At just 23 years old, James Hector passed through our part of the Rockies in some truly wild times. As part of the famous Palliser expedition, the young Scot left us with both meticulous accounts of natural history and some legendary stories of adventure. So, in honour of Robbie Burns Day and all the Scottish characters who have helped shape life in the mountains, here are a few Hector tales to go with your glass of single malt…
~ A trait that would serve him well in the mountains, Hector was a master of finding a way to make things happen. He studied medicine at University in Edinburgh because it was the only department offering courses in his true passion, the natural sciences.
~ In his most famous mishap, Hector was kicked in the chest by his saddle horse after fighting through a tough river crossing. With the doctor out cold and showing no signs of life, his fellow explorers had started in on digging his grave before he came to. In Hector’s words, “I did not use that grave. Instead, they named the river Kicking Horse.”
~ While camped at Glacier Lake, (now a popular hike off the Icefields Parkway) Hector’s party inadvertently ignited a wildfire. He writes of their efforts to leave the area, “… sometimes we were forced to pass over the smouldering ground, our horses’ legs suffered a good deal.”
~Travelling through an area near the present-day Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park, Hector and his crew successfully rescued one of their packhorses after it fell nearly 50m down a slope. The horse finally stopped against a tree, as Hector describes, “balancing himself with his legs dangling on either side of the trunk of the tree in a most comical manner.”
~While being guided to the traditional camp location near the base of Cascade Mountain, Hector was led through the Lake Minnewanka area where, he learned, ” … they catch the finest trout and white fish in the country.”
~Against the advice of a First Nations guide in his party who stayed behind, Hector and a companion headed out onto what would later be named the Lyell Icefield. He wrote of how the pair got through a challenging section of the glacier by “knotting our leather shirts together.”
Hector and his group took on these adventures in 1858 during just a 57-day exploration into the mountains, before re-joining Palliser at Fort Edmonton and continuing on the larger expedition. A pretty solid couple of months, by the sound of it.
Inspired by a letter from his assistant on the expedition, Hector would return to the Canadian Rockies in 1903, but cut his trip short after his son died in the hospital in Revelstoke. You can check out more stories of Hector and the Scottish history of the Rockies in the Whyte Museum archives.