Breathing deep and heavy, I push my legs to carry me the last few feet to the summit of the hill and then, breathlessness forgotten, I stand and survey the surrounding valley. In front me, Jasper sprawls beside the highway, its red and yellow and white houses competing with the evergreens and elk for space. Whistler’s Mountain towers just to the left of the town, capped with the tram house. The Athabasca River twists its way between grey pebble banks, its water milky white with the spring runoff, as it passes under the green steel bridge that carries tourists to the trail to Jasper’s best viewpoint.
In my mind, I wipe it all away, and try to imagine the white men who first came through this valley, following Native trade routes and, unlike tourists today, avoiding any mountain climbing because it was too much work.
The Rocky Mountains feature among the world’s most spectacular scenery. From jagged cliffs spearing blue skies to green rivers tumbling over rocks to the majesty of a male elk wearing his antler crown with pride, the mountains attract, challenge, and amaze us. Yet it wasn’t so for the first white men to see them.
A few hundred years ago, the mountains represented an obstacle to be overcome in the fur business; rivers were a means of transportation, and the beautiful waterfalls that now draw thousands of tourists were problems to be portaged around; the elk that has traffic backed up for miles along the highway was dinner to the hungry voyageurs.
Those first traders, voyageurs and explorers saw the mountains from hundreds of miles away, as tourists still do today. My family frequently drove the Highway 2 from Edmonton to Calgary during my growing up years, and we always watched for the mountains to the west. As we neared Red Deer, Mom would tell the story of how Anthony Henday stood on Antler Hill and caught his first glimpse of those mountains in 1754. He was searching for an easy route across the continent to take furs back to Europe, but when he saw that formidable barrier, all he said was, “This isn’t going to be as easy as we thought.”
Nor was it as hard as he thought either, for there are passes and valleys through the mountains. Today’s visitors to Jasper are surprised by a sign that stands by the TransCanada Highway, at a place where the mountains are just beginning to appear on the horizon. The sign announces that this round hill, covered with a rolling carpet of evergreens as the hills in all directions are, is Obed Summit, and it is the highest point on the Highway. That seems surprising, because the Summit isn’t even in the mountains yet. But after the highway passes the Summit, it winds its way through the valleys to Jasper, following a nearly flat route that all the traders would have approved of.
As I drive that curving highway, my eyes are often drawn from the road to the peaks of the mountains towering on either side. I try to trace with my eyes a path to the top, wondering what’s there, what I might see. From the top of Whistler’s, there is a 360* view of mountains in every direction, peak after peak after peak, each one unique. Some cover themselves in snow and others hide themselves in cloud. Mount Edith is distinguishable by her height and the bars of snow and rock across her face. Pyramid Mountain could be transported here from Egypt, as it sticks its red triangle—now adorned with a pointy radio tower—into the sky.
The highway and railway curve past Pyramid Mountain to Jasper and then around Mount Edith and further into the Rockies, carrying people and goods with an ease that would have amazed David Thompson. He spent most of his career searching for an easy way to get over the Rockies, to reach the furs on the other side and take them back to Montreal. When Indian rivalry made his first trade route impassable, he ventured north and discovered the Athabasca Pass in 1811. Today, only hikers cross the pass, but for forty years after David first went over it, it was the highway through the mountains. A small, turquoise green pond in the pass is called The Committee’s Punchbowl, because here the traders stopped to toast their successes.
I’ve hiked through much of the backcountry in the Rocky Mountains, carrying all of my food and gear on my back, and I can appreciate the traders’ desire for a flat, easy route. I imagine that the places I’ve seen are much as they saw them, unchanged except by a few more human footsteps and a few amenities like outhouses and bear poles. While the traders were pushed by weather and competition to get over the mountains, my hikes are bound only by the need to get into camp before dark.
So I stop, lean my pack against a fallen log, and stare at a glacier that has been retreating since the first white men saw it. I dip my feet into the rivers that carried the explorers on their journeys. And I watch the bears, eagles, goats, and marmots with as much excitement, though they mean neither food nor furs to me, but only the awe of nature.