Nixon Creek, Nixon Lake
Nixon was “full of stories, both true and false, as an ideal guide ought to be.29
Walter James Nixon was born 12 June 1881 in Muskoka, Ontario as the second eldest child of John and Susan Nixon (née Henshaw).1 He would have four further siblings, all raised on the family farm near what is now the township of Muskoka Lakes (then the town of Medora and Wood).2
In about 1900, Walter travelled west, and he can be found at age nineteen on the 1901 Canadian census working as a labourer in Banff, staying as a guest in another household.3 This was either a temporary job or acted as a stepping stone along the way, as he was soon living in Golden where he worked as a labourer and increasingly as a tourist guide.4
On 7 June 1906, at age twenty-four, Walter was married in Golden to Esther Owena Holbert, the twenty-year old daughter of James and Almira Holbert (née Huston or Houston).5
Esther had grown up in the village of Burks Falls, Ontario, just north of Muskoka Lakes, and her older sister Jane (or Jennie) had in 1893 married Thomas Alton.6 Sometime between 1894 and 1897, the Altons settled in the Columbia Valley near Galena (Spillimacheen),7 and this is likely what brought Esther west.
In another family-based meet-cute, Esther’s younger sister, Emma Marietta “Nettie”, would in 1917 marry Walter’s younger brother, Wilbert Wilson, in Brisco. Wilbert and Emma also settled in the Upper Columbia Valley.8
Following their wedding in 1906, Walter and Esther spent their honeymoon travelling up towards Windermere Lake.9 Walter’s younger sister, Minnie, closest of his siblings to him in age, was living there at a logging camp with her husband, Isaac Albert White.10
Settling down in Galena, Walter was by this time a “well-known tourist guide”,11 and he supplemented his income with logging, applying in 1907 for various licenses to carry away timber in the area (along with his brother-in-law Tom Alton).12
By the time of the 1911 census the Nixons had two children (Gordon and Susan),13 and the following year, 1912, Walter was employed as a deputy game warden, a position that he held until autumn 1917.14 The family then moved out to live near Kootenay Crossing, before the Banff-Windermere Highway was built,15 although Walter also apparently served for a couple of years as auditor for the public school in Galena (for the 1912/13 and 1914/15 school terms).16
Guiding Full Time
After leaving his game warden position, in 1917, Walter seems to have dedicated himself full time to being a guide. His name appears in 1919/20 working out of Brisco on a list of guides issued by the provincial game warden office, and although he had certainly worked as a guide previously, Walter soon became one of the go-to outfitters in the valley.17 In the summer of 1920 he was employed by Lewis R Freeman to guide a film crew up to the newly re-named Lake of the Hanging Glaciers – Lewis wrote a book about the trip, describing Nixon in a very favourable light, which no doubt helped Nixon’s business.18
Walter’s name soon became synonymous with the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers, and it was a regular part of his business to guide trips up there. He was the one to blaze a horse packing route up the valley to the lake,19 and he packed up timber to build a boat so that visitors would go right up to the ice wall of the glacier.20 Walter would, much later in 1926, be employed directing the extension of the motor road up Horsethief creek by five miles (eight kilometers) in order to make the horseback ride to the lake shorter.21
Walter did not confine his guiding to the Horsethief, however. Among many countless other trips, he could be found in 1920 guiding Louis Olivier Armstrong, brother to Captain Francis P Armstrong, into the Upper Kootenay River area to the Beaverfoot.22 Nixon, with Madeline Turnor as his assistant, also guided the first pack pony party over the newly completed Banff-Windermere Highway in late summer 1922.23 Years later, in 1926, he guided the first pack trip over the grade of the Golden-Yoho motor road as well.24
Everything a Guide Should Be
Walter’s renown as a guide grew through publicity and word of mouth, with his popularity due in no small part to his likeability. The glowing review of Nixon in Lewis Freeman’s 1920 book, for example, notes how Freeman had been given, “thoroughly first class service… from beginning to end. Nixon himself I was extremely well impressed with. He was a fine up-standing fellow of six feet or more, black-haired, black-eyed, broad-shouldered and a swell of biceps and thigh that even his loose-fitting mackinaws could not entirely conceal. … Like the best of his kind, Nixon was quiet-spoken and leisurely of movement, but with a suggestion of powerful reserves of both vocabulary and activity. I felt sure at first sight that he was the sort of man who could be depended upon to see a thing through whatever the difficulties, and I never had reason to change my opinion on that score.”25
Freeman goes on to share a couple of memorable words used by Nixon (“peckish” and “geesly” – the latter being “Nixon’s favourite term of contempt”), as well as a story Walter shared around the campfire about a time he had been caught overnight in a storm above timberline. In true Star Wars fashion, Nixon recounts surviving the weather by covering himself in the carcasses of two freshly shot goats.26
Further descriptions of Nixon appear elsewhere in print. Banff-Windermere Highway horsewoman, Elizabeth Bailey Price, describes Walter succinctly as, “an interesting study, with his never failing good nature, his twenty-two years’ knowledge of guiding and his ability to make the finest pancakes that were ever turned in a frying pan.”27
Following a big game hunt up Kootenay River in 1924, Mr U.B. Cummings, of Tell City, Indiana, remarks how Walter Nixon was, “the most wonderful man I have ever been on a hunting trip with.”28 According to Cummings, Nixon was “full of stories, both true and false, as an ideal guide ought to be.”29
With Walter doing well with his outfitting business, he and Esther moved their family (there were then five children) to Invermere, where they can be found listed on the 1921 census.30
Aside from his guiding business, Walter was also involved in a wide range of outdoor and guiding related activities. In early 1919 he was on the first executive of the Windermere District Rod and Gun Club (Nixon is listed as living in Edgewater at the time).31 He remained part of the club for some years,32 even serving as part of a standing Game and Fish Committee with the Windermere District Board of Trade after the Rod and Gun Club temporarily disbanded sometime in 1922.33 When the club re-organized, in December 1924, Walter was elected vice president.34
Walter also, in 1924, was a member of the organizing committee for the “Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies”, a social club aimed at encouraging travel on horseback through the Canadian Rockies, a love of outdoor life, the study of nature, and the customs of “Indians.”35 Trail Riders became a very popular organization, a counterpoint to the more strenuous mountain climbing Canadian Alpine Club, and the Riders issued a regular club bulletin and organized an annual trip, on which Walter worked as a guide.
