“Over Norqauy Pass to Forty-Mile Creek, up that stream and over the pass onto Sawback Creek…”
So began the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies’ annual ride on July 31, 1936. Composed of a movable camp, pack mules, and 55 riders, the TRCR spent five days exploring the rugged and mostly untouched wilderness of Banff National Park.
Since becoming Canada’s first national park in 1885, horses were easily the best way to get around Banff. They were the main mode of transport for anyone working in the park and those trying to establish it as the future tourist destination of Canada, with its incredible draws like mountain climbing and cerulean glacier lakes. Years later, in 1940, a highway would be completed through the Columbia Icefields that connected Banff to Jasper and made the Rocky Mountains accessible by car.
But 1940 was a long way away, and in the 1920s and ’30s, horses remained the best way to get in the park with their ability to traverse long distances, carry loads, and make it safely across often treacherous mountain terrain. However, although horseback riding was common in the park, it was primarily viewed as functional – not recreational.
That changed in 1923, when John Murray Gibbon and three friends were riding through Banff on a fishing trip. They felt that the ride was unequivocally beautiful and decided to make it an annual event – a multi-day trip through the mountains, far from civilization and eating meals over the fire.
The ride itself, and the connection it allowed with nature, was worth the trip.
Women on the Trail
On July 31, 1936, Jeanne Nelson did what some would have considered a rebellious act at the time: donning a hat and a sturdy pair of boots, camera in hand, she joined the trail ride. She was just one of a handful of women in the group of 55.
Her photos from the next five days tell the story of the ride. Atop sturdy mountain horses, they rode in forests of lodgepole pine and through areas burnt from fires. They rested the horses, letting them graze, before they “climbed to Badger Pass.” On that climb, they ascended past the timber line, the horses picking their way across shale rocks and snow (in August). The horses made it through creek crossings and are pictured standing near glaciers. All of this terrain would have been infinitely harder to traverse on foot, if even possible for most of the riders.
During lunch breaks, Jeanne’s photos show people perched side by side on fallen trees or sprawled comfortably across the ground. Horses are tethered in the background; some are let to graze. In several lunch breaks, a man with a neck kerchief and cowboy hat strums a guitar.
According to a news clipping from her scrapbook, the ride finished “thence over Badger Pass on to the headwaters of Johnson’s Creek, terminating at Hillsdale on Tuesday evening.” At Hillside the group held their final evening party that included club announcements, music, and a comedic “one-man wrestling bout, which brought forth roars of laughter.”
One can only imagine the spectacular sights of an undeveloped Banff through the ears of a horse, in the days when the only place to stay was the Banff Springs Hotel and you could have those epic blue lakes all to yourself. But for Jeanne Nelson, perhaps the ride held an additional appeal in the type of freedom it allowed.
Photos from the trip show Jeanne lounging against hitching rails, smiling in a pair of trousers and big hat. Not much is known about Jeanne’s life, but it’s likely she was part of the upper class (most tourists to Banff at the time were). She got to spend five days sitting astride a horse, wearing pants, with panoramic views of the wilderness stretching around her. It would have been quite the diversion from everyday life in an era when women were still expected to be first and foremost wives and mothers – not adventurers, photographers, and horse riders.
Whatever drew Jeanne Nelson to the ride – the freedom, the horses, the ability to disconnect from the rest of the world for a few days – it led to an incredible trip.
It’s all about the trail
Despite changes over the years, many of the sights in Jeanne Nelson’s 1936 album are still familiar today.
Horseback riding has grown to be one of the most popular pastimes, for tourists and locals alike, in the Rockies. The horses still step carefully along mountain trails, tracking up and watching their feet. The riders still grin, aware they are on the trip of a lifetime. And after long days in the saddle, you can find horses grazing in the background while riders gather around a campfire with song, food, and friends. Decades later, there remains an intrinsic joy in getting out there, exploring nature, and enjoying the trail.
The best way to do that is still, simply, on horseback.
Caelan Beard is a writer and horse enthusiast based out of Toronto, Ontario. She spent three seasons working as a trail guide in Jasper, Alberta.