Canadian Alpine Journal/Volume 1/Number 1/Memories of the Mountains

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MEMORIES OF THE MOUNTAINS


By Sir Sandford Fleming

There is no record of any European having crossed the continent of America north of the Gulf of Mexico at an earher date than one hundred and fourteen years ago. The idea of reaching the Western sea overland had fired the ambition of the men of New France for a hundred years and more. After long effort they succeeded in reaching a point within sight of the Rocky mountains, but a distant view of the gleaming peaks of that mighty range marked the utmost limit of their achievement. It remained for a Scotchman, a partner of the enterprising North-West Company of Canada, to gain the coveted honor. Alexander Mackenzie was born in Scotland in 1760, came to Canada as a young man, and at once threw himself into the hazardous service of the western fur trade. His restless ambition found little congenial in the commercial side of his occupation, but he eagerly seized upon the opportunities it offered for exploration. Always ready to engage in perilous enterprises, he discovered the great river of the north which springs in the passes of the mountains and bears the name of its discoverer. He was the first from Canada to reach the Arctic ocean. Not content with that notable exploit, he turned to the westward, penetrated the mountains, and reached the Pacific at Bella Coola, a point not far distant from the site of Prince Rupert, the recently selected terminus of the Grand Trunk Pacific railway. On a rock facing the tide water of the western ocean
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SIR ALEXANDER MACKENZIE

he painted this simple memorial: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three." The record has long since disappeared, but the name of Alexander Mackenzie, the indomitable explorer, lives and will always live in the history of Canada.

Following in the footsteps of Mackenzie, another explorer, Simon Fraser, crossed the mountains and descended the river that now bears his name. The appalling difficulties of the journey would have frightened any less heroic heart. His men threatened to desert him. They urged him to avoid the almost impassable canyon by crossing overland to the Thompson river, but he replied simply that his orders were to explore the Fraser to the sea, and he would do that or die in the attempt. He succeeded, where many another would have failed.

From the days of Mackenzie and Fraser, the Rocky mountains have been penetrated time and again by explorers, fur-traders and travellers, from David Thompson, Alexander Henry, Gabriel Franchère, Ross Cox, Daniel Harmon, and Alexander Ross, to Sir George Simpson, Sir James Douglas, Paul Kane, the Earl of Southesk, Dr. James Hector, Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle. All the earlier explorers were associated either with the North-West Company or with the greater company into which it was merged, the Hudson's Bay Company, whose vast commercial enterprises are recognized to have played an exceedingly important part in retaining our western territory within the limits of British North America.

The days when the fur-trader ruled an empire larger than all Europe have gone by. His realm is now in a different sphere. The railway has to a large extent taken the place of his brigade of prairie carts, his bark canoe or dog-sled. Many changes have occurred under my own eyes during the more than a third of a century since my feet lightly trod for the first time the region of the mighty mountains, when I willingly accepted my first lessons in mountaineering.

It was in 1871 that the mountain region north of the 49th parallel became part of Canada. The importance of connecting British Columbia with the eastern provinces was at once recognized, and the stupendous task of building a railway from ocean to ocean was undertaken. Having been appointed engineer-in-chief, my duties soon led me to the mountains, and I have returned to them again and again, always with the same keen appreciation of their grandeur. My purpose here is to recall the past and revivify some of the impressions formed from personal observation, before the mountain region was made accessible to the people of the world by the completion of the Canadian Pacific railway. With this end in view, I do not think I can do better than select illustrations from the records of my early journeys. I purpose, then, to submit a brief reference to some scenes and incidents still fresh in my memory, under the following headings:

  1. The Yellow Head Pass—1872.
  2. The Kicking Horse Pass—1883.
  3. The Rogers Pass—1883.
  4. The First Through Train—1885.

The Yelloiv Head Pass—1872

My overland expedition of 1872 left Halifax on July 1st. We reached Prince Arthur's Landing (now Port Arthur) twenty-one days later. Following the route of the fur-traders, and travelling for the most part by canoe, we arrived at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) on August 1st. Procuring horses, we crossed the plains to Edmonton; thence, after an exceedingly toilsome journey, we came under the protection of the Rocky mountains. It had taken from August 28th to the night of September 9th to reach the mountains from Edmonton. I cannot now do better than turn to the diary kept, day by day, by my dear friend, the late Principal Grant, who acted as secretary to the expedition.

