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North to the Kootenay Plains! 1958-1959

I had first seen the Kootenay Plains about 1935 while I was on a pack trip in hunting season; just had a glimpse of open plains with the mountains rising right off of them. I was out on a hunting trip from the homestead to secure our winter's meat supply. With four companions I went in west of Caroline, past Marble Mountain, up past Onion Lake over the summit and down Smallpox Creek to the Saskatchewan River valley. When we rounded the corner mountain, now known as Mount Michener, we saw open plains, numbers of horses and a few Indian teepees. Very interesting and different country. Unfortunately we couldn't explore further, as we were short of supplies and had to retrace our steps back to the realities of homestead life.

When the new district was advertised in a competition I applied for it, and even tried to get my current superintendent to help but he was loathe to do so. I was awarded the new district. Ninety-five miles west of Rocky Mountain House town, it was to be known as the Upper Saskatchewan Ranger Station. At 4,500 feet elevation, it was just east of the Columbia Icefields where the North Saskatchewan River rises, which is known at the start as Alexander River, inside Banff National Park. When the river turns east out of the park it is known as the North Saskatchewan which later joins with the South Saskatchewan River and flows into the Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean.

My superintendent would not release me because of the high fire hazard in Castle District, while my new super wanted me moved because of the high fire hazard in the Saskatchewan Valley. Also, we were hearing conflicting reports about the new station's buildings. On Labour Day weekend, I downed tools and drove north to see for myself. They had started the buildings using coal miners from the Crowsnest as labourers under a government relief warrant, as the coal mines were closing down.

It was the 1st of October when we got moved, after a hassle over that. The chief superintendent wanted to move my furniture into storage at Nordegg as the house was not completed enough to live in, and we were to live in a tent. Having been to see conditions, and knowing there was a horse barn constructed and a storehouse-cum-garage, we proposed storing our furniture and belongings in the barn. We could live in the storehouse, and the building crew could use tents. But that wasn't good enough for the crew, we must use a tent.

However, we found a good friend. Cliff Brierly of Rocky Mountain House had a crew clearing a seismic line in Castle District, and when he heard of our arrangement it was no way: he would lend us a workmen's trailer. We spent six weeks in that trailer till they laid off the building crew in mid-November as the weather became colder.

[1] It is heartbreaking to recall that the events in this section, taking place in the late winter and early summer of 1959, were contemporaneous with the suicide of John's youngest son Archie (April 25, 1959). (See this note in Part 11.)

When they laid the crew off the house was partially built but only the outer shell, with only storm doors and windows. We separated rooms by hanging a blanket. Before the crew left we got them to move our furniture from the barn into the house, and I was left to complete the interior. I finished the interior work that winter; although I could do carpentry work I found it tedious. Some days I would down tools and take off for the bush with my dogs.[1] 

We had also built a small shed to house a Kohler light plant which supplied power for any appliances, in daytime only, for we were not allowed to run the plant at night. The plant supplied power for radio standby and was run on propane gas, transported a long way.

The next summer I was pretty busy getting the district set up and organised. I landscaped round the buildings using native soil which was pure glacial silt, of which I sent three samples to the Department of Agriculture for analysis. It proved to be the first nil analysis in the province of Alberta. However I had enough knowledge to know how to improve soil conditions, and later on I had beautiful gardens and grounds.

I set up a weather station, with hydrometer, rain gauge and anemometer to determine the fire hazard. In that stretch of valley, a thirty-mile strip between Windy Point and Whirlpool Point, the weather was different from elsewhere. It was very dry often and registered nil humidity, made one parched, and going around licking one's lips. The fire hazard was very often extreme; then we could not go to town for supplies.

This high fire hazard area was the reason for setting up the new district. The condition was found in 1956 when a geologist working in the valley discovered a forest fire burning, while at Nordegg only thirty miles away it had been raining for days. It took them two days to get men and equipment in, and the bulldozers got stuck in Cline River when they were fording it.

Meteorologists explained that the reason for the unique micro-climate in this area was the certain way the west wind from the Pacific fed through the mountain passes.

[2] Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, a federal government office charged with mitigating the effects of drought and erosion.

At the end of the fire season the Department of Forestry sent the records of annual precipitation to the P.F.R.A.[2]  in Regina, Saskatchewan. They felt our recording station had made an error of at least one digit, as we had recorded slightly over nine inches of precipitation for the whole year. Of course they came up and checked all our instruments and found them correct. The verdict: the area was dynamite!!

We also set up on a peak of just over seven thousand feet a lookout to watch the area. They picked the location from a fixed-wing plane dropping coloured flashing and I had to climb and make a report. I found the peak timber-covered, no place for a helicopter to land. I volunteered to be lowered by winch and clear timber for a chopper landing pad; I was accepted in my ignorance, and then I got word that a pilot would not drop me.

