National Geographic : 2015 Jun
Yoho National Park 107 Rogers Pass, close to Yoho in what is now Gla- cier National Park, they trekked to the toe of the great Illecillewaet Glacier—Mary, then 27, while wearing a black Victorian dress and a sun hat. The crevasses and towering seracs were like nothing they had ever seen. The Vauxes did what any modern tourists would do in the face of such beauty: They photographed it. The differ- ence was that at the turn of the 20th century a camera was a large wooden box and most “film” was a plate of glass that had to be carefully trans- ported in and out of the mountains and back to civilization—and they were capturing some of the first images of a hitherto undocumented wil- derness. “So little exploration has been carried out that each visitor is practically a new discov- erer,” wrote George Jr. It was the beginning of their transformation into amateur scientists. When the family returned in 1894, during one of almost 40 summers Mary would spend in the Canadian “Alps,” they were surprised to find that the Illecillewaet had shrunk. Their photographs held the proof. Their camera, they realized, could be a scientific instrument. Wil- liam, an engineer, was particularly intrigued by the retreat of the glaciers, and the Vauxes began documenting the shifting landscape with what they called “test photographs”: the same shot taken from the same place, year after year, for the greater part of two decades. They also carefully mapped glaciers and moraines with surveying equipment. Back in Philadelphia they presented lantern slide shows to a curious public and, led by Wil- liam, wrote well-received scientific papers. In Canada theirs was the first continuous glacier study of its kind, and it’s still referenced by sci- entists. At least eight decades ahead of modern concerns about global warming, “a big subset of the glaciers on the North American conti- nent were receding,” says grandnephew Henry Jr., a University of California professor emer- itus in resource economics. “This would be a significant discovery even now, and it was done by amateurs.” Even after William’s early death in 1908 from tuberculosis and George Jr.’s gradual return to his Philadelphia law practice, Mary kept com- ing to Yoho. She walked many miles on Rocky Mountain trails before her death in 1940. She became the first woman to climb 10,502-foot Mount Stephen, and thus the first woman to climb a major Canadian peak. She camped in canvas tents near majestic Lake O’Hara while porcupines “tried the flavor of our bacon and the softness of the guides’ bed,” she wrote. She pub- lished stories about her adventures, doing “more to advertise the Canadian Rockies by magazine articles and photographs than perhaps any other living writer,” according to the Banff newspaper at the time. She took up botanical painting and published a five-volume set of illustrations that brought her praise as the “Audubon of botany.” Quakers in the Victorian era were not meant to pursue such frivolities as art for the sake of art, but in the Vauxes’ black-and-white photos of the mountainous landscape—waterfalls, bogs, glaciers, forests, clouds—there is also an undeni- able eye to aesthetics. “They were liberal Quak- ers,” says Henry Jr., so perhaps “they did art in the guise of science.” It is this aspect of their photos that drew him to take up his ancestors’ Yoho obsession a century later. Since 1997 he has come here for a month almost every sum- mer, attempting to re-create 50 of the Vauxes’ most beautiful images with his medium-format camera—“test photographs” of his own. It has taken him more than a decade to capture shots of the quality he feels is demanded of a Vaux. So it is that one can now say with amateur- scientific authority what about Yoho has Yoho is small, an area of about 500 square miles—a fifth the size of adjacent Banff. But its name, a Cree expression of awe, signals that its wonders are densely packed.