Hector Gorge (11 kilometre stretch along Vermillion River in Kootenay National Park)
Hector proved to be a valuable and capable member of the [Palliser] Expedition. Despite his relatively young age he was a good leader with a great deal of energy and determination.
Hector Gorge in Kootenay National Park doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. In lists of geographical features attributed to its namesake, James Hector, the gorge is often left out in favour of more prominent features (such as Mount Hector). But if you’ve driven through KNP then you’ve driven through a part of Hector Gorge. Even before I learned about the full life and career of James Hector I recognized the name: Hector is the man of Kicking Horse fame. After I read up more on his life though, well, I had more to think about the next time I went to Calgary.
Hector in Canada
James Hector was born in Edinburgh on 16 March 1834. He went on to train as a medical doctor because that was the only way for him to study the natural sciences in University at the time. At the age of 23, Hector was appointed as physician and geologist for the Palliser Expedition. The Palliser Expedition, led by John Palliser, aimed to explore the geography and natural environment of western Canada (then British North America).
There are a couple incidents of note during Hector’s time on the Palliser Expedition. For example during Hector’s first experience on a glacier, he and his party were forced to retreat by knotting together the leather shirts of the group to make a rope.1 In another anecdote, during a severe winter in 1859, Hector and one of his guides swam across the ice-jammed Miette River then ran for two hours through the woods in frozen clothing to get back to Jasper House.2
Most famously, however, is the incident that resulted in the name of the Kicking Horse River (the namesake for the now also widespread Kicking Horse Coffee). Hector and his party were exploring the Rockies for possible routes through the mountains. They had travelled through the shallow Vermillion Pass (Storm Mountain), then down the Vermillion River to where it passed through a gap in the mountains (Hector Gorge) and joined with Kootenay River. Reaching the Kootenay River, the party headed north over Kootenay Crossing and down the Beaverfoot River to where it joined with what is now the Kicking Horse River. There they turned east (upriver), and shortly after that was when the incident took place.
On 29 August 1858, while trying to cross a stream in thick forest, one of the horses escaped into the river. As Hector later wrote in the expedition report: “In attempting to re-catch my own horse, which had strayed off while we were engaged with the one in the water, he kicked me in the chest, but I had luckily got close to him before he struck out, so that I did not get the full force of the blow. However it knocked me out and rendered me senseless for a time.”3
As Hector lay stunned and unconscious, his companions could get no response from him and feared he was dead. They decided to start digging a grave, but a flicker of Hector’s eyelids showed he was still alive. The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. In addition to Hector’s rather serious injury, the party was unable to find game and they were starving. It was two days before Hector was able to travel again, and even then he was motivated more by hunger than by a complete recovery. The group had to get moving to find food or they would die.4
Hector’s contributions to the Palliser Expedition and his time in Canada are often overshadowed by the story of the kicking horse, however Hector proved to be a valuable and capable member of the Expedition. Despite his relatively young age he was a good leader with a great deal of energy and determination. He was also a skilled observer and record keeper, and when he returned to Britain after three years in Canada, he handed over to the scientific community a vast amount of material about the little known region. His contributions prompted his election as a Fellow of the Geographical Society. It was a rare accomplishment for somebody not yet thirty.5 Meanwhile, with the Expedition over, Hector was suddenly looking for another position.
Moving on to Greener Pastures
Following up his success on the Palliser Expedition, Hector received a couple of offers for employment. He ended up turning down a position in Kashmir in preference for going to New Zealand to conduct a geological survey of the region of Otago on the South Island. What started out as a temporary position turned into a permanent move as Hector spent the rest of his life in New Zealand.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Hector known by the Kiwis is very different from the Hector known by western Canadians. While the Canuck memory of the man is pretty much restricted to the Palliser Expedition (particularly the Kicking Horse incident), in New Zealand Hector was a leading force behind scientific discovery in the country for much of his time there, and his name turns up all over the place.
Hector arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1862 and spent the next three years or so conducting the Geological Survey of Otago. From that survey, he created the first geological map of the area, and collected enough rocks that his collection became the foundation for the Otago Museum.
With the conclusion of his Otago position, Hector was offered a job as Geologist for all of New Zealand, an appointment that he accepted in April 1865, and one that made him the only scientist employed by the New Zealand Government at that time.6 Hector was now not only responsible for the National Geological Survey, but within four years he had established the Colonial Museum (later Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand), the Colonial Botanic Gardens (now Wellington Botanic Garden), and the Colonial Observatory (for weather recording and forecasting). Hector was also the (and I do mean the) government advisor for scientific and technical matters, and was on the governing board for the University of New Zealand for thirty years.
Safe to say: Hector was the man behind New Zealand science for decades. Under Hector’s leadership, the Transactions for the New Zealand Institute (New Zealand’s scientific journal) began publication in 1868. The Institute aimed, “to promote the general study and cultivation of the various branches and departments of art, science, literature and philosophy.” Hector was editor of the Journal for thirty-five years, so every scientific paper published passed through his hands.7
Hector contributed a number of papers himself to New Zealand science, including descriptions of whales, moa, kiwi, plants, fishes, and a giant (human sized) fossilized penguin.8 Hector’s most famous description was of a small dolphin found along the coast of New Zealand. At the time, it was the most common dolphin in the country, although today it is quite rare.9 These are now known as Hector’s Dolphins, and they are extremely cute (because these dolphins find food along the shorelines, it’s possible to watch them while standing on dry land).
Altogether Hector has no fewer than eleven species named after him.10 He is also the namesake in New Zealand for a town, a mountain range, a mountain, and a lake.
Hector retired from his many and varied positions in 1903.11 The years following his retirement were not altogether happy ones. In July 1903, Hector travelled with his son, Douglas, to visit Canada for the first time since his explorations in the 1850s. Hector never made his planned visit to Kicking Horse Pass. While staying overnight at Glacier House in the Rogers Pass, his son Douglas was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, and due to the remoteness of location they were too late in getting him to a hospital. Douglas died in Revelstoke on 16 August 1903 at the age of 26, and is buried there at St Peter’s Church.
Devastated, Hector immediately halted his trip and began the return trip home to New Zealand.12 Hector passed away four years later on 6 November 1907 at his home in Lower Hutt (near Wellington).
Hector’s success in New Zealand was due not just to his ambition, but also because he, “appears to have been a genuinely nice person, respected and liked by most.”13 He was a good organizer with a deep interest in everything: too much so to become a specialist in anything, but enough to be knowledgeable. His interests included astronomy, botany, zoology, all applied sciences, and music.14 Today, the Hector Medal is awarded annually in New Zealand for excellence in different scientific disciplines.
Due to the distance between New Zealand and British Columbia, it is perhaps not surprising that those familiar with Hector’s achievements in one region are caught off guard when they discover his involvement in the other. This was certainly the case when I travelled to New Zealand and suddenly seemed to see his name everywhere. Likewise, a New Zealand Member of Parliament travelling through the Rockies in 1929 was “surprised” to find a memorial to Hector erected in the Kicking Horse Pass.15
In 2007, to mark the centenary of Hector’s death in New Zealand, a boulder was collected from Kicking Horse Pass and delivered to the New Zealand capital of Wellington, where it rests on display underneath a portrait of Hector in the library of the museum (now Te Papa) that Hector helped found.16 If you’re ever in Wellington, I recommend a visit to Te Papa. Unfortunately you can’t find Kicking Horse Coffee there (I would get a chuckle if they did), but it’s an amazing museum. And if you do make it, maybe go see if you can find that boulder… I haven’t, and I’m curious as to just how big a rock they transported over.