September 10th. We had come to the bases of the Rocky mountains and the sight of them was sufficient reward for all the toil of the preceeding fortnight. Curiously enough, as if to mark the occasion, we came into possession of "treasure trove" soon after we decided to camp for the night. A tent pole refusing to pentrate the ground more than about four inches, some blows from the axe were called for, to cut the supposed root of a sapling, but without effect other than blunting badly the edge of the axe. The hand of the axeman then felt for the obstruction, and with some effort drew out of the soil an ancient sword bayonet, the brazen hilt and steel blade in excellent preservation, but the leather scabbard partly eaten as if by some animal. It seemed strange in this vast and silent wilderness thus to come upon a European relic. How long had it lain where we found it? Are there many or any more bayonets embedded in this region? Its past history remains a mystery. It became part of our travelling impedimenta for the rest of the journey, and for nearly thirty-five years, which have since passed away, this "treasure trove" has found another resting place in my Ottawa home.

The Athabaska fell six inches during the night. Got away from camp at 7.30 a.m., and for two hours had a delightful ride to Prairie river. The trail ran along a terrace of shingle or alluvial flats, and was free from fallen timber and muskegs. Most of the flowers were out of blossom. Few, however, thought of plants to-day or of anything but the mountains that stood in massive grandeur, thirty miles ahead, but on account of the morning light, in which every point came out clear, seemingly just on the other side of each new patch of wood or bit of prairie before us. They rose bold and abrupt five or six thousand feet from the wooded country beneath them—the western verge of the plains, the elevation of which was over three thousand feet additional above the sea,—and formed in long, unbroken line across our path. . . . The summits on one side of the Athabaska were serrated, looking sharp as the teeth of a saw; on the other, the Roche à Myette, immediately behind the first line, reared a great, solid, unbroken cube, two thousand feet high, a "forehead bare," twenty times higher than Ben An's; and, before and beyond it, away to the south and west, extended ranges with bold summits and sides scooped deep, and corries far down, where formerly the wood buffalo and the elk, and now the moose, bighorn and bear, find shelter. There was nothing fantastic about their forms. Everything was imposing. And these, too, were ours, an inheritance as precious, if not as plentiful in corn and milk, as the vast rich plains they guarded. For mountains elevate the mind, and give an inspiration of courage and dignity to the hardy races who own them and who breathe their atmosphere.

For the strength of the hills we bless Thee,
 Our God, our fathers' God.
Thou hast made our spirits mighty
 With the touch of the mountain sod.

The scene had its effect on the whole party. As we wound in long, Indian file along the sinuous trail that led across grassy bas-fonds under the shadow of the mountains that were still a day's journey distant, not a word was heard nor a cry to the horses for the first half-hour.

After dinner we resumed the march. . . . The view of the mountains all this afternoon more than made up for the difficulties of the road. Instead of being clearly outlined, cold, and grey, as in the morning, they appeared indistinct through a warm deep blue haze.

September 11th. Away this morning at 6.15 a.m., and halted at 1 p.m., after crossing the Riviére de Violon, or Fiddle river. It was a grand morning for mountain scenery. For the first three hours the trail continued at some distance east from the valley of the Athabaska, among wooded hills, now ascending, now descending, but on the whole with an upward slope, across creeks where the ground was invariably boggy, and over fallen timber where infinite patience was required on the part of horse and man. Suddenly it opened out on a lakelet, and right in front, a semicircle of five glorious mountains appeared; a high wooded hill and Roche à Perdrix on our left, Roche à Myette beyond, Roche Ronde in front, and a mountain above Lac Brulé on our right. For half a mile down from their summits, no tree, shrub or plant covered the nakedness of the three that the old trappers had thought worthy of names; a clothing of vegetation would have marred their massive grandeur. . . .

The road now descended rapidly to the valley of the Athabaska. As it wound from point to point among the tall dark green spruces, the soft blue of the mountains gleamed through everywhere, and when the woods parted the mighty column of Roche à Perdrix towered a mile above our heads, scuds of cloud kissing its snowy summit, and each plication and angle of the different strata up its giant sides boldly and clearly revealed. We were entering the magnificent jasper portals of the Rocky mountains by a quiet path winding between groves of trees and rich lawns like an English gentleman's park.

Crossing a brook divided into half a dozen brooklets by willows, the country opened a little, and the base and inner side of Roche à Perdrix were revealed, but it was still an amphitheatre of mountains that opened out before us, and Roche à Myette seemed as far off as ever. Soon the Riviére de Violon was heard brawling round the base of Roche à Perdrix and rushing on like a true mountain torrent to the Athabaska. We stopped to drink to the Queen out of its clear ice-cold waters, and halted for dinner in a grove on the other side of it, thoroughly excited and awed by the grand forms that begirt our path for the last three hours. We could now sympathize with the daft enthusiast, who returned home after years of absence, and when asked what he had as an equivalent for so much lost time,—answered only, "I have seen the Rocky mountains."

