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040 Pine beetles bring fire fears and Major A.B. Rogers surveys through the western Mountains, episode 040 of the Mountain Nature and Culture Podcast

Welcome to episode 40 of the Mountain Nature and Culture Podcast. I’m your host, Ward Cameron, and I record this on August 16, 2017, we’ve finally received a bit of rain in the Canadian Rockies. Every drop is a gift at this point and hopefully, it will reduce our explosive fire hazard and let us stop worrying about unplanned fires.

This week, I take a look at the fire fears in Jasper as an increase in pine beetle killed pines has added vast amounts of fuel to an already tinder dry forest. I also continue the story of Major A.B. Rogers, the surveyor responsible for designing the route that the Canadian Pacific Railway follows as it traverses the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains of western Canada.

Pine Beetles Wreak Havoc on Jasper’s Forests

I just returned from 4-days of hiking in Jasper National Park, and I was horrified by the damage being done by mountain pine beetle in the park. In a summer plagued by an almost endless drought, thousands of dead pine trees simply adds fuel to the potential for a huge fire in the park.

Mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is a natural pest of the mountain forests of western Canada and the U.S. but historically they were only found in very low numbers in the park.

The beetles create tunnels behind the bark in the layer of cells called the phloem, the thin layer of cells that transmit sugars within the plant. As they mine this layer, they may end up killing the tree, but they also carry with them a blue stain fungus. This fungus finishes the job by interrupting the ability of nutrients to move up and down the tree trunk. It also stains the wood blue, destroying any potential commercial value that it might have.

If you have any doubt about the impact of a warming climate, just take a drive towards the town of Jasper. Warmer temperatures have allowed the beetles to explode in numbers and infest enormous numbers of lodgepole pine as well as western white pine.

The lack of sufficiently cold winters is coupled with decades of fire suppression to provide plenty of food for them to take advantage of. The beetle is now expanding its range eastward out of the Rockies while also affecting trees at higher and higher elevation.

As populations grow, the beetles disperse in one of two ways. In the first, dispersal within stands, they usually just travel a short distance, up to 30 metres or so, but when they move above the canopy into a long-distance dispersal, they can travel hundreds of kilometres.

Long-distance dispersals are difficult to stop, so many of the management decisions are based on stopping dispersal within stands as the infestation spreads from tree to tree.

Prior to fire suppression, many of the valleys in the mountains would have had far fewer trees as the flames would kiss the forests every 15 years or so. Today, we’ve created a massive monoculture of huge stands of lodgepole pine and the beetles are loving them.

The simplest solution to this problem is to bring more fire, much more fire to the landscape to try to restore some of that balance. Back in episode 35, I talked about how fire is an integral part of the mountain landscape. The wildlife benefit from fire, the plant communities are refreshed and the mosaic of forest stands of different ages also helps to challenge insect pests.

These regular fires, also help to protect communities like Jasper from the potential for large conflagrations like the one that the town is currently afraid could occur. Because of the huge amount of fuel that has built up over time, these fires may need to be tempered by some selective logging in areas that are too sensitive to burn.

In some areas, the beetles have killed 70% of the lodgepole pine trees and the infection is spreading quickly.

Experts believe that the number of infected trees could increase exponentially over the next few years, continually increasing the fire risk to communities like Jasper.

Surprisingly, at a meeting in Jasper recently CAO Mark Fercho talked about his experience fighting the pine beetle when he worked in Prince George, B.C. He was quoted in the Fitzhugh newspaper as saying: “It’s the green trees that are full of beetles, not the red ones,”

Light coloured pitch tubules show where mountain pine beetles bored their way into the inner bark of lodgepole pine trees in Jasper National Park, Alberta

Each one of those live trees can infect a dozen or more additional trees. The area of infected trees has tripled since 2014 to some 21,500 ha.

Back in the day, when we had proper winters, it was the cold that helped keep the beetles at bay. On average, mid-winter temperatures in the range of -37 C are sufficient to kill 50% of the beetle larvae. Earlier in the season, temperatures as low as -20 C can also be effective.

