THE MAP MAN COMETH
Two hundred years ago, explorer David Thompson paved the way for travellers through the Rockies. Hester Lacey picks up the trail
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.davidthompson200.ca.