25 years too late for a sulfur spring bath

The previous entry took a rather brief (though for some, perhaps too lengthy) look at the forces and processes that created the mountains and lakes of Banff National Park. Before I turn my focus to a different shaper of the environment, I’ll take a step back and share some of my impressions and experiences of the town of Banff starting with its name.

Those of you who are either American history or railroad buffs or who read my Utah journal know that the U.S. completed its first transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Utah. Some 14 years later, in 1883, Canada completed its transcontinental railroad at Banff. This was rather remarkable since it was only in 1867 that the Confederation of Canada was established.

It was also at some time during 1883 that three railroad workers happened upon a series of hot springs in the area of Sulphur Mountain that is now called the Cave and Basin National Historic Site – which became the core of today’s national park and the history of which I’ll recount in some detail further along in this journal.

For now, I’ll note that in 1885 the federal government set aside 26 square kilometers surrounding the hot springs that would eventually become Banff National Park.

Needless to say (but I’m saying it anyway), the completion of the railroad was widely celebrated. In 1886, realizing the potential of the hot springs as a tourist destination, the government appointed a man named George Stewart to create an infrastructure of roads and services. Stewart chose the name Banff after Banffshire, Scotland to honor two of the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), George Stephen and Lord Strathcona, who had been born there. (The town of Banff, Scotland is about 74 kilometers north of Aberdeen on the northeast coast of Scotland and Banffshire is nestled between Aberdeenshire and Moray.)

Once I got started on my drive from Calgary, I determined that the only practical stops would be a brief one in the town itself and, perhaps, a quick look at Lake Louise. The town of Banff is interesting in a number of ways. First, it’s one of only two municipalities located within a Canadian national park. (The other is Jasper in that eponymously named national park.)

Second, although it’s quite small at just 3.93 square kilometers, Banff  sits at 1,383 meters elevation making it the highest town in Canada. (For a size comparison, the island of Manhattan occupies roughly 15 times more area than Banff.) It has a fairly static population of about 8,400 permanent residents with another 1,000 or so permitted if they are employed in the park for at least 30 days. Every resident of Banff must meet the “need to reside” requirement managed by the Canadian government.

I found the town itself quite charming though I doubt I would find it so in, say January, when it receives less than four hours of daily sunlight and the average daily high temperature is -6°. (Note, as is my custom, I will use the locally preferred measurement systems. Thus in Canada I’ll report distances using the metric system, temperatures in Celsius, etc. while in the U.S. I will switch to miles and Fahrenheit.) Perhaps you can see its charms, too.

More in the heart of town, it looks like this.

In addition to shopping and dining in town, I suspect many visitors to Banff will spend time at Cave and Basin (as will I, Monday) or in the Cascade Gardens that surround the town’s Tudor and Tudor Revival style administrative building (the vantage point of the first photo in this group) or even at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (which had been on my itinerary before my airport delay).

I made a quick drive to the east side of town to get a quick peek at the Banff Springs (Now Fairmont) Hotel.

 According to my movie locations guide, Marilyn Monroe stayed here when filming River of No Return which used Banff and the Bow River for some of its locations and the hotel, together with Betty Grable, appeared in Springtime in the Rockies.

However, my one must stop was back toward the west side of town at the Banff Indian Trading Post. Now, those of you who know either that I have been gradually decluttering and divesting myself of many of my material possessions, or who know that I am not much of a souvenir collector might wonder why I’d be motivated to stop at a trading post. Well, it was to see the

Merman, of course. Here are some of the other photos of the Merman and from the town of Banff.

Now it’s time to turn to that other shaper of the environment.

The people of Banff

The official history of western Canada starts in the 18th century when Europeans brought horses, guns and smallpox to the western plains with the latter killing about 60 percent of the native population. While the first Europeans crossed Arizona in the 16th century, the best evidence indicates that Anthony Henday was the first European to reach Alberta when, as an employee of the Hudson Bay Company, he camped for the winter of 1754-55 with a band of Cree near present day Edmonton thus becoming the first European to set foot in the Canadian Rockies.

