Chapter 6-10

6. The West Road

I remember the West road thirty years ago.(3) It has changed, and now its very existence is threatened. Its meandering tendencies have been checked at intervals down the years; now all its charming twists and turns will be obliterated. Instead of a winding road demanding leisurely driving it will become a speedway. It will be a straight road surmounting or hurtling through all barriers, never too steep, never turning at a sharp angle, conforming to the specification for the Trans Canada Highway.

The first phase of the West road as a route for travel was as a game trail following the course of the valley and giving access to water. Indians passed over it on their occasional hunt for wild horses. The explorer led his cavalcade along it; the fur trader traversed its length. Surveyors measured it, then along came the road builders to straighten its curves and polish its surface.

Though as in the olden days wild animals still roam the trail, and explorers now equipped with pen or paintbrush still follow its streamlined course and pack-horses walk timidly on its shoulders, the automobile has at last taken over the West Road.

The first five miles out of Banff constituted a notable walk (and may still do so) full of incident and natural beauty, skirting the three Vermillion Lakes, and it is along this stretch that most of our sketching is done. North over the C.P.R. tracks, over Forty-Mile creek, turn west at the foot of Norquay, and in two miles one is on the shore of the First Lake, a shallow lake connected with Second Lake by Boulder Creek.

Boulder Creek is less than a hundred yards long, and is separated from the road by a strip of gravel. Beaver threw three little dams across it. These the Park warden broke up frequently, but they were always built up again overnight. Beaver felled many of the poplar groves that once filled the valley. They will drop a six-inch tree in one night, subsequently eating the tender tips of the top branches and cutting the bole and the larger branches into convenient lengths to drag to their lodge or to any of their dams needing reinforcement. There is a nice stand of aspen a few yards further west which as yet the beaver has not disturbed. The boles of these trees, as of all others in the valley of this species, have black scars extending from the ground to the height of a man. They are not man-made disfigurements, but are gnawed by elk who eat the bark in the winter.

At the end of another wide curve in the highway is a notice indicating a beaver pond, in which is a lodge. Hundreds of tourists pause there hopefully, but the beaver has abandoned this residence. The lodge is interesting, being arranged as a duplex, and rented, as to the top floor, to a family of muskrats.

The road rises here and curves again to avoid some beaver bogs. The poplars stand up sturdily against the Bourgeau range, their warm gray boles and branches contrasting with the deep blue of the mountains. The pyramidal peak to the south-west is snow-capped in the winter, the snow extending down the draws, like icing poured over a cake. To the north the ground slopes up to the top of Norquay. The sun has set, and the snow reflects golden lights from the afterglow. In a few minutes I made a sketch in pencil to fix the scene in my mind. In a case like this David Cox would have turned his back to the view and sketched it from memory as it first flashed across his vision. I have never tried that; he claimed it helped him to avoid irrelevancies.

7. Swans

We often drive or hike to Second Lake in early May to watch the hundreds of migrant Canada geese, some wild ducks and occasional whistling swans that rest here on their journey north every year at this time. On one occasion the lake was still frozen, the aspens were bare and the water-birds found only a small patch of open water near the road on which to rest. We were close to three swans. They did not like us; they swam a few feet and climbed on to the ice, awkwardly for the ice was too rotten to bear their weight.

Those of us who have learned to draw (of my generation) began by studying plaster casts and other inert objects and graduated after drawing from the life, which involved a painfully exact rendering of a human model who did not dare to move a muscle. We had to contend only with our own incapacity. We were in constant danger from the temptation to view a part and not the whole, to concentrate on the nice treatment of detail instead of bearing on mass and movement. There was some excuse because movement was conspicuous by its absence, and mass per se was always uninteresting. And rhythm, that over-worked, misunderstood, but essential principle: how can it be identified and appreciated by immature minds, but through movement? I have always thought that the study of drawing should involve the representation of living, moving things as well as dead ones.

In such study we have the excitement of action, the stimulus of a new contact with life. Useless is our deliberate, meditative technique of the studio. The keenest observation, the utmost concentration, speed and accuracy are demanded of us. Time and tide wait for no man, and a galloping horse will never wait for you.

The landscape painter soon learns that there is nothing static in nature. A rock, you say, is a symbol for steadfastness and immobility yet its shadow is constantly moving and its appearance changes with the light.

But it is not of rocks, restless water, moving clouds, or rustling leaves that I was thinking. I am also interested so far as drawing is concerned, in studying wild life. I enjoy making sketches of gulls as they swoop and swirl around and about me, of deer as they dash for cover, or of leaping salmon.

If you wish to make drawings of swans the best place to go is to your own town park where they are obliging enough to stay around and pose if you toss them some food. The wild swan, says Biological Memoir 104, though actually common in Canada, is wilder and warier than the wild and wary goose. It spends the day, and feeds in deep and open water in lonely places. It flies silently at night. It is rarely seen. The skipper of the steamboat that used to ply adventurously between Warren's Landing and Norway House, told me that in the spring Playgreen Lake was solid white with swans. Flocks of hundreds, the Memoir states, appear annually on Lake St. Clair, and on the Niagara River, where on misty or foggy nights they drift down the current to destruction. Men at the foot of the falls bring in maimed and broken birds, their plumage soiled with blood. That practically is the total Canadian bag for the year.

It is said to be a useless fowl, for swan's meat is unpalatable. But the swan charms the eye and stimulates the imagination, and what better service can any bird perform? Its grace of movement, its white elegance, its strength and courage are acclaimed in many an ancient tale. So when I stand on the shore of Second Lake and make quick sketches of this proud bird I do homage to the presence of mobility and beauty.

