Among the foothills and Rockies in 1885.
The same disk of prairie journeys with you all day long, and at night you camp right in the centre of just such a disk with its sallow grass and gopher mounds and well-bleached bones. A feeling of almost dismay rises in your consciousness. Will this enchanted circle never break and let us once more behold hills and dales and forests! Have we not travelled with a bias, as lost men are said to do, and come back to our starting point!
Breaks are not entirely wanting, however. At intervals a stream crosses the trail, winding its muddy, doubtful way at the bottom of the chasm which it has dug in the alluvium; a groping, grovelling stream, never satisfied with its bed, but always digging away at one side and filling up at the other. Or perhaps a shallow, unrefreshing lake, with alkali-frosted margins, must be skirted round. Sometimes a herd of frightened antelope scuds into the distance, or the curling smoke of a far-off teepee shows itself; and these are watched with as much interest as sails are at sea.
Perhaps nowhere in the world can one travel so far and see so little variety. So far as I am aware, neither the great plains of Russia nor the steppes of Siberia nor the pampas of South America can equal our Canadian prairies for treeless monotony.
All this, however, makes an excellent preparation for the mountains, which at length, far toward the south-west of the hitherto limitless plain, rise as a faint, jagged rim of misty white and blue. A strange exultation springs up in your heart, as though chains were slipping off and liberty at hand. The fancy is no longer lead-weighted to a dreary wandering to and fro on the everlasting level. It is once more free to climb aloft with the mountains and dive down with the valleys.
The prairies may rear men of strength and honesty and dogged perseverance, but I doubt if they can ever bring forth a poet! He could find no room to soar! The very sky seems a dozen miles lower on the prairies than among the mountains. Blessed be hills and valleys and oceans and mountains and all other obstructions that force men to look up and around as well as straight ahead!
But we have not yet reached the mountains. More than a hundred miles still separate us from those impassive giants; but their mere presence is inspiring and lifts the heart and shortens the way. All men seem to feel this influence, rough navvies going out to work on the railway, as well as men of more taste and education.
Our Rocky Mountains rise with more abruptness than most great ranges, but yet do not spring directly from the plains. A series of foothills sweeping up with ever increasing rolls and swells, and showing now and then the great folds and upturned edges of rock on which they are modelled, serves as an introduction to the world of mountains beyond.
In approaching the Rockies by the Canadian Pacific, Calgary, full of metropolitan dreams and ambitious aspirations, is first met, lying peacefully in its bluff-walled valley and waiting to supply the wants of ranchers and miners and hunters. Then among the foothills we see Morley, well known as the home of the McDougalls. Let us rest there a while and take breath before our mountaineering.
To reach Morley from the railway one must cross the rapid Bow River, at most seasons as clear and crystalline as Manitoban rivers are muddy. It is fordable when not in flood; but an eastern man is likely to remember for some time his sensations during the passage. The little Indian pony steps gingerly into the water which grows deeper and deeper till one's feet must be drawn high up to avoid a wetting. The pony leans strongly upward against the surging current, as a man would against a hurricane; and its swaying motions as it slowly picks its way over the rounded stones of the bottom combined with the rapid, angry swirl of the river all around seem to the newcomer anything but confidence-inspiring. But now the crossing is made, and the dripping pony scrambles up the steep river bank, while its tenderfoot rider reflects comfortably on his own great courage in circumstances of danger such as that just passed. When our tenderfoot learns, however, that men, women, and children, cross the river every day, and often without a saddle or bridle, his consciousness of his own surpassing courage begins to wane.
It is now but a five minutes' canter to Morley. One is sadly disappointed in the dried-up herbage covering the stony benches along the river. Can this be the famous pasturage on which fattened the myriads of buffaloes whose bones lie bleaching on every quarter section for a thousand miles; and are the rancher's cattle to live and thrive all the year round on this scanty growth on to which an Ontario farmer would hardly turn his sheep? Such it is, and insufficient as it looks, the good condition of the horses and cattle which have wintered there proves that in nourishing qualities it does not fall behind eastern meadows.
Morley would hardly be called a village in Ontario. A half dozen families of whites have their comfortable log houses scattered for two miles or more along the bench above the river. A part of the Mountain Stoney Indians have their small log houses grouped on the neighbouring reserve; but most of the tribe live across the river. They inhabit their houses only in the winter, however, going into tepees in the fine weather.
These Indians are well worthy of notice at the present juncture. They are a branch of the great Sioux family, and are honest, trusty fellows and as loyal as we ourselves. Probably no community of the size in Ontario is so free from crime as this band of blanket-clad Indians at the foot of the mountains; and they are admittedly among the best tribes of the North-West. Doubtless much of this is due to the efforts of their missionaries. They are hardy, well-made fellows, often with pleasant faces, but not equal in stature or stateliness to their ancestral enemies, the Blackfeet of the plains east of Calgary. In earlier times they had many a contest with the more numerous Blackfeet, but generally came off victors, their bracing life as hunters of the bighorn and goat among the mountains making them more than a match for the less energetic men of the plains.
