A Matchless Scene

by Josiah Audette

Nestled into the Banff National Park lies an unparalleled scene of Rocky beauty. I refer of course to the emerald colored lake of glass situated in the towering snow-crested mountains which we Canadians so adoringly call our own, Lake Louise. My grandparents visit this glorious vicinity every year. Before I could even walk they strolled me around the lake and to this day my family continues to return to this Canadian paradise. From my grandfather to my father to myself, Lake Louise has never failed to leave us with an increasing sense of awe at the Creator. The history of Lake Louise’s discovery is an intriguing one.

THE PACKMAN

Thomas E. Wilson was a young Irish Canadian with a romantic passion for wilderness adventure. In 1875, bolstering his pluck, he forthrightly quit school in Ontario and set off for the unknown territory of the Canadian North West at the age of just sixteen. Overwhelmed with the fears which any lone youth voyaging across the northern wilderness would experience, he returned to his home in Ontario. Four years later he attempted once more, and this time there would be no return. Joining the historic North West Mounted Police he was stationed at For Walsh (Present day Maple Creek, Saskatchewan). When news arrived that a private company was embarking on the Canadian Pacific Railway’s construction in 1881, Wilson yearned to join the adventure. Hastily discharged from the Mounted Police he disembarked for Old Bow Fort in the shadow of the Rockies. It was here that young Tom Wilson would be be hired into Major A.B Roger’s survey crew as a packman.

RISK HEALTH AND LIFE

The experience of surveying with Major A.B Rogers was by no means an easy one. Wilson’s own account of his first encounter with Rogers gives us an accurate picture of the stressed relationship which existed. While peacefully smoking his pipe on July 15, Wilson saw a company riding up the trail. Two Shuswap Indians were accompanying a elderly man wearing an old white helmet and brown canvas suite. “His condition” records Wilson, “dirty doesn’t begin to describe it. His voluminous side-burns waved like flags in the breeze; his piercing eyes seemed to look and see through everything at once… Every few moments a stream of tobacco juice erupted from between his side-burns; I’ll bet there were not many trees alongside the trail that had escaped the deadly tobacco juice aim.” This of course was the Major A.B. Rogers. Having approached Wilson, Rogers sharply inquired, “This Hyndman’s camp?” Wilson in silence nodded and guided Rogers to Hyndman’s tent. Hyndman emerged from his tent but gave no greeting to Rogers. “What’s your altitude?” demanded Rogers. Without even giving poor Hyndman adequate time to reply, Rojers bellowed, “Blue Jesus! Been here several days and don’t know the altitude yet. You. . . .!!” There followed what Wilson charitably described as, “A wonderful exhibition of scientific cussing which busted wide all Hyndman’s ‘Holy Commandments’ and inspired delighted snickers and chuckles of admiration from the men who had quickly gathered around.”  This set the tone of Rogers working association with every man. Wilson later wrote, “Every man present had learned, in three days, to hate the Major with real hatred. He had no mercy on horses or men – he had none on himself. The laborers hated him for the way he drove them and the packers for that and the way he abused the horses – never gave their needs a thought.” Rogers may have been tough, but such a disposition was necessary for the dangers at hand. George Monro Grant remarked of Rogers, “Not one engineer in a hundred would have risked, again and again, health and life as he did.”

NEVER RETURN

Upon completion of the first of Roger’s survey’s, Wilson swore in frustration that he would never return to the mountains. Rogers, while an unsociable man, knew Wilson better. “You may think you’re not coming back but you’ll be here next year and I’ll be looking for you,” disclosed Rogers to Wilson as he rode off. Wilson spent his winter in the Little Snowy Mountains of Montana, but as the snow began to melt his romantic passion for wilderness adventure revived. “Longings for the unexplored solitudes of the far-away Canadian Rockies assailed me, nor could they be cast out.” The first of May, 1882 Wilson found himself, once again, begrudgingly waiting at the camp for the survey parties of the East to arrive. He would be glad he did so for what he was about to discover.

THE LAKE OF THE LITTLE FISHES

In August, while packing supplies for Rogers’ crew, Wilson encountered a band of Stony Indians. He inquired them concerning the mysterious roar of avalanches he was perpetually hearing in the distance. One of the band, Gold-Seeker, answered that these slides occurred on “Snow Mountain.” Gold-seeker continued to describe this particular mountain as laying high above “The lake of the little fishes” in the near distance. Immediately intrigued, Wilson asked Gold-seeker to guide him to the lake. The journey was long but richly rewarding for Wilson. The two men emerged from the dense Rocky pine forest to an incredible scene. Pierre Berton records it beautifully, “It was noon, and the sun, directly above him, shone down upon the pool around which mountains an glacier formed an almost perfect horseshoe. Forests that had never known an axe seemed to grow directly out of the shining surface. A mile and a half beyond, the backdrop of the scene was divided into three distinct bands of color – white, opal, and brown – where the glacier merged with the water.” Wilson named it Emerald Lake, on account of its mesmerizing green-blue color. (Later it would be renamed Lake Louise in honor of the Governor General’s lady.) The first words which escaped Wilson’s mouth upon this discovery would epitomize the sense of awe which every onlooker would experience thereafter. “As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene.”

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