One day on the way to town I saw a helicopter by the side of the road on a service trip to Ram Lookout. Knowing the pilot I stopped to chat, and told him another pilot had refused to lower me. "Chicken," I said. Whereupon my friend asked what the location was like. I told him it was just a big knife peak in the middle of the valley, mostly timber-covered but a talus slope on the west side. He said, "I would not try lowering a man as the terrain would not provide a cushion of air."

This gave me food for thought. I realised what he said was true, and, not hearing any more about a lookout, I more or less forgot about it. Next spring I got a radio message to the effect that they would be at my station at midday to drop me on the lookout site. I did not have the guts to say no.

I collected a pack of chainsaw, axe, gas and oil ready to go. When they arrived it was the chief pilot, a very good pilot and I flew with him many times after. He instructed me to get a long lash rope, tie it to my pack with the other end round my waist, then to don a parachute harness with a ring behind my neck to which the winch cable was attached. His further instructions were that since he would not be able to see me, as he would have to watch his instruments, he would tap me on the shoulder when we reached the drop area, then I was to lower my pack to the full extent of the rope. On the next tap the winch would start to unwind. We had removed part of the cockpit floor to permit free passage for the cable, which was only about an eighth of an inch diameter of hard steel.

I lowered my pack when tapped; on the second tap I foolishly started to put my foot over outside the skid. I realised that was not right and recovered. Meantime the winch was unwinding and I lowered myself down till I was grasping the skid and when the cable took my weight, I let go and spun around like a top. I knew how to land with a parachute, going down with my knees bent as soon as my feet touched. I hit the release button and was free. I climbed to the top up the talus slope to find deep snow on which I had to crawl on my hands and knees to reach the lookout site.

I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and so started to work as hard as I could felling trees. I cut a circle and, still being pretty green, I radioed the station to have the helicopter pick me up.

When the pilot flew over he radioed to me telling me he could not land as he required a glide path to land and for take-off. This entailed felling a lot more of the trees, most of which were about ninety feet tall. This timber was unusual as it was above the usual seven thousand foot timber line. It was caused by the location, in the middle of the valley and in this micro-climate.

I had to have more supplies, so I contacted the ranger station and requested more gas and oil, some food and my sleeping bag. Meantime I kept felling trees; they could see the trees falling from the station three thousand feet below. When the helicopter flew over I noted the drop location and saw one package fall; presently I required more gas and retrieved the package, to find only gas and oil, no food or sleeping bag. I contacted the ranger station to ascertain the reason and was told they had dropped two packages. I searched around but could not find the second package at first. Eventually I noticed disturbed snow under a tree; the package had hit a snow-covered tree, knocking the snow loose, which slid down and covered the package in the hollow surrounding the bole of the tree. I continued work as long as I could see and again next day, and when I was at last lifted off I had spent thirty-six hours on the mountain top.

We proceeded to construct the lookout cabin on the cleared site, dropping carpenters and all the building material by helicopter, the first time for doing so. The helicopter made a hundred and five flights. The silhouette of the chopper in flight was something else, carrying all sorts of loads: twenty-four foot long two-inch timbers, sheets of plywood, and two large tanks. At the time of construction there was no other way to reach the summit, but later I located a trail to the top and was able to service the lookout using either packhorses or pack dogs.

Next winter, 1959, I trucked my dogs to Whirlpool Point, then went by sled to Thompson Creek, a further fifteen miles, and in due course built a log cabin for a stop-over cabin. Since that time a splendid campground for tourists has been created there, and the cabin is still used by the camp caretaker, who lives there during tourist season.

When I first went to Upper Saskatchewan District there were very few tourists, as the road west from Rocky Mountain House ended at Allstones Creek. From there to Banff Park was just a trail of two tracks. It was mostly dry going, except between Windy Point and the ranger station where it passed through beaver dam country. In spring it used to take eight lengths of my winch cable to winch the truck through. The rest of the road was glacial silt which churned into a fine dust like french chalk, and smothered everything with dust, even getting into the tightest cars.

[3] This famous waterway is the subject of Bruce Hunter's poem, Two O'Clock Creek.

The local people in the Rocky area organised a cavalcade pushing for a road through the valley. They went through every summer, and we had to turn out a number of winch-equipped trucks to winch them through the worst places, such as creeks and very steep hills. One very bad creek, named Two O'Clock Creek,[3]  caused a lot of trouble even to myself when working the district. The creek was so named as it would be dry in the morning whilst in the afternoon it would be in full flood. The creek was fed by underground streams from Wilson Glacier, and the heat of the day with the sun shining melted snow on the glacier to feed the underground streams.

After a year or so the Highway Department started to clear and construct the road through, a section each year, which is today known as the David Thompson Highway. It is a beautiful highway, very much favoured by tourists, as it passes through some of the most photographic scenery in Alberta's Rocky Mountains.