Communities like Prince George were forced to cut down thousands of trees in order to reduce the fire hazard in and around the community. They followed that by a replanting program to help replace the lost trees.

Standing dead trees, like those left behind by pine beetles are capable of sending sparks high into the sky allowing fires to spread. Natural fires are not quite as explosive simply because they lack the tinder dry, standing, dead wood.

Jasper has a lot of work ahead of it, and the character of the place will also change. If Parks is able to combine increased prescribed burns along with selective clearing of standing dead trees, the future may not be as bleak as it seems at the moment.

Across North America, fire experts are beginning to realize that the biggest challenges faced by most forests is NOT forest fires, but the lack of them. More and more fire ecologists are suggesting that fires be simply left to burn themselves out – at least those that don’t threaten human lives or property.

These same scientists suggest that if some of the money being spent on suppression were actually devoted to fireproofing homes in communities then these towns may actually be much safer than they currently are.

With changing climates and increased beetle expansion, fires are coming. I applaud the work Parks Canada is doing in recognizing the growing challenges that our western forests are experiencing and, for Jasper, I hope that they have received some of the rainfall that finally soaked my hiking group over the past few days.

I’m happy to walk in the rain, and even the snow that we had yesterday, if it helps to reduce the fire hazard that we have all been worried about in the mountain west.

A.B. Roger’s Line

Last week I talked about Major A.B. Rogers and his quest to find a route through the Bow Valley and the Selkirk Mountains in B.C. Well, by the end of the 1882 season he’d found a route…or had he?

Unfortunately for the Major, his unlikeable personality meant that he had a long line of rivals that considered him to be all bluster and no substance…and then there was the fact that he was…oh, what’s that word? Oh, yah…American!

Even back then, there was that inherent rivalry, although we would see more American involvement in this line before the last spike would be driven home.

By the start of the 1883 season, nobody BUT Rogers had actually traversed his route through the Selkirks, the Kicking Horse Pass route was far from finished, and finally, there was the matter of some inconvenient tunnels to be corrected.

All in all, it was just another frantic year of exploring, confirming, and changing the slowly coalescing line on a map that would, just a few years down the road, become the tie that binds this nation together.

In addition, Rogers was acting as a pathfinder as opposed to a proper surveyor. The fact that he forced his way through some mad wilderness, that didn’t mean a train could follow his trail of tobacco stains. Any potential route still needed axe men, transit men, and the levelers before a real route could be confirmed.

It really needed more than that. It needed a sober investigation to prove that the route down the Bow River, through the Kicking Horse Pass, and across the Selkirks was indeed possible. Too much money and time were being invested in this commitment to risk any chance of error.

Rogers had his detractors. Perhaps it was his gruff nature, or his penny-pinching way of economizing on supplies, leading many of his expeditions to retreat on the verge of starvation.

One of those was Jon Egan, the western Superintendent of the railway. He was unwavering in his assessment of the route through the Selkirks:

“I want to tell you positively that there is no pass in the Selkirk Range…It has to be crossed in the same manner as any other mountain. The track must go up one side and down the other.”

At the same time, the Governor General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne, the husband of Princess Louise (after whom Lake Louise is named), also was concerned about the potentially steep gradients that might be involved, but he was more concerned with the time constraints. As he put it:

“It would be better to have them than further delay, with the N. Pacific gaining Traffic.”

Any fan of TV shows like Hell on Wheels, coincidentally filmed along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, can understand the focus on time and money. This was the biggest investment this young nation had embarked upon and, quite frankly, we couldn’t afford it. Time was money and every dollar spent was not easily replaced down the road.

While some may have underestimated Rogers because of his American birth, there was one American that nobody dared underestimate, the General Manager of the line, William Cornelius Van Horne. Van Horne is the star of the show, and I’ll devote an entire episode to sharing his story but at this point, he pondered:

“we must take no chances on this season’s work because any failure to reach the desired results and have the line ready to put under contract will be serious if not disastrous. I think it important that you should take an extra engineer, who is fully competent, to take charge of a party in case of sickness or failure of any of your regular men.”

