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This Wild Spirit: The Trailblazing Women of the Canadian Rockies



by Juliette Recompsat

“We don’t always think of our own local history as necessarily being of any greater importance than just to whoever is living here at the time.” Colleen Skidmore, curator of This Wild Spirit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, gives us insights into the legacy of the women who were pioneering explorers in the Rockies and why their trials and triumphs still resonate with us today.

Georgia Engelhart, Catharine Whyte, and unidentified woman. Skyline Trail Hikers of the Canadian Rockies, 1933 hike. Photo courtesy Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (v263-na-0469).

Is a photo still worth a thousand words?

With our ever-expanding iPhone image galleries and compact memory cards capable of storing a year’s worth of shots, we’re used to taking more photos than we will ever have time to look at. Yet our summit selfies and panoramic pictures aren’t just the stuff of another Instagram post. They are records of where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished; they capture the dusty footsteps we’ve left on rocky ridges, and the deeper imprints that the mountains have left on us.

Through a collection of the artistic interpretations of women in the Canadian Rockies a century ago, now on display until October 15 at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Colleen Skidmore reminds us why these records are so essential in defining our place in the mountains. This Wild Spirit presents a summary of the photography, literature, painting and cartography of the women of the mountains during the era that Ben Gadd once called “the golden age of discovery and adventure in the Canadian Rockies.”


A social historian of photography and curator of the exhibition, Colleen first found herself tracing Mary Schäffer’s footsteps through the Rockies over two decades ago. Colleen’s research for a book on Schäffer’s innovative work in the mountains soon put her on the trail of other early female pioneers, including Georgia Engelhard and Mary Vaux.

Georgia Engelhard, ca. 1931. Courtesy Canadian Pacific Railway Archives (NS929).

“All these bits and pieces started linking up,” she said, “and the women’s paths started crossing each other.” Colleen didn’t originally set out to arrange the elements of her first book (This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada) into an exhibition. Perhaps that’s why the collection feels less like an exposition, and more like an intricate web of creative expression. The outcome conveys the spirited ambition of these explorers; “the sense of vibrancy, and variety, and fun and competition and the really, really good work that these women were doing.”

An installation of This Wild Spirit has found its way home to the Whyte Museum nearly ten years after the original exhibition in Edmonton relied on material loaned from the Whyte’s collections. In a fitting arrangement that Colleen calls “serendipitous,” the exhibition is housed in the Lizzie Rummel Room at a museum co-founded by Catharine Whyte, who would likely have been a kindred spirit of Colleen’s.

“She was absolutely key to me being able to do my research,” Colleen said. “To have done the work to make it possible, to collect and bring all of this material into one archive, one library, one museum…that’s just remarkable.”


In the late 1800s, the success of an expedition into the Rocky Mountains was dictated by the forces of nature. Climbers in the Rockies developed a deeply-rooted respect for the elements and each other. This dynamic, which still underlies our every interaction in the mountains today, is evident in the works assembled by Colleen. In the exhibition, she notes that “creative work formed a material link and, occasionally, a personal bond among women of different cultures whose paths intersected on Rocky Mountain trails.”

Mary Schäffer and her contemporaries drew inspiration from the art forms through which the First Nations people of the Rockies expressed their relationships with the environment. The stories woven into the buckskin clothing made by Suzette Chalifoux Swift are mirrored in Schäffer’s book Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies. In turn, the minute details in the contour lines of Schäffer’s Maligne Valley maps are matched by the careful sketches of Mary Vaux’s botanical records.

The discoveries to be made in the Rockies were so immense, and the group of explorers so modest in comparison, that pioneers like Schäffer and Vaux weren’t held back by their limited formal training in the scientific fields. By trading in the confines of their skirts for the freedom of knickerbockers, these women were able to make their contributions as members of the mountain community.


That’s not to say that Mary Schäffer and her comrades didn’t face what Colleen refers to as “the gendered nature of things.”

Despite the leaps and bounds being made by male and female climbers alike in the early 20th century, there was a conscious shift in the way women in the mountains were portrayed. Promotional tourism illustrations that pulled female explorers back towards a passive observer’s role are a stark reminder that glass ceilings are present even outdoors.

This Wild Spirit addresses some of the weighted prose that compare expeditions to conquests: summits to “conquer” and “virgin peaks” to ascend. As she delved into the creative works of her subjects, Colleen found that this language wasn’t present.

Mary Schaffer on horseback, Kootenay Plains. Courtesy Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (v527-ps-2).

“They would not generally use it that way, it wasn’t their language,” she explained. “They would, however, acknowledge it as perhaps a stereotype or a reason that women might not think going into the mountains was something they could or should do. They would bring it to the fore and then they would kind of play with it and change things around, as a way of opening up ways of thinking about it.”

The exhibition also touches on what Colleen describes as the “role and relationship of Mary Schäffer, and some others like her, with indigenous women and men.” Although she was an outsider, Schäffer captured moments of warmth and openness like a photograph of the smiling Beaver family.

“The sense that the sitters and the photographer were having an interaction there that was a very personal, respectful, even fun. Something that was not usually what we expect to see between a white American photographer and Indigenous people.”

“I was really struck by the humanness in the interaction and the sense of respect – it was different. I think if we can see that and know that… it was possible, that there were respectful interactions and friendships a century or more ago, then maybe there’s some hope for today in trying to move towards reconciliation.”


“No lady climbing, who wears skirts, will be allowed to take place on a rope, as they are a distinct source of danger to the entire party.” This assertive claim was put forward by the Alpine Club of Canada’s Canadian Alpine Journal in 1907. Irrespective of gender biases, the women exploring the Rocky Mountains held firmly to the ropes that lead them to first ascents and new discoveries. Colleen noted that “their friendships were warm, their spirit of adventure mutual, their assistance to one another essential, and their respect for one another’s achievements immense.”

Colleen stresses the point, though, that a competitive edge thrived in this community of female explorers. The women were fiercely loyal, but principally they were fiercely determined. They were competitive and ambitious, and most importantly, Colleen underlines that for this they were never apologetic.

Mary Schäffer and her colleagues have shown us that the wild spirit of the mountains is meant to be embraced, never tamed, and that our experiences in the wild are our own. Colleen hopes that This Wild Spirit encourages today’s explorers to continue to record their creative interpretations of their personal experiences in the Canadian Rockies.

“Take a photo,” she urges, “write about it, paint it, capture it! Curate something around it, so that future generations will always have that.”

Look for Colleen Skidmore’s upcoming book, Searching for Mary Schäffer: Women Wilderness Photography, due for publication September 2017.


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The Whyte Museum  inspires discovery and wonder when people and the Rocky Mountains meet. We share stories and explore the culture shaped by this mountain landscape. Our founders, Peter and Catharine Whyte, were local artists and philanthropists who wished to offer a place where people could gather and appreciate the culture and beauty of the area.

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