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Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed

By I.S. MacLaren

Review By Claire Campbell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 159 Autumn 2008  | p. 143-5

In 1910, D.J. Benham wrote of the new Jasper National Park, “Here may be seen Nature primeval, Nature benignant and Nature malignant – the glorious heritage of a Canadian nation” (xxv). People don’t really talk of “Nature primeval” anymore, but the language of wilderness and national heritage still surrounds Canada’s mountain parks. Which is why it was such a pleasure to read Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed. This beautiful volume describes the Jasper familiar to many of us (including a few wry references to driving ninety kilometres per hour down the Icefields Parkway) but, more importantly, places it in a much larger story of human/non-human interaction.

In his introduction, Ian MacLaren identifies several ways, from transmontane corridor to playground, in which Jasper has been a human space. Michael Payne’s valuable study of the fur trade on the Upper Athabaska River demonstrates not only a long-standing human presence but also its ecological confines. Traders were disinclined to establish posts on the eastern slopes of the Rockies because limited food sources meant First Nations (as fur suppliers) were largely transient. In a nicely crafted arc, Payne links the inhabited landscape of the early nineteenth century with that of the twentieth century, as historians commemorated fur trade posts as an original transcontinental link even as railway surveyors, ironically, were demolishing Jasper House (24-25). The fur trade era owes much of its reputation to the art of Paul Kane, as MacLaren notes in his analysis of Kane and Henry James Warre, both of whom passed through Jasper in the mid-1840s. By cross-referencing sketches with Weldnotes, Kane’s landscape log, and his own photographs, MacLaren identifies their artistic arrangements, “when battures simply [did] not measure up to mountains aesthetically” (60) in the picturesque. This past/present comparison provides useful evidence of landscape change, a theme throughout the collection. 

The next set of essays deals with Jasper’s early years as a national park. Peter J. Murphy tracks the moveable feast of the park’s boundaries before 1930 (thankfully, with excellent maps) as the eastern slopes were drawn alternately as park and forest reserve, all the while contested by diVerent branches in the Department of the Interior, the Province of Alberta, and park users. The disparity between Ottawa’s agendas and distant, centralist management – consider the bizarrely perfect rectangle that was Rocky Mountain Park – and local use is another theme that resonates throughout park history in Canada. In 1980, Murphy interviewed Edward Wilson Moberly, a Métis whose family was dispossessed by Jasper’s creation. His transcribed life story is fascinating to read, but it is particularly useful to Culturing Wilderness for its description of the Métis use of the land: planned burnings, grazing, guiding, and so forth. The redrawing of the park’s boundaries in 1911 despite a lack of knowledge about the eastern slopes prompted a survey by Mary SchäVer, a story told by PearlAnn Reichwein and Lisa McDermott. The now-iconic Maligne Lake had been excluded from the park, and SchäVer used the survey as well as her reputation as an author and mountaineer to advocate for its re-inclusion. Though the authors are generally uncritical of SchäVer’s romantic view of Jasper as “paradise” or “her own private playground” (161-62), they note the politics of surveying, the power (or ego) in topographic naming, and the need for more on Aboriginal mapping. Moreover, they suggest that by seeing tourism as a policy “trade-off” for conservation, SchäVer (who later ran a gas station in Banff) reflects the political dynamics of park management at the time (187). 

The evolution of that tourism concerns the next few essays. Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux’s study of tourist pamphlets is a sophisticated reading of wilderness as deWned and sold by railway companies (trading posts, Métis settlements, fifteen railway stations, and park hotels could not mar the ideal). She argues that the cultural authority wielded by the Canadian National Railways and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway came at a critical point because wilderness was still being incorporated in national consciousness (235-36). That Jasper was a setting for both recreation and select “Canadian” values is also apparent in Zac Robinson’s account of “the golden years of mountaineering,” which compares the public reception of two ascents in 1925. While that of Mount Alberta, by members of the Japanese Alpine Club, was more technically skilful, Robinson argues that it received less attention because the Alpine Club of Canada considered the climbers of Mount Logan more in keeping with the traditional values of “aristocratic amateurism” (269). But my favourite piece in the collection is C.J. Taylor’s account of how tourism physically reshaped the park. Automobiles (and visitors) in growing numbers prompted a host of changes, from cottage subdivisions to campground design. Intense use demanded more intense management, and dramatic changes in the postwar years (such as the introduction of naturalist interpretation) indicate that this is a period that, in park management and styling, must be studied more closely. It is fitting, then, that the collection closes with an engaging reflection by Eric Higgs on the Rocky Mountain Repeat Photography Project. This project replicated photos taken by surveyor M.P. Bridgland in 1915 as a tool for ecological restoration. Higgs states strongly the need to recognize the human presence in park management, that traditional emphasis on ecosystems misses the fact that challenges to park integrity “are mostly human in nature” (289).

Despite the iconic status of the mountain parks in Canada there is a surprising lack of solid, accessible literature about park history, particularly in the postwar period. Culturing Wilderness is a welcome arrival, and a timely one, drawing our attention both to the centennial of Jasper itself (1907) and the upcoming centennial of the world’s first National Park Branch (1911). Indeed, I found myself wondering at times how much influence flowed between Jasper and the rest of the park system, in managerial or scientific practice, for example. However, Culturing Wilderness offers not only a richer understanding of the Jasper region but also a model for collaboration between academic and public historians; for the use of diverse archival, material, and visual sources; and for writing about parks (or any presumed “wilderness”) as sites of human agendas and effort. As Jean Chrétien notes in his foreword, “Just as it is tough work making parks, it is tough making parks work!” (vii).