Myette is the characteristic mountain of the Jasper valley. There are others as high, but its grand bare forehead is recognized everywhere. It is five thousand eight hundred feet above the valley, or over nine thousand feet above the sea. Doctor Hector, with the agent in charge of Jasper House, climbed to a sharp peak far above any vegetation, three thousand five hundred feet above the valley, but the great cubical block which formed the top towered more than two thousand feet higher.

The views this afternoon from every new point were wonderfully striking. Looking back on Roche à Perdrix, it assumed more massive proportions than when we were immediately beneath. A huge shoulder stretched up the valley, one side covered with bare poles, grey as itself, and the other with sombre firs. From it, the great summit upreared itself so conspicuously, that it filled the background and closed the mouth of the valley.

But the most wonderful object was Roche à Myette, right above us on our left. That imposing sphinx-like head with the swelling Elizabethan ruff of sandstone and shales all around the neck, save on one side where a corrugated mass of party colored strata twisted like a coil of serpents from far down nearly half way up the head, haunted us for days. Mighty must have been the forces that upreared and shaped such a monument. Vertical strata were piled on horizontal, and horizontal again on the vertical, as if Nature had determined to build a tower that would reach to the skies. As we passed this old warder of the valley, the sun was setting behind Roche Suette. A warm south-west wind as it came in contact with the snowy summit formed heavy clouds, that threw long black shadows, and threatened rain; but the wind carried them past to empty their buckets on the woods and prairies.

It was time to camp, but where? The Chief, Beaupre, and Brown rode ahead to see if the river was fordable. The rest followed, going down to the bank and crossing to an island formed by a slew of the river. . . . The resources of the island would not admit of our light cotton sheet being stretched as an overhead shelter, so we selected the lee side of a dwarf aspen thicket, and spread our blankets on the gravel; a good fire being made in front to cook our supper and keep our feet warm through the night. Some of us sat up late, watching the play of the moonlight on the black clouds that drifted about her troubled face as she hung over Roche Jacques; and, then we stretched ourselves out to sleep on our rough but truly enviable couch, rejoicing in the open sky for a canopy, and in the circle of great mountains that formed the walls of our indescribably magnificent bed-chamber. It had been a day long to be remembered.

September 12th. We slept soundly our first night in the mountains, and after a dip in the Athabaska and breakfast. Valad went off on horseback to try the fords. Though the river had fallen six inches since last night, he found it still too deep for pack horses, and there was nothing but to construct a raft. . . .

All got over safely, though there was some danger on account of the strength of the current. . . . A ride of two miles took us to Jasper's, where we arrived exactly fifteen days after leaving Edmonton, two of them days of rest and a third lost by the obstruction of the Athabaska. It is hardly fair to speak of it as lost, however, for there was no point at which the delay of a day was so acceptable. The mountains of the Jasper valley would have repaid us for a week's detention.

Jasper House itself is one of the best possible places for seeing to advantage the mountains up and down the valley. It is situated in a pretty glade that slopes gently to the Athabaska, sufficiently large and open to command a view in every direction. There is a wonderful combination of beauty about these mountains. Great masses of boldly defined bare rock are united to all the beauty that variety of form, color, and vegetation give. A noble river with many tributaries, each defining a distinct range, and a beautiful lake ten miles long, embosomed three thousand three hundred feet above the sea, among mountains twice as high, offer innumerable scenes, seldom to be found within the same compass, for the artist to depict and for every traveller to delight in.

Valad informed us that the winter in this quarter is wonderfully mild, considering the height and latitude; that the Athabaska seldom if ever freezes here, and that wild ducks remain all the year instead of migrating south, as birds further east invariably do. The lake freezes, but there is so little snow that travellers prefer fording the river to trusting to the glare ice.

September 13th. The rain that had been brewing all yesterday came down last night in torrents. One awakened to find the boots at his head full of water; the feet of another, the head of a third, the shoulders of a fourth, were in pools according to the form of the ground, or the precautions that each had taken before turning in. The clouds were lifting, however, and promised a fine day, and nobody cared for a little wetting; but everybody cared very much, when the Chief announced that the flour bag was getting so light that it might be necessary to allowance the bread rations. That struck home, though there was abundance of pemmican and tea. By 6.45 a.m. we were on the march again, to go deeper into the mountains. The trail led along Lake Jasper, and was so good that we made the west end of the lake, which is ten miles long, in two hours.