Without wishing to enter into the political questions of the day, I still feel that a word should be said as to their treatment by the Indian Department. Their rations, which were of the poorest, at times almost unfit to eat, were discontinued last summer except to those absolutely helpless, the idea, no doubt, being to encourage them to self-support. It must not be forgotten, however, that Morley is about four thousand feet above sea-level and close under the mountains, and that the resulting climate makes the raising of crops very precarious. A frost or even a flurry of snow may come any month in the year, and grain crops are most uncertain.
Under these circumstances the Stonies must support their families chiefly by hunting; but the buffalo is gone and mountain goats and sheep become nearly more scarce, so that to live as hunters they must scatter far and wide, losing the benefits of schools and missions. Idle, vicious tribes on the plains--the Sarcees, for instance--have their rations regularly, that they may not become troublesome, while the honest and industrious Stonies have their rations cut off. We cannot wonder that the Indians look on this as a direct premium on idleness and vice.
The life of the fairer-skinned Morleyites is a revelation to any chance visitor of the east. Their wealth is not told in dollars, but, like that of the patriarchs, in horses and cattle, for this is the ranching country. Their thoughts are naturally with their possessions, so that their converse, when not of bullocks, is very likely to be of horses. Even the ladies have very much to say of these quadrupedal friends of man, to the no small astonishment of the visitor who, however, in a week finds himself talking as constantly and as confidently of cayuses and bronchos, of corrals and branding and rounding up as a true soul of the plains and not a mere newly arrived tender-foot. Life would not be worth living here without horses, and one soon grows more or less acquainted with the ponies and the curious, half Spanish terms used in connection with them. A piebald becomes a pinto (painted), a peculiar dun coloured variety is a buckskin, while an iron grey is a blue horse.
The common Indian pony (cayuse) is small; with fine, well-formed limbs and a rather large head, and has in disposition some delightful and several very objectionable idiosyncrasies. His relation to the eastern horse is exactly that of the Indian to the white man. He is hardy, half wild, and self-reliant, scrapes the snow from the grass and keeps in good condition, where a civilized horse would meekly starve and become food for the coyotes.
Several ponies which our party took as pack and riding beasts up into the Selkirks, where a horse from Ontario would have given up the ghost in despair from the scarcity of fodder, and the terrible roughness of the trails through the forests and over the rocks, came back weeks after in as good condition as they set out. No better horses for an irregular cavalry can be imagined than these ponies when improved in size and spirit by crossing with better blood, as in the so-called bronchos of Montana and Alberta.
On the other hand they have their faults. They are wild creatures, unreliable and unsteady as draught beasts, and not to be compared for a moment with our Ontario horses for farm purposes. Vicious ones have an uncomfortable habit of bucking, springing from all four feet at once and coming down with stiffened limbs and arched back in such a way as to send a frightful jar through every bone and muscle of the rider.
The treatment on the ranche does not tend to gentleness. Their first experience of man's authority consists in being driven, frightened, with half a hundred fellow-sufferers, into a powerfully-made pen of logs, the corral. Here one after another is lassoed, nearly strangled, branded with a hot iron as it lies panting and exhausted on the ground, and finally, if meant for service, saddled and mounted for the first time by some dare-devil cow boy who gallops off over the plains. A horse so treated is considered broken, and fit for riding.
A timid rider naturally hesitates to mount such a half-tamed, flighty steed as a spirited, just broken pony. Still they make good riding horses and have a very pleasant, cradle-like lope or canter, and are sure-footed and enduring. They must be handled cautiously, however, and as a rule driven into the corral to be caught. They generally yield at once when a rope is thrown over their neck, fearing the tightening of the terrible noose.
A novice does not always find it easy to use the all-potent rope. One of my earliest attempts was met with a lightning kick on the head, which revealed to me many stars not usually visible by daylight.
The heavy Mexican saddle, with its picturesque trappings, is thrown on, and the two horse-hair girths tightened till the poor animal groans, and now, with the bridle-rein hanging down, your pony stands as demurely as though a wild or wicked thought never entered its drowsy brain. Put your foot into the clumsy wooden stirrups and let us be off!
The fine dry air with its strong bracing winds from far over the mountains exhilarates almost like wine, and the pony entering into your spirit canters briskly down the green and flowery coulees and up the elastic turf of the hill-sides. Now we reach a swelling point with a view on all sides--and what a view this morning with its glorious floods of sunshine, free from oppressive heat, but full of dancing, all-reviving light! The softly sinking billows' of the foot-hills fade into the calm sea of prairie toward the east; toward the west the rising crests are more and more covered with dark evergreens, and dominating over all stand the cloud-turbaned mountains, the Devil's Head and his giant brethren, calm, solemn, immovable.
