As Kootenay National Park celebrates its centennial year, it seems an appropriate time to republish Ron Ede’s account of a long-ago summer working on the park’s trails. I first read “Cutting trail in Kootenay Park—1940” in the “The Valley Echo Special Supplement” in 1980. Ron was editor of the Echo for many years and wrote many historical stories for the paper’s supplements. But this one struck a cord. It provides a glimpse of life on an early Kootenay Park trail crew and a young man’s special summer before the world went mad.
by Ron Ede
It was in April, 1940, that Jack Meredith, then Superintendent of Kootenay National Park, informed me that I would be hired for the summer months. At that time, the majority of the work in the Park was done in the summer—the Banff-Windermere Highway was officially closed during the winter, and the Park Wardens and their families at Kootenay Crossing and Marble Canyon led solitary existences. Work was to start in early May, and as this was Graduation year, I received special permission to leave school ahead of the usual break-up time in June.
The day finally came and I reported for duty. I was given the night watchman’s shift at the Pool—I sat in the bath-house office, which overlooked the pool, and periodically turned on the pool lights to make sure everything was in order. I was there just one week, and the most exciting incident of the week was turning on the lights one night to find a group of nude swimmers enjoying an after-hours bath.
At the end of the week, I reported to Bob Thompson who was Warden at Kootenay Crossing. Once again, my stay was very brief, during which time Bob and I dug telephone pole holes on the height of land just east of Kootenay Crossing. It was a cold Spring that year and I am sure that never before or since have I been as cold as I was there—that had to be the coldest, windiest place in the world—at least in 1940.
Marble Canyon and Tumbling Creek
Then I reported, with Ray Crook, to the Marble Canyon Warden station, where Gord McKay was in residence with his family. Ray and I were informed that we would have to sleep in the barn, which Gord said was “full of pack rats”. He gave us a flashlight and a .22 rifle and told us if they got to be too much of a nuisance we could sit up all night and shoot them. The next day I was to start with the trail-cutting crew.
After we had replaced some of the bridges across Marble Canyon and cleared out part of the first portion of the Tumbling Creek trail, I was teamed with Dave Gardiner to widen and complete the clearing of the trail. Dave was a dour old Scotsman who was getting along in years. Each morning he would leave his bunk in the tent, walk outside to relieve himself, and while doing so he would look up the mountainside and exclaim, “Not a soul in sight”. Cutting trail 60 or 70 miles from his beverage didn’t exactly appeal to Dave, and a week or two later he was gone, and Harry Bone became my partner.
The days settled into a regular routine, busy, and with a variety of wildlife abounding; never monotonous. All cutting was done with double-bitted axes, and each evening, we drove each side into an old stump or tree, while filing the other to razor sharpness. Then when darkness closed in, we retired to our Spruce-bough bunks. We used saddles for pillows, and I will never forget waking in the middle of the night, more than once, to find a porcupine chewing on the saddle’s nice, salty leather.
We cut both ways from our camp on a big slide at the four-mile, widening the trail to 12 feet so that two packed horses could pass. It became a matter of pride to fall each tree away from the trail—and labour-saving as well. If it fell across the trail, a 12-foot section had to be cut out of it. We laid corduroy across the swampy areas, and replaced and rebuilt the bridges across Tumbling Creek. I used to laugh to myself at Harry crossing the initial single log across the creek in a sitting position, while I would hop, skip and jump across. Now, 40 years later, and 40 years older, and 40 years more cautious, I see his point.
I wondered about the wedge-shaped axe cuts in the trees for the first few miles out of Marble Canyon. The cuts were well out of reach above the ground. Harry explained that a previous Warden ha done a little poaching for Marten and the cuts were actually shoulder-high to a man standing on snowshoes in the deep winter snow.
Harry had many woodlore messages to relate, and one I always remember. He said if you take the sap from the blisters of Balsam trees, you had a natural curative—an immediate tourniquet if you were cut, and a healer if applied to the wound. I had a small bottle which I filled with the aromatic sap and had it always in my pocket during my stay in Kootenay Park.
I remember one evening we were returning to the tent and Harry pointed out a huge Grizzly Bear on the slide across the valley. It was quite a distance away but looked as big as a horse, and the silver of its hair glistened in the setting sun. Harry made the remark that it was “bloody good that he was there and we were here!”
We moved camp to the headwaters of Tumbling Creek, where the water melted into a pool at the foot of Tumbling Glacier. The first night in camp, after the tent was set up and evening chores completed, I had a bath at the glacier’s edge. I remember it was a warm July night, and though the water was icy cold, it was intensely refreshing and, once again, I could almost live with my own odour.
