Waterton Lakes Photos Are ‘Love Poems to the Land’

Bert Riggall’s images kept a place and time alive — and are a gift to all of us.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 21 Dec 2018 |

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

In Waterton Lakes, geography performs some rare feats. It smacks fescue grassland into orange-coloured mountains that look like saw blades. Then it adds three big bodies of cold water with stone pebble beaches. Next comes a Chinook wind so strong and singular that it can lift a bear off his feet.

The land’s wild diversity, in turn, has nurtured berries, fruits and blue camas, and that bounty always attracted hunters and gatherers. There are few thin places in Canada as harsh and beautiful as this part of southern Alberta.

This crazy scenery seduced Bert Riggall in 1905 when the young English immigrant first spied it while working on a survey crew. Then and there he decided to build a home (the first one blew away) and make a life on the doorsteps of Chief Mountain and the Old North Trail.

His wife Dora, an Irish Quaker, was up to the adventure and soon Riggall was guiding and outfitting rich Americans into mountains the Piikani rightly call the “Backbone of the World.” As he later wrote, “There is no lack of things to do and see at any time.” He once advertised that you could catch a fish a minute in Waterton Lakes. Those days, of course, have passed.

Riggall played the same important role in southern Alberta that Roderick Haig-Brown embraced on Vancouver Island. Smitten by the beauty of a world new to them, these two immigrant kids recorded what they saw with awe and wonder. And then they gave voice to creatures and lands that didn’t have votes.

Bert Riggall, Man in Alberta, Horses in British Columbia, On The Continental Divide. Photo courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, V26-iii-_b17_pa_442-3.

Both soft-spoken conservationists came from a colonial empire where the Industrial Revolution had begun to wipe out much of the natural world. It was that development that created naturalists as machine culture slowly eroded the possibilities of natural living. But both Riggall and Haig-Brown didn’t think you were much of a person if you couldn’t take the time to watch a Rufous hummingbird pick insects off the back of a cottonwood tree.