In 1857, John Palliser led a three year expedition on behalf of the British government to see if the land could be settled. Curiously, it wasn’t until 1882 that Tom Wilson, a CPR packer, led by a Stoney First Nations tribesman, became the first European to see the lake he called Emerald Lake and that was later named Lake Louise in honor of the fourth of Queen Victoria’s five daughters.

In 1883, three railway workers, William and Thomas McArdell and Frank McCabe “discovered” the hot springs and by 1885 the Canadian government set aside those aforementioned 26 square kilometers as a federal reserve. Two years later, the government increased the area to 673 square kilometers and created “Rocky Mountains Park” making it the third national Park in the world. Over time, the park expanded to its current 6,641 square kilometers and its name was changed to Banff.

However, First Nations people inhabited the area long before the Europeans arrived. In fact, archaeological evidence indicates that humans have lived in and around Banff for at least 12,000 years. The park is located in the traditional territory of the Stoney, Kootenay, Blood, Piikáni (commonly called Peigan in Canadian English), Siksikáwa and Tsuu T’ina First Nations peoples. (In lieu of the term Native American or American Indian, Canadians use First Nations to identify most of the people who lived south of the Arctic prior to the arrival of Europeans. People of the Arctic are called Inuit.) These groups, primarily hunter-gatherers, hunted game such as sheep, goats, moose, deer and elk found in the Rocky Mountains.

As is the case with most First Nations peoples, most of their history is preserved through oral traditions. However, physical evidence of the lives of these earliest native people can be found in the petroglyphs and pictographs along the Milk River that runs through Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park which is about 40 kilometers east-northeast of Sweetgrass where I’ll cross the border into Montana. It’s claimed that this is the largest concentration of First Nation petroglyphs and pictographs on the great plains of North America. This evidence, together with a 10,000 year old spearhead found in Athabasca prove a lengthy and well established way of life for the First Nations in Alberta.

In truth, archaeological sites can be found throughout the province. Within the confines of Banff National Park alone one can find more than 700 archaeological sites containing artifacts that provide evidence of the presence of Aboriginal campsites, butchering sites, quarries, mining towns and historical dumps. These sites are both pre and post contact with Europeans. Unlike what I discovered about their counterparts farther south, if these natives formed more permanent pre-contact settlements, little if any evidence remains.

In 1877, the Canadian government and the First Nations signed Treaty Seven which covered the Bow River area and most of southern Alberta. This negated any claims First Nations’ people made on this land while seeking to force these groups onto reservations.

(The Numbered Treaties were a series of 11 treaties made between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples from 1871 to 1921. The stated purpose of the government was that the treaties would help to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white, colonial society and culture. It’s more likely that the treaties were structured to facilitate the advance of European settlements. The government made promises regarding special rights to lands and distributed cash payments farming supplies and hunting and fishing tools and it’s likely the First Nations viewed the treaties as a way to negotiate the sharing of their traditional territories with the encroaching Europeans.)

Because I spent very little time visiting First Nations sites in Alberta and Banff, I didn’t explore their history in as much detail as I did with the native cultures of Arizona and Utah. Broadly speaking, the three main aboriginal groups populating Alberta were the Dene in the subarctic north, the Woodland Cree of the arboreal forest and the Blackfoot Confederacy of the southern plains.

United by kinship and dialect but all speaking the common language of Blackfoot, the latter consisted of three main tribes – the Piikáni, the Káinaa and the Siksikáwa who were later joined by the Tsuu T’ina. They gathered annually in large camps on the plains called Akoka’tssin or the time of all people camping together. Here they had a lifestyle centered on great bison hunts before they would break up and return to living and camping in smaller nomadic groups.