From this camp, our assignment was to clear the trail as far as the Yoho Park boundary. The trail from Tumbling Creek up to the plateau is steep and the switchbacks seem to on eternally, but once on top it’s a new world. Timber was sparse, and though it was mid-July, there was still a great deal of snow. It was strange to see gophers playing in the snow, and there were tracks and droppings of Grizzly Bears all over. Marmots whistled from the rocks, and, best of all, there was no trail to clear! Then down another precipitous trail into a beautiful valley, with a waterfall cascading hundreds of feet from the top of a precipice to the valley floor, and reflecting millions of rays of sunshine.
Once again there was timber and work to do—and then a sharp climb again to a second plateau and on to the Yoho Park boundary.
About that time Gord McKay rode up with a spare horse in tow. He and I were to go to Marble Canyon and meet the Brewster trail riders, a group of people from all over the world on a Brewster-sponsored ride. We were to ride with them up the trail Harry and I had just cleared, all the way to Yoho Park where they would be met by riders from there.
It was a gruelling ride—the group finally camped on top of the plateau closest to Yoho Park. There was a grove of trees, but snow all around, and it was bitterly cold and miserable weather. After the riders had been settled, Gordie and I rode back over the trail to check that no one had dropped cigarette butts or hot matches with the possibility of a fire starting. We arrived back at the trail-riders campsite between one and two in the morning. Gord suggested we cut down a dry tree for firewood and warmth, so we each grabbed an end of a crosscut saw and started on a small spruce in the pitch dark. Somehow I got my knee in the way and received a deep gash from the saw.
Harry’s Balsam remedy! I applied it to the open wound which stopped the bleeding, and then I went to bed. I continued to apply the balsam for the next few days, and the wound healed with no sign of infection or trouble except for leaving a wishbone-shaped scar.
We rode the next day with the group as far as the Yoho boundary where we bid them farewell. Slightly on the Yoho Park side, as we figured it, a tree had been left where it had fallen across the trail, and all the riders had made a detour around it. We wondered why it had been left there as it seemed an easy tree to cut, so we decided to take it out. Gord took the upper end and I took the lower, about 12 feet away. Gordie made the first blow, and was immediately surrounded by a million wasps—we had found out why the tree was across the trail—and if the wasps are still there, the tree probably is too!
Cutting trail to Vermilion Crossing
That about completed our work on the Tumbling Creek trail and Harry and I packed up our gear and returned to Marble Canyon, where word had been left that we were to cut a trail from Marble to Vermilion Crossing on the West side of the river. About that time Gord MacKay left the Warden service and there was no resident Warden at Marble Canyon, so Jack Naylor would come over periodically from Banff to check on that end of Kootenay Park.
For the first few miles of the new trail, we stayed at Marble, until we had cut to somewhere south of the Paint Pots. There were several marshy parts along the new trail and Harry and I laid a great deal of corduroy to facilitate navigation for potential firefighters and their horses. In those days there was a one-room log cabin on Black Creek, and when we had gone beyond a reasonable walking distance of Marble, we moved to that cabin.
Trail cutting was fairly routine, with many deadfalls to chop through in the timbered areas, and dozens of slides with their beautiful-to-look-at from a distance, obnoxious to cut through Alders. To cut a trail through these sections it was necessary to follow the overhanging Alders uphill many feet to get to their base. This was done on hands and knees, and swinging a double-bitted axe in such close quarters was anything but pleasant.
One day Ray Crook came and said he and I were to clean out the trail to Floe Lake. We knew it would be a long day so we started out just after dawn, but we were pleasantly surprised as we found the trail in excellent condition with very few windfalls.
As we were coming out of the timber on to one of the Alder slides on the trail, we were confronted by a very belligerent cow moose. She made repeated charges toward us, and we backed hastily deeper into the timber. Even though we threw numerous rocks in her direction, she showed no eagerness to leave the area and we were beginning to think we might have to seek refuge up a branches Jackpine if her anger didn’t abate. Shortly, however, she departed up the trail and tracks showed where she was joined by her calf, which apparently was hidden in the Alders and which she was protecting.
While at Black Creek, Harry and I were befriended by a yearling Whitetail deer. She was a creature of the wild, but because she had never been associated with humans before, she accepted us as fellow creatures of the wild, and would eat from our hands and let us pet her, and she followed all around the cabin site.
From the Black Creek cabin, we moved to Hawk Creek and then, finally, pitched a tent on the opposite side of the Vermilion River from the mouth of Numa Creek. At this point we constructed a foot bridge across a gorge in the River. We felled two trees across, laid corduroy flooring and finished the structure with hand rails.
Now the season was getting well into August and the deer and elk were gathering in ever-increasing numbers on the slides. We could sit at our tent site in the evening and watch the animals as they came down to the river in the evenings to drink. The bucks and bulls were sporting their new antlers, which were in “the velvet”, and some had already started rubbing the trees and the velvet hung in tattered shreds. The elk were bugling now and at times the woods resounded with their unique calls.
