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Defining Wilderness: Mapping the Boundaries of Banff National Park

By Felix Mayer, Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship Recipient 2021

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In the winter of 1883, William Van Horne visited Western Canada and upon first seeing the Bow Valley was immediately impressed by the snow-covered peaks and frozen lakes of the Rocky Mountains. He asked surveyor William Pearce to arrange for the reservation of a park for the area with initial site surveys to begin the following spring, seeking to preserve the beauty of the scenery and to prevent “despoliation by the advances of civilization in the guise of miners and lumbermen.”[1] When spring arrived, however, the valley that had so impressed Van Horne under a heavy blanket of snow proved to be a marshland, an area that was ill-suited for the grand park that he had envisioned, and the site was abandoned. For some time thereafter, visitors that passed through the area mockingly referred to the location as “Van Horne’s Park”.[2] The area that William Van Horne sought to claim and protect from the encroachment of modern civilization, the valley where he had envisioned a “fine house on the island in the lake,” is now the location of the Lafarge Exshaw Cement Plant at Lac Des Arcs.[3]

Figure 01

Today, the boundary of Banff National Park has become so integrated into the fabric of the surrounding landscape and infrastructure that it is easy to view it as a barrier that is permanent or unmoving. Since the initial creation Banff Hot Springs Reserve in 1885, however, the territory and boundary of Banff National Park has shifted and evolved multiple times.[4] Far from fixed, it is a line on the map that has been drawn and redrawn, changing the course of the landscapes that it sought to define with each new iteration. The use of mapmaking and boundaries can overlook or oversimply this history and complexity, depicting environments and places as unchanging and presenting a seemingly all-encompassing, objective and unbiased view of a location. All maps, however, contain some degree of abstraction, simplification, and an inevitable bias in their depictions of landscapes. In this sense, mapping and the use of boundaries has the power to not only represent landscapes and territories, but to deeply influence our understandings of a place. Through what maps show, what they omit, and the borderlines that they establish we craft our definitions of place, our legal frameworks, and even how we see ourselves within our environment.

Figure 02

The research project that I completed through the Whyte archives and over the course of the Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship sought to explore this relationship between the park boundary and its surrounding contexts, focusing on the forces and influences that have steered its evolution over time. The project, part of a year-long architecture thesis, sought to understand Canadian cultural attitudes towards wilderness through this history, gaining an understanding of wilderness as an idea through the physical evolution of the National Park. Fundamental to the project where questions of how cultural narratives, industrial interests, political pressures and romanticized ideas of nature might influence the development of the park boundary and park space over time.

Figure 03

Early on in the research project, the history of the hydro-industrial developments at Lake Minnewanka and the Spray Lakes Reservoir became key case studies for the project. The establishments of these two developments in the 1900s by the Calgary Power Company would have a direct and significant influence on park policy and the boundary of Banff National Park. In 1912, when the Calgary Power Company constructed the first of these larger hydro-reservoirs at Lake Minnewanka to maximize the power generation of their downstream facilities, the operation was approved by the Parks Department despite the site’s location within the park boundary.

Figure 04

The reservoir, which would flood the valley of what was then known as Devil’s Lake was approved and concerns over its potential impacts were dismissed primarily on aesthetic rationales, with one member of the Parks Department stating…

That Lake Minnewanka has never been regarded as an outstanding beauty spot is shown by the fact that the C.P.R. have never featured it in their advertising [sic]. The reason is that the mountain lakes in the Rockies which are famous for their beauty, such as Lake Louise, are glacial cirques, while Minnewanka is only a flooded river valley. By clearing these flats and raising the water levels as proposed, they will be submerged, and the general appearance of the lake very materially improved.[5]

Figure 05

However, over the course of the Lake Minnewanka development the policy of National Parks began to shift, and hydro-power developments were declared incompatible with the visitor experiences that National Parks sought establish. The raising and lowering of the water table at Lake Minnewanka had visibly begun to alter the landscape, leaving an unattractive, muddy shoreline and an inconsistent visitor experience. When the Calgary Power Company eventually proposed the development of a second site to create what would become the Spray Lakes Reservoir, the parks department was firmly opposed. However, rather than this halting the development at the Spray Lakes site, the park boundary was simply redrawn to exclude the new reservoir and its facilities.

Figure 06

The incompatibility of this new industry was not with the landscape or the environment of the site, but with the territory, definition and boundary of the park itself. These events played a significant role in the Parks department of Canada determining a doctrine of inviolability for National Parks, conceding territory in order to maintain an imagery of pure and undeveloped wilderness within park boundaries. The policy marked a renewed commitment to create a wilderness within the park that was absolute and absent of any visible industrialization, while the potential to simply re-draw the borders of this cohesive zone still offered a certain capacity to adapt the territory as the Canadian government saw fit. Should new resources trapped within the boundaries be discovered or suddenly offer some new value, such as a river valley that might be flooded to become a hydro-reservoir, the lines on the map could simply be redrawn.

The hydro-developments at the Spray Lakes Reservoir and Lake Minnewanka are just two examples of the countless contexts and tensions that the boundary of Banff National Park has navigated throughout its history. Rather than simply an ecological reserve, it has become a fundamental division and threshold within an incredibly complex and layered landscape. Understanding this complexity and what has shaped the park boundary in the past can provide important insights into what forces might try to reshape it again in the future, as ever-increasing environmental pressures and expanding populations present new challenges, continuing to redefine our cultural attitudes towards wild spaces across Canada.

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List of Figures

Fig. 01: [Aerial Photo of Lac Des Arcs, Bow Valley, Exshaw], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/iii/a/3/pa-281)

Fig. 02: [Route Map Between Calgary and Banff], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (c5/6.0-c)

Fig.03: [Devil’s Lake (Lake Minnewanka) Near Banff], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Sidney A. Smyth Fonds (v24/17/na66-1633)

Fig. 04: Lake Minnewanka Floodplain, Image Overlay, Mountain Legacy Project

Fig. 05: Lake Minnewanka Floodplain, Image Overlay, Mountain Legacy Project

Fig. 06: Map of Spray Lakes Reservoir and Evolving Park Boundary


1. Leslie Bella. Parks for Profit (Montreal: Harvest House, 1987) 11.

2. Leslie Bella. Parks for Profit (Montreal: Harvest House, 1987) 11.

3. CPR Connecting Canada, “Tourism & Recreation,” Timeline.

4. Armstrong, Christopher, and H.V. Nelles. Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became A Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013), 63.

5. Armstrong, Christopher, and H.V. Nelles. Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became A Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013), 115-117.

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