THE ARRIVAL OF THE HENRY EXPLORATION PARTY, 1931
The Northern Alberta Railway’s twice-a-week passenger train must have been on time for once at 6 p.m. at Pouce Coupe on June 30, 1931. Or else it was a whole day late! It must have been a very tired party that alighted, for they had been five days on the way from Philadelphia, of which the last twenty-four hours were the most grueling. The Northern Alberta railway in the Peace River area was only six months old. It was still known by its old name of ED and BC—Extremely Dangerous and Badly Constructed. For some reason the last seven miles from Pouce Coupe to the end of steel at Dawson Creek was closed.
Although they must have been badly – and literally – shaken up, they at once took off by car for Fort St. John on what passed for a road. No local resident would be surprised that they “found it necessary to get out and push our cars through some mudholes.” It was 1 a.m. when they reached Fort St. John, for a night’s rest in their camp tent. At 5 a.m. they were awakened by breakfast call and in a couple of hours they were packed and in the saddle, setting out on a trip of over one thousand miles into the unsurveyed and unmapped wilderness of the Peace River Block and beyond to the legendary Liard Hot Springs.
It was an impressive outfit — nine men, and fifty-eight pack horses, carrying the regular camping gear and food and as well a large number of odd-looking wooded cases, movie cameras as well as fishing and hunting gear. The leaders of the party were obviously not only wealthy but cultivated professional people, and three of them were female. Two of the men were doctors of medicine. One, Dr. Chandler, was also a photographer. The eldest was the scholarly Dr. Norman Henry, Sr. wearing lightly the unconscious dignity of a professor and military major. He was a former Chief of a Medical Division of the American overseas army, Director of Public Health of Philadelphia, and the President of the Alumni of the University of Pennsylvania. But he was not the “boss” of the party. All he officially had to do was take good care of his hunting gear, for he was simply on holiday with his two sons, Norman Jr. and Howard, and daughters Mary and Josephine, ranging in age from twenty-one to fourteen.
The head of the expedition was tiny, gray-haired, middle-aged Mary Gibson Henry, wife of the professor and mother of the young people. Without making any fuss about it, she was a very liberated lady whose husband had said, “go to it and go to all the places and do all the things you want to do, as I believe you are well fitted to do. You have earned it all, and I will help in any way I can.”
Mary Gibson Henry’s formal education had not fitted her to undertake a wilderness safari in a part of Canada’s North which had swallowed up so many hardy gold seekers in 1898. Never having been to University, she had graduated from a fashionable school for young ladies which taught how to hold a teacup properly, and other accomplishments like water-colour painting, piano playing and the harp. Horseback riding was “a must”, of course, but sidesaddle was also obligatory for ladies. Mary Gibson had had other teachers. Her Scottish Gibson fore-bearers had been botanists and horticulturists. Her father was an ardent outdoorsman, and especially keen on guns. Dainty little Mary, under nine years of age, was allowed to “stand beside him when he was target shooting…and often take a few shots”. Many years later she wrote that “helping to clean his rifle afterwards was a cherished chore… so much so that even today I like no perfume better than the aroma of a humble tube of gun grease.”
At eighteen, instead of taking the grand tour of Europe, she accompanied an adventurous Gibson Aunt to the Colorado Rockies and Grand Canyon and fell in love with mountains and climbing. In her next six years her passion for flower collecting must have allowed much climbing practice in the Eastern Appalachians for 1908 found her on the summit of Swiss Mount Blanc, roped together with three guides and her brother and “tremendously excited.”
Then she married. For the next twenty-two years she traveled — chauffeur driven — in an early Recreational Vehicle with “an attic, an electrically-lit desk and bookcase”, and a “rear compartment, insulated and ventilated so that newly collected plants travel comfortable!” Her first botanizing trip by car was 2500 miles in Eastern and Southern USA, and her adventures — usually alone — ran the gamut of wading barelegged in snake infested southern swamps to being “held up by three men with three rifles, who threatened us roughly”. I had often wondered”, she wrote, ” how it would feel to be held up, and really it wasn’t bad at all”. Obviously she was psychologically well prepared to take on a pack-train junket of only a thousand miles.
Rested by four hours sleep, she didn’t even chronicle the adhesive gumbo mud, the sounds and smells of fifty-eight horses, or the uncultivated accents of the local guides, outfitters and wranglers.
They were off the minute that breakfast was over and the gear packed. In charge of the whole cavalcade was Knox F. McCusker, formerly a Dominion Land Surveyor. He knew the southern part of the area to be covered and was an experienced and competent surveyor and topographer. He was now a rancher and guide and recommended by the Dominion Government to accompany and guide the party while exploring and mapping the great white spaces on the map. Billy Hill, well-known rancher, trader and outfitter had supplied the horses. The rates were forty dollars per horse on which a partial refund was to be made on any brought back alive. He was accompanying the party.
S (?). Clark, one of the famous Montenay family of freighters and traders between fort St. John and Fort Nelson acted as trail boss on the first leg of the journey. As fifty-eight horses were too many for one man to handle alone, he had sent word to Harold (Hobby) Hobden, homesteader and guide at Neilson’s Crossing in the Kiskatinaw, to meet the party on the trail not later than a specified date. But “pony express” was so slow that the message did not get there in time. He still regrets it. He said the party took far too many horses, and lost many en route. Hobden had spent many years as a cowboy in the western USA and Canada, and had proved his expertise in many rodeos. He would have been a competent and humorous help to the group.
As it happened he had met the group. The Neilsons ran a stopping place at the crossing of the Kiskatinaw. On the way to Fort St. John that first night, the party dropped in for a meal before tackling the terrible road to the Peace River crossing at Taylor. The Neilsons were away that day and Hobby was “minding the store”. He was used to taking landseekers and other parties out on long bush trips, but feeding a dude party was a little out of his line. He says he could make good trail coffee but he can’t think what else he gave them at that time of night. Resourceful as Mr. Hobden is, it was doubtless good enough fare. ” She was a nice little lady,” he added smiling. “I remember that there was a doctor in the party also.”
Other members of the party were the cook, simply known as Cliff, a wrangler named Bill Beckman, an Indian named Ben and two others known as Smoky and Fabe. Whoever they were, they were the best that McCusker could hire. The men and girls of the Henry party would help supply the grub box with meat and fish.
Moving here and there and all over looking for plants, on a tall strong black horse named Chum, was the diminutive but indomitable Mary herself. Draped about with saddlebags containing jam tins for her living plant specimens, and flats for her pressed ones along with a spade, cameras, binoculars, rifle, notebooks, fishing rod, trowel, slicker and coat, etc., she found scarcely room for herself. As often as not she walked all day, galloping to catch up from time to time. She wanted to be near the flowers. This habit and her diminutive size gave rise to a story. One day, Joe called to Smokey, “Do you see Mother?” “No”, was the reply, “but her horse is coming with a lot of shrubbery, and I suppose she is behind it”. Where going was easy Chum carried her through muskegs, but where going was hard she dismounted to help him along by floundering beside him in the coffee-colored water and muck. On one occasion the bog hole was so deep that only a part of the saddle and the horse’s head and neck were visible. Mary confessed to being alarmed that time — about Chum’s danger, but he wallowed to solid ground, she clinging to him.
She may have told the story around one of the night campfires where the crew “joined us for a game of poker.” Shades of her Quaker ancestors!
After nine months of meticulous planning, here they were setting off from frontier Fort St. John in the Peace River Country. They had eighty days to go and return — overland and in summer, the most difficult time to cope with the terrain.
For the first week they followed the Halfway River valley, guided by indistinct Indian or game trails. About every week or ten days, they stopped to give the horses a rest. Much of the way Mrs. Henry walked, leading her pack-horse, so that she “might be as close as possible to the glorious carpet that covered the earth.” At the end of the day, when the others could rest, Mrs. Henry watered and tended her pails of living plant specimens, pressed others, and made notes. Those rests breaks she welcomed, because then she could go mountain climbing!
One stop was at the Phillip Tomkins Ranch near the Halfway’s confluence with the Peace and where the remarkable “dude” outfit is still remembered.
From Halfway they followed where the old Mounted Police trail-cutting parties of 1899 and 1905 had preceded them but those trails were mostly grown over and of no help. In any case, the 1905 MP Trail had been surveyed for a cart or wagon road. Even a big pack train was more flexible. Here McCusker’s intimate knowledge of the country guided them as far as the Caribou Ridge, above timberline. The nights were cold and snow lay in the hollows. Their bathing suits and shoes were frozen in the mornings. Then they descended to the Prophet River beyond which even McCusker had no knowledge, for this was as far as any surveys ran. They swam the horses and gear across the River. Fifty-eight horses in the water, swimming together, must have created quite a confusion.
Now as McCusker took his reading and drew his maps, he was free to name any physical features not before noted. “Henry”, “Howard”, “Chandler” and “Norman” Rivers were designated.
