Two hun­dred years ago, ex­plorer David Thompson paved the way for trav­ellers through the Rock­ies. Hester Lacey picks up the trail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

WE are a soft lot th­ese days. We won’t ven­ture off the beaten track with­out fleeces, high-per­for­mance wa­ter­proofs, satel­lite phones and trail mix. It was very dif­fer­ent 200 years ago, when the west of Canada was just open­ing up to the first Euro­peans. Back then, on a trip to what is mod­ern-day Al­berta moun­tain coun­try, you re­lied on ca­noes, sleds and quadrupeds, and a trip took years, not days.

Look­ing now at the mod­ern re­sort towns of Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff in the Cana­dian Rock­ies, it’s hard to imag­ine that just two cen­turies ago there was noth­ing here but pris­tine wilder­ness.

One of the first and most in­trepid ex­plor­ers in this part of the world was English-born David Thompson, aka the Map Man, recog­nised long af­ter his death as one of the great ge­og­ra­phers. The cel­e­bra­tions of the 200th an­niver­sary of his cross­ing of the Rocky Moun­tains to the Pa­cific Ocean will con­tinue for five years in Al­berta and across Canada.

Thompson’s tale is a gen­uine epic of der­ring-do and it’s amaz­ing that to­day he is so lit­tle known. Lo­cal his­to­rian Pat McDon­ald rightly says Cana­di­ans are too mod­est about their stake in the story of one of the world’s most bril­liant ter­ri­tory sur­vey­ors.

As McDon­ald points out, had Thompson been Amer­i­can, he surely would have been im­mor­talised on film by now.

I set out to fol­low as much as I can of Thompson’s trail in Al­berta or, at least, as much as I can with­out too much dan­ger to life and limb. Large tracts of land here, in­clud­ing the grandeur of the Rocky Moun­tains, have been des­ig­nated na­tional parks and left largely un­de­vel­oped.

Ev­ery­thing in this




as awe­some, from a restau­rant’s salad dress­ing to one’s state of health (How are you? I’m awe­some!), but the Rock­ies truly are awe­some. Away from the roads that tra­verse their val­leys, they are just as Thompson would have seen them. But his feat in cross­ing them is rather more awe­some than any back-coun­try hik­ing trip to­day, how­ever rugged, par­tic­u­larly as he took his wife, Char­lotte, with him on many of his for­ays, as well as some of their 13 chil­dren.

Howse Pass is the first route Thompson used to cross the Rock­ies, in 1807. He then went on to use the Athabasca Pass, which he first doc­u­mented in 1811, trav­el­ling with 13 men on snow­shoes and dogsleds.

Thompson de­scribed his men as ‘‘ the most hardy that could be picked out of 100 brave, hardy men’’. Th­ese routes still pro­vide chal­lenges to hik­ers, but also suit ex­treme sports fans and ama­teurs alike.

You can still get a good feel for how it was when the west was wild. I walk up to Old Fort Point, on the slopes above Jasper. This short but spec­tac­u­lar walk, with its views over the blue-green Athabasca River, is the site of Henry House, one of Thompson’s old stag­ing posts, though the build­ing it­self is long gone.

Thompson was here not only to map-make but to open the way for the fur trade. The Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany shipped him out from Eng­land to Canada in 1785 as an ap­pren­tice when he was just 14, and he learned all he could about sur­vey­ing. He then switched to the ri­val North West Com­pany be­cause it was happy to send him ex­plor­ing.

Thompson had to do much of his trav­el­ling in deep snow, but the best time to see wildlife here is out­side win­ter. I spot mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, chip­munks and red squir­rels, but no bears.

How did Thompson’s story end? Sadly. HBC re­fused to buy his maps and he was re­duced to sell­ing his pre­cious sex­tant. He died in 1857, aged 87, in poverty.

Ten years af­ter Thompson’s death, Canada be­came a coun­try. The borders Thompson had in mind would have en­com­passed Mon­tana and Dakota; Seat­tle would have been a Cana­dian city. The Map Man would like to have drawn the US-Cana­dian bound­ary on the 47th par­al­lel, not the 49th. He has been hailed since his death as the great­est land geog­ra­pher who lived. The North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent would have looked awe­somely dif­fer­ent if he’d had his way. The In­de­pen­dent Hester Lacey was a guest of Travel Al­berta


For in­for­ma­tion on the North Amer­i­can David Thompson bi­cen­ten­ni­als, 2007 to 2011: www.davidthomp­


Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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