Other names: Lake Maye, Lake of the Hanging Glaciers
“The Glaciers are certainly a spectacle. They hang. They do hang.”30
The Lake of the Hanging Glacier is located at the end of the rather long Horsethief Creek valley just outside of Invermere. The first known name given to the lake was Lake Maye, named after Elsie Maye Starbird (nee Lewis). Elsie Maye was born c.1882, and married Thomas Starbird at age twenty in Cooperstown, North Dakota. She had previously come to the Windermere Valley with her parents to visit her aunt, Helen Brewer. It is during one of these visits that she likely met Thomas Starbird, then superintendent for the Red Line Mine on Horsethief Creek.
Thomas and Elsie Maye had two sons, Thomas Lewis (born 1903) and Robert (born 1907). They lived in a house up Horsethief Creek, originally known as Blowfly and later rebranded as the Mountain Valley Ranch, a destination for hunters and other tourists. Tragically, Thomas Starbird took his own life in 1914, leaving behind his young family. Elsie moved her sons back to the United States and she eventually remarried.
In a 1913 letter from Thomas Starbird to Basil G Hamilton, Starbird recalls exploring up to the headwaters of Horsethief Creek in August 1899 for mineral prospects. While there, he came across the lake by accident near the glacier which now bears his name. He recalled the lake in 1911 when he revisited it with a large party including Lord Stafford, and later that same year with Mr Herbert Gleason, a photographer from Boston.1
Lord Stafford, “was so delighted with the gem of a lake that he fairly raved about it.” On the trip with Gleason, Starbird also took up his wife, Elsie Maye, and Mr Gleason, “in spite of my [Starbird’s] remonstrance named the lake after Mrs Starbird, who to my knowledge was the first white woman who had ever seen it.”2
Word about Lake Maye emerged gradually at first as more people visited it. As the lake was at the head of the Horsethief Creek valley through rough terrain, the first people to explore the area around Lake Maye were mountaineers.
The lake was described in 1912 by W.W. Foster, Deputy Minister of Public Works, as being “very prettily situated,” and by Edward W Harnden in 1914 as “one of the wonderful scenic alpine lakes of the world.”3 Even as different groups of mountaineers went into the area, it is interesting to note that Lake Maye was then the well-established, accepted, and common name for the place.
So what happened to prompt the change of name from Lake Maye? The short answer is: Robert Randolph Bruce. Bruce had been the mining engineer at Paradise Mine and was a key figure in encouraging settlers to immigrate to the area before the First World War in a fruit farming scheme (the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruit Lands Company). He was also instrumental in the construction of the Banff-Windermere Highway and the creation of Kootenay National Park, and he later became Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.
Bruce was what historians call a booster, a resident who enthusiastically promoted the economic development of his (or her) chosen area. Bruce was a booster for the Windermere Valley, and he was quite good at it. Upon hearing about Lake Maye, with its beautiful situation and numerous hanging glaciers, he decided that “Lake Maye” needed a more evocative name in order to better promote the lake and the surrounding area.
In 1920 Bruce gave an interview with the Calgary Herald describing how the British Columbia government was in the process of clearing a trail “to a lake of spectacular beauty, recently named ‘The Lake of the Hanging Glaciers.’”4 This is the first mention I found of the lake’s new name.
At least two later reports confirm that Bruce was behind the name.5 The lake continued to be officially known as Lake Maye until 1960, but the public name and the local name very quickly changed to “Lake of the Hanging Glaciers.” Note that Bruce’s name was very definitely “Hanging Glaciers” and not “Hanging Glacier” – the extra ‘s’ on the end is not a typo.
The Name Takes Off
The success of rebranding Lake Maye to the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers was helped along in the summer of 1920 when two separate film-making parties traveled to the lake to be the first to capture the lake on film. Coincidentally, both parties journeyed out at about the same time, but what might have been a cut-throat competition between the opposing parties to capture the best film seems to have been congenial.
One of these filmmakers was Lewis R Freeman, who went to the lake with a camera-man (and guided by Walter Nixon) to make a short film on behalf of C.L. Chester of “Chester-Outing Pictures.” The other was Byron Harmon, the Banff based photographer, who settled on Conrad Kain as a guide in helping him make his own short film. I’ve tried to locate copies of either of these works but was unsuccessful.
Shortly after these films were captured, “Lake of the Hanging Glaciers” clips were being shown in cinemas across Canada and the United States, quickly augmented by newspaper articles and photographs. While “Lake Maye” might have been a splendid and beautiful lake, “Lake of the Hanging Glaciers” captured the imagination and curiosity of readers far and wide. It was, “claimed to be the only lake in the world outside the polar regions that has icebergs perpetually floating upon its surface…”6
The Journey and the Destination
What is perhaps most striking about early accounts of the lake are not necessarily descriptions of the lake itself (we’ll get to those), but the fascination and enthusiasm that travellers had for the trip to get there. Given the distances involved, the trip initially required pack horses (with a guide) and at least three days. Some of those who made the trip were “tenderfeet”, not having much experience with horseback riding at all.