(Although I will defer to the common interchangeable use of the terms bison and buffalo, this actually perpetuates the misconception that the American Bison is a buffalo because, in fact, it is not. The American bison, with its distinctive shoulder hump and massive head, [photo from Wikipedia] lives only in North America. The two main buffalo species, the African cape buffalo

 [photo from World Atlas] and the Asian water buffalo 

 [photo from Techgape.com] live on those respective continents. )

The Dene, their northern counterparts, lived in smaller groups gathering plants, fishing and hunting small game. All these groups shared a reverence for the natural world and saw links between humans and everything in their environment – animate or inanimate – and thus left the ecology little changed for millennia.

In his book Askwina: A Cree World, Doug Cuthand wrote, “The land is our soul. Our people believe that the earth and all creatures that live on it are a gift from the Creator. This beautiful land of lakes, forests, rivers, plains and mountains is a gift from the Creator and must be treated properly.”

Canada’s relationship with its indigenous people is complex – far too complex for me to present in this journal. If you’re interested in exploring it further, I’d suggest you start with the 1876 Indian Act and its more than 20 amendments. This is the document that defines, shapes and governs the relationship to this day.

Sunday wrap-up

Following my brief stops in the town of Banff and my glimpse of Lake Louise, I checked into the hotel at Moraine Lake. Both the room

and the view

more than met my expectations.

I took a few minutes to settle in before setting out to climb the Rock Pile on the northwestern tip of the lake and from which all the famous (and less famous) photos are taken including the one I inserted into the first post. The Rock Pile Trail is about 300 meters long with an elevation change of 25- 30 meters. (Thirty meters might not seem like much of a change but, starting at nearly 1,900 meters, I was certainly aware of it.) Canadians call this the “Twenty Dollar View” because Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks was featured on the reverse side of the 1969 and 1979 issues of that Canadian currency. Here are some of my other photos of the lake as the moon rose over the peaks.

Now, those among you who have traveled with me know that if I try to combine any activity – be it talking, photography, or just about anything else – with walking, the activity can become adventurous – and not in a positive way. The combination becomes even riskier when the terrain is uneven. True to my nature I stumbled on my descent of the Rock Pile and twisted my ankle. The mishap generated minimal swelling, mild but persistent discomfort that would extend for several days and significant discoloration.

I limped into the dining room of the hotel which, like all self-respecting fine dining restaurants, served relatively small portions and relatively high prices. Of course, not many places have that view and, for now, (because who knows what alterations will be wrought by climate change) they also have a very short season (June 1 – October 1) in which they operate so the prices are understandable. (The official weather for the area comes from Lake Louise but Moraine Lake is at a significantly higher elevation than Lake Louise and has a very different climate. Thus, the former can remain open when the latter must close.)

For dinner, I had grilled steelhead trout that was garnished with carrot shavings which, I thought, made the plate a trifle too monochromatic. My beverage that night was the Grasshopper Kristallweizen from Big Rock Brewery in the town of Canmore (which I will also visit Monday). It had a clean pour and, despite its name, wasn’t particularly hoppy and a nice clean finish.

I took a brief evening stroll but the pain in my ankle limited its duration. I’d hoped to view a spectacular night sky but was thwarted by some sparse clouds and light pollution because of my proximity to the hotel. By the time I decided to retire for the evening, the air had a distinct chill.

Monday – Grimace and bear it

The first thing I did Monday morning was to pop some Aleve (the little blue pill I never travel without) and drink a cup of tea while waiting for it to take effect. The morning was still young an hour later when I’d finished my second cup and I was determined to set out on a walk on the relatively short and level trail alongside the lake.

 I walked slowly and carefully but, for me, the photo above, and the others I took made it worthwhile.