On one side the flashing Bow River flows through, its beautiful valley, beginning the long journey toward Hudson's Bay, on the other its turbulent tributary, Ghost River, winds through its deep cut gorge to the place of meeting.
But we have come out, not simply to view the landscape, but to look after the cattle on the range, and there they are before us. We can recognize ours by the brand as we ride up. They are wild, spirited creatures, suitable foreground figures in this splendid picture.
We must cut one out of the herd and drive in as a milch cow. She lifts her head in alarm and runs with almost the fleetness of a deer when she sees our purpose, but the pony is more than her match. Dodging and heading her, dashing full speed over knolls and sloughs and badger-holes, rushing with perfect recklessness down hill-sides and along the steep inclines of coulees, the pony takes as keen an interest in the chase as his rider, and in a mile or two has the cow beaten and completely under control.
The process of milking would amuse or exasperate an eastern milkmaid. The cow is driven into the corral, lassoed round the horns and made fast to a strong post, while its left hind foot is secured with a rope so that kicking is impossible. These preliminaries to milking have to be repeated day after day for weeks or months till the animal becomes tame.
Not even in merry England will you find richer milk and cream, sweeter butter, and beef more tender and savoury than here in the West. Animals leading that active, healthy life must surely afford more wholesome food than the pampered, stall-fed monstrosities of eastern stables.
But we have rested too long in this breezy Capua, Morley, and must now hasten to follow the Bow towards its head waters, and enter the awful realm of the mountains through the majestic portal of Bow Pass.
Let us stop at Silver City--a city now almost without inhabitants, for the silver from which it is named existed only in the excited imaginations of prospectors and promoters, and is not satisfactorily replaced by the ores of copper found near by. We are going for two or three days' prospecting with Mose McDougall, a relation of the missionary, and Mr. Grier, a miner of most varied experience; not of course that we are dazzled with the glitter of silver--far be it from us--but that we may pierce the mountain fastnesses, climb to the very homes of those cold, serene peaks and catch in some unguarded moment their muttered secrets.
But a large amount of prose must come before we reach the poetry. A long-suffering pony must be packed with provisions and blankets by Mose and Mr. Grier, who are skilled in the art, and so cinched and lashed that the beast could more easily lose its head than its burden.
And now the party sets out. Presently the smooth valley is left and we follow a rough trail over logs and rocks and muskegs among the Douglas's firs, covering the flanks of Castle Mountain, which springs boldly into the sky with many a projecting buttress and steep wall of rock. Mose's partner, an intelligent Welshman, joins us at a point where the trail crosses the treacherous, trembling green of a moss-covered muskeg. We soon enter a beautiful horseshoe-shaped valley and traversing half the length of its heathery floor, reach the camp. This has been chosen under a sheltering clump of evergreens not far from the stream which chatters idly on its way from the snow-fields above.
This valley has indeed many charms; clusters and groves of gloomily picturesque firs, showing the hard, grim, contorted lines of beings whose life has been one long struggle, contrast with wide-spread beds of purple and white-blooming heather, interspersed with soft grasses and rich-lined moss, all fresh and smiling, watered by a hundred rivulets mostly hidden under the herbage but now and then betraying themselves by faint silvery laughter where an obtruding stone gives a chance for a leap and a tumble.
What a mystery that such gay streamlets should be born of savage rocks and pallid snowfields! There are small lakes in the valley nestling close against the dark side of the mountain and having their confiding trust recompensed by the angry rolling down of stones every spring to encroach on their narrow bed. Their waters sparkle with an intense depth of green and indigo. Why should these pure, snow-fed pools display such powerful colours?
The best view of all these beauties is obtained from the mountain ridge to the north, whence one sees the groves and meadows, the winding streams and blue gems of lakes spread out as in a map; and the huge shadows of Castle Mountain and its fore springing tower may be watched as with the shifting sun they slowly creep along the valley, covering from hour to hour fresh tracts with deep and solemn colour.
We have spent the day following up the vein of copper-bearing ore which Mose and his partner have discovered and traced for several miles over rock slopes and gorges and precipices, and now at sunset we go down into the shadow of the valley and reach the camp.
A fire soon blazes under the fir trees, the blackened camp-kettle hums and hisses a drowsy tune as it swings from its pole and wild goat meat splutters and browns in the long-handled frying-pan. What a picture it is as we lazily watch the firelight glancing on the three picturesque, busy figures, and the surrounding trees, while away beyond the towering bulk of the mountain rises black against the evening sky, threatening eclipse to the approaching moon! But now comes the hearty supper, welcome enough to mountain appetites, and then after a few camp-fire stories we creep into our blankets and sleep.
