REVIEW: THE GREEN HORSE,
BY DALE PORTMAN
Review by Nia Williams
Retired mountain park warden Dale Portman’s autobiography The Green Horse is a romp through his early career in the Canadian Rockies. Saddle up for a journey packed with vivid characters, engaging anecdotes, and compelling snippets of western Canadian mountain history.
Read The Green Horse: My Early Years in the Canadian Rockies with a map by your side. And not just one map. Dig out the topos for the mountain parks, spread them out across your coffee table, and follow Dale Portman along remote backcountry trails into hidden valleys, isolated warden cabins, and the vast backcountry of the Canadian Rockies.
This former horse outfitter, liftie and park warden makes for an entertaining and irreverent guide as he tells his life story, concentrating on his twenties and thirties in the mountains of Western Canada.
Along the way, Portman sheds light on how Canada’s national park system came to develop into what it is today. The author covers everything from avalanche forecasting to search and rescue operations to the duty of the wardens and how their role has diminished – in his eyes because of meddling from Ottawa – since the heydays of the 1970s and ‘80s.
His story is chock-a-block with some of the mountains’ most iconic characters. At times the array of people is hard to keep track of, but the vignettes he sketches of his colleagues, friends, and heroes are some of the book’s chief delights and illustrate the important roles these people played in the formation of the parks system.
Among many characters, early on we meet a young Chic Scott putting up routes in Lake Louise, and legendary Swiss mountain guide Walter Perren, who comes to the aid of Portman and a friend after a climbing accident and later develops the wardens’ mountain rescue service. Summers working for the Mickle family horse trekking outfit open up the world of mountain cowboys and their long, exhausting, and exhilarating days in the saddle through the wild eastern valleys of Banff. From there Portman gets hired as a warden and works in Rogers Pass under ferocious avalanche forecasting pioneer Noel Gardner – a man obsessed with finding and protecting a route through the dense corridor of slide paths known as the “gauntlet of hell” and who helped establish Canada as a major source of avalanche research.
It is during his subsequent years in Jasper National Park that Portman unfurls the minutiae of warden life, from lengthy trips into the solitude of the backcountry to the risk of bear attacks and winter cabin fever. Among trips to places like the Athabasca Pass, the Brazeau River, and the Upper Blue Creek valley he sprinkles snippets of pioneer history, native myths and a wealth of detail on mountain flora and fauna. Portman also describes the allure of the high, wild places and the magic they yield when ventured into alone:
“What I gained from these solitary experiences bordered on mystical at times. Starlit nights, splashy sunrises, glowing dusks, all rekindled a connection with spirit and wonder and I became immersed in the marvel of it all.”
While in Jasper he meets Alfie Burstrom and Ginger, the first and only dog search and rescue team in the entire parks system. Portman later became a dog handler himself and empathizes with Alfie’s struggle to get his dog recognized as a valuable asset in grim recovery operations. The retelling of a major rescue on Mount Edith Cavell involving Alfie and Ginger, like an earlier account of the deaths of three Mexican women and their climbing guide on Mount Victoria, also sheds light on how search and rescue operations in the parks evolved and improved over time.
Towards the end of his career as a warden, Portman is posted to Yoho, where he meets his future wife, Kathy Calvert. Kathy is another remarkable character, blazing a trail as one of the first female wardens ever employed by the service at a time when hiring women and First Nations was considered controversial.
The most memorable parts of The Green Horse are when it dips in and out of key moments in western Canadian mountain history and segues into the life stories of some of the Rockies’ most fascinating characters. It lags when Portman describes his earliest years out east and occasional travels to other parts of Canada and abroad, but shines as soon as he returns to his natural environment, “these beautiful, demanding mountains.”
Portman also never fully explains the Green Horse joke that the book is named for: an “off-colour, politically incorrect joke that resulted in the suggestion that if I painted my mighty white steed green I could win the heart of a beautiful maiden.” After 368 pages in Portman’s warm and exuberant company, in which he makes clear his healthy lack of respect for authority, I would love to hear that punchline.
By the end I wanted to learn to saddle a horse, pack provisions for a week and find the barely-there paths through the wilderness on our doorstep, hoping to bump into some of these Rockies old-timers on the way. Portman’s tale fosters a sense of nostalgia for the heady days decades ago when there were fewer rules and fewer people piling into the tourist hotspots of Banff and Lake Louise, but also shows just how many hidden, overlooked corners of the mountain parks there still are to explore.
Originally from Wales, Nia Williams moved to Calgary in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the Rockies on her doorstep and countless opportunities for outdoor adventuring.