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What's New in the Archives and Special Collections: Ben Gadd

Updated: Apr 21

By Kate Skelton, Processing Archivist


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Those who have lived in the Canadian Rockies long enough have likely crossed paths with Ben Gadd (1946-) at some point. Ben has worn many hats in his lifetime — guide, geologist, entrepreneur, award-winning author and educator, to name a few.


In the summer of 2021, Ben and his son, Will, came to the Whyte Museum along with (literal) carloads of materials that were earmarked for donation. Staff at the Whyte Museum Archives and Special Collections were thrilled to take in such an exciting and significant collection.


Over the past four months, I have made my way through more than two dozen boxes of archival records donated by Ben. These include records from Ben’s many publications and writing projects, his time as a student and a teacher at various colleges and universities, conservation initiatives, and much more. Ben’s collection reflects the life of someone who has always been on the go, always taking on a new project and seeking out a new trail to explore.



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Early Days of Career and Creativity


Ben was born and raised in Colorado. Records from his high school and young adult years highlight Ben’s creativity and quick-witted humour. His high school notes include a mix of clever short stories, meticulous illustrations, and quirky doodles. A handmade how-to guide detailing how young adults can avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, which Ben put together in the mid-late 1960s, can be found nestled between his personal reflections as a new parent and husband, and an original poem about marijuana.



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Ben met his wife, Cia, while studying at the University of Colorado in 1965. The young couple had an instant connection and a whirlwind romance, marrying only four weeks later in the mountains.


In 1968, Ben and Cia moved to Alberta with their one-year-old son, Will. Ben spent the next few years studying Computer Science at the University of Calgary and Earth Science at the University of Lethbridge, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1972.


Ben worked as an instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Mount Royal College in Calgary in the 1970s, teaching a range of courses related to language and environmental sciences. Ben and Cia later moved to Jasper, where Ben was hired as a Seasonal Park Interpreter by Parks Canada in 1981.


In 1984, Ben tested the waters as an independent guide, leading tour groups through Cadomin Cave in Whitehorse Wildland Park, Alberta. The following year, Ben and Cia started their own licensed guiding business under the name Ben Gadd Interpretive Services, which possibly earned them the honour of being the first licensed private-sector interpreters in Jasper National Park. Ben continued guiding through their company and other organizations until his retirement in 2016.


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While Ben was establishing his career as a guide and naturalist, he was also tackling a career in publishing. Ben ran an independent writing and editing company called Wordworks between 1976 and 1979. Since then, Ben has researched and created countless works of his own, including newspaper and magazine articles, museum exhibits, interpretive trail signs, maps, and travel brochures. Ben later owned and operated two publishing companies: Corax Press starting in 1986, and Verdant Pass Limited starting in 2004.


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Handbook of the Canadian Rockies is Born


Ben’s passion for nature, geology, and the Canadian Rockies, combined with his years of work as a writer and editor, created the perfect storm for his most famous project. In 1986, Ben published the first edition of Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, an all-encompassing guide to trails, wildlife, mountaineering, skiing, hiking, and more in the Canadian Rockies. Ben’s handbook has sold over 100,000 copies and earned multiple awards, including the title of “Best Guide Book” at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 1995.


Ben first began writing Handbook of the Canadian Rockies in 1982 using a TRS-80 4P microcomputer, a portable machine weighing in at around 26 pounds. Ben used this computer, lovingly referred to as a “trash-eighty”, to write 363,000 words for his book. Ben and Cia later designed the first edition of the book by using paste-ups (text and illustrations arranged over paper to create a layout for printing) which were made using a Laserjet printer and a light table.

Ben’s computer, original paste-ups and a user guide put together by Ben are all part of his donated collection. According to Ben, he turned on the TRS-80 late last year and it still works!



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A Lifetime of Publishing


In total, Ben has authored or co-authored almost a dozen books, including one work of fiction, Raven’s End, which became a Canadian bestselling novel in 2001 during its first year of production.


Ben’s lifetime commitment to the Rocky Mountains, nature, and education has earned him several professional awards, including the Summit of Excellence award from the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 2013, and the Interpretive Guides Association Lifetime Achievement award in 2017.


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Processing Ben’s collection is an ongoing initiative. With over eight metres of maps, original drafts, and other materials in the vaults, there is still lots of work to do. More of Ben’s collection will become accessible through our online database in the coming weeks as it is processed.


Ben’s materials and more can also be accessed in-person. Appointments to visit the Whyte Museum Archives and Special Collections can be made subject to availability between 1pm and 5pm, Tuesday to Friday. For more information, email archives@whyte.org.


For those who would like to know more about his incredible story, Ben will be featured in Chic Scott’s next Fireside Chat event at the Whyte Museum on May 26th at 7p.m.


For additional details and to reserve tickets, visit the Whyte Museum’s Events page. Tickets are free for members and $5 for non-members.


Thank you, Ben, for your generous donation and your continued support of the Whyte Museum.

 

Images:


Image 1: Ben Gadd on the trail to Yamnuska, 2002. Photo by Chic Scott.

Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Ben Gadd fonds. M590/I/B/6/2

Image 5: Image from Ben Gadd Interpretive Services printed advertisement (photo by Bob Milan), ca.1985-1990. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Ben Gadd fonds. M590/III/B/39

Image 6: Ben writing Handbook of the Canadian Rockies on his Radio Shack desktop computer in Jasper, Alberta, 1985. Photo by Cia Gadd.

Image 7: Ben and Cia Gadd pasting up first edition of Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, 1986. Photo provided by Ben Gadd.

Image 8: Ben Gadd during a reading of Raven’s End at Greendale School in Chilliwack, B.C., 2005. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Ben Gadd fonds. V810/II/B/PA-2


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Image 2: “Aero Bat” airplane diagram by Ben Gadd, ca.1962-1963. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Ben Gadd fonds. M590/I/B/5/4

Image 3 and 4: “You Don’t Have to Go”, pamphlet by Ben Gadd, ca.1965-1968. Whyte

 

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