A first trek along the new Monkman Pass Memorial trail, blazed through the raw wilderness of the Northern Rockies.
This must be where the Model T took a tumble. Slopes drop precipitously from either side of the metre-wide ridge beneath my boots. Up ahead, a game trail snakes through a field of chest-high devil’s club and between Jack pine an arm’s-span apart. We’re 56 kilometres into a 63-km hike through the northern Rockies, and two of the guides, Josef Villiger and son René, have stopped to screw in a marker a couple of hundred metres back. I dump my 25-kilo pack and wipe a trickle of sweat with a mudsplashed sleeve. Photographer Taylor Kennedy inspects a trail blaze: a hand-size strip of bark hewn from a Douglas fir, the puckered edges around white flesh long healed. Our third guide, Toni Schuler, of Switzerland, points to a matching blaze on the tree’s opposite side.
It is the sixth day of this week-long trek. By the same time tomorrow the five of us will have reached Hobi’s, a trapper’s cabin on the Herrick River and the end of our journey. We’ve traversed boreal forests, waded rivers, climbed high into sub-alpine meadows then up alpine peaks, and are now alternately slogging through lowland bogs and scrambling across prickly, densely vegetated slopes. Since the expedition started, we’ve met not one other human soul; the only tracks we’ve found have been those of moose, elk, bear and the odd wolf. But time and again, we’ve all uttered the words, “How the heck did they get the car through here?” For despite the distracting beauty that surrounds us, hovering at the periphery of our consciousness are the hardy men and women who first forged a road through this punishing terrain. Seventy years before us, in the depths of the Great Depression, they came: pushing, pulling, sometimes even carrying, a 1927 Model-T Ford.
The most northerly agricultural tract in Canada, B.C.’s Peace River Country is a 365,000-square-km swath that straddles the B.C.-Alberta border, from Grande Cache in the south to the Yukon and Northwest Territories in the north. Roughly the size of Germany, it has less than half a per cent of that country’s population. The problem with developing the Peace Country through the early 1900s was not a shortage of farmers and ranchers, however, but the exorbitant cost of transporting goods to Vancouver ports. So with the federal government slow to make good on promises of a railway, the pioneers of the Peace took matters into their own hands.
At the fore of this movement: 67-year-old Alex Monkman, a Metis raised in Manitoba and lured west by the gold rush of 1898 who eventually settled here to farm, hunt, trap and trade furs. In fact, it was during a trapping expedition in 1922 that he came across what was thought to be the lowest pass through the Rockies north of Missoula, Montana – a pass First Nations had been using for at least 300 years. Though it would be 1936 before he and a partner launched the Monkman Pass Highway Association and a three-year campaign to cut a 211-km trail from Rio Grande, Alberta, to the railway station at Hansard, B.C. For if no railway was forthcoming, Monkman reasoned, then why not a highway? “If we could cut our way in, we could cut our way out,” he proclaimed. Show that a shortcut through the Rockies was possible, and the government would surely be obliged to build a road. And to egg on the Ottawa bureaucrats: dedicated crews of farmers, ranchers and townsfolk would drag a “Pathfinder” Model T over the mountains, then drive it down the main street in Prince George with a symbolic bag of grain to demonstrate the viability and importance of a highway to farmers in the Peace.
It was a venture that, ultimately, would prove unsuccessful. World War II broke out, men were needed elsewhere, and Monkman’s vision faded into obscurity. But then four years ago, 30-year-old environmental management consultant Kreg Alde embarked on his own wilderness odyssey with a cadre of modern-day volunteer Peace Country pioneers, some of whom took weeks away from work and families to reclaim Monkman’s trail from years of overgrowth. The soft-spoken father of two simply felt, pioneer-style, “that someone should and so why not me?” After all, three generations of Aldes had already left blood, sweat and tears on this land. Kreg’s father, Wayne, an avid outdoorsman, had traced Monkman’s trail in 1977 and hiked it again with Kreg in 2000. The following year, Kreg’s grandfather died in a plane crash on nearby Ice Mountain while flying in to pick up Wayne from a hike through the next pass over. Yet this time, the goal behind the trail would not be a causeway for commerce, but a call to adventure and the chance to build something lasting that would benefit generations to come. At the same time, it would preserve the spirit of those who first cherished such a vision. And three years and 1,900 volunteer hours later, on July 17, 2008, Kreg Alde stood with tears in his eyes at the trail’s grand opening.
