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Exploring the Rockies in 1858

Other explorations by the Palliser Expedition

James Hector Exploring the Rockies in 1858

John Palliser Exploring the Rockies in 1858


Blakiston seriously proposed the North Kootenay Pass for a railway route through the Rockies. His proposal was rejected and today the land is still as he saw it -- rough and ruggedly beautiful. It makes a great hike.

By Bruce Haig


Unfortunately,the trails of our early explorers are little known to us.

It was the writing of one of these explorers that set me off on an amazing journey. In a library I stumbled across a series of pages The Report on the Exploration of the Kootenay and Boundary Passes of the Rocky Mountains in 1858 by Captain Blakiston, Royal Artillery. As I read his vivid description of the landscape I thought how exciting it would be to retrace his route to see just how accurate his descriptions are today.

In 1978 with the help of a small grant from the Explorations Program of the Canada Council, I began to research the route and get ready for the joumey.

Blakiston, like many explorers, was an amazing man. Like his peers, whose names he left on our landscape, he was a member of the British gentry. Such men as David Livingstone, John Gould, Francis Galton and Charles Waterton were some of the world's most respected natural scientists, and Blakiston gave their names to Canadian landmarks.

When he was finished his explorations along the rough southern Alberta and British Columbia border Blakiston continued to distinguish himself. In 1861 he organized an expedition up the Yangtze River in China and went 900 miles further than any westerner had before him. During the 1870s he went into business in Japan but his continuing interest in nature led him to compile a catalogue on birds which for years was considered the standard work on the birds of Japan. -

But it is his descriptions of the Canadian Rockies which are of interest to us here.

It was on August 12,1858 that Captain Blakiston started on his journey, roughly from a roadsign along the Calgary- Banff highway which describes the location of Peigan or Old Bow Fort. His assignment was to explore the southern passes of the Rockies to determine their possibilities for a railway.

Following along the eastern edge of the Rockies, Blakiston travelled not far from the modern Tumer Valley-Long- view road. To retrace his route, continue south along highway 922 to the Maycroft campsite along the Old Man River. Stay here a while for you are in the centre of an area rich in history. But let us let Blakiston himself help us with our story.

"Before gaining Belly River in the morning, the quick and practised eye of the Indian caught sight of a herd of buffalo in the valley; he therefore went ahead, and by the time we had halted on the river, and I had obtained an observation, he had killed one animal. I remained here until noon, in order to obtain a meridian altitude, and so complete my observation for latitude and longitude, occupying a portion of the time in measuring the heights of the successive river levels with the aneroid barometer.

Take a few moments now and look at the river flowing by. Is it not just as Blakiston described it well over a hundred years ago?

"The bed and sides of this river are rocky, the strata of hard grey sandstone, much inclined, and the current obstructed in places by immense granite boulders. We found no difficulty in crossing, the water, though running swiftly, being not deeper than three feet, and about 25 yards across. "

Drive a short distance west following the Old Man River to where it flows from the mountains.

"Looking through the gap in the near range through which the river issues, I saw a very decided dome-shaped mountain . . . after the distinguished British naturalist, I named it 'Gould 's Dome' "

As you proceed south down highway 922 go slowly and look carefully; ahead you will see exactly what Blakiston describes .

"Looking to the mountains ahead of us I picked out the most prominent, and took bearings of them . . . There were two near one another bearing 30 miles south, one of which, from the resemblance to a castle on its summit, I named 'Castle Mountain;' to the east of these, but at a greater distance, a portion of the mountains stretched out to the eastward From reports which I had previously heard, I took the most easterly one, standing by itself, to be the 'Chief's Mountain,' which the Indian on coming up confrmed, and pointed out the place where on the morrow we should turn into the mountains.

It was on August 20,1858, a day thick with haze and occasional rain that Blakiston "crossed Crowsnest River and after noon gained the entrance of the Kootanie pass, where another of the branches of Belly River issues from the mountains. Here we struck a narrow but tolerably well-beaten track, which the Indian informed us was the Kootanie trail, by which these Indians had crossed the mountains the past spring.

Our modern day explorer should proceed west on Highway 3 to Hillcrest. At this point go south and if you continue on to the Lynx Creek campground, the chances are good that you will be very close to where Blakiston camped.

"The travelling was good, for we were on the even grassy river levels, and we camped at a spot where a small mountain stream entered the river from the north.

The Kootenay trail followed up what we today call the Carbondale. This in turn flows into the Castle, or what Blakiston described as the Railway River.

From Lynx Creek Campground until the mid 70s a four-wheel drive trail would have taken you up and over into the Flathead. But today, by the time you reach Blakiston's "Hero's Cliff' -- about one and a half miles from the summit -- you will find the rest of the trail bulldozed into oblivion, and you must start to hike.

"Here we passed Hero's Cliff, an enormous vertical escarpment, facing the east, of hard red sandstone or quartzite, with the strata dipping at least 45 degrees to the west.

Over the last few years the eastern slopes of the Rockies have been scarred with ruts from four-wheel drives. The decision was wisely made that most of these should be destroyed and the land left for nature to reclaim. Eventually though, I foresee the time when these historic passes through the Rockies will be reopened as heritage hiking trails. The pass will be perfect for that. Therefore as you trudge slowly along, take heart in the fact that you too are a pioneer-- just ahead of your time.

Again you will feel the excitement as vou observe the identical picture Blakiston described well over a century ago: "Gradually the stream became less and less until after gaining considerable altitude it dwindled into a small quatity of water falling in a cascade. We now rose rapidly, the trees became smaller, and we soon reached the region of rock and alpine plants; here were some large patches of snow and a couple of ponds of clear water; we passed over a quantity of debris of hard gray limestone, of which the peaks on our right hand, namely N.W., were composed. As we were now clear of all shelter, we felt the cold damp east wind.

Here at the top, sit back in time and contemplate the thoughts Blakiston had at this same spot.

"We are now on the watershed of the mountains, the great axis of America; a few steps farther and l gave a loud shout as I caught the first glimpse in a deep valley, as it were at my feet, of a feeder of the Pacifc Ocean. It was the Flathead River, a tributary of the Columbia. At the same moment the shots of my men's guns echoing among the rocks announced the passage of the first white man over the Kootanie Pass.

Other white men had probably crossed the pass before Blakiston, but he was the first one to record his crossing and the fact that he did it so vividly is our good fortune.

"A rapid descent of two hours brought us to the Flathead River, a clear and quick running stream, dividing a beautiful partially wooded valley enclosed by mountains; here we halted soon after mid-day, having passed the great watershed, and descended again 1,400 feet without breakfast.

More In the Footsteps of Thomas Blakiston

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Thomas Blakiston in Japan

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