On August 1 they had to cut a trail. Mary went on walking, and as the mists rose she saw “the most beautiful snow-covered mountain I had ever seen in my life”. McCusker said “He did not even know it was there.” The 9,000-foot peak was officially named Mt. Mary Henry for all time.
The party was now thoroughly acclimatized. From July 18, the nights were so cold that, in the morning, icicles hung from the eaves of the tent, and “our bathing suits were frozen solid”. Often she pried her precious jam tins off the ground, for they were crossing high mountain passes. If a really rare flower appeared when her saddlebags were full, she untied her raincoat from the saddle to carry the plant and endured the cold rain herself. Sometimes they were eight hours in the saddle, and camped with bruised arms and legs from threading between close-growing trees. While mentioning these difficulties in passing, she dismissed them lightly. “We just laid our sleeping bags on a piece of canvas in the stones. It may not sound very comfortable but we found it so. By this time we had learned to sleep almost anywhere. Of course, if the ground was very rough we sometimes arose with our bodies slightly bruised which really mattered not at all. The day, (July 18) was clear and cold, and our boots and clothing, wet from many fords the day before, were frozen hard beside us. This happened frequently and we never stopped to dry them. It did not seem worth while because in a short time they were usually just the same again.”
McDonnell creek, Toad and Racing Rivers were crossed – the latter being “the fastest water we ever saw”. Here there was a trail of sorts that lost itself in the remains of a burned, but formerly magnificent spruce forest where Mrs. Henry walked over and sometimes fell off from crisscrossed tangled windfall six feet off the ground and six or more logs deep.
At last Mary Henry reached her goal but the area had been burned over nine years previously. Any “tropical” vegetation was replaced by common brule [burned] growth. They had a wonderful swim in the various temperatured pools, but it was a big disappointment.
August 11 they started back. Weather conditions were worse which, added to the let down at the springs, contributed to “the most uncomfortable day we had ever had in our lives”. Charlie, the Indian, having no other camp duties, built a huge fire “and in a little while we forgot how cold we had been”.
Mary liked Charlie, “son of the old chief” who had courteously welcomed the party near Tetsa River. Here is where the tribe of Indians who had killed Guy Hughes at Fort St. John [in 1823] had retreated to trap after the so-called “massacre”. Charlie had been the guide to the Hot Springs, for he knew the way well. Here Charlie left the party, having “fulfilled our ideas of the highest type of Indian aborigine, and by this time we considered one of our best friends.” He had contributed much to their enjoyment, with comments such as this when four large wolves were trailing them too close for comfort. “Indian meet wolf, scared wolf. Indian meet two wolves, scared Indian. Indian meet three wolves, dead Indian.” This was a tactful way to deal with a scared white woman.
On the journey back, more time was allowed for McCusker to climb mountains to obtain compass bearings and examine the terrain. Mary climbed with him. Here they ran into rain-swollen muskegs. “We really did not go over it. We literally went through it.” Chum bogged down and Mary swam. Six of the horses were almost buried in a hole at one time.
On August 19 Mary, Josephine and McCusker took a side trip to explore “Lake Mary”, “Lake Josephine”, and the Upper Henry River.
It must have been an unusually cloudy summer for she recorded that here they saw the first star that we had seen all summer. Incredible. They celebrated with the men joining the family “in a game of poker that lasted long”. A seven-day stay here allowed their pack train and themselves to recuperate. They would need the rest. They were expecting a plane to fly then out but the air transportation company, with the approach of stormy fall weather, declared it too hazardous. Instead of two week’s hunting and mountain climbing they took two days – dangerous but thrilling ones.
On September 6 they were faced with the terribly difficult Caribou Pass again but now it was already winter in the high country. The days were shorter and darker and blizzards were blowing in both the Caribou and Laurier Passes. But this was not enough to prevent Mary indulging the pure joy of climbing — “romping up and down the mountains” as she called it. She loved observing the northern lights, the flowers, the birds and the animals. “I was not tired, I never did seem to be tired”, she later wrote. Mary’s last day in the mountains gave her thrills and adventures aplenty — and then it was downhill all the way to a last camp at the head of the Peace River Canyon, there to the village of Hudson’s Hope and by river boat, back to Fort St. John. “Not one us was sick a minute, nor did we have one unpleasant incident.” The party left the country in one of the river steamers to Peace River Town.
Her plant specimens went to Dr. Raup of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. A splendidly illustrated, four-installment account appeared in the National (U.S.) Horticultural Magazine. A slim volume, full of personal experiences and minute yet readable descriptions of the plants, was printed in 1934 but is long since out of print.