At one point, Harry had an appointment with the dentist in town and even though he said he would be back in a couple of days, I knew it would be a week or so before I would see him again. One morning as I was walking along the trail to where I had finished the night before, an elk bugled not 10 feet from me on the other side of a Jackpine thicket. My hair stood on end and shivers raced up and down my backbone, and I fervently hoped he wouldn’t mistake me for a bull antagonist or a cow lover. However, he got a look at me and decided I was neither, and he beat a hasty retreat into the bushes, no doubt feeling very foolish for his mistake!
Harry finally got back to camp, minus his teeth, and work continued as usual. Harry was a great believer in giving the employer all that he was paying for, and that meant eight hours on the job, even though depending on how far we would have to go to our place of cutting, we would leave the tent at 6:00 a.m. and not return until 7:00 p.m.
We did some poaching, too, and quite a number of Fool Hens fell victim to my slingshot and ended up in the stew pot. Warden Jack Naylor would often come in to inspect the trail, and we knew he had stopped at our tent where the mulligan would be left simmering on the camp stove, and he must have known they were Park grouse providing the stew base, but he never once made comment!!
One morning I came out of the tent in my underwear, just about daylight, and a bull and cow moose were playing catch-me-if-you-can on the sidehill. The old bull was foaming at the mouth as he pawed the ground because every time he went up the hill after the cow, she would come down—then after a few grunts and pawing, the procedure would be reversed. After a few minutes the bull spotted me and charged towards me snorting at every step. I couldn’t go back in the tent where Harry ay peacefully sleeping, so I chose the closest tree and made like a monkey getting up to the closest branches. There I perched, shivering in my near nudity, until the old bull spotted the cow walking away, and he once again gave chase.
Nixon Creek and Summer’s end
Finally we reached Vermilion Crossing and word came from Superintendent Jack Meredith that we were to move to the cabin about where Nixon Creek crosses the highway and cut a trail up Nixon Creek.
We encountered a stretch on this trail, along a very steep sidehill, where every tree, because of the predominant wind direction, leaned uphill. The only solution we had was to cut each tree nearly through and while Harry remained at the base to administer the felling blow, I would go uphill with a long pole and push against the tree. Most of the trees were persuaded, in this way, to fall downhill, but the odd one decided to fall the way nature had grown it, and it necessitated some wild scrambling on my part to avoid the falling tree.
It didn’t take us very long to complete the trail as far as it had been blazed, so we decided to take a walk one afternoon to see what was ahead. Not far from the conclusion of the blazes was a burn and deadfalls were piled as high as twelve or more feet. I walked for more than a mile and never once put a foot on the ground! What an exercise in futility for a couple of double-bitted axes!!
On the way back to the cabin that evening, Harry and I came to the edge of a room-sized clearing. On the other side was an enormous Grizzly bear. What a helpless, hopeless situation with just our axes for defence and we both instantly froze motionless in our tracks. The old Bruin stared at us relentlessly for what seemed an eternity, and then decided he liked us no more than we liked him, and he turned around with a snort and lumbered away into the bush.
The concern we felt about having to cut through the big burn proved unnecessary, as we were called off the trail to join the wood-cutting crew. It was now mid-September and the war was well in progress. About a mile down the road from our cabin the Park crew was camped, and they had a battery-powered radio. Every night we would walk down to hear the latest news at 9:00 p.m. over CFCN Calgary. I was never alone on these nightly trips, as on the sides of the road, and crossing the road, were many black bears. One night on the mile-long stretch of highway, I counted 16 of them, but they were fat and lazy just prior to hibernation, and they hardly paid any attention to the stranger who walked among them.
The camp crew were always playing pranks on the cook, who was well-known oldtimer Pete Matheson. One day they decided to plug up the chimney of his cook stove with a bunch of gunny sacks. The smoke and commotion that ensued from the cookhouse was something to behold!
That night when the men returned for supper, all appeared to have been forgiven, as the table was adorned with luscious looking pies, a welcome sight to the hard-working road crew. But when they went to cut them, they were filled with pine needles! Pete had his revenge!
Now it was the first week in October and final cheques were issued and everyone said “So long” and “see you next May”. For me, it was the last time I saw many of those old timers, as war service and taking an apprenticeship necessitated many years away from the Valley, and when I finally returned time had taken its toll, and the change in economic conditions had taken many away to other places.
But that summer cutting trail in Kootenay Park remains as one of the most pleasant and satisfying I have ever spent.
“By the middle of that summer when I was seventeen I had yet to see myself as part of a story. I had yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature….”
Norman Maclean, The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky