Jasper National Park was created in 1907 and it has been suggested that Mary Schaffer was the park's first tourist. But Mary was no ordinary tourist, she was the first non-native woman to travel through much of Banff and Jasper National Parks and as well was an accomplished artist, photographer, and writer.
A native of Pennsylvania, Mary's first trip to the Canadian Rockies was in 1889 when she accompanied a group of members of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. She was joined by a fellow art student, Mary Vaux, who was visiting Glacier House, the Canadian Pacific Railway's hotel in the Selkirks. Obviously an adventurous pair, they travelled part of the way on top of a boxcar. The following year she returned to the Selkirks, now the wife of Dr. Charles Schaffer, a physician with a driving interest in botany, whom she had met at Glacier House the previous year. Dr. Schaffer had a particular interest in the wildflowers of the mountains and he and Mary visited the Canadian Rockies every year until his untimely death in 1903.
But Mary returned to the mountains on her own the following year with her friend Mollie Adams. Guided by Tom Wilson and his associate Billy Warren, they explored the Yoho Valley and the Moraine Lake area. Returning again in 1905 and 1906 the ladies became more adventurous, travelling as far north as the Columbia Icefields, and they began to plan a major expedition for the 1907 season.
It was definitely not the norm for two ladies of the Victorian Age, in their mid-forties, to venture off into the mountain wilderness on a four month pack trip but these were not two traditional ladies. They had, over the years, become kindred spirits, re-enforcing the other's interests and determination. Their answer to those who said they should not go was, "Can the free air sully, can the birds teach us words we should not hear, can it be possible to see, in such a summer's outing, one sight as painful as the daily ones of poverty, degradation, and depravity of a great city?"
Their plan was to visit the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers but they also hoped to reach a lake they had heard of which was called Chaba Imne (Beaver Lake) by the Stoney Indians. Later she revealed that, "our real objective was to delve into the heart of an untouched land, to turn the unthumbed pages of an unread book, and to learn daily those secrets which dear Mother Nature is so willing to tell to those who seek."
They reached the Athabasca and travelled upstream to Mount Columbia but an attempt to find the lake failed when they encountered heavy snow as the end of the season approached. During their return to the railway, Mary met a band of Stoneys and had dinner with them at the home of Elliott Barnes on the Kooteney Plains in the Saskatchewan River Valley. One of the Indians was Samson Beaver who, as a boy of fourteen, had visited the legendary lake with his father nearly twenty years ago. From memory, he sketched a map showing the route.
The winter was spent dreaming of the elusive lake which they acknowledged was, "a good excuse to be in the open, to follow the trail for the simple love of following it and explore places of which we knew nothing." With Samson's precious map in hand and Billy Warren and Sid Unwin as guides, the determined ladies set out from Lake Louise on June 8, 1908. As they began to descend the Maligne River from Maligne Pass the party was becoming dispirited and beginning to doubt the accuracy of the map they were following. After stopping for lunch Sid abruptly announced, "I'm going off to climb something that's high enough to see if that lake's within twenty miles of here and I'm not coming back till I know!" Returning to camp at 10:30, all were excited to hear that he had climbed a mountain to the east of their camp and was able to look down upon the elusive lake they were seeking. The following day, almost a month after leaving Lake Louise, they finally reached their lake, probably the first to see it since it was visited by Henry Macleod in 1875.
Upon reaching the lake, it became obvious to the group that the best way to continue their exploration was on the lake itself. A raft, which they christened "H.M.S. Chaba" after the Indian name for the lake, Chaba Imne, was assembled. The guides determined that, "we were to go in style regardless of our plea that we were willing to rough it for a few days; air-beds, tents, and food for three days were to be taken on that raft.” The group spent three idyllic days sailing their craft to the end of the lake and back. During the almost two weeks the group spent on and near the lake, they found no sign of man, "just masses of flowers, the lap-lap of the waters on the shore, the occasional reverberating roar of an avalanche and our own voices stilled by a nameless Presence."
Following these days of explorations and relaxing, the party spent five days attempting to push a trail through the thick, downed timber of the Maligne River Valley to the Athabasca. Finally they gave up and retraced their steps to reach the upper Athabasca. They then journeyed north-west as far as Tete Jaune Cache before returning to Lake Louise on September 20th.
Clearly, this was a remarkable trip for the two ladies and they were given much recognition for their efforts, although they in turn gave much of the credit to their guides. Mary Schaffer's book, "Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies" was published in 1911 and is regarded as a classic. Although Jasper National Park existed, no one knew the lake was there before Mary's book.
Mary Schaffer returned to the lake in 1911 to complete a more detailed survey of the area at the request of the Parks Department. The survey was partially sponsored by the Grand Trunk Railway and the railway's publicity agent was honoured by the naming of Mount Charlton.
Mary Schaffer continued to return to the Rockies each summer until 1912 when she decided to make her home among them and purchased a cottage in Banff. Three years later she and her long time guide and companion Billy Warren were married. Billy became a successful businessman in Banff.
There is no other location in the Canadian Rockies which is so closely identified with a single individual as Maligne Lake and its panorama is with Mary Schaffer.
Mount Schaffer and Schaffer Lake is located near Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park.
[Additional Information: Hart, E.J. (Ed.) "A Hunter of Peace". (A reprint of Old Indian Trails, including he unpublished account of the 1911 expedition to Maligne Lake.) Banff: Whyte Museum, 1980]
[Additional Information: Smith, Cyndi. "Off the Beaten Track". Lake Louise: Coyote Books, 1989]
[Additional Information: Beck, Janice Sanford "No Ordinary Woman"; Rocky Mountain Books; 2001