The glacial erosion that created Banff’s lakes also marks its landscape. Matterhorn-type mountains with their distinctive sharp peaks, such as Mount Assiniboine, have been shaped by glacial erosion. Glaciers have also carved deep U-shaped valleys and many hanging valleys that often form waterfalls. Although not all glacially carved, a number of small gorges also exist within the park, including Mistaya Canyon and Johnston Canyon. The latter will be my next stop.

I chose to visit Johnston Canyon (named for a prospector who discovered gold there some time prior to 1910) not because  it’s remote or off the beaten path but because I wanted to experience a different aspect of Banff. In fact, the 2.5 kilometer walk to the upper falls is considered among the most popular hikes in the park. Although it wasn’t particularly pleasant on my sore ankle, with an elevation change of between 135 and 150 meters it’s not particularly strenuous.

While the Bow River tributary Johnston Creek is primarily responsible for carving through the limestone rock that lines the sides of Johnston Canyon, a landslide prompted its inception. Rivers have a natural tendency seek a base line elevation – the point at which the river reaches the elevation of the larger body of water into which it will drain. Because the river wants to drain as efficiently as possible, the larger the difference in height between the river and its inlet into, say, another river or a lake, the more energy the river expends in the process of erosion. The more energy it expends, the more rock it carves through and the more rock it carves through the speedier the drop in elevation.

This was the case with Johnston Creek. When landslides blocked its initial pathways they forced the flow to find new channels. Like most of the canyons in Banff, Johnston Canyon is relatively young with an age of some tens of thousands of years.

The trail to the two sets of falls (there’s a lower falls as well as an upper falls) is paved most of the way and is almost always within wither eye shot or earshot of Johnston Creek. However, it’s also very narrow and barely wide enough in most places to allow the passage of upward and downward travelers without one or the other turning to the side.

The falls themselves are lovely though not particularly dramatic in either flow volume or height. On the other hand, opening yourself to the walk through the forest and along the river can be a reward in and of itself.

I will offer a few practical notes for anyone planning to visit this place. For the best, most serene views of the falls, I’d suggest arriving before 10:00 or after 15:00. You gain views of the falls by following spurs off the main trail and during midday, you will encounter long queues at both. For those healthier and more adventurous than I was on my sore ankle, you should consider walking the additional three kilometers (plus 200 meters in elevation gain) to the Johnston Valley and the aquamarine pools called the Ink Pots. You might even consider a picnic there.

No need to get a big head about it

By the time I finished my hobble through Johnston Canyon, I’d worked up a bit of an appetite. The town of Canmore is about 30 kilometers east of the park and I’d planned on making at least a brief stop there on my way from Calgary. Since the auto rental delay had forced me  to change those plans, I decided to pop out to Canmore for lunch.

I’d put a visit to this small town on my list because I wanted to see this

 in person. Admittedly, it’s not the most impressive outdoor sculpture one might see but the whimsy of its existence was enough to induce me to visit. On the assumption that most of my readers lack proficiency in Gaelic, I’ll offer this explanation. The town itself was named for a village on the northwest side of Scotland called Ceannmore. That town was named after King Malcolm III who ruled Scotland from 1057-1093 and who was also called Malcolm Canmore.

The whimsy comes from the translation of the Gaelic phrase ceann mór which means big head. This particular big head rising out of the ground is the creation of Alberta artist Alan Henderson. He carved the nine ton statue from blue granite and, although I only saw him with closed eyes rising contemplatively from the ground, I’d read that from time to time the community accommodates his preference for pirate wear in the summer and a more practical warm cap in winter.

Cave and Basin

After my lunch in Canmore, (which included an Okangan Spring Honey Kolsch that was a bit too hops bitter for my preference) I returned to the park to visit to visit the Cave and Basin National Monument in the town of Banff. I noted above that in 1883, three CPR workers, the brothers William and Thomas McCardell and Frank McCabe were out prosepcting.They happened upon a warm stream and followed it uphill where they saw a pool blocked by a tumble of logs and, nearby, a hole in the ground from which emanated the strong smell of sulfur.