The immersive trip to the lake is so carefully described that the reader gets the impression that, as impressive as the lake was, it was not just the destination that made the trip enjoyable. I found these descriptions charming (and turns out I really like geography), so I wanted to combine them in order to give a better idea of what a trip to the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers entailed.
There was a driveable road from Wilmer up to Starbird’s Ranch (rough location noted on the map at top of post), and from there the route followed the old Red Line Mine road up Horsethief Creek as far as McDonald Creek. Horsethief Creek itself was something of a surprise to many visitors, to whom the word “creek” meant something smaller and more sedate. It might, one remarked, “be given the more dignified appellation of ‘river.’” This section along the old road allowed relatively easy travel across “innumerable wobbly, corduroy* bridges” with relatively easy grades.7
Beyond the junction of McDonald Creek, travel became more difficult. Walter Nixon, a leading guide to the area, was the first to blaze a route up the valley.8 The trail led, “through primeval forest of fir, spruce and cedar, and the vivid foliage of the Devil’s club lines the way.”9 The trip became one of “the simple delights,” with “the roar of creeks and the sight of eagles volplaning in immensity and squirrels swaying on a bough’s end.”10
Creeks needed to be forded, trees overhanging the trail needed to be ducked under, and “At every turn of the trail there is a new view, worth going miles to see.”11 Waterfalls tumbled in all directions, with one spot offering a view of eight at once, “a wonderful picture through the trees.”12
It was between seventeen and eighteen miles (twenty-seven to twenty-nine kilometres) up the trail from Starbird Ranch to the base camp from which one approached the lake.15 Travelers tended to spend the night at this camp, located on a wooded bench above the river near the head of the Horsethief Creek canyon, less than a mile below what was then the terminal end of Starbird Glacier.16
A side trip from this point went up to the glacier, frequently referred to as “Dragon Tail Glacier” or “Tiger Claw Glacier,” where a large ice cave could be seen. One of these caves went back some three hundred yards, with an “arched dome…[of] polished jade green.”17 There were “ice walls on all sides of us reflecting every shade of blue, from the sapphire of the thick walls, to the turquoise of the ceiling, whose undulating surface made me wonder if Neptune had playfully turned the ocean upside down.”18 (This description makes me wish for colour photographs from the time!)
Up to the Lake
The journey from the base camp up to the Lake itself was about three and a half miles (five and a half kilometres). It started with either fording the “roaring, boiling, icy stream” of Horsethief Creek, or crossing a bridge (if it was there). Bridges in the area were and are frequently washed out by the changing water levels of the creek.
Once on the other side of the creek, travellers were immediately faced with, “a solid wall of deep green trees with a slim little tongue of a trail projecting, which promised nothing but fulfilled to the uttermost [sic]. Entering, one was at once engulfed by shade as if one were at the bottom of a deep green sea. The trail twisted and turned among the tall pine trees and the ponies stepped soundlessly on deep green moss.”19
This deep forest was eventually left behind to make a steep ascent of a cliff, up which the trail zigzagged up twenty-one switchbacks, and during which time “glimpses of waterfalls and cascades break the monotony.”20 At one point, the trail emerged suddenly onto a precipice alongside a waterfall, “where [a] tremendous fall thundered down almost upon us and plunged in mist into a wild rocky abyss at our feet.”21
Reaching the top of the ascent, travellers reached mostly level ground, “open alpine meadows, carpeted with heather and brilliant flowers and dotted with larch groves.”22 These mountain meadows, “looked like the postcards that you don’t believe are true, so beautiful were the colors.”23 As the trail continued above timberline, huge rock slides fanned down on either side.24 Then the lake “suddenly… burst on our sight.”25
Lake of the Hanging Glaciers
“Imagine,” wrote Edward Harnden in 1914, “a lake something over two miles [three kilometres] long and from a mile to a mile and one-half wide [one and a half to two and a half kilometres], hemmed in on three sides by sheer 4,000 foot [1,200 metre] mountain walls from which descent [sic] numerous wonderful hanging glaciers… and imagine this picture, one of the most terrific and impressive mountain and glacier scenes of the world, formed and balanced on lines of ideal composition and beautiful coloring, the larches adding an indescribable grace to the scene. Never have I seen the awful and the beautiful so gloriously combined.”26
At the far end of the lake, about one and a half miles away, was a huge glacier flowing down the valley in a figure “S”, hanging over the lake in “a solid, perpendicular, blue wall of ice.”27 This ice cliff was variably described as looming from fifty feet to one hundred feet (fifteen to thirty metres) above the lake.28 It is this large glacier that was typically photographed, with much reduced remnants remaining today.
