History in the Rocky Mountains
A hiker strides out into the wilderness of one of North America’s most renowned regions. He is Tête Jaune, the legendary pathfinder of the Yellowhead Pass through the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Part Iroquois and part European, (Métis) Pierre Bostonnais was a fur trader and worked with the Hudson Bay Trading company in the Rockies. He is now the logo for the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, an excellent little museum in Jasper, Alberta, showcasing the fascinating history and culture of the area.
Explorers and traders forged a way through the Rocky Mountains, in the pioneering days of the early 1800s. Trading with the local First Nation people, they were intrepid adventurers whose everyday life is recreated in tableaux throughout the museum. When Jasper Haws took command of a small provisions depot in 1815 it became known as Jasper’s House and became the centre for a small community responsible for meeting transportation and supply needs, caring for horses grazing in the valley, and trading goods for meat and furs with Aboriginal groups, including Iroquois and Métis peoples. Grainy black and white photos show earnest men wielding guns and tools, digging, fishing, building and relaxing, in what must have been extremely inhospitable conditions. Even today, Jasper has a ‘wild-west’ feel to it, enclosed by the mighty Rockies and prey to every kind of weather, often in one day.
The railway brought huge changes to Jasper and surrounding area, connecting it to the outside world so much easier. As the population of the town grew, the good times rolled and prosperity boomed. The opening of W.S. Jeffery department store meant locals did not have to wait months for basics and luxuries. More women came, bringing style and elegance and music and dancing became popular. The first tourists began to arrive, eager to see experience the ‘wilderness’ for themselves.
There’s a fairly lengthy but highly informative film ‘Jasper – Just Passing Through’ which tells the story of Jasper from the very early days of civilization, to the arrival of surveyor David Thompson and the Hudson Bay Company, up to the present day. Equally important is the life of the First Nation peoples, who first traversed the Athabasca Valley through the Rocky Mountains, using the land that is now Jasper National Park, as seasonal hunting and gathering grounds. There are some lovely objects on display, including moccasins and beautifully embroidered bags.
Visitors who arrive by rail or vehicle will invariably find themselves at the Jasper Park Information Centre. The oldest building in the town, it’s officially designated as a Canadian National Historic Site. Built in 1913-1914 as Jasper National Park administration building, it became the visitor contact centre in 1972. It was one of the first rustic style buildings to be built in a Canadian national park. The staff there are extremely helpful and if you are stuck for accommodation (book ahead if you can) or want to know what to do and where to go, this is the place.
Opposite is one of the most famous landmarks in the town; the Two Brothers Totem Pole. Erected in 2011 to replace the original one, it was made by the Haida people, it is 13.7 metres tall and painted in traditional Haida colours of red, black and blue. Splendid carvings include a grizzly bear, a frog and a raven, topped by a Brother gazing out over the Rockies, ‘ … represents the timeless values that will help present and future generations of Canadians to connect with national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.’
At the opposite end of one of the world’s top roads, the Icefield Parkway, is Banff, a more genteel mountain town than Jasper, and the home of Canada’s first National Park. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built, railway workers discovered hot springs in 1883, though known by local First Nation peoples for thousands of years. Realising they would become a visitor attraction, the president of CPR built the Scottish baronial style Banff Springs Hotel and the rest is tourism history. To protect the springs from over-commercialisation, the area was declared a National Park and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is hugely popular with tourists today.
To get an insight into the First Nation culture and pioneer history of the Rockies, there’s not better place than Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It’s an accessible size with interesting objects well-displayed. The original collection was started by locals Peter and Catharine Whyte and includes, ‘artifacts that help tell the stories of Aboriginal people, artists, immigrants, guides and outfitters, climbers, surveyors, hikers, explorers, adventurers, skiers and residents of the town and area. Artifacts pertaining to the development of Banff National Park are also included.’
There are a couple of art galleries with changing exhibitions; they showcase local and national artists with a very eclectic and often thought-provoking slant. This very attractive and seemingly innocuous sculpture of the Rocky Mountains, a road and some mountain sheep appears very innocuous until you see the blurb. It’s actually a protest by Denise Smith against the controversial Glacier ‘Skywalk’ the Icefields Parkway.
There are plenty of other places to get a feel for the history and culture of the Rocky Mountains in Banff, including the taxidermy heaven of Banff Park Museum. Dating to 1903, the timber-framed building was designed to house a unique collection of all the animals found the National Park. Along Banff Avenue are a number of historic buildings from the early days of rail travel, which add to the town’s heritage charm. For a glimpse into its luxurious past and present, take the Historical Tour at the imposing and stylish Fairmont Banff Springs.
A knowledgeable guide explains how the hotel came into being, takes you through various majestic halls, ballrooms, corridors, restaurants and bars, telling amusing anecdotes about the hotel’s founder, staff, visitors and ghosts! Thanks to my charming guide Tom.) Have a cocktail on the terrace overlooking the sinuous Bow River and mighty Rocky Mountains and feel a part of the unique fabric of this towering region of Canada. Unforgettable …
I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.
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