Historic hotels recall the Golden Age of exploration in our mountain parks

Most people who visit the Rocky Mountains come to see snow capped peaks, pristine mountain scenery and abundant wildlife, but the recent human history of this area is also a fascinating reason to visit.

Built in 1927 and declared a “recognized” National Historic Building in 1987

Built in 1927 and declared a “recognized” National Historic Building in 1987

Most people who visit the Rocky Mountains come to see snow capped peaks, pristine mountain scenery and abundant wildlife, but the recent human history of this area is also a fascinating reason to visit.

At the turn of the 19th century, early explorers were just beginning to map out this part of Canada and the federal government and railway companies were hot on their heels as they realized the tourism potential of what is now Jasper, Banff and Waterton Lakes National Parks.

Today, that history is preserved in park museums and in carefully-restored heritage buildings in the parks.

On Aug. 13, one more heritage building was added to the list when the historic Maligne Lake Chalet was officially reopened to the public. Built in 1927 and officially recognized as a National Historic Building in 1987, the lodge was once operated by the Brewster family as one of the largest and most luxurious accommodations in the park.

“This is an important day and a special moment for Jasper National Park,” said Pat Crowley, general manager of Maligne Lake Tours. “The Maligne Lake Chalet is an essential piece of Jasper’s human history and allows visitors from all over the world to learn about the legacy and history of the first adventurers to this area.”

The newly reopened chalet will be used to host weddings and other day functions near Maligne Lake and was a combined effort between Maligne Lake Tours and Parks Canada. For more info, visit www.malignelake.com/chalet.html.

How the mountains got their names

“The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed, and unclimbed peaks.”

— Norman Collie’s 1898 journal entry (Upon seeing the Athabasca Icefield)

Comparing mountains is a subjective and imprecise activity, but few would deny that the Canadian Rockies are amongst the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet.

When the first mountaineers and surveyors mapped out the mountains and lakes of the Canadian Rockies, most were completely unaware of the aboriginal names that already existed for these places and thus gave them new English names — in many cases their own.

Since most of these explorers were male, most of the mountains in the Rockies have male names. There are a few exceptions to this and here are three of the most famous mountains with female names and the stories behind how they got their unique names.

Bertha Peak — Waterton Lakes National Park — Bertha was not the first name for the beautiful lake, waterfalls and mountain that have become a popular hiking destination in Waterton Lakes National Park, but it is the name that stuck.

There are many local legends surrounding the name change but it is universally accepted that these sites were named for Bertha Eklund, an early resident of the area.

If you go on the boat tour of Waterton Lake, the guide may tell you that Eklund was a counterfeiter who printed out fake doctor’s prescriptions for alcohol during the prohibition years. This activity made her beloved by the townsfolk and after her release from prison, they renamed the mountain and lake for her.

Unfortunately, Parks Canada says that story is not quite correct.

According to local history records, the name Bertha Lake was a little joke between a park warden and a young woman he took on a hike to Spirit Lake. When Bertha Eklund commented that Spirit Lake was a silly name for a lake if there were no spirits there, the warden suggested they change the name of the lake to Bertha.

It is interesting to note that in later years, Eklund was convicted of passing counterfeit currency at the Prince of Wales Hotel, but this occurred during the Depression and had nothing to do with the naming of the lake and mountain.

Through her later life, Bertha Eklund was a good citizen who was well liked in the community.

Today even Parks Canada calls the lake, falls and peak “Bertha,” so the unofficial name is now official.

Mount Edith Cavell — Jasper National Park — Mount Edith Cavell is one of the dominant peaks at the northern end of the Icefield Parkway, near the town of Jasper.

The massive snow-crowned mountain was named in 1916 for a British nurse named Edith Cavell, who is remembered for saving the lives of casualties on both sides of the conflict during the First World War.

She was executed by firing squad for treason after she helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the war. Her death received worldwide media attention and there have been many sites named in her honour, but it is doubtful there are any grander than the one in the Canadian Rockies.

Today, the 3.8 km (one-way) Cavell Meadows hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in Jasper National Park.

Leah Peak — Jasper National Park (near Maligne Lake) — The woman this peak is named for is less famous than the woman who did the naming.

Leah Peak was named for Leah Beaver, the wife of Samson Beaver — the Stoney Indian who drew the map that led Mary Schaffer to Maligne Lake in 1908.

Schaffer was the first explorer to reach Maligne Lake and was later hired by the Geological Survey of Canada to map the lake and to name the surrounding peaks. She was perhaps the only female explorer and surveyor in the Rockies at that time.

Although she received criticism in her day for travelling alone in the wilderness in the company of men, Schaffer has become an iconic figure in the Canadian Rockies and will forever be associated with Maligne Lake.

She published several books about her explorations that are still sold in Jasper gift shops.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.