An old friend, who inspired the first edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide and contributed to the first six editions, died on August 30, 2023.
“Thor” was an avid hiker who authored one of the first backcountry user surveys in 1967, A Trail Use Survey: Banff and Yoho National Park. Among a long list of recommendations, we took special note of the following:
“The key to public use of our many superb mountain areas of the west is not so much development but provision of information. Many visitors expressed an almost frantic desire for trail information they could not get from information officers or trail maps.”
He went on to recommend an “illustrated trail guide… complete with maps would be a major information need for each of our parks”.
That recommendation triggered plans by myself and Bart Robinson to create the first hiker-specific guidebook to the Mountain Parks. Thor provided feedback throughout the process, and we used his trail inventories for Banff and Yoho during our fieldwork in 1970. We also followed his recommendation that the book should be comprehensive in hopes of spreading use beyond the most popular trails
The 1967 survey also provided a detailed proposal for a Great Divide Trail. After more fieldwork and route refining, Thorsell published the Provisional Trail Guide and Map for the Proposed Great Divide Trail in 1970. With his permission, we summarized that publication in our first edition the following year and subsequent editions until 2000.
Early life in the Mountain Parks
James Westvick Thorsell was born on December 5, 1940, in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. He would eventually make his way to the University of Alberta, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1962.
That year he was hired as Banff’s first seasonal park naturalist. It was a posting that included guided walks on the trails at Lake Louise and evening programs at the Bow Lake Campground. It began an attachment to the park that would last the rest of his life.
While earning a Master of Arts degree from the University of Western Ontario (1968), he completed two of the earliest trail use surveys for Waterton Lakes and Banff & Yoho National Parks.
In 1971, he completed an interdisciplinary PhD with specialization in parks management at the University of British Columbia. It was one of the first doctorates in that field ever awarded in Canada.
During this first decade, he purchased a small cottage in Banff with the help of his good friend Catharine Robb Whyte, founder of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Following the publication of his Great Divide Trail proposal and the first edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, he joined myself and Jon Whyte as instructors in the “Anatomy of the Canadian Rockies” at the Banff School of Fine Arts (Banff Centre). This summer student program, which ran from 1973 until 1977, included daily lectures on natural and human history and guided hikes every weekend on a wide variety of trails between Banff and the Columbia Icefield.
In 1977, he was hired as an Assistant Professor with tenure at the University of Alberta, and he purchased a house in Edmonton. But the academic life and the big city didn’t agree with his disposition (he spent most every weekend in Banff), so he resigned his position in 1979. (One of my favourite Thor quotes comes from when he listed his Edmonton house: “I can be out in 10 minutes.”)
Other than a small circle of friends, not many people were aware of the role Thor played in world conservation after he left Banff.
He began his career in international parks and conservation in the late 1970s when he signed on as a planner for Morne Trois Pitons National Park on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.
While he was designing the park’s focal point trail, Catharine Whyte travelled to the island for a visit and to observe his project. (It would be one of the last trips abroad for Catharine, who passed away in March, 1979.)
The lure of worldwide conservation would capture Thor’s attention for the next two decades.
From 1979 until 1981 he worked as a planner for the Kenya Wildlife Department. His base of operations was the Karen Blixen farm (Out of Africa) in the Ngong Hills southwest of Nairobi.
In 1982-83, he was a lecturer at the College of African Wildlife Management at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. From that base, he ranged out on numerous trips to explore the vast Serengeti.
While he was at the latter posting, he was offered a position at the International Union for Conservation Nature & Natural Resources (UUCN) in Gland, Switzerland. It was a difficult decision to leave Africa at the time, but it would lead him into a major role in world conservation.
Thor arrived at the IUCN headquarters in Gland, Switzerland in 1983. He first headed the World Commission on Protected Areas before taking over responsibility for the World Heritage program.
Under his leadership, field missions were introduced in 1985 for the evaluation of all natural sites nominated for World Heritage status. A few years later, the IUCN World Heritage panel was created to improve the quality of assessments.
During his career with IUCN, he carried out missions to more than 600 protected sites in 90 countries and authored more than 300 publications on nature conservation and park management.
He would travel to China more than 16 times during his career to assess natural areas. Despite an often hostile reception in areas of Australia and New Zealand, he was revered in many Chinese communities, where World Heritage was considered a welcome designation.
Photographs taken during his China visits show hundreds of people lining the streets in welcome, and he may well have been the most famous Canadian in China since Dr. Norman Bethune. (I accused him of passing himself off as Bethune’s son and joked that if the Chinese ever discovered he wasn’t, he’d be in big trouble.)
On August 11, 2010, Christina Cameron travelled to Banff to interview Thor for the World Heritage Centre Oral Archives. This 29-minute taped interview provides his views on the successes and failures of the World Heritage Convention.
Relocation to British Columbia
In 2001, Thor and his partner Nancy Knechtel moved from Banff to a restored log home in the hamlet of Wilmer, BC, with an unparalleled view of the Columbia Valley wetlands.
Together they spent winters in Ajijic and Baja, Mexico, and summers in Wilmer. Wherever they were, they entertained professional colleagues and mountain friends.
He continued his involvement with the IUCN for many years following the move and reacquainted himself with many trails in the mountain parks he’d surveyed in his early days. In 2016, he hiked the Rockwall Trail again from end-to-end, a trail that he revised into his proposed Great Divide Trail 46 years earlier (see Park Wardens: Past & Present hiker’s blog).
Thor was a focussed individual who carefully crafted his life, both personally and professionally wherever he was in the world, so he could always be out in nature, hiking, scrambling, fishing and hunting. I’ll always remember his voice mail: “I’m in the backcountry. Leave a message.”
What more can I say about an individual who was such an important influence on my own life? Perhaps I should simply sign off with his favourite quote, which was a motto for his life:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” —John Muir, 1871