After dinner the march was resumed for seven miles up the valley. On the east side a succession of peaks resembling each other with the exception of one—"Roche à Bonhomme"—hemmed us in; while on the west, with lines of stratification parallel to lines on the east side, the solid rampart at the base of the Pyramid rose so steep and high, that the snowy summit behind could not be seen. The valley still averaged from two to five miles wide, though horizontal distances are so dwarfed by the towering altitude of the naked massive rocks on both sides, that it seemed to be scarcely one-fourth of that width. What a singularly easy opening into the mountains, formed by some great convulsion that had cleft them asunder, crushed and piled them up on each side like cakes of ice, much in the same way as may be seen in winter on the St. Lawrence or any of our rivers, on a comparatively microscopic scale, in ice-shoves! The Athabaska, finding so plain a course, had taken it, gradually shaped and finished the valley, strewn the bas-fonds, which cross-torrents from the hills have seamed and broken up. It looks as if Nature had united all her forces to make this the great natural highway into the heart of the Rocky mountains.

Sept. 14th. The trail this morning led along the Athabaska for seven miles, to where the Myette runs into it, opposite the old "Henry House." The highest mountains that we had yet seen, showed away to the south in the direction of the Athabaska pass, and "the Committee's Punch Bowl." This pass is seven thousand feet high, and snow hes on its summit all the year round, but our road led westward up the Myette; and, as the Athabaska here sweeps away to the south, under the name of Whirlpool river, the turn shut out from view for the rest of our journey, both the valley and the mountains of the Whirlpool.

The first five miles up the Caledonian valley, as the valley of the Myette is called in the old maps and in Dr. Hector's journals, we made in about three hours, and a little after midday halted for dinner. . . . The Myette has a wonderful volume of water for its short course. It rushes down a narrow valley fed at every corner by foaming fells from the hillsides, and by several large tributaries. A short way from its mouth it becomes simply a series of rapids or mad currents, hurling along boulders, trees, and debris of all kinds. The valley at first is uninteresting, but, five miles up and for much of the rest of the way, is quite picturesque, two prominent mountains, that rise right above the pass and the lake at the summit, closing it in at its head.

September 15th. Left the "Caledonian Camp" at 8 a.m. for our Sabbath day's journey, and found it not much better than yesterday afternoon's, as far as quality was concerned. As every one needed rest and was tired of the Myette and its swamps, willows, and rocks, the call for a halt was hailed with general joy. . . . McCord had selected his camping ground judiciously. Good wood, water, and pasture in his immediate neighborhood; a beautiful slope covered with tall spruce, among which the tents were scattered; an open meadow and low wooded hills to the north-west, round which the low line of the pass, winding in the same direction, could easily be made out; and the
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THE YELLOWHEAD PASS

From a Sketch by Sir Sandford Fleming

horizon, bounded by a bold ridge which threw out its two great peaks to overhang the pass. This was one of the most picturesque spots in the Caledonian valley, combining a soft lowland and woodland beauty with stern, rocky masses capped with eternal snow. We were 3,700 feet above the sea, but the air was soft and warm. Even at night it was only pleasantly cool. We were all delighted with this our first view of the Yellow Head pass.

September 16th. Our aim today was to reach Moose lake, twenty-four miles distant. The first half of the day was more like a pleasure trip than work. A gentle ascent brought us to the summit, which was found to be almost a continuous level, the trail following the now smooth-flowing Myette till the main branch entered the valley from the north, and then a small branch till it too disappeared among the hills. A few minutes afterwards the sound of a rivulet running in the opposite direction over a red pebbly bottom was heard. Thus we left the Myette flowing to the Arctic ocean, and now came upon this, the source of the Fraser, hurrying to the Pacific. At the summit Moberly welcomed us into British Columbia, for we were at length out of "No man's land," and had entered the western province of our Dominion. Round the rivulet running west the party gathered and drank from its waters to the Queen and the Dominion. There had been little or no frost near the summit, and flowers were in bloom that we had seen a month ago farther east. Before encamping for the night we continued our journey some twenty-six miles farther into British Columbia, well satisfied that no incline could be more gentle than the trail we had followed to the Pacific slope through the Yellow Head pass.

