Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 10: The Rockies 1930

“I hope that you will curb the impetuosity of your assistant if he dares to tackle grizzlies single-handed.”

– R.M. Anderson

On May 30, 1930, the weather turned bad in Newgate and a telegram from Anderson in Ottawa arrived instructing Laing to report immediately to Jasper, Alberta, where he was to serve as (the first) resident naturalist at Jasper Park Lodge newly elevated to its national park status. The secondment of Laing to Jasper National Park also enabled his young assistant, Cowan, to take on the collection duties by himself in the mountains for the rest of the summer. 

Cowan was now the lead collector, and he would rely on the guidance of the wardens to help him complete a study of the park’s small mammals. On June 9 he hiked in to warden Frank Bryant’s cabin on the Snaring River and made his first camp 11 miles north of Jasper townsite, armed with his traps, guns, camping gear and collection kit. Frank Bryant hit it off with Cowan immediately and he and his family were to become lifelong friends.

Ian McTaggart with horses at summit of Maccarib Pass, Jasper, Alberta (1930)

Behind the scenes in Ottawa, the ‘B’ were attempting to rein in the overly exuberant killing of predators by the wardens themselves. In 1929 Harkin and Lloyd had been struggling with the question of what a “reasonable extent” of predator killing in the national parks might be, versus the bigger ecological view to which they pledged as a scientific fraternity. Meanwhile, the scientific approach to wildlife management was getting codified in documents by other members of the ‘B’. Aldo Leopold was at work on his classic game management textbook, which brought together his field skills, science and art.

On that first day, Cowan had hardly paused for breath before heading off to scout the Athabasca River with Bryant, when they spotted a yearling beaver in one of the sloughs. He wanted a specimen to check on its health since beaver populations in 1930 were low from centuries of overtrapping and only just starting to recover. On June 16 Cowan joined Bryant, his daughter Kathleen and Bryant’s brother-in-law Syd Williams on a trip over Jacques Pass and on to Swiftwater Creek on the east side of the Athabasca to check up on poaching activity that had been halted the previous year. Cowan later recollected the firsts of that trip: first time in the Rockies, first time tracking poachers and first time with packhorses.

Ian McTaggart Cowan and others at Snaring River, Jasper (1930)

The learning curves didn’t seem to slow him down too much, though; during this trip he trapped mice, jumping mice, heather voles, chipmunks, squirrels and ground squirrels. On their way to Jacques Lake, they passed through the broad, grassy slopes between the aspen woods and the rocky peaks. He noted that Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats were common, and at the pass around 6,000 feet there were a number of Moose. He spent his 20th birthday in the mountains, and characteristically there is no mention of his June 25th birthday celebration in his field notes.

On July 4, he set out for the infamous Tonquin cabin where the warden had been killed by the grizzly the summer before. The Tonquin Valley in those days was the iconic valley of the park, before lodges and ski areas had started to erode the area south of the township. Cowan’s notes describing Tonquin hint at the love he was to feel for this place in this coming-of-age summer. It is a classic U-shaped valley through which Maccarib Creek runs east to west from the summit of Maccarib Pass on the BC–Alberta boundary to where it angles northwest into Meadow Creek via Moat, eventually reaching the Athabasca River.

Grizzly bear forepaw (1946)

R.M. Anderson from the Museum wrote to Laing on August 26, 1930, scolding him for having left Cowan under-protected in the Tonquin. “I hope that you will curb the impetuosity of your assistant if he dares to tackle grizzlies single-handed. The grizzly might get peeved if shot at with an ‘aux’ and eat the collector alive, incidentally swallowing some government equipment.” Cowan never had problems with Grizzly Bears throughout all his fieldwork in the Rockies. Fourteen years later, he was to write recommendations about human–grizzly interactions for the Rocky Mountain national parks: “…do not pass sentence of death upon all members of the species as some most vocal individuals advise.” Instead, he quotes his graduate supervisor Joseph Grinnell, who, in an address to the Canadian national parks superintendents in 1928, had said: “A world without any sort of hazard would be a tame and uninteresting place to live in, surely.”

Ian McTaggart Cowan with a deer on his back (1930)

The young Cowan, back in the Tonquin oblivious to the concerns of his employer, gets to work immediately and by his second day in camp he had already killed, skinned and prepared the hide and skull of a crippled caribou. He shared the task and meat with warden John Curren, who had been transferred that summer from Banff to take over the Tonquin district. Cowan’s small-mammal work over the next three weeks is prodigious – capturing and preparing specimens, leaving no population undinted: lemmings, voles, jumping mice, martens, weasels etc. He travelled miles each day, from the scree slopes at the foot of the ramparts for pikas down to the glacial lakes in search of voles, setting his traps at night and returning to them in the morning.

For a swan song to that summer, Cowan took a weekend off from UBC classes to hunt venison with Laing on Constitution Hill near the Laing home in Comox on Vancouver Island. Laing’s journal for November 8 and 9 records a heavy southeaster “raining pitchforks” on the two men as they scoured the hill looking for coastal Black-tailed Deer.

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1930, journal) : Newgate, B.C. (East Kootenays) ; Jasper and Banff, Alberta
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