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The Forgotten Explorer: Samuel Prescott Fay’s 1914 Expedition to the Northern Rockies

By Charles Helm, Mike Murtha

Review By PearlAnn Reichwein

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 137-38


In 1914, Samuel Prescott Fay (1884- 1971), a Harvard graduate from Boston, ventured twelve hundred kilometres through the northern Rockies from Jasper to Hudson’s Hope. While the Harvard Travelers Club deferred exploration in the region to Fay that summer, other mountain travellers, particularly Mary Jobe and Curly Phillips, were game to push north into uncharted spots on the map after railways transected Yellowhead Pass. Fay’s five-man expedition – outfitted by Fred Brewster – sought the limits of bighorn sheep and collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, where his wildlife report and journal were archived. First published in 2009, these papers add to the corpus of turn-of-the-century travel narratives and journals about the Canadian Rockies. Fay was a wealthy sportsman on a hunting holiday when modern colonial resettlement impinged on the Canadian Rockies; his long traverse is not well known and its exact route has not been duplicated. Helm and Murtha insert Fay into the popular canon of Rocky Mountain exploration literature in a way that reproduces a heroic narrative of masculinist high adventure. In the foreword, references to a region “timeless” and “unknown” present tropes of pristine wilderness removed from civilization that mask another argument central to the book: Fay provides a temporal benchmark for changing environmental and social history along a spatial trajectory little documented in known written records before his era. 

Expeditionary travel writing underscores distance in terms of weather, exertion, and group dynamics. Fay was a keen observer and reporter: rainy days reveal humdrum hours confined to a tepee; successful hunts raised spirits and dispelled hunger; moments spent fly fishing rise to lyric nature writing. Kakwa, Mt. Sir Alexander, and Kinuseo Falls are described as scenic wonders. Fay named these places with the approval of the Geographic Board of Canada and surveyor Arthur Oliver (mistaken as “Oswald”) Wheeler. Later they were proclaimed provincial parks. The party met Métis settlers such as Ewan Moberly’s family, relocated near Grand Cache from the Athabasca Valley following the creation of Jasper Park in Alberta, and a scorbutic Fay ate potatoes grown on Joseph Calliou’s family homestead at Moberly Lake in British Columbia. Social flux, trade, and kinship marked the borderland region as mobile and resilient. Fay’s stories and archival photos indicate it was neither timeless nor untouched; he did, however, bushwhack a lonely route obstructed by deadfall from forest fires in many areas that were, thus, seldom frequented in his era. Brewster’s unpublished diaries and maps are well cross-referenced with Fay’s account. Annotation and biographical notes are thorough, and appendices highlight Fay’s ongoing role in contested claims of exploration and geographic memory. Larger print would have enhanced maps and endnotes. 

Fay believed that these magnificent scenic places were worthy of park creation, but his hunting trip also suggests why landscapes supporting large wildlife species in the Rockies necessarily go beyond small, protected areas. The editors identify current industrial encroachments on the eastern slopes and future risks. Overall, Fay represents a generation of expeditionary sport hunters who sought out roadless tracts from the Rockies to the Masai Mara before the First World War. Four of the five in Fay’s party soon went to war and two died overseas, underscoring that the northern Rockies were part of a modern world in transformation documented by passing travellers. The book is a fascinating source that incites study and travel.


The Forgotten Explorer: Samuel Prescott Fay’s 1914 Expedition to the Northern Rockies
Edited by Charles Helm and Mike Murtha
Surrey: Rocky Mountain Books 2009.   292 pp. $27.95 paper