Van Horne was also concerned about the fact that Rogers often pushed his workers in difficult conditions with few rations. He added:

“It is also exceedingly important that an ample supply of food be provided and that the quantity be beyond a possibility of a doubt.

“Very serious reports have been made to the Government and in other quarters about the inadequacy of the supplies provided last year and a good many other reports have been made tending to discredit our work. The officials in Ottawa, as a consequence look upon our reports with a good deal of suspicion…

“We cannot expect to get good men for that work at as low or lower rates than are paid further East and we must feed the men properly in order to get good service. It will be cheaper for the Company to pay for twice the amount of supplies actually necessary than to lose a day’s work for lack of any.”

To understand his caution, we need to remember that the ribbon of steel that was the Canadian Pacific was winding westward day after day after day, mile after mile, creeping ever closer to this question mark on the map.

Every rail cost money. Every railroad tie cost money. The further west the line progressed, the more committed they were to a route for which some still harbored doubt.

Despite this dispatch, Van Horne fully trusted Rogers, he just came from a very different point of view. He defended Rogers to a businessman in New York:

“There has been a good deal of feeling among some of the Canadian Engineers particularly those who have been accustomed to the Government Service against Major Rogers, partly from natural jealousy of one who is looked upon as an outsider, partly from his lively treatment of those whom he looks upon as shirkers or ‘tender feet’ and partly from his somewhat peculiar methods of securing economy, but more that all perhaps from his having succeeded, as is supposed, in doing what was unsuccessfully attempted by the Gov’t Engineers, namely, in getting through the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains by a direct line.

“I believe him to be capable and I know him to be thoroughly honest. He is something of an enthusiast and is disposed to undertake himself and put upon his men more severe duties than most engineers are accustomed to and I have reason to believe that in his anxiety to economize in every possible way he has gone too far in some cases and that a good deal of unnecessary discomfort, although no suffering, has resulted from it.”

The route was to be scrutinized from east to west, beginning with the area closest to the westward moving rails, the Bow Valley, beginning at Fort Calgary and extending westward.

Charles Shaw was asked by James Ross, the western division manager to look at Rogers line covering the first 60 miles to the west of Calgary.

He was unimpressed. He stated:

“It’s a nightmare to me and I’m afraid it will hold us back a year.”

Shaw felt he could improve on the line when Roger’s who was present at the time leaped to his feet and blurted:

“That’s the best line that can be got through the country. Who in hell are you, anyway?”

Undeterred, Shaw claimed that if he could not only find a better line, but:

“If I don’t save at least half a million dollars over the estimated cost of construction, I won’t ask for pay for my season’s work.”

There was another tunnel to the west, around a mountain in Banff. Van Horne knew it would delay work so Van Horne demanded:

“Look at that,” the general manager exclaimed. “Some infernal idiot has put a tunnel in there. I want you to go up and take it out.”

He was talking to his locating engineer J.H.A. Secretan, never a fan of Rogers, yet Secretan responded:

“Mr. Van Horne, those mountains are in the way, and the rivers don’t all run right for us. While we are at it we might as well fix them, too”

In the end, Roger’s nemesis Shaw, found a way to just go around the mountain which still bears the name ‘Tunnel Mountain” in Banff although the tunnel was never actually built.

Shaw was very critical for Rogers because he missed this option. He stated:

“Roger’s location here was the most extraordinary blunder I have ever known in the way of engineering”

To make matters worse, Shaw was now sent to examine Rogers route through the Selkirks.

This was easier said than done. To get to the Selkirks, you first needed to cross the Kicking Horse…and it held its own special brand of challenges.

One did not just stroll, down the Kicking Horse, no more than Albert Rogers strolled, er crawled up.