But would the people come? A trail unused is one quickly reclaimed by nature. So Alde embarked on yet another campaign of inspiration. Instead of a Model T, three Swiss guides from northern Alberta would convey a photographer and a journalist over the Monkman Trail – in hopes we would compare it favourably to such venerable classics as the Chilkoot and West Coast trails. It was an easy sell. As one, already smitten, journalist wrote in 1937 of the area’s highlights: Kinuseo Falls is “50 feet higher than Niagara . . . one of the marvels of the Canadian Rockies”; Monkman Lake is “so similar to Lake Louise . . . that it needs only the poppies and the chateau to be its twin….Yet how many have known these gifts of God, let alone seen them?”
Before starting out on our first day on the trail we’d gotten our first taste of what this journalist had meant. Kennedy and I had stood gaping up at Kinuseo Falls, which plunged past vast swirls of limestone into a pool rimmed with logs polished as smooth and round as baby carrots. How is it that we’d never heard of this place? While our guides had spent many days out working on sections of the trail, this was to be their first time to hike the complete trail. There were to be elements of discovery for us all.
The first 25 kms of the current hiking trail, from Kinuseo Falls to Monkman Lake, had already been well refurbished by BC Parks in the ‘90s. Yet hiking it with the knowledge of what those who’d passed before us faced had given a fuller appreciation of its charms. Madelin Flint Truax and Beth Flint Sheehan’s book, People of the Pass, aggregates interviews and journal entries from those original trailbuilders and provided an unsentimental look into their experience.
On day one we had ascended a steep slope and crested onto an exposed limestone bench which offered a broad vista of the valley below. The perfect opportunity to lay back for a lazy stretch and a snack. Afterward we’d taken great pleasure in rambling along that extraordinarily straight thrust ridge. It was like treading upon the curved grey back of a whale, complete with a blow hole we’d found, spouting a delicate bunchberry plant.
The original trailbuilders, however, struggling with the burden of their car, had a more practical perspective. As Brooks recounted: “About a mile from the crossing of the Slate River, up Monkman Creek, is a high hogsback of rock. This rock will have to be blasted for about 200 feet to put the road through.”
Whatever their struggles, I liked to think that the trailbuilders of Monkman’s day had put down their tools from time to time to explore the beauty they passed. Such features as we had explored on our second day, the Cascades. This distinctive collection of ten waterfalls hung from a three-kilometre-long section of Monkman Creek. Four of the falls bore the names of the original Tailblazers: Brooks, Moore, Monkman, and McGinnis.
At Monkman Lake, our second camp, we’d hovered over Schuler’s shoulder as he had painted a perfect watercolour rendition of the ice-field-cloaked mountains reflected in the vast, clear lake. He had almost captured the plaintive call of a loon that had echoed through the gathering dusk.
And on the third day we’d deviated from the original trail, a choice Kreg had made to maximize the scenic beauty for today’s hikers. A long climb up to the Tarns had put us in meadows filled with wildflowers; purple monk’s hoods, yellow arnicas, red Columbines which Schuler had identified for us. The camp by Hugh Lake (named after Kreg’s grandfather) sat right on the Continental Divide. We’d scrambled up 2,278-meter Paxton Peak to gain views of mountains beyond more mountains, including the distant pyramidal peak of Mt. Robson. We had found encountered no evidence of any human passage except the odd jet contrail above and the inukshuk style cairns that we followed.
After two blissful days in that sunny alpine nirvana, we had descended again, until the elder Villiger had announced, “Right here we’re back on the trail. This is where they came through.” Here, the vegetation had thickened, the trail had gotten rougher and we frequently squelched down into muck which threatened our boot tops. “You’ve got to know Wayne and Kreg, they just walk through everything. Brush, water, anything,” said Schuler as we had picked our way through bog.