Among my memories of the mountains, I may here allude to a curious episode. We had a toilsome journey of about two weeks from Yellow Head pass to Kamloops. About midway we came into possession of the head of the "headless Indian," well known to every reader of the "North-West Passage by Land." In 1863 Dr. Cheadle and his companion, Lord Milton, in the silent forest saw in a sitting posture at the foot of a tree a headless skeleton clothed in the leathern garments of an Indian. In vain they looked for the head, but all trace of it eluded their diligent search. When we reached the spot, nine years afterwards, the skeleton had been found by some of my staff precisely as described by Milton and Cheadle. After a careful search in all directions, the head was likewise discovered, about a hundred and fifty yards away from the body. While the mystery of its separation from the trunk will probably always remain a mystery, the history of the skull since its discovery in 1872 is easily told. It found its way to Ottawa along with the old sword bayonet unearthed in the Jaspar valley on the other side of the Yellow Head pass, but unlike the sword bayonet it soon came to an untimely end. The long-missing cranium of the headless Indian was accidentally cremated on January i6th, 1874, when the offices of the Canadian Pacific Railway Survey, at the Capital, were unfortunately consumed by fire.

The Kicking Horse Pass—1883.

My first visit to the Kicking Horse pass was in 1883, when on a special examination at the instance of Lord Mountstephen, then president of the Canadian Pacific railway. I was in London when I received his telegram from Canada. It hastened my return, and it likewise led subsequently to the publication in book form of the journal of a summer tour between Old and New Westminster. It may not be without interest to look back at the record of a generation ago, along the identical route by which the railway has since conveyed, in ease and comfort, hundreds of thousands, and will continue to convey millions of passengers, througfh one of the great mountain regions of the globe.

Taking up the narrative at Calgary, the travelling party had hoped to learn at this place all that was then known of the territory to be traversed. We had reached the point on our journey where the accessories of modern travel ceased to be at our disposal. Before us lay the mountain zone to Kamloops, the distance across which, as the crow flies, is about three hundred miles. We failed to obtain any reliable information of the country through which we had to pass. Indeed, it was by no means a certainty that there was a practicable route through it. But it should not be forgotten that this uncertainty was understood to be the prime reason why Lord Mountstephen was so desirous that I should undertake the examination.

Before leaving the then canvas town of Calgary, I entered a tent where a printing press was in the act of striking off the first, or a very early issue, of the Calgary Herald, a journal which is still published. The day's journey brought us to "Morley," the home of the Stonies or Rocky Mountain Indians, where we obtained shelter. Next day, we proceeded nearly twenty miles, through a fine valley from three to eight miles wide, once the haunt of the buffalo, which a few years earlier, so we were informed at Morley, were numbered by hundrds of thousands.

The prairie diminishes as we advance, the valley contracts to half a mile. Evidently we are about to enter the portals of the mountains.[1] To the north, the bare precipitous rock is stratified and strongly contorted. The geological features are most striking and the exposure is on a grand scale. A great bluff rises almost vertical to a height of possibly fifteen hundred feet, and is about two miles in length. Four miles west, we are completely in the mountains, and every turn of the trail reveals new views of the grandest mountain scenery. Peaks towering behind and above each other come in sight, and the sun poured down its warmest rays, deepening the shadows and bringing out fresh beauties. The smoky air occasionally added to the landscape by developing the aerial perspective.

We pass Mount Cascade, so named from the small stream issuing from its side at the height possibly of two thousand feet, and descending direct to the valley. This mountain, the summit of which is said to be 5060 feet above the plain, is the most striking of the masses we have yet seen on the journey. Discoveries of anthracite coal have been made in its flanks, and from this fact the visitor of today will realize that the travellers had reached the neighborhood of what is now called Banff.

We learned from a party of engineers, encamped near by, that the prospect of getting through the mountains in front of us was not encouraging. They had never heard of any one crossing the Selkirk range. As they stated, "no one was known to have passed over from where we stood, by the route before us, to Kamloops; not even an Indian; and it was questionable if it were possible to find a route which could be followed." The information was unwelcome, but there was only one course open for us, and that was to proceed and ascertain the precise character of the difficulties, if there were any in the way.

We encamped for the night. Next morning, Sunday, the weather was really beautiful. The sun lit up in warm colors the great mountain peaks encircling the valley. The more distant peaks were invisible, but we had a remarkable view of the towering battlements to the north, in themselves so lofty and seemingly so near to us. We had a short service as usual, and as we anticipated a toilsome journey in front of us, we resolved on a Sabbath day's travel in order to get hardened to our work. We rode about twelve miles up the valley between mountains of the most imposing grandeur. One peak crowned with perpetual snow is of striking beauty. Another has a cubical summit. A third, at no great distance, is pyramidal; and so on, in every conceivable variety. On the other side of the valley, we see Castle mountain, the resemblance of its features to cyclopean masonry doubtless suggesting the name. Night comes and we are soon wrapped in our blankets.

