“Last year the old Calgary was east of the Elbow, but the almighty railway had put its station in a more spacious part of the valley, a mile or two west; and the submissive city packed itself on sleighs or carts, crossed the Elbow and replanted itself near the station as a row of straggling log houses and tents.”
That is A. P. Coleman, describing his arrival in Calgary in May 1884. Calgary was home to roughly one thousand people at the time, most living in tents or sod-roofed houses. Coleman was a geologist at Victoria College and later Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Toronto. In the 1880s and 1890s he made several trips to map and explore the Rocky Mountains, and these are chronicled in his 1911 memoir, The Canadian Rockies: New and Old Trails, which I read over the past several days.
When I wrote that I want to read outside my comfort zone this year, this is a good example of that. I have never before read a century-old memoir about mountain climbing. I came across this book while browsing the search term “Canadian” on the Calgary Public Library’s ebook collection and borrowed it because it was as simple as a click of a button. I don’t think that I had any real intention of reading it, but that description of Calgary on page two piqued my interest and I never stopped. The book is ridiculously understated. Hiking to Revelstoke (before the train was extended that far) over the course of weeks, or nearly drowning on the Columbia River, Coleman presents his adventures in a matter-of-fact fashion. At one point a traveling companion is sent back to Morley along with Coleman’s brother, who returns a few weeks later. That is a story of near-death that could probably become a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but it gets only a sentence or two and we are assured that all went fine.
Last summer, my wife and drove from Calgary to Vancouver and back through the highways in the valleys that Coleman traveled on foot and horse, beside rivers that he rafted. At most roadside stops you can read about the history of, say, Field, British Columbia on plaques and markers. Coleman, however, documents the actual experience of being there. Some of it is still funny in the present: “An uglier place probably never existed than this first edition of Revelstoke…”
Many of the areas described in the book are today transformed by highways, access roads, bike paths, and ski hills. Coleman is credited as the first person to reach the top of Castle Mountain, for example. Today, the TransCanada offers a view of that mountain and the route from the back is an untechnical twelve-hour scramble. What took Coleman months is now a day trip.
On the flip side, though, some areas are not much changed. Coleman was the first white man to find Fortress Lake in what is now Hamber Provincial Park. Even today there are no roads to the lake – you can hike the 24km or fly in by helicopter to fish. Unlike modern day Calgary, which has expanded well beyond the confluence of the Bow and the Elbow, more than a century after Coleman visited, Fortress Lake would likely still be recognizable to him.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book is: Fur trapping is the preferred vocation of the misanthrope.