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Banff National Park

Bill Peyto Park Guardian

Banff History, These Mountains…

© Historical photos by Byron Harmon, courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Adapted From the Play Guardian Spirits
By Jeff Waugh

And so it was that, in 1882, Tom Wilson, a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway, “discovered” Lake Louise. A year later the Cave and Basin Hot springs were discovered by three railway construction workers seeking their fortune. After that, more and more people began to flock to the newly established Hot Springs Reserve to bathe in the medicinal waters. Hotels were constructed. The Town of Banff was born and continued to grow…

Some men came into the area to take advantage of new business opportunities, and some that had been here a while saw new opportunities with the growing tourist trade.

Bill Peyto, outfitter, guide and early park warden, was one of these men…

Before I came to these high mountains I lived in England in a world somewhat destroyed by the greed struck industrialist of the day. My grandfather had taught me how much the land had changed in his time and, when I was a young man, I heard a lot of stories about the pristine Canadian wilderness and, to tell you the truth, I thought I would quite enjoy the quiet of a mountain wilderness life.

One of the first people I met when I came to Banff was Tom Wilson. In fact, he hired me to work as a guide and outfitter for the groups of tourists, hunters and mountain climbers that were coming into the mountains.

Don’t tell anyone, but Tom Wilson, the great story teller, didn’t really discover Lake Louise. I hope Tom never hears me say that, but it was the Stoney that guided him to that lake, the one they call the Lake of the Little Fishes. The Stoney knew most of the trails and passes in these mountains, and Tom learned a lot from them. And I learned a lot from Tom. All of the early guides learned much of what they knew, in some way or another, from the Stoney. And of course, they learned most of what they knew from these mountains.

Well, Tom was a good story teller. About guiding he had so much to say that I can’t remember much of it, but I thought this was worth writing down:

“Good old days on the trail and evenings around the campfire and when the coffee upset just as it was beginning to boil and the sugar and salt got wet and sometimes the beans went sour and the bacon musty and the wind blew the smoke in your eyes and the ashes and sparks on your blankets, the butt of the biggest bow hit the small of your back, and the mosquitos almost crowded you out of your tent, and you heard the horse bells getting fainter and fainter, and you knew damn well they would be five miles away in the morning – but just the same, O’Lord, how I wish I could live them all over again.”

In all my days it’s hard to believe what people will go through to camp in the wilderness – but I know it’s worth it.

I’ve guided all kinds of people into the mountains, at first they are hesitant, maybe with a healthy fear of bears or other animals, some get frustrated just trying to get out of town, and for some it’s all those things that Tom mentions, but once they are well outfitted and in the real wilderness they seem to open up like a high alpine meadow.

Among the men I guided were mountain climbers of the world like Conrad Kain and Walter Wilcox…

You’ve heard of Conrad Kain haven’t you? He was the first man to climb to the summit of Mt. Robson. That’s the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. After leaving Austria as a young lad and climbing peaks all over the world, Conrad told me he “longs for the solitude he found in the Rockies, for the campfire and the carefree life”… I can understand that, why, sometimes it even gets too crowded around the campfire and you just want to go out and be alone in the meadow… Yep, “Among the joy of the mountaineer is the enchanted meadow”, he would say, “where peril over, one may sit and dream.”

I was never one for climbing mountain peaks, but I’ve spent many hours wandering through the Healy and Sunshine Meadows daydreaming… I remember that trip with Walter Wilcox…

why… I guided him up to the base of Mt. Assiniboine. He sure was one for dreaming… He was a mountaineer, photographer, and one of the greatest philosophers I’ve known.. Wrote a really good book, too…

He used to quote Henry David Thoreau while sitting alongside the lake near my cabin in Simpson Pass… “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” And Ruskin, too, “Though nature is constantly beautiful, she does not exhibit her highest powers of beauty constantly. Her finest touches are things that must be watched for”.