To traverse the Kicking Horse, you had to survive the Golden Staircase. Essentially, you had to survive a two-foot wide trail carved into the cliffs several hundred feet above the raging waters of the Kicking Horse River.

The surveyors that plied these mountains were some of the toughest men these mountains have ever seen, but some were so terrified by the Golden Staircase that they would literally shut their eyes and hold on to the tail of their horse for guidance.

As Shaw descended, he encountered a packer with a single horse ascending the staircase while he had an entire packtrain. As they mentally went through the arithmetic, one horse, several horses, one horse, several horses. In the end, they had no other option than to push the one horse off the cliff to its death. You simply can’t turn a horse around on a 24 inch ledge. To attempt it risked spooking the entire pack train and risking much more dire consequences.

So Shaw gets to the bottom and he bumps into the old man. I know, what are the odds. An entire mountain range and…oops, what brings you here.

Rogers, in his usual congenial manner offered up a pleasant greeting that went something like:

“Who the hell are you, and where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Thankfully, Shaw was a more reasonable man…or maybe not. The exchange continued.

“It’s none of your damned business to either question. Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“I am Major Rogers.”

“My name is Shaw. I’ve been sent by Van Horne to examine and report on the pass through the Selkirks.”

That was a name that Rogers knew. Rogers was not a man to forgive a slight and he virtually exploded:

“You’re the…Prairie Gopher that has come into the mountains and ruined my reputation as an Engineer”

Shaw was a big man, a much bigger man than Rogers and so he wasted no time jumping off his horse and grabbed Rogers  by the throat, shaking him and threatening?

“Another word out of you and I’ll throw you in the river and drown you”

Rogers, not a big fan of water since his incident in Bath Creek in last week’s episode, decided to back down. He claimed that he had been let down by an engineer and agreed to show him the route through the Selkirks.

Rogers dragged Shaw up the Beaver River to the divide and then down to the Illecillewaet River. Shaw constantly criticized the route. At every turn, Shaw was there to dismiss Rogers and demean his progress.

Simple things could add fuel to the fire…even former fires. As the story goes, Rogers gestured to the great Illecillewaet Glacier and exclaimed:

“Shaw, I was the first white man to ever set eyes on this pass and this panorama.”

Shortly after this happened, Shaw found the remains of a campfire along with some rotted tent poles and asked Rogers where they had come from. The hatred continued in the exchange.

Rogers replied: “How strange! I never noticed those things before. I wonder who could have camped here.”

To which Shaw countered: “These things were left here years ago by Moberly when he found this pass!”

This was a world of egos and it usually seemed that one surveyor could never praise commend or support the work of another. Rogers was an easy man to hate and it brought him great grief.

Stories like this sowed doubt in the Canadian Pacific and this pass had to be carefully scrutinized before the line could continue.

After Shaw departed Rogers, heading eastward towards the Kicking Horse Pass, they encountered a second party dispatched to check up on Roger’s route, led by none other than Sandford Fleming himself. Fleming had been dispatched by George Stephen, one of the two main financiers of the railroad; and if Stephen suggested an outing, you kitted up and headed for the hills.

Shaw enjoyed telling Fleming that the route was impassable and that Rogers was a charlatan. As it turned out, Fleming ignored most of Shaw’s stories because he had just descended the Kicking Horse and it had been the most horrifying experience of his many years in the wilderness. Nothing could possibly be worse…or could it?

Descending the ‘golden staircase, he later stated that he could not look down. If you did:

“gives one an uncontrollable dizziness, to make the head swim and the view unsteady, even with men of tried nerve. I do not think that I can ever forget that terrible walk; it was the greatest trial I ever experienced.”

It was also a scorching hot summer, much like this one, and he added:

 “I, myself, felt as if I had been dragged through a brook, for I was without a dry shred on me,”

Now let’s back this up a little. All this happened before they met Rogers. As they continued on, Shaw’s allegations faded and they began to recover from the terror of the Kicking Horse Pass.