Next morning we are in the saddle again, when the sun is peering over Castle mountain. The ride is partly through burnt woods along the side of the river, and the smoke conceals to a large extent the outline of the mountains. Our party gets divided, one of the number taking a wrong trail narrowly escaped losing himself, at least for the night. At the end of the day, we ascend a glacier-fed stream and thus reach the summit, 5300 feet above the sea. Tonight we fall asleep on the continental "Divide." Hitherto we have passed over ground draining to the east. Tomorrow we follow a stream flowing into the waters of the Pacific ocean.

The descent from the summit, which has since received the name of Laggan, was by the Kicking-Horse valley, flanked by great mountains. It occupied four days to the upper part of the Columbia river, and proved to be a most toilsome journey. As is frequently the case in mountaineering, a dash of peril was occasionally encountered. The Kicking-Horse river, which has its source in a small summit lake near Laggan, soon gathers strength from many glacier sources, and flows with tremendous impetuosity, especially for the first six miles. The last ten miles passes through canyons, where the descent is most rapid, and the water, now of great volume, rushes downwards with wonderful force before it falls into the placid Columbia. In the lower canyon, the water is forced through a rocky chasm, which from our point of view was of unknown depth. Where we stood the banks were overhanging. We encamped on the evening of the fourth day near the intersection of the Kicking-Horse with the Columbia, a river of considerable size in a magnificent valley several miles in width.

It is again Sunday, the first of September, which we devote to much-needed rest for horses and men. It is a beautiful morning, the sun lighting up the whole valley of the Columbia. The Rocky Mountain range which we have crossed lies behind us. The great Selkirk range lies in front. To the west and northwest, high peaks form a golden line of stern magnificence. Away to the south, huge areas of snow, possibly the accumulation of centuries, rest between the peaks. Amid all this grandeur we seek a few hours' rest to regain the vigor and elasticity which we shall need as we proceed on our journey.

In the cool of the evening we walk up the first gravelly terrace in rear of the camp to enjoy the view, ascending some five hundred feet. We were repaid for our effort. The huge mountains in our front and the valley stretching away in the magnificence of foliage to the southeast, lit up by the warm color of sunset, presented a noble landscape. I asked myself if this vast solitude would remain unchanged, or whether civilization in some form would ever penetrate to this region? It cannot be that this immense valley will always be the haunt of a few wild animals. Will the future now seeming to dawn upon us bring some change? How soon will a busy crowd of workmen take possesison, and the steam whistle re-echo where now all is silent? In the ages to come, how many trains will run to and fro from Ocean to Ocean, carrying millions of passengers? All these thoughts crowded upon me in view of that peaceful scene, lighted by the last rays of the sinking sun as it dropped behind the Selkirk mountains. I do not think that I can ever forget the sight as I then gazed upon it.

The Rogers Pass—1883.

It was in the valley of the Columbia that I first met Major Rogers. We all enjoyed the hospitalities of his camp when we emerged from the toils of the Kicking-Horse valley. Here we remained from Saturday night until Monday morning.

Refreshed and prepared for the journey before us, we were up early, and at eight were in a canoe floating down the Columbia. We had 20 or 30 miles to go in this way, and there was ample time to discuss the chances of getting through to Kamloops. I was aware that by descending the Columbia to Boat Encampment and thence continuing by the river to Eagle pass, we could avoid the Selkirks wholly, but my present object was to learn all I could from Major Rogers. He had for two seasons been engaged on the discovery of what might prove a considerably shorter passage for the railway across the Selkirk range, and was confident that he would succeed. He proposed to accompany us part of the distance, and to send his nephew, Mr. Albert Rogers, with us as far as we might desire. We camped at the mouth of Beaver river, some thirty miles from our starting point. Next day we followed the rough and recently made trail by the Beaver river itself, a large stream passing through an open canyon for four or five miles. It is quite unnavigable. There are few places where it can be forded. We proceed through a flat, well-timbered valley half a mile in width. There is a dense growth of cedar, spruce and cottonwood; and such magnificent cedar! Four feet and more in diameter. We have now an undergrowth which is the genuine flora of the Pacific slope. As we advance, dense smoke surrounds us, for we are reaching a region where fires have been burning ahead. With difficulty we continue our advance, hour after hour, in the hope of finding a spot where the horses can pasture, but none is to be seen. There is no alternative but to camp in the midst of the burnt timber. Our poor horses could only nibble the leaves of the devil's club in the attempt to satisfy hunger.

