Tall Tales of the Canadian Rockies: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Tall Tales of the Canadian Rockies: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story on Where Rockies

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There was a time in my life when I used to take guests into the backcountry of Banff National Park on horseback for up to six days at a time. There are a few basic skills people expect of a guide in such a position: horsemanship skills, packing skills, the ability to take care of people and horses and mules for days at a time without contact with the “real world,” a sense of direction helps, and the ability to start a fire in the pouring rain after constructing a makeshift lean-to with packing tarps – if you want to help, you can bring the kettle to the creek and fill it up with water to boil.

But these skills are expected. It would be very concerning to head into the mountains on an animal you just learned how to steer, sort of, with someone who didn’t have wilderness experience and livestock skills baked into their blood. And standing around that fire in the pouring rain? That’ll only warm you up so much. It’s the stories that connect people to the landscape and the wilderness around them. It’s the classic tales that pass from one generation of guides to the next that really bring warmth to any vacation, and it’s the stories that are “mostly” true that bring an experience in the Canadian Rockies to life.

So here are a few of the more popular tall tales of the Canadian Rockies. I’m sure you’ll hear versions of them around town and from your guides.

And don’t worry: I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.


Notorious Cowboy “Wild Bill” Peyto

No cowboy cookout would be complete without the story of legendary Wild Bill Peyto. Bill Peyto, the man, was a lot of things: he was a labourer on the transcontinental railway, he was one of the early European mountain guides, and he was one of the first park wardens for the newly formed Banff National Park.

But the legend of Wild Bill went beyond his accomplishments. Known as a character straight outta an old western, Peyto had a distinct style, and he was notorious for despising the company of others. When guiding, he would set up his guests in one encampment, then ride further so he could spend the night alone, returning to collect the visitors in the morning.\

One day, when returning to town, Bill fancied a drink at the local watering hole. Knowing it would be full of patrons, he captured a wild lynx, carried it in a sack over his shoulder into the bar, and released it on the unsuspecting crowd. Once the bar was cleared out of staff and guests, Peyto poured himself a drink, which he enjoyed in peace. After his libations, he recaptured the lynx and left money on the bar for his tab. The lynx was unharmed and would live the rest of its days at Norman Luxton’s zoo.


Naturalist Adventurer Mary Schäffer

Notable explorer and mountain woman Mary Schäffer put Jasper’s Maligne Lake on the map – literally. In the early 1900s, Schäffer wanted to return to the Rockies, a place where she spent much of her childhood, in order to finish a botany book started by her late husband. She heard of a lake the Stoney Nakoda people called Chaba Imne or “Beaver Lake.” They told her stories of its beauty that inspired her to try and find this remote location.

On her first attempt, Schäffer came from the south and attempted to cross jagged peaks and glaciers, but she was unsuccessful. She spoke with Stoney Nakoda guide Samson Beaver, who told her a better way to reach the lake and drew a crude map to get there.

Using this map and advice, Schäffer was able to reach the lake on her second attempt. She instantly fell in love with the place and dedicated her time lobbying for its protection. In 1911, Schäffer returned to Maligne Lake and began surveying the area. It was an extraordinarily unique circumstance in the early 1900’s for a woman to be asked to survey such a remote location.

Schäffer named many of the mountains on her surveying journey. She named Mt Samson after Samson Beaver, Mt Leah for Leah Samson, Samson Beaver’s wife, and Mt Paul after her nephew who travelled with her during the surveying expedition.


Haunted Hallways at the Fairmont Banff Springs

The iconic Fairmont Banff Springs was designed to be a “Castle in the Rockies” for wealthy tourists to visit this incredible location – and to help fund the completion of the trans-continental railroad. There are many great stories about this fantastic hotel, including the ghostly bellman Sam Macauley, who still helps guests to this day, and how the hotel was built “backwards,” which was the result of miscommunication between Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the time, and the contractors. There is a statue of Van Horne that oversees the hotel to this day.

Perhaps the most famous tale to come out of the Banff Springs, however, is the Ghost Bride. The story goes that she had planned her dream wedding at the Castle in the Rockies. During that fateful night, as she descended a twisting marble staircase, the bride slipped and fell, ending the evening and her life. Today, the exact details are lost to the ages, but guests still report seeing a ghostly apparition descending the stairs or dancing in the ballroom, re-enacting that first dance she never had in her life. This ghost is so famous, she was even featured on a Canadian stamp and coin.


Deep Water Spirits: The Merman from Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka still carries its Stoney Nakoda name, which roughly translates to “Lake of the Water Spirits.” There are many fascinating stories that surround this lake: there are first nation stories of voices and drums seemingly coming from the water itself, there is the story of the Minnewanka Bushman that sent sasquatch enthusiasts to scour the land when these sightings were common, and there’s the story of Minnewanka Landing, a resort town built on the shores of this mystical lake in 1912 that was intentionally flooded when the lake was dammed in 1941. Scuba divers can visit the remains of this ghost town.

But perhaps the most intriguing story from Lake Minnewanka is the merman. This half-fish, half-man creature was spotted in the lake, which understandably terrified everyone who saw it. Reports of how the creature got there aren’t clear, but some thought it was one of the water spirits that the Stoney Nakoda people heard, while others thought it was some undiscovered creature that lived in the depths and was rarely seen on the surface. Regardless of the origin story, the merman quickly became a local legend and a warning for anyone visiting this mountain lake.

What happened to this particular merman is unknown, but there is a taxidermy specimen of a creature from Lake Superior that many swear looks exactly like the one spotted in Lake Minnewanka. This specimen was purchased by Norman Luxton, a gregarious man who was instrumental in bringing tourism to Banff during the early years of the town. It’s on display at the Banff  Trading Post, which is right next to the Buffalo Nations Museum. Go see it for yourself, and read the stories of this creature and the ones in Lake Minnewanka.


True Turquoise: How Mountain Lakes Get Their Colour

One of the most common questions guides get in the Canadian Rockies is, “How do the lakes get that turquoise colour?” Most guides worth their salt will spit out a similar answer: “We drain the lakes every year and hire Aussies to paint the bottom. It’s happening just next week, actually, so you really should consider extending your vacation so you can watch it.” That message will typically be followed up by a story about a busload of tourists who did extend their vacation to watch this mythical painting of the lakes, causing a lot of grief for both the guide who told the story and the outfitter who stood by it.

But if you don’t believe that story, then it’s time to talk about rock flour.

The lakes and rivers in the Canadian Rockies come from the meltwaters of glaciers. Rock flour, sometimes known as glacial flour, is finely ground rock particles that are created as the glaciers grind over the mountain surface. These particles are so fine, they become suspended in the water, reflecting light and giving the water its unique colour. Depending on the composition of the rocks in the area, the colour may alter slightly from lake to lake. Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are famous for their colour, so are Peyto Lake (named after none other than our notorious cowboy Wild Bill Peyto), Maligne Lake (as surveyed by the naturalist adventurer Mary Schäffer), and Lake Minnewanka (our mysterious Lake of the Water Spirits).

And there you have it. Five stories of the Canadian Rockies to ponder while you explore the natural beauty of this exceptional place. From historical legends to haunted hallways, mythical beings and the power of nature, there is so much to discover in these mountains. We hope you make the most of your time here, and return home with some unique stories of your own.


Kate Barker