storm, but with no accidents to ourselves or the horses. It was a happy sixteen weeks amidst as fine a cyclorama of changing scenery as the dear old world can offer, and there was always the sunshine of contentment and goodwill within the tent and at the camp-fire.

This work is in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less.

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  1. Names given in Canada are subject to approval by the Geographical Board–Editor