In the morning we continue our journey, passing through a tall forest until we reach a rugged mountain defile leading up to the summit which we are to cross. The mountain peaks rise high above us. Five miles from our last night's camp we leave Bear creek, a branch of Beaver river, and follow a small stream to the south. Half a mile further brings us to the summit. We are now 4300 feet above the sea, surrounded by mountains of all forms, pyramidal, conical and serrated. They are marked in bold relief on the lofty sky line.

As we rest at the summit, Major Rogers describes to us the history of the discovery of the pass. Eighteen years before, Mr. Walter Moberly had ascended the Illecillewaet river on an exploration for the government of British Columbia. He was the first white man to traverse its banks. He ascended the Illecillewaet to the forks, and followed the more northerly branch some thirty miles farther, until it terminated in a cul-de-sac among snowy mountains. The other branch he was unable to follow, as the season was then advanced, and his Indian guide declined to accompany him. In his report he spoke hopefully of a route by that branch, and recommended that it should be examined before a road was finally determined on. It was upon this hint that Major Rogers acted. Three years back he traced the Illecillewaet to the forks, and then followed the eastern branch. This branch also proceeded from two streams, the most southerly of which he followed. With his nephew he climbed a mountain on its northern bank, and from the summit he looked down on the meadow on which we were now resting.

A party had been detailed to cut out a trail westward, which we are to follow as far as it is made passable. Beyond that point our party will be the first to pass across the Selkirk range from its eastern base on the upper Columbia to the second crossing of that river. The horses are still feeding and we have some time at our command. As we view the landscape we feel as if some memorial should be preserved of our visit here, and we organize a Canadian Alpine Club. The writer, as a grandfather, is appointed interim president. Dr. Grant secretary, and my son, S. H. Fleming, treasurer. A meeting is held, and we turn to one of the springs rippling down to the Illecillewaet and drink success to the organization. Unanimously we carry resolutions of acknowledgment to Major Rogers, the discoverer of the pass, and to his nephew for assisting him.

The summit on which we stand is a dry meadow about a mile in extent, with excellent grass. Our horses being satisfied, some are actually rolling in the grass, the hour has come to leave the pleasant meadow in the Rogers pass and pursue our journey. The animals are loaded with their packs. At last we are fairly under way. Our descent is rapid. We soon come in sight of a conical peak rising about fifteen hundred feet, above the surrounding lofty mountains. It stands out majestically among its fellows, and we thought it was a fitting subject for the virgin attempt of the Alpine Club. It now bears the name of Mt. Sir Donald, and Major Rogers declared it would be the summit of his ambition to plant on its highest point the Union Jack on the day that the first through train passed along the gorge we were travelling.

We descend slowly enough, but with increased rapidity of actual descent, crossing a series of avalanche slides with a growth of tall alder bushes, the roots interlaced in all directions. We soon find ourselves five hundred feet below the summit. Our course had been westerly through a valley flanked on both sides by high mountains. We have difficulty in finding a place to pitch our tent, but finally secure a nook with area enough on the low gravelly bank of a brook of crystal, eighteen inches wide, but so small is the space available that the camp fire must be placed on the opposite side of the rivulet; the murmur of its waters at my feet was the sound by which I fell asleep.

The following morning, we continue through the valley walled in by mountains, the height of which must be counted by thousands of feet. We trudge slowly along the newly cut trail high up among the rocks, to descend again to the flats with its alders and devil's club, until at last we reach a surveyors' camp, twenty-four miles from the summit. Our horses have now to leave us, it being impossible for them to proceed further. The men must carry on their shoulders what we require, through an untrodden forest without path or trail of any kind. We are turning our backs on civilized life and its auxiliaries, again to meet them, we trust, at Kamloops, still many miles away.