Walter is better with words than I… He wrote this during a trip with me up Healy Creek to Mt. Assiniboine…

* “A sudden splendour of illumination poured over the field as the sun rose above a mountain, and in a moment, as if by magic, the frost crystals melted away into pendant drops of heaven’s own distillation. Beads of clear water dripping from leaves and tinted petals, made tremulous light flashings like the sparkle of diamonds and rubies…

Night before last the coal-red fire of sunset seemed to set the mountains on fire, under steel-blue clouds. Tonight it is colder. The glow of sunset rises higher and higher on the snowy summit of Lefroy, and the fleecy, melting clouds take on a bright tone in the darkening sky… How many years it requires to se the mountains, even a single scene such as this in its entirety! The cultivation of the inner eye is a life work.”

* From the Rockies of Canada by Walter D. Wilcox

As a photographer Walter was a very careful observer. Walter helped me to see and appreciate much of what I began to take for granted in these mountains., and many others did the same for me… Sometimes I think it was this kind of feeling for the mountains that inspired me to stay and go on as a park guard – to help preserve this land as a special kind of place for others to get the same kinds of feelings…

I remember once when another park warden and I were out on predator patrol. That was in the early days when park managers thought animals like mountain lions, wolves and coyotes should be killed to save deer and elk. It didn’t make much sense to me… but I had a job to do and I did it well.

Anyway, my hound dog got scent of a cat and treed it about one hundred yards from where our horses stood. I took aim and shot the cat without too much of a thought… until I realized she was nursing. I couldn’t say what I felt to the other warden so I just headed off into the brush lookin’ for those kittens… and sure enough I found the two little ones at the base of a large boulder not too far away.

I wasn’t sure of what I was going to do, but I picked them up and eventually got them back to my cabin. Well, my dog took a liking to those kittens and we raised them through the winter and into spring (as much spring as we get around here). It was a long winter and at times I felt like those kittens were trying to tell me something. I even started dreaming about them back in the wild. I soon realized they were getting a little too big to keep cooped up, so I decided to let them go free and wild hoping they would be able to protect themselves.

And if we are going to protect the wild creatures and the wilderness, we’re going to need a few more guardians around here.

There were a few visionaries in Bill’s time that helped to preserve the wildness of these mountains for future generations. The first Commissioner of Dominion Parks was one of those…. J.B. Harkin. He helped to write and push for wilderness preservation in this country with the 1930 National Parks Act.

He said:

“National Parks exist in order that every citizen of Canada may satisfy a craving for Nature and Nature’s beauty: that we may absorb the poise and restfulness of the forests; that we may steep our souls in the brilliance of the wild flowers and the sublimity of the mountain peaks; that we may develop in ourselves the joy and activity we see in the wild animals…”

As wildlife biology has always been one of my special interests it was the activity of the wild animals that was, at first, the most interesting to me. When I first arrived in Banff I saw two grizzly bears near Johnson Lake. I spent a few hours alone observing the bears from a safe distance as they were strolling through the forest feeding. In that short time I developed a feeling of companionship with them. I realized that this was indeed a wilderness park…

But, I learned, there can be problems in paradise. The two grizzly bears were being fed by well-meaning tourists and chased by overzealous photographers. They would have to be tranquilized and relocated to a more remote location. One bear died from an overdose of tranquilizer and the other had to be killed three months later when, after again being fed by picnickers, it attacked a child.

So, although 93 percent of Banff National Park is legislated as wilderness, with all the protection that entails, we all have a role to play to protect the wild animals. We are all in a sense guardians of the park.

So with bears in mind I set out to learn as much about the wildlife in the park as I could pack into a few short months of summer. It was while searching for wildlife that I learned to take notice of the smaller things, like wildlife signs, and I began to notice not only the foods wildlife ate, but other subtleties along the trail.

It wasn’t until 1987 that I was actually able to find Bill’s old cabin. My wife and I were returning from the Assiniboine area following the same trail that Bill Peyto used on many of his excursions. We found the cabin with some difficulty in a well hidden location. We stayed there late into the evening imagining the man that built the cabin and used it as a place of refuge for so many years. We heard an owl hoot and knew that Bill’s wild spirit, and the spirit of the wilderness, was still there.

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