After connecting with Rogers, he dragged them up to the pass and Fleming, happy to see a way over the ramparts pulled out a box of cigars and toasted Rogers accomplishments and proposed that a Canadian Alpine Club be formed. Fleming was immediately voted in as president.

The concept did not really take shape though until 1906 when former railroad surveyor A.O. Wheeler and reporter Elizabeth Parker took this spark and created the Alpine Club of Canada on March 27, 1906. Of course, this is a story for another episode.

Things took a turn for the worse when they began the descent down the western side, into the dense interior rainforest of the Columbia Mountains. Along with Fleming was his former Minister George Grant and the experience was so harrowing that Grant would never return to such a wilderness again.

As he described it:

“It rained almost every day. Every night the thunder rattled over the hills with terrific reverberations, and fierce flashes lit up weirdly [sic] tall trees covered with wreaths of moss, and the forms of tired men sleeping by smoldering camp fires.”

In the following 5 days, they travelled only 27 km. How bad could it be? According to Grant, they pushed their way:

“through acres of densest underbrush where you cannot see a yard ahead, wading through swamps and beaver dams, getting scratched from eyes to ankles with prickly thorns, scaling precipices, falling over moss- covered rocks into pitfalls, your packs almost strangling you, losing the rest of the party while you halt to feel all over whether any bones are broken, and then experiencing in your inmost soul the unutterable loneliness of savage mountains.”

Essentially, a good time was had by all. In this time of catered tourism with 5 million visitors a year swarming over routes that caused terror, hardship, privation, and death. It’s important at times to stop, step back and wonder…if these forbearers could see what we have done with their legacy what would they think?

As they see the landscape trampled and the wildlife sequestered, what would people like Rogers and Fleming say? They saw the landscape in its rawest form when even the idea of a national railway was simply a fanciful idea.

Today, we don’t have room for a single grizzly. We think it’s more important for our dog to pee than it is for black and grizzly bears to be able to feed on the single food that allows them to exist on the landscape.

Rogers was a miserable curmudgeon. He loved neither man nor beast, but he loved one thing…wilderness. As a guide, I spend a great deal of time relating the stories of those that came before.

At the same time, I’ve written three books on the trails of western Canada and designed a 7-day mountain bike race that both Bike Magazine and Mountain Bike Magazine called ‘North America’s Toughest Race’.

This meant that I had to explore thousands of kilometres alone in the wilderness. During this time, I often reflected on the experiences of these explorers and pioneers…the men that came before.

To them, the wilderness was not something to be appreciated, it was something to be conquered…or was it?

People often ask me about these men. I reply that”

“Lots of people want to know what these men thought when they tore through that last tangle of wilderness and encountered an emerald green lake that had a glacier capped peak at the far end. To the left was a sheer vertical wall, and to the right was a matching vertical wall. What did they really think? Damn, another dead end!”

These mountains were not something to be appreciated, they were something to be survived. Yet today, we see them with an eye of entitlement. The journals of these explorers describe a landscape of hardship and terror, but also one full of wonder and opportunity.

As I look at the decisions being made just on local levels when it comes to preserving these landscapes and the ecosystems and animals that call them home. I fear that I may be one of the storytellers writing the last chapter… chroniclers of the end of our local wilderness and the animals that define it.

And with that said, it’s time to wrap this episode up. I want to thank you for sharing your time with me and if you like the stories, please share the episodes with your friends. Stories are always best when shared.

At Ward Cameron Enterprises, we sell wow! As a tour operator for the last 30 years, we can make sure your visit to the mountain west is one that you’ll never forget. We specialize in hiking and step-on guides as well as speaking programs, nature and culture workshops and guide training. Drop us a line at info@wardcameron.com if you’d like to book your mountain experience.

Today I took clients up to Mirror Lake and along the Highline Trail in Lake Louise. It’s a classic trail that offers the option to crest the Big Beehive and offer panoramic views for miles. I’ll post a picture in the show notes at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep040.

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