8. Third Lake [and Mount Rundle]

Beyond the Beaver Pond the West road traverses a gentle slope and winds though the forest for half a mile or more, down to Third Lake. Hidden at first by spurs of rock, the lake is revealed as the largest of the three and by far the most beautiful. Here by the roadside is a small sulphur spring, the first of several discovered in the valley. It percolates under the road-bed and is dispersed in the waters of the lake. In the winter a small area at this point remains free from ice. Here is the best view of old Rundle, with its tilted strata, and the big bite taken out of its perimeter. Trees creep up its flanks, and enough snow lies near the top to provide a plume when the wind blows. It is a lovely mountain from this point, doubly so when the lake is still.

Dan McCowan used to call it 'Phillips' bread-and-butter mountain.' I never tire of painting it, for it is never the same. In deep shadow in the morning it borrows a warm glow from the setting sun at the end of the day. Its colour runs the gamut from orange to cold blue-gray, with overtones of violet and intervals of green. A row of dark conifers appears above the waterline. A mountain peak cannot very well make a satisfactory point of interest: here the eye fastens on the crotch between Rundle and Tunnel mountains, through which flows the Bow, and which reveals a part of the Fairholme range beyond.

9. Wild Animals

One day I sat by the roadside, feet dangling over the water, making a sketch, when I heard an uproar from the east and pounding hooves. In a moment a big moose rounded the corner, head down, his wide antlers capable of sweeping aside anything that blocked his path. Including myself, I thought. I couldn't get up quickly, so I reached for my camera. He skidded to a stop when he saw me. 'Another damn tourist,' I could hear him say, and he jumped into the lake in disgust. Almost immediately an irate photographer pulled up beside me. 'I've been chasing that danged beast for two days,' he shouted, 'and here you get a good shot with no effort at all.'

Big-horn sheep frequent this spot. They eat the soil under the banks at the roadside. In the summer ewes and lambs alone appear, and in the fall the rams wander down from loftier haunts. There is often a flock of twenty and they remain in this spot all day giving the sketcher plenty of time for drawing. They are very curious. I was once sketching on the mountain-side just above the lake. My wife was reading down below. She called up, 'Who's your pal?' I looked around and nearly rubbed noses with a ewe which was very interested in what I was doing, and was apparently a little near-sighted.

All kinds of animals take one for granted. I have a photograph depicting me busy painting with an admiring chorus of cows behind. At Third lake one day a weasel played around my feet for several minutes. Once a snake slithered over my shoes.

Animal curiosity is not confined entirely to beasts of the field. I have a lively recollection of Marlie seated on the Macadam in the middle of the town of Canmore — she scorned a stool — busily painting and quite unconscious of the fact that a score of young men were grouped behind her. I suspect they were interested as much in Marlie as in her picture.

Golden Mantled ground squirrels are greedy as well as inquisitive, and sometimes attack me in packs, searching my pockets for food, my rucksack, scrambling over my palette, and over my drawing, greatly persistent. They smell my lunch, I suppose. Black bears certainly do. My class has had many a bout with bears. It was a lonely spot where the Bow lapped the precipitous eastern face of Tunnel mountain. I took my class there. As usual they spread out a little. Madame settled down surrounded by her belongings — her painting materials, her lunch, and a large sheet of watercolour paper. A bear appeared attracted by the faint odour of sandwiches. He approached madame, and, in order to reach her bag of lunch he stepped on the paper. This aroused madame's ire and she smote the bear on the snout vigorously with her palette. 'For dis,' she shouted, 'I pay forty cent.' The bear on his part had a certain dignity to maintain and held his ground growling. I shudder to think what might have happened had not two riders come to the rescue, though I'd have put my money on madame.

A mountain lion dogged my heels coming down the steep trail from Lake Oesa to O'Hara. 'Where did you pick up that yellow dog?' Gladys asked.

Neither the cony nor the flying squirrel seem to be able to overcome their timidity. The former, otherwise known as the harvester, or the pika, or as Dan McCowan called him 'that little bright-eyed ball of fur,' peers uncertainly through a crack in his rock-pile, but I've often been close to him, and often hear his plaintive squeak. Another characterization of Dan's that I like is 'the pika runs like a toy animal on wheels.'

We never would have seen a flying squirrel but for the Joyces. They — Elaine and Martin—lived in Holiday House, a place set in comparatively extensive grounds, and on the edge of town. They cultivated the friendship of a large family of squirrels, who would step through the kitchen window, after much scouting and indecision, and partake of peanut butter and other delicacies spread upon the table. These squirrels work on the night shift, and are rarely seen. Once on Elaine's table they are fairly confident and we watched them from the doorway with the light burning.

10. Night

The valley is never in too deep a sleep. There are voices in the dark, coyotes howl, elk bugle, or a deer will scream as a cougar drags him down.

We made a night excursion along the West road to a gravel pit just two miles from Banff. Nick Morant had learned that a mule deer carcass lay there, and that an eagle had spotted it and had gorged on it so heartily that he was too heavy too fly. Nick wanted a photograph and had invited us to go along. He drove into the gravel pit, shut off his engine, doused the head-lights, and waited. By and bye he turned on a searchlight and adjusted it to illumine the dead deer. The eagle had departed. The sides of the pit loomed above us, and at the top was the forest. Nick swung the searchlight around the rim of the pit. Dozens of eyes reflected its gleam.