The morning dawns overcast and mists curl round the turrets of the castle foreboding storm, but we set off undaunted over the mountains to visit a neighbouring valley into which we had looked the day before. We stood on the very edge of a cliff falling sheer a thousand feet or two toward a green valley on a larger scale than ours, with a winding river and lakes of marvellous colour. For any being unprovided with wings it would have been madness to attempt the descent where we stood, so we make our way a few miles westward toward the valley's head where a descent is possible. Our course leads over rugged mountain wastes above tree level and sometimes above any vegetation except lichens.
A few sodden mosses and tufts of stunted grass straggle over the weather-worn limestone in the lower parts, forming a scant pasturage for bighorns, those largest and noblest representatives of the race of sheep, if indeed they can be called sheep at all and not relatives of the chamois and ibex, two which were feeding there are startled by our coming and run toward a higher ridge. They stand there a moment silhouetted against the gloomy sky and look the rightful masters of these dreary regions. We follow them up, but long before we reach the slaty summit they have disappeared. They have made a well beaten path down the slopes of debris, which we take advantage of, thus avoiding a field of snow.
On the rough plateau below we find the only other living beings to be seen in those, desert regions--a brood of mountain chickens--birds of the grouse or ptarmigan kind, I believe, and taking a mean advantage of their lameness kill several with stones to help out our dinner.
At length the gorge is reached by which a descent into the wished-for valley is possible, one of the wildest pathways imaginable. We pick our way slowly among huge tumbled rocks, split from the over-hanging cliffs on each side by the great quarryman, frost; springing from one to another, or letting ourselves down with hands as well as feet, we find ourselves on one of the upper levels of the valley.
Mose and his friend camped here a few days before beside a rock and sheltered by a meagre tamarack, and proceed to look for some food and a pair of blankets which they had cached. No horse could come within miles of the spot, so that all necessaries must be carried on the back and become correspondingly precious. Imagine their disgust at finding the blankets in tatters and the flour scattered, no doubt the work of gophers. We have fortunately brought some bread with us, and this with the chickens make us a dinner.
We have no time to lose and push down to a lower part of the valley till we reach a wild amphitheatre with walls a thousand feet high. Three or four small streams rising in the snows of the mountain, spring shuddering from the dizzy verge into space, leap and bound from projecting points and fall as wind-tossed spray upon the heaped rocks at the foot of the cliff, then gathering up their stunned particles unite to flow sedately toward the river.
But while we admire the scene and look for the green and blue colourations which proclaim the presence of ores of copper, the gathering clouds, which have temporized hitherto, now promising to clear up, then sending down a spiteful shower, begin to rain in earnest. We cannot think of camping there with no shelter, little food and only two single blankets for four men, so our only resource is to take our way back over the storm-swept mountain, a dreary journey indeed.
We are soon clambering up the wet and slippery rocks of the gorge and hurrying over the limestone wastes beyond, and at length reach the sharp ridge of slate where we saw the sheep. Here the rain turns to snow, whose flakes at that exposed height whiz past like projectiles, but fortunately not directly in our faces. Down we stride on the deep incline whose slaty fragments yield under foot and follow or out-run us like a miniature avalanche. The snow turns back to rain at the lower level, and now after a long tramp over the wet limestone, amid the gathering shadows of evening we let ourselves down the steep sides of our valley and stumbling in the darkness among the fir-trees reach the camp.
The fire is lighted, strong tea brewed, and a good supper made of the high-flavoured goat-meat; and then warmed and comforted we go to bed. It is not precisely an ideal camp, but still might be worse. The rain still beats on our faces and blankets, but then a blanket will turn a large amount of rain and we do not become actually wet. Our latest recollections are of sickly gleams of the fire among the trees, a doleful moaning among the branches overhead, and the gloomy tower of the castle all wrapped in wind-trailed cerements of cloud.
We wake among the grey shadows of a cloudy dawn, partake of the warm breakfast which Mose prepares, and bidding farewell to our hospitable friends trudge back over the water-soaked trail to Silver City, there to meet civilization in the form of an eastward bound train of the Canadian Pacific.
And now farewell mountains! We must go back to the east, but often in our memories will your noble, massive forms take shape, and we shall see you stand wide-rooted among the earth's upturned strata with your swelling flanks forest clothed and furrowed by the parent streams of mighty rivers, your broad shoulders ermine clad with snows or embraced by the cold arms of clinging glaciers, and your scarred brows rising bare into the serene heavens or wrapped with clouds and mysterious darkness!
Arthur Coleman was professor of geology and natural history at Victoria University, Toronto, at the time of this trip. He later became professor of geology at the University of Toronto and served as president of the Royal Society of Canada. This article originally appeared in the Canadian Methodist Magazine, vol. 22, 1885.
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|Author:||Coleman, Arthur Philemon|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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