Now, another couple days later, our last full day on the trail, our feet have succumbed to blisters, our packs cling to our backs like morbidly obese monkeys and our knees groan loud complaints. Still, in a perverse way, we’re having great fun. Especially when I think about those who bore a significantly heavier load up these steep slopes. “We were hauling [the car] up the hill with a block and tackle fastened to a tree. This had to be done in stages,” recounted one trailbuilder, “We had nearly reached the top when, on one of the shifts, the car jumped its restraining blocks and went careening down the hill…just as it was broadside, it landed in a clump of tag alder. Its weight and speed caused the trees to bend and for a moment we thought that the car had stopped. Then, like a spring board, the trees recoiled and flipped the car up and over. It rolled sideways to the bottom.”
The steering wheel, the spoked wheels and windshield were smashed. Little wonder that the car was little more than a battered skeleton by trail’s end.
We plunge onward and downward, until breaking out of the brush, we encounter the last river crossing of the day. Twenty meters directly across the Fontoniko, where it meets the drainage from Ice Mountain, is Flapjack, our second-to-last camp. Boots, socks come off, as do shirts and pants. This is the perfect opportunity to get in a cold wash while there’s still daylight to dry us.
Like at the other camps Kreg has established along the way, we find a steel fire ring and dry firewood. Josef and René wrestle with the heli-dropped 45-gallon bear-proof barrel containing our extra camp equipment and food stash. A fine addition to this particular camp is a slab table hewn by chainsaw from a tree trunk.
This being our sixth camp, we’re familiar with what needs to be done. Some slash ferns and level areas for the two tents, others build the fire. Tents go up, as does a perimeter comprised of twin strands of cord strung between graphite rods. An electric bear fence, developed in Alaska, to keep curious grizzlies out while we sleep. The other precautions we carry: bear spray, bear bangers, an air horn and, the item of last resort, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
Josef, 59, is an airplane mechanic. Originally from Switzerland, he, like the others, lives near Beaverlodge, Alberta. Peace Country. He has the spectacled look of a good-natured watchmaker but the robust body of someone who has done physical work all his life. We watch as he climbs eight meters up a dense fir, sawing away branches with one hand as he goes, leaving just enough stubs for his hands and feet. Winding a length of recycled airplane control wire with a pulley around the trunk, he does the same in a neighbouring tree to produce our bear cache.
Fragrant wood smoke from the fire bears other savoury smells. The food drops ensure that we eat well. Tonight: a hearty stew with home-baked buns made by Josef’s wife. A cast-iron pan over the flames makes for perfect bannock, eaten with butter and jam. Judging from their journal accounts, what we’re eating is of far superior quality to what the original trail builders could expect. Chambers wrote of one member of his crew who tried his hand at bannock making, “…it was so hard he heaved it into the bushes. One of the boys found it, but couldn’t cut it with an axe.” Quantity wasn’t consistent either. Brooks may have been able to catch 24 fish in 18 minutes out of Monkman Creek, but another time, the crew went without meat for 10 days until they killed a grizzly for a stew with dried beans. “Slim and poor fare for hard-working men doing heavy clearing,” wrote the camp aid, ashamed to be serving this meal.
What hasn’t changed through time, though, is the region’s abundance of berries, both in quantity and variety. Huckleberries, raspberries, Saskatoons, blueberries (high and low bush) among others. All along, we have scooped these up on the fly, barely slowing pace on the trail. And this morning, Toni comes back with his mug full of blueberries for the flapjacks which René browns in the iron skillet over the fire. We’ll need the energy. As we set out for the final stretch, we carry some extra weight. Taylor now totes a ten-pound, red cable wrench in his hands. A mallet, wrenches, and other hardware disappear into our packs. René, a 200-pound powerhouse, relieves his father of any extra weight that he sees him try to take.
