Canada’s Little Park of Wonders

In Reports

A century ago on the flanks of Mount Field in Canada’s Yoho National Park, Charles Doolittle Walcott, then secretary of the Smithsonian and one of the most famous paleontologists of his day, found two life-changing things. The first discovery was what is arguably the world’s premier fossil bed, a quarry that now bears his name. The second discovery was his third wife, Mary Vaux, after whose family he would soon name a genus of fossilized sponges, Vauxia.

It is natural that modern visitors to this most sublime and overlooked of the Canadian Rockies parks would focus on the first of these discoveries. The Burgess Shale formation that encompasses the Walcott Quarry was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. A few years later, in the best-selling book Wonderful Life, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called the Burgess Shale “the most precious and important of all fossil localities.” It’s a trove of perfectly preserved Cambrian sea creatures—more than 200,000 weird-looking specimens found, with countless others still to be discovered.

Yet most Burgess Shale life-forms—from spike- and armor-covered Wiwaxia to Opabinia, a soft-bodied bottom-feeder with five eyes and a claw at the end of an elephant-like trunk—appeared to Gould and others to be evolutionary dead ends, with no modern descendants. Gould used the explosion of Cambrian life and subsequent disappearance of most evolutionary lineages to argue that “survival of the fittest” has an important counterpart: luck of the draw. Is evolution partly a lottery? Is natural history governed by chance? A scientific debate has raged ever since—but most of it far outside the borders of the national park. To understand the allure of Yoho itself, it’s better to focus on the remarkable woman who was also on that mountainside, Mary Vaux, whose family has its own story of how serendipity can look like destiny.

On a sunny but cold August day, I woke up in Field, British Columbia, the 150-person town that houses Yoho park headquarters plus one hotel, one café, one restaurant, one post office, and one elementary school, and I set out by car for the nearby Yoho Valley. Around 1900, Mary, the eldest child in a prominent Quaker family from Philadelphia, was the first white woman to visit the valley. “It is to me the loveliest spot to be found, and it always quickens my blood when I hear and speak of it,” she later wrote in a letter to Walcott. “I can imagine no greater delight than camping there away from the tourist, and the noise of the iron horse.”

On my way there, I passed the Honda SUV of her grandnephew, Henry Vaux, Jr., which was parked outside a guesthouse, then crossed the train tracks that brought the first curious Vauxes here 128 years ago, then turned right on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs through the middle of the national park. Yoho is small, an area of about 500 square miles—a fifth the size of adjacent Banff National Park, east over 5,344-foot Kicking Horse Pass and the Continental Divide, and an eighth the size of Jasper, just to the north. But its name, a Cree expression of awe, signals that its wonders are densely packed: at least 25 named peaks above 10,000 feet, two historic mountain lodges on two glacial lakes whose water is an otherworldly shade of turquoise, and hundreds of waterfalls, including Takakkaw, one of the tallest falls in Canada, which I saw at the end of my drive up the Yoho Valley. The crowds here are mild compared with Banff’s 3.5 million annual visitors, so much so that hikers can’t hold themselves back. Sometimes when they pass each other, I noticed, instead of “Hello,” they exclaim, “Yoho!”

The reaction of the Vauxes when they first visited British Columbia in 1887, shortly after the train line opened, was a more refined version of the same. The mountains were “cold, severe, beautiful, grand, unapproachably majestic,” wrote Mary’s middle brother, George Jr. The youngest sibling, William, focused on the “air full of the delicious odor of the forest … and the wonderful harmony of light and shade.” Below Rogers Pass, close to Yoho in what is now Glacier National Park, they trekked to the toe of the great Illecillewaet Glacier—Mary, then 27, while wearing a black Victorian dress and a sun hat. The crevasses and towering seracs were like nothing they had ever seen. The Vauxes did what any modern tourists would do in the face of such beauty: They photographed it. The difference was that at the turn of the 20th century a camera was a large wooden box and most “film” was a plate of glass that had to be carefully transported in and out of the mountains and back to civilization—and they were capturing some of the first images of a hitherto undocumented wilderness. “So little exploration has been carried out that each visitor is practically a new discoverer,” wrote George Jr. It was the beginning of their transformation into amateur scientists.

