Banff National Park Field Trip 2009

Photo: Adam Fagen

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Event Details

The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), with support from the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation ran a field trip to Banff National Park on February 12-15, 2009. Ian MacLaren, Liza Piper, and Zac Robinson from the Department of History & Classics at the University of Alberta organized the field trip for graduate students as an opportunity for those studying Banff, the Rocky Mountains, or parks more generally to visit and learn more about the local and regional environment. The trip considered the significance of field studies to historical and cultural interpretations of Rocky Mountain environments.

Scroll and zoom on this map to see the various locations visited on the field trip.
Go to the “Larger View” to read site descriptions authored by Caroline Lieffers.


Presentation by Chic Scott, ‘Powder Pioneers: Ski Stories for the Rocky and Columbia Mountains of Canada’

ylin-7_0.previewThe presentation of Chic Scott is just like a live historic show since the presenter himself and the guest are part of the history. From early ski jump, to Alpine Club, to ski mountaineering, to the recent emergence of heli-skiing, to the cross-country ski and the backcountry boom, Scott gave us an entertaining glimpse into the ski history at Rocky Mountains. Every picture of the slide is heart-quaking and contains an attractive story. As Hans Gmoser stated in the forward of Scott’s book, ‘Scott has been able to depict each epoch and its protagonists in a narrative worthy of the grand setting where it all took place’. (-Yanan Lin)


Students at the Whyte Archives

Signposting a cultural and natural history of Banff National Park.
Signposting a cultural and natural history of Banff National Park.

Though one might expect that a field trip to Banff would lean heavily on natural history, and include daily nature hikes (or at this time of year, snow shoeing or skiing), this field trip’s de-emphasis of these expectations and focus on popular tourist tours, such as the Cave and Basin, The Banff Springs Hotel, and the Luxton museum, a visit to the Whyte Museum’s archives, Chic Scott’s slide show on the history of skiing in the Rockies, two presentations by Parks Canada wardens (Cliff White and Dennis Comeau), and an informal talk by Banff Park’s Superintendent Kevin van Tighen, invited diverse (and frequent) unconventional readings of the constructions of Banff Park’s history. The natural history was present, but in this instance the wildlife and park ecology shared a cultural space, highlighting what became an ongoing debate between fellow field trippers: whether one could/should use such divisive terms as front and back country. In other words, should/could culture be separated so readily from wilderness areas, particularly in terms of park management, and restoring and sustaining ecological integrity?

Cave and Basin Tour: Thermal Vents, Hot Springs beneath our feet, and Arrowheads
Cave and Basin Tour: Thermal Vents, Hot Springs beneath our feet, and Arrowheads

Depending on which side of the front/back-country debate one of us took, one seemed to either corroborate or trouble Parks Canada’s claim that Banff, in its beginnings, was an ‘island of civilization’ in the midst of wilderness–the park evolved as the world around it changed. Now, like other national parks, it has become more like an island of wilderness’ in the midst of encroaching civilization.’ The ‘island’ metaphor, as front/backcountry, sets up binary thinking that inhibits cross-boundary imagnings, pitches islands against ‘mainlands,’ front country folk from backcountry folk. In other words, such metaphoric restraints resists conceptualizing that one constitutes the other.

Physilla johnsoni, a lentil sized snail "like no other"
Physilla johnsoni, a lentil sized snail “like no other”

Cave and Basin Hot Springs: How ‘Steam, Schemes, and National Dreams,’ led to ‘A Snail Like No Other.’ Two major stories emerge during the Cave and Basin tour: the founding of the springs, and the discovery of an endemic endangered species. The first story (I apologize, not as entertaining as the film version shown on site): In 1883, railway workers William and Tom McCardell and Frank McCabe came upon a steaming hole in the ground (where we’re standing in the Cave and Basin Tour photo), an entrance to a water-filled cavern. These hot springs led to legal battles over ownership, events which eventually prompted the Canadian government to claim the site as part of Canada’s first national park. Over the next few decades, the hot springs went from a wood shack to an elaborate bathing facility. In 1975 the pools closed, went through extensive (and expensive) renovations, reopened in the 1980s, and because of declining revenue and costly upkeep closed in 1993. And, though this first story’s ending perhaps is the true fiscal story, the interpretive tour attached a different ending ”or perhaps diverted our attention so that we come away thinking that was the ‘right’ ending a just end.” This ending goes like this: Physilla johnsoni, a lentil sized snail endemic to the Cave and Basin pools was discovered in the late 1920s. Not until the 1990s did Phyllis johnsoni attract the attention of researchers. These tiny molluscs are particularly susceptible to human disturbance: from bathing to groping hands to chemical residues from lotions and repellents. Because Parks Canada has permanently closed of the pools to swimming, the snails and their fragile ecosystem have a chance to recover.

Banff Springs Hotel History Tour
Banff Springs Hotel History Tour

A trip to a wildlife corridor, and an encounters with a tiny, endangered snail ensured the natural history was still there. During this field trip, our group encountered the diverse narratives Parks Canada produces to create the cultural “islands” amongst the wilderness. The stories ranged from the region’s skiing history to the early families of Banff, to corporate jingles, movie stars, and the CPR. The corporate jingle, perhaps the most memorable moment for me, the ending to a tour which we were informed may soon go the way of videorecordings and plasma screens…

Chic Scott's Slide Presentation on the History of Skiing in the Rockies
Chic Scott’s Slide Presentation on the History of Skiing in the Rockies

A highlight of the field trip was dining with a panoramic view of the Banff town site below, and then an evening slide show on the history of skiing in the Canadian Rockies by Chic Scott. Though we didn’t strap on any skis during this trip, a visual tour of the sport provided another story of Banff’: recreational. Significantly, with Mount Norquay at our backs and the townsite below, Chic Scott’s generational tour of Banff’s outdoor adventurers emphasized a key issue that I think many of these field trip tours illustrated (and perhaps indicates why the frontcountry/backcountry debate struck such a raw nerve among many of us): one overarching theme that interconnects these often disparate tellings of Banff’s history both temporally and spatially is the privilege of access. If the two diverging stories of the “snail like no other” that was almost “no longer” and the Cave and Basin illustrate, the issue of access is cultured in a variety of narratives, histories too often complicit with our own troubled self-interests.

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