James Hector: The Intrepid Explorer
On 28th May, 1857, Captain John Palliser disembarked from the steamship Arabia at New York. Accompanying him were Eugène Bourgeau (botanist), John W. Sullivan (secretary) and Dr. James Hector (physician and naturalist). Captain Thomas Blakiston (magnetical observer) would join them later. Together they would comprise the storied Palliser Expedition.
They were on a three-year mission to explore the territory between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains. Their mandate was to map the region, appraise its capabilities for agriculture and settlement, report on natural resources, gather scientific data, and to assess the possibility of transport routes across the mountain barrier.
On 7th August, 1858, the Expedition arrived at “Old Bow Fort,” at the foot of the Rocky Mountains near present-day Morley. Here, amid the ruins of the old fort, three branch expeditions would embark: Blakiston to explore the North and South Kootenay Passes; Palliser to search for the legendary Kananaskis Pass; and Hector to explore the upper reaches of the Bow Valley.
Dr. James Hector was only twenty-three years old when he was appointed to the Expedition. Born in Edinburgh Scotland in 1834, the young Hector was a recent graduate from medical school at the University of Edinburgh. However, it soon became evident that Hector’s main interest was not in medicine. His broad scientific training, zeal for adventure, and unbounded energy focused his interests on the natural sciences, especially geology, which would become his life-long passion.
Young James Hector would only spend two years (1858-59) exploring in the Rocky Mountains, but he would leave a lasting legacy. His explorations in the Canadian Rockies are a tale of adventure and perseverance that would become part of its endearing history and folklore. In the company of his trusted Stoney guide Nimrod, Hector would follow rudimentary trails, brave swollen streams, endure bitterly cold winters, overcome starvation, and prevail over every hardship Mother Nature would thrust in his path.
Hector began his memorable journey on 11th August, 1858, accompanied by Nimrod; his trusted assistant Peter Erasmus; two Métis trail hands; and Bourgeau, the “Prince of Botanical Collectors.” Little did the young doctor know that the routes he would pioneer would become major routes of transport in the twentieth century.
A hard day’s work through a labyrinth of dense forest, tangled dead fall, and loose shale brought them to an encampment beside a beautiful lake in the contracted valley just west of Exshaw. The scenery was magnificent! They were surrounded by bold and grotesque peaks, which Bourgeau named Pic des Pigeons (Pigeon Mtn.), Pic de la Grotte (Grotto Mtn.), and Pic du Vent (Wind Mtn., present-day Mt. Lougheed). The lakes he christened Lac des Arcs.
Bourgeau would remain in the valley to collect alpine plants, but not before the two companions indulged in an icy shower beneath a trickling waterfall on the lower slopes of Grotto Mountain. Hector pushed on, and using Mini-ha-pa, the thread-like stream tumbling down the face of Cascade Mountain as a landmark, encamped in the little prairie at the base of the “Mountain where the water falls.” Banff’s first official tourist occupied his time scrambling to an alpine tarn high on the slopes of Cascade Mountain, enjoying the wildlife, sketching,and visiting Bow Falls.
Hector continued up the valley fighting his way through bogs and across slopes choked with dead fall. The prominent mountain to the west he named in honor of Bourgeau, while the serrated wall of peaks on the eastern side of the valley he named the Sawback Range. Near present-day Moose Meadows, one particular mountain standing in the centre of the valley captured his attention, “a very remarkable mountain, which looks exactly like a gigantic castle.” On 18th August they camped beneath the slopes of this castellated mountain.
On the 20th of August, using a sketch on a piece of bark prepared by an “Old Stoney,” Hector began the first recorded ascent of Vermilion Pass, visited the yellow ochre beds of the “Paint Pots,” and continued following the Vermilion River to its junction with the Kootenay River. Six days later, he reached the source of the Kootenay River and began a descent of the Beaverfoot River where fate was about to intervene!
Just before noon on the 29th August, 1858, near Wapta Falls, one of the pack horses plunged into the river and was in danger of being swept away. The men rushed to save the animal. In the process of attempting to catch his own mount, Hector was kicked in the chest. The force of the blow knocked him senseless.
Erasmus had a compelling account of the event. Not only was Hector unconscious, he recalled, but “all attempts to help him recover his senses were of no avail”. Panic ensued as they placed their stricken leader beneath a shady tree. More than an hour later, Erasmus put an ear to Hector’s chest but still could not detect a heart beat or any sign of breathing. All hope was given up for the young doctor; he was dead! Stricken with grief, the men began to dig Hector’s grave. They would perform a last respectful act and put him under the sod.
And then all of a sudden, one of the men began to yell that Hector had regained consciousness but was in great pain. Legend has it that as he was being laid to rest, Hector looked skyward and winked, thereby saving himself from an untimely interment. No, “I did not use that grave,” he wrote. “Instead, they named the river the Kicking Horse, and gave the Pass, which we made our way through a few days later, the same name.”
The young doctor was down, but not out. Four days later and in great pain that was somewhat eased by the powerful narcotic laudanum, Hector and his starving men stumbled across the pass that would later bear his name. When they reached the Bow River near Lake Louise, a band of Stoneys came to their aid and rejuvenated their spirits. They told Hector that if he continued to follow the river he would encounter magnificent peaks and valleys filled with ice. That’s all he had to hear! On 8th September he was off again.
His Stoney friends were right. Mile after mile magnificent peaks reared their heads in the clouds. When he reached Bow Lake he was awestruck. The talons of the Crowfoot Glacier clung to precipitous slopes, while at its western edge glistening Bow Glacier descended from the Wapta Icefield. A short jaunt across marshy meadows carpeted with wildflowers led to Bow Summit where they lunched and dallied in the pristine mountain air.
From Bow Summit, they plunged down into the Mistaya Valley on a breakneck trail. Great rock buttresses, the backbone of the continent, formed an unbroken line on the western side, while bold craggy encamped at the junction of the Howse and North Saskatchewan Rivers and were dazzled by Donati’s Comet.
The next day, Hector trekked to Glacier Lake, which is fed by melt water from the Lyell Glacier. Here he began a risky, foolish, dangerous adventure; with one of his companions, he ventured onto the glacier. “It was very cold work for our feet,” he wrote, “as we merely wore mocassins, without socks of any kind.” Somehow they avoided plunging to their death in many of the numerous crevasses they encountered and eventually worked their way off the north side of the glacier, “to ascend a peak that looked more accessible than others.”
Hector named this Sullivan’s Peak and late that afternoon, crawling along a narrow ridge, stood on the summit. The view was stupendous with “peaks and ridges standing out like islands through the icy mantle,” of what he christened the Lyell Icefield. It didn’t get any better than this! They began their precarious descent down the icy slopes in a snowstorm, and at one precarious precipice only escaped foolhardy feat had taken the better part of twenty hours!
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James Hector’s excursions in the Rocky Mountains fueled his passion for exploration and discovery. In 1862, Hector accepted the position of Director of the Geological Survey in New Zealand where, under his leadership, much of the geological structure of that country was mapped. In 1876, the “Intrepid Explorer” was knighted by Queen Victoria. Sir James Hector passed away on 6 November 1907, but his legacy in the Canadian Rockies lives on.
~By Ernie Lakusta
A retired teacher, and an avid hiker, Ernie Lakusta’s passion for the outdoors has led him to explore, photograph, and write about many of the areas James Hector mapped for the Palliser Expedition.