After carving a tree trunk ladder, William descended into the hole where he discovered another pool and a spring welling up from the ground. McCardell disrobed and likely became the first European to bathe in the spring. (James Hector, a member of the Palliser Expedition made the first recorded reference to the site in 1859 as did a prospector named Joe Healy in 1874 or 1875.)

In a place and at a time when hot water was a rarity, the three men sensed a commercial opportunity. They submitted a claim to the land but since it was neither a traditional mine nor an agricultural site, the government didn’t know how to approve their claim.

Soon five other men tried to stake claims to the site. The Canadian government ended the dispute by claiming the site for itself in 1885, paying a settlement of the McCardells and McCabe and setting aside those 26 square kilometers around it that would eventually become Banff National Park.

Soon after taking possession of the site, in 1887, the government blasted a tunnel into the Cave and Basin to facilitate entry to the grotto and built a bathhouse. By 1914, they had added a naturally heated outdoor swimming pool that remained in use for eight decades.

The pool no longer exists and visitors to the site today, who are still greeted by an intense sulfuric odor, can walk around the cave but aren’t allowed access to the pool itself. Human intervention over the decades denuded the cave of many of its delicate formations and the introduction of nonnative species – such as the western mosquito fish in 1924 – has led to significant habitat destruction.

As nearly as I can tell, access to bathing in the spring closed permanently in 1992 and in 2000, Canada placed the Banff Springs snail, which was first identified in 1926 and which resides exclusively in the various Banff Springs, on the endangered species list. Thus the only permissible human contact with the water is in a small fountain outside the Cave and Basin Building.

Prisoners – but not of love

Those who are willing to walk a few steps beyond the building, might be surprised to find this structure –

an exhibit about Banff’s World War I internment camp. The main camp was located at Castle Mountain where the prisoners generally lived in tents and conditions were considered exceptionally harsh but it was moved to Cave and Basin during winter. Unlike the site I visited in Salina earlier in the summer, this wasn’t a site that housed enemy combatants but rather, men whom the government viewed as enemy aliens.

Nearly 60 percent (or 5,000 men) of this camp’s population was Ukrainian and it is sometimes called the Ukranian Camp. However, it also included about 2,000 Germans among its population of 8,579. The balance included immigrants from other parts of eastern and central Europe as well as a small number of Turks. The men were forced to work six days a week and much early infrastructure and road construction was done by these internees.

Although internment camps were once again set up in Banff during World War II, Canada didn’t reopen the sites at Castle Mountain or Cave and Basin. Megan Hjorleifson of Parks Canada sent this email in response to my inquiry:

The internment camp barracks were not re-used in the SWW; in fact, most were removed by 1922. A part of one may have been used by the Banff Curling Club for a while. Some of the SWW structures from the POW camps in Kananaskis were re-used as parts of the youth hostels on the Parkway.”  (Kananaskis is a mountainous area between Banff and Calgary).

The Second World War also saw camps at Lake Louise, Stoney Creek, and Healy Creek. These prison camps were largely composed of Mennonites from Saskatchewan. Japanese internment camps were not sited in Banff during World War II, but rather were located in Jasper National Park where their detainees worked on the Yellowhead Highway and other projects.

This brings to an end a rather busy day. I’m off to spend the night at the Hotel Blackfoot in Calgary where, together with my “Garlic Shrimp with Angel Hair Pasta” dinner, I’ll discover that Big Rock Brewery’s Grasshopper Honey Lager will have a less foamy head and a hoppier bite than did their Kristalweizen.

In the next entry, I set off for a night in Billings, Montana and if you join me along the way you’ll learn about glacial erratics, a Canadian town that found an interesting way to benefit from its name and a very short river.

This entry was posted in Western U.S. and Canada August and September 2017. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 25 years too late for a sulfur spring bath

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thanks so much for all the sharing you do–these are amazing pix and fun reading!

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