In 1929, Walter returned to a game warden position with the provincial government, this time out of Invermere, and remained in that position at least through 1933.36 He then returned to working as a guide and outfitter, with his death certificate listing that he had last worked in that occupation on the very specific date of 15 October 1945.37 Walter reportedly retired due to poor health and Esther becoming invalid with servere arthritis.
Walter passed away in Invermere on 27 September 1952 after a sudden illness at his home in Wilmer.38
The Nixon Children
As a brief mention of the Nixon children (there were six of them, after all), beginning with the eldest, Gordon.
Gordon was born in May 1907, and fairly quickly became the first of the Nixon boys to follow in their father’s footsteps.41 As later reported, “since shortly after being able to walk he put in most of his leisure moments on horseback either roaming by himself or accompanying his father on some of his far afield expeditions.”42
In 1920, fourteen-year old Gordon finagled his way into joining his father on the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers filming trip, reportedly “threaten[ing] to run away from home if he wasn’t allowed to come along. He proved a useful acquisition – more than sufficiently so, it seemed to me, to compensate for what he did to the jam and honey.”43
By 1928, at age twenty, Gordon had his own string of pack horses and was employed by a team of topographical surveyors.44 He spent the next two seasons doing such work until, in September 1930, Gordon and his two companions, Provincial Land Surveyor William Hallam Jr and assistant Alan Game, were drowned when their canoe overturned crossing the Columbia River north of Golden (this was before the Mica dam was built – the Columbia up there was rough).45 Walter rushed north to help search for the bodies, but there is no record of Gordon ever having been found (there is also no death certificate).
The next eldest Nixon was the only daughter, Susan Owena, born July 1909.46 Susan is mentioned a few times in the newspapers, including as a pupil of Miss Dora K Bodecker for a music recital in 1922,47 and receiving a prize “for morale and good citizenship” during the 1922/1923 school year.48 She was confirmed at the Invermere Anglican Church in 1923,49 the first confirmation held after the church had been consecrated that weekend, and Susan acted as an officer with the Windermere division of the Girl Guides in 1924.50
Dave would pass away on 19 January 1945 of a brain tumor, and Susan was remarried to Carl Pearson on 20 November 1948.53 She had nine children with Dave, and a daughter with Carl. Susan Pearson passed away in Invermere on 27 April 1992 at age 82.54
John (Jack) Hulbert Nixon, born c 1911, is next, and I was able to find very little about him. He was on the Lake Windermere baseball team in 1923 (along with a Lloyd and Benny Nixon, whom I cannot identify).55 He also served overseas in the Second World War with the 1st Canadian Scottish, married a woman named Rose, and went on to live in Spillimacheen and later Parsons. Jack passed away in Calgary at age 63 in April 1974. He had no children.56
We don’t have much more about David Charles Nixon. He was born 25 October 1913, and later reported starting guiding in 1932 for the family operation (2N), which was sold after the war (there’s an oral history with him at BC Archives, which would probably be an interesting listen).57
During the Second World War, Dave served overseas as a sergeant in the Canadian Scottish Regiment.58 Before he returned, he was married at the Isle of Wight to Ruby M Barton, in the summer of 1945.59 The couple returned to Canada and lived in Wilmer, where Dave worked at the sawmill. They had at least one son.60
Arthur James is also a bit of a mystery, born 15 August 1917, and having lived at home until at least the time of his father’s death in 1952.61 Arthur passed away four years later, on 14 March 1956, while working as a labourer in road construction. The cause of death was some kind of dehydration/kidney rupture, but I was unable to access a corresponding newspaper account to explain the nature of the accident.62
The youngest Nixon was Walter Leigh (sometimes Lea Walter), the baby of the family born 22 July 1922. Lea served in the Second World War, being promoted to Corporal in September 1943, before returning to the valley and marrying in March 1946 in Invermere to Mona Violet Campbell, a retail clerk then living in Vancouver.63
Lea and Mona would later divorce, and Lea’s occupation is listed as a labourer at the time of his death on 10 August 1981 in Invermere.66
The Wilbert Nixons
The other Nixon family, that of Walter’s brother Wilbert and Esther’s sister Nettie/Emma, were living in 1921 in Radium Hot Springs with two children and with Wilbert making money as a rancher.67 Wibert later lists his occupation as a guide/trapper.68
Nixon Creek, located in Kootenay National Park, was named after Walter Nixon, while Nixon Lake, up near the Spillimacheen River, has an unknown provenance, being likely named after some member of the Nixon family.