In this section of the trail, the vegetation has grown primordial. Skunk cabbage fronds the size of welcome mats and devil’s club at such proportions, they’ve become spiny caricatures of themselves. Thorns find their way through pants and into hands. Toni swings his Shweizer Gertel – a cross between a machete and a scythe – at the foliage taking over the path. The trail becomes less defined until it’s just a suggestion. “Yoy, yoy, yoy,” says Josef, in his Swiss, sing-song lilt, “Flapjack to here, needs a crew for a month.” Then we’re fanning out searching for the next piece of pink flagging, marking the trail. At least we have those. One original trail builder hiking his way out recounted how he had spent a full-day bushwhacking only to find himself back at the exact same spot.
A couple of kilometres from the end is the final river crossing: a 50-metre-span with a strong current. Kreg had been marooned here three times by high water in what’s now dubbed “Misery Creek.” Today though, a two-person cable car ensures safe passage. The aluminium and wood car running along a thick cable is an elegant design, constructed by Josef, likely vetted by civil-engineer René and tested over a creek on Schuler’s cattle ranch. The tools we’ve just humped in are to give it a few more tweaks.
Overhead, an ominous slate-grey sky threatens, and Josef immediately sets about hammering 30cm spikes into the base of the timber platforms. Thunder growls in the distance. He hammers more frantically. We all assemble at the cable moorings and, under Josef’s direction, attach the cable wrench to take up a few centimetres of slack. But as the rumbling comes perceptibly closer we scramble to get ourselves, and our packs, across the river.
No sooner are we on the other side, underneath a tarp nailed to the opposite platform, than a deep, rolling boom descends punctuated with cymbal crashes, followed by a flashbulb-pop of lightning. Then the rain, of downright biblical proportions, hammers down on our shelter. We huddle and eat a lunch of landjaeger and homebaked buns.
Up to this point we’ve been exceptionally lucky with the rain. “This isn’t the way it usually is,” Josef had said when we were dunking our shirts in the creeks to stay cool back on day four, “We usually see rain every second day.” When the original trail builders set out, one reputed obstacle was “a spot, ten miles wide that rained an inch a day…365 days a year.” I suspect that this must be it.
We tramp the last couple kilometres in a downpour, soaked but jubilant. Though our experience barely qualifies as a taste of what the original trail builders faced in their final days. “It was hell working with that car for last 8 miles in nearly two feet of snow with unfrozen bog holes beneath. We were wet to the neck every night,” wrote an original trailbuilder, “Our vitality was so low we all had fevers.” Ill from the rotten potatoes they’d found to eat in a trapper’s cabin never mind the repeatedly parboiled sow belly, “still so salty it was almost impossible to eat.” Instead, we sit under tarps and enjoy a glass of the Louis Latour 2005 Chardonnay Josef had left in the last barrel for the first party to finish. We have plenty of time to relax and explore before the river boat pick-up tomorrow. Our predecessors were a day too late. The boat had left with a load of sick men only to be stopped by slush ice on their return trip to pick up the car. So there it was left. As René points out, “For them, Hobi’s cabin was really only half way.” Monkman’s crew fell 85 kms short of getting the Pathfinder car to Hansard. Having failed in this effort, they still needed to get themselves and their horses out over more rough terrain.
For the amount of heart and personal effort that Alex Monkman and his fellow trail builders had put into realizing the dream of having a ‘shortcut to tide water’, it was never to be. World War II put a stop to all trail work. Alex Monkman died in September 1941. The Model T lay rusting where it was left at Hobi’s until rescued many years later and restored for the Pioneer Museum in Grande Prairie.
The car never drove down the streets of Prince George or inspired the government to build a highway. But in 1960, the wilderness encompassing much of the trail was proclaimed a Provincial park. Ironically, what Monkman’s efforts ensured in the end was that no cars would ever drive through the pass, the area is now protected as a Provincial park.. As for Kreg, if the Monkman Pass Memorial never has the high traffic of the West Coast Trail, he doesn’t mind. He wasn’t looking to create a highway for hikers, rather a route that retains the rough wilderness and frontier feel. There’ll be no more grooming or infrastructure than is necessary to make it passable. Nevertheless, an essential element for those who do come to experience the trail, is to come with a car. If only carrying it in their mind’s eye.