When the family returned in 1894, during one of almost 40 summers Mary would spend in the Canadian “Alps,” they were surprised to find that the Illecillewaet had shrunk. Their photographs held the proof. Their camera, they realized, could be a scientific instrument. William, an engineer, was particularly intrigued by the retreat of the glaciers, and the Vauxes began documenting the shifting landscape with what they called “test photographs”: the same shot taken from the same place, year after year, for the greater part of two decades. They also carefully mapped glaciers and moraines with surveying equipment.

Back in Philadelphia they presented lantern slide shows to a curious public and, led by William, wrote well-received scientific papers. In Canada theirs was the first continuous glacier study of its kind, and it’s still referenced by scientists. At least eight decades ahead of modern concerns about global warming, “a big subset of the glaciers on the North American continent were receding,” says grandnephew Henry Jr., a University of California professor emeritus in resource economics. “This would be a significant discovery even now, and it was done by amateurs.”

Even after William’s early death in 1908 from tuberculosis and George Jr.’s gradual return to his Philadelphia law practice, Mary kept coming to Yoho. She walked many miles on Rocky Mountain trails before her death in 1940. She became the first woman to climb 10,502-foot Mount Stephen, and thus the first woman to climb a major Canadian peak. She camped in canvas tents near majestic Lake O’Hara while porcupines “tried the flavor of our bacon and the softness of the guides’ bed,” she wrote. She published stories about her adventures, doing “more to advertise the Canadian Rockies by magazine articles and photographs than perhaps any other living writer,” according to the Banff newspaper at the time. She took up botanical painting and published a five-volume set of illustrations that brought her praise as the “Audubon of botany.”

Quakers in the Victorian era were not meant to pursue such frivolities as art for the sake of art, but in the Vauxes’ black-and-white photos of the mountainous landscape—waterfalls, bogs, glaciers, forests, clouds—there is also an undeniable eye to aesthetics. “They were liberal Quakers,” says Henry Jr., so perhaps “they did art in the guise of science.” It is this aspect of their photos that drew him to take up his ancestors’ Yoho obsession a century later. Since 1997 he has come here for a month almost every summer, attempting to re-create 50 of the Vauxes’ most beautiful images with his medium-format camera—“test photographs” of his own. It has taken him more than a decade to capture shots of the quality he feels is demanded of a Vaux. So it is that one can now say with amateur-scientific authority what about Yoho has changed in the past century: remarkably little. There are now airplanes overhead. The forest near Kicking Horse Pass, often on fire during the construction of the railroad, has regrown. The glaciers have receded all the more. “But what has surprised me most is how little everything else has changed,” Henry Jr. says. He mentions the photo he recently took of Laughing Falls, a few miles from Takakkaw. “I could lay it out on the floor next to the one they took—and you wouldn’t be able to tell which is which.”

In the Yoho Valley that August morning, I met a guide—now required for the backcountry hike to the protected Walcott Quarry—near the base of Takakkaw Falls. We wound our way up steep switchbacks through a forest of spruce and fir and burst into the alpine zone just beyond Yoho Pass, a thousand feet up. As we traversed the steep scree slopes of Wapta Mountain, a vast basin opened up before us, framed by hanging glaciers and the soaring peaks of the President Range. Stunning Emerald Lake—its name is truly its color—was below. The quarry and Walcott’s camp, where he and Mary stayed for months at a time, were straight ahead.

“From the vicinity of the Burgess Pass camp the views were most beautiful and varied,” wrote Walcott in this magazine in June 1911, “and changed from hour to hour during the day and from day to day with the varying atmospheric conditions.” Even he, the great paleontologist, was not immune to Yoho’s aesthetics. Here he made one of the first panoramic photos to appear in National Geographic. “Mr. Walcott’s panorama is the most marvelous mountain view that has ever been published,” wrote the editors. Privately, Walcott admitted that Mary was the better photographer.

We were still at the fossil bed when the sun set. I would like to tell you that we passed our hours there combing through the trilobites, pondering evolution and the role of serendipity. But mostly we sat in silence and watched as an orange light suffused the basin. Then out of our pockets came cell phones and digital cameras, and in the name of science we did what visitors to these mountains naturally do.

First published in National Geographic Magazine.



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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.