We knew nothing of the country before us and had no assistance to look for from the world behind. We were following a tributary of the Columbia to the waters of that river, and this was the one guide for our direction. The walking was dreadful, climbing over and creeping under fallen trees of great size; wading through tall ferns reaching to the shoulder, and millions of devil's club viciously stabbing as we passed. We camp for the night on a high bank overlooking the Illecillewaet. Three days' march carry us scarcely more than ten miles. Rain falls incessantly. We reach the lower canyon of the Illecillewaet, and climb from rock to rock, grasping roots and branches, scrambling up almost perpendicular ascents, swinging ourselves occasionally like experienced acrobats and feeling like the clown in the pantomime. At some places the loads have to be unpacked and the men draw each other up by clinched hands from one ledge to another. We pass cautiously along a steep slope where a false step is certain disaster; creep under a cascade over a point of precipitous rock to comparatively safe ground beyond. So the story goes from day to day. Finally, after many vicissitudes, we reach the junction of the Illecillewaet and the Columbia, and the worst part of our journey to Kamloops is over.

The First Through Train—1885.

These memories which I have recalled and briefly dwelt upon in the foregoing pages seem to culminate in an occurrence which may be regarded as an epoch in Canadian mountaineering. I allude to the passage of the first railway train through the solitudes of the mountains, along the precise route wearily travelled step by step less than three years before, up the Bow river, through the Kicking-Horse valley, and over the Selkirks by Rogers pass.

The railway had been opened for traffic between Montreal and Winnipeg for some time, when, on the evening of October 27th, 1885, the regular Winnipeg train leaving Montreal had attached to it a private car containing three directors of the Canadian Pacific railway, Lord Strathcona, Sir William C. Van Horne, and the late Mr. George H. Harris. A fourth director (the writer) joined at Ottawa. A delay of two days took place at Winnipeg. Finally the party left on November 2nd. for the far west. Beyond Winnipeg the train became "special." It was the first Transcontinental train crossing Canadian soil. It reached the western crossing of the Columbia in fifty-six hours after leaving Winnipeg. The railway track some miles ahead was not yet completed, and we could not at once proceed. There was still a gap between the rails laid from the east and those from the west. The delay gave time for reflection, and it was not felt to be tedious among the surprising wealth of mountain scenery on every side. For myself I could not help contrasting the luxurious travelling which the railway afforded with the experience of my little party journeying westward through the mountains in 1883. The special train remained for part of a day and night at a place which has received the name of Revelstoke—almost the identical spot where a couple of years before we found ourselves in a seriously embarrassing situation from the near prospect of starvation. At other times on the journey I usually took my stand on the rear platform watching as we passed the changing scenery and trying to recognize the ground laboriously passed over on the former journey.

Early on the morning of November 7th the hundreds of busy workmen gradually brought the two tracks nearer and nearer, and at 9 o'clock the last rail was laid in its place to complete the railway connection from Ocean to Ocean. All that remained to finish the work was to drive home the last spike. This duty devolved on one of the four directors present—the senior in years and influence, he who is now known the world over as Lord Strathcona. No one could on such an occasion more worthily represent the Company by taking hold of the spike hammer and giving the finishing blows.

It was indeed no ordinary occasion. The scene was in every respect noteworthy, from the groups which composed it and the circumstances which had brought together so many human beings in this spot in the heart of the mountains, until recently an untracked solitude. The engineers, the workmen, every one
Canadian Alpine Journal I, 1, 006.jpg

DRIVING THE LAST SPIKE AT CRAIGELLACHIE

present appeared deeply impressd by what was taking place. It was felt by all to be the moment of triumph. The central figure—the only one at the moment in action—was more than the representative of the railway company. His presence recalled memories of the Mackenzies, Frasers, Finlaysons, Thompsons, McLeods, MacGillivrays, Stuarts, McTavishs, and McLoughlins who in a past generation had penetrated the surrounding mountains. Today he is the chief representative of a vast trading organization in the third century of its existence.

The spike driven home, the silence for a moment or two remained unbroken. It seemed as if the act now performed had worked a spell on all present. Each was absorbed in his own thoughts. The silence was, however, of short duration. The pent-up feelings found vent in a spontaneous cheer, the echoes of which will long be remembered in association with Craiggellachie.

In a few minutes the train was again in motion. It passed over the newly-laid rail amid further cheering, and sped on its way, arriving the following morning at Port Moody, where a connection was made with the Pacific on November 8th, 1885. At that date the city of Vancouver was an unbroken forest.

The passage of the first railway train from Ocean to Ocean must, I think, be recognized as an important epoch in Canadian mountaineering. Before the existence of the railway the Rockies could only be approached by toilsome journeys occupying months or more than months. Now all is changed, and our mountain region, a rich heritage, is made accessible to the world, and many persons may now enjoy the privilege of participating in the healthful and noble sport of the Alpine Club of Canada.


  1. In this locality the industrial town of Exshaw is being established, where Portland cement is to be manufactured on a large scale.—April, 1907.
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