Going back to the 1920s, observers noted not just this large glacier but the numerous hanging glaciers stretching above it. The Honourary President of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1928, Arthur Wheeler, “counted fifteen of these tumbling icefalls, and then did not see all of them; there must be twenty or more.”29 Together they were, “certainly a spectacle. They hang. They do hang.… with taper tops and great butt ends many feet thick.”30
Ice clung to the cliffs on all sides surrounding the lake, some above the cliffs, others flowing down the gorges in the mountain sides “in magnificent ice cascades,” and still others hanging on the steep walls with precipices above and below.”31 Some saw it as a mystery as to, “why these masses of blue glass don’t come slithering down into the lake… but they seem to stretch their slender talons up and claw a precarious hold.”32
The lake itself was described at the time (the 1920s) as being in a long amphitheatre half covered with ice instead of water. Viewers variably described it as, “a lovely sheet of robin’s egg blue,”33 or as “a light sea-green color, which changes constantly as the purple and golden shadows of the mountains are flung across it by the revolving sun.”34
Floating in the lake were often “baby icebergs” broken off from the various glaciers and ranging in size and shape so that they “turned and twisted in constant movement, offering a kaleidoscopic array of prismatic colours from the palest mauve shade to the deepest marine blue.”35 It was, “a miniature Arctic sea in the heart of the mountains.”36
Reactions to the lake were understandably enthusiastic. The usual guide to the area, Walter Nixon, eventually hauled timber up to the lake and built a boat, “so that it is now possible to paddle all around the lake and go right up to the ice wall.”37 Meanwhile those more inclined to relaxation might, “sit among the wild flowers, the ice fields gleaming round us, warm in the August sun.38 The only “blemish to the joy” was what was then known as the bull-dog fly (pretty sure this is the horse fly), prompting the reflection by one visitor: “What the bull-dog flies live on when no men or horses come up there I cannot think.” 39
An Alpine Destination
The Lake of the Hanging Glaciers received additional notoriety in 1928 when the Alpine Club of Canada and the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies both decided to hold their annual camps up Horsethief Creek in the vicinity of the lake. The objectives of the two camps, held one after the other, were slightly different. The Alpine Club meeting attracted some one hundred sixty-eight participants over two weeks, with goals ranging from ascending the higher and more difficult mountains in the area, to the easy objectives of the Lake or over to Starbird Glacier.40 The eighty or so Trail Riders, on the other hand, held a four day excursion with the Lake as their goal and side excursions being secondary.41
It is thanks to the Alpine Club Camp participants that the earlier name for the lake, Lake Maye, was moved to a mountain overlooking the lake, Mount Maye, which remains such today.42
Changes to the Route
As the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers became more popular, improvements continued to make the route more accessible. The British Columbia Government put funds into a trail up to the lake in 1920-21, and funds to the road in 1922-23.43 Over time, bridges replaced more and more of the fords and the road continued to be extended further up the valley.44
By 1956 the trail was reported to be “good up to the bridge [two miles above the Stockdale Creek fork], but only fair above that point.”45 Just over a decade later and the trip had gone from “a rugged three day trip on horseback” to a day’s ride.46 Today, the road (in various degrees of repair), extends to within about eight kilometres of the lake, and it remains a day hike.
The official name for the Lake of the Hanging Glacier was adopted in June 1960 as “a long-established local name.”47 It is unknown when the “s” was dropped so that the hanging glaciers became one hanging glacier. Certainly before the Second World War the name was consistently pluralized. It is possible that the change occurred as the glaciers melted and became less obvious, although it could also have been a natural shortening of the name.
That being said, learning that the name used to refer to a plethora of hanging glaciers clears up many long standing questions I’ve had about the area. The small, receding glacier I’ve known at the back of the lake did not seem particularly “hanging” to me, and even after seeing some of the early photographs, when the glacier was much larger, it still did not seem an appropriate descriptor. A glacier on the valley floor doesn’t really hang anywhere. So to read about a time when there were hanging glaciers, many hanging glaciers, makes me a lot more appreciative and understanding of how the place was named. A comparison of photographs just about a century apart even shows many of those glaciers remaining, albeit much smaller and less impressive without the massive river of ice on the valley floor.
As of this writing (July 2020), the trail up to the lake is maintained by the Summit Trail Makers Society, who also annually install and remove a bridge over Hell Roaring Creek to provide access. Those familiar with the trail might recognize familiar elements from the description of the route in the 1920s – if not it’s worth a visit, particularly when the wildflowers get going in August.