Chapter 1. Starting at the Source

Just like Alice in a different Wonderland, I was told that when you want to understand something, begin at the beginning. Good advice for life, and possibly for watersheds too? For years my hiking group had been exploring the watershed of the Elbow River, but had yet to visit the source of this beautiful watercourse. Today, on a bright blue mountain morning, we are setting out on a backpacking jaunt and something of a quest. We hoist up the deadweight backpacks, grab bear spray and climb up the steep gravel track until we reach the high point of the trail — Elbow Pass. Finally, in front of us, is the welcome sight of little Elbow Lake glistening in the sunshine, and of the quiet backcountry campsite on its southeast margin.

Here at the westernmost point of the Elbow watershed, Elbow Lake is fed by springs and the creek that comes from the highest source — Rae Glacier — another 600 metres up on the northern slopes of Mount Rae. At 3,218 m, the mammoth, block-shaped Mount Rae, with its tightly-folded limestone rock layers, is one of the highest mountains in the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains, and the highest in the Elbow watershed. Its notched peak can even be seen from the prairies, 60 kilometres to the east. Mount Rae is the northernmost mountain in the spectacular 17-km-long Misty Range. 

 Figure 1-1. Sketch map showing source of Elbow River at Rae Glacier and Elbow Lake.

 Figure 1-1. Sketch map showing source of Elbow River at Rae Glacier and Elbow Lake.

 Figure 1-2. Elbow Lake, at Elbow Pass.

 Figure 1-2. Elbow Lake, at Elbow Pass.

 Mount Rae and Dr. John

Mount Rae was named in 1859 by the celebrated explorer of western Canada, Captain John Palliser, for the less-known Arctic explorer, Dr. John Rae. Scottish by birth, he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company  and was hired to survey nearly 2,500 kilometres of the Arctic coast. He learned Arctic survival from the Inuit, covering over 10,000 kilometres on snowshoes. He unearthed the tragic 1847 fate of Sir John Franklin, the news of which had mixed reactions in England. (It was later proved that Rae, not Franklin, found the final link to the Northwest Passage.) In 1864 Rae carried out his last major expedition —  to survey a route for a telegraph line through the Canadian Rockies. Magnificent Mount Rae is a worthy namesake for this consummate surveyor and traveller.