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Review: Through an Unknown Country

November 17, 2015


By Sky England

Authors Mike Murtha and Charles Helm retrace the 1874-1875 Jarvis-Hanington Winter Expedition through the Northern Rockies and position the explorers amongst some of the greatest in early Canadian history. 


1117_book inset LHHow often do we really stop to think about how the mountains, lakes and rivers got their names?  What about the stories and adventures behind those names? These are questions I asked myself as I read Through An Unknown Country: The Jarvis-Hanington Winter Expedition Through the Northern Rockies, 1874-1875 (Rocky Mountain Books, 2015).

Mike Murtha and Charles Helm have brought together the original documents – penned by Edward Worrell Jarvis and Charles Francis Hanington themselves – that tell the tale of their harrowing, ultimately successful, 165-day, 3,000-plus kilometre journey.

Jarvis and Hanington were not explorers, but civil engineers. Sanford Fleming, head of the Canadian Pacific Railway, commissioned the men, both in their twenties at the time, to determine if Smoky River Pass (now Jarvis Pass) would be a feasible route for the planned transcontinental railway. Equipped with snowshoes, blankets, some spare moccasins and food, their party of eight men and six “dog-trains” set out in December of 1874.

Battling -40 and -50 degree temperatures, the team trudged through soft, often sticky snow and portaged around numerous waterfalls and canyons. Snow conditions often made sled travel nearly impossible for the dogs, who began to die from exhaustion and starvation. Jarvis and Hanington suffered from Mal de Raquette, a dreadful condition brought on by trekking long distances in snowshoes. Every man came to the brink of starvation.

More of a historical document than narrative non-fiction, the book’s first four chapters present four different accounts of the expedition: Jarvis’ official report and narrative; Hanington’s lively, often funny, letters to his brother; excerpts from Jarvis’s daily diaries; and Hanington’s reminiscences, written more than 50 years after the expedition. Thus, once one telling is finished, the reader returns to the beginning of the journey again.

I wondered about the authors’ choice not to compile their research into a single narrative, which would have made for a more fluid read. However, their passion for the material, including hundreds of footnotes, archival and present-day photographs, and several appendices, one of which details how an obscure 1950’s young adult novel led them to Jarvis’s diaries, made me realize that they saw themselves as the stewards of these primary documents, not the writers of the story.

The authors remind us that Jarvis and Hanington not only completed an incredible adventure, they did so because they believed in something bigger than themselves. Canada was not even a decade old at the time, and the Canadian Pacific Railway represented more than engineering and transportation; it had the potential to “cement a nation.”  

The authors propose that Jarvis and Hanington deserve a place in the canon of great early Canadian explorers. Certainly, one cannot help but respect these modest men, now immortalized by Jarvis Pass, Jarvis Lakes, Jarvis Creek, Mount Hanington, Hanington Pass and Hanington Creek in Kawka Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

Murtha and Helm have inspired me to pause the next time I find myself hiking, and remember that I am not only surrounded by lakes, rivers, and peaks, but by the stories of all those who came before. 


Sky England is a writer, hiker, backpacker and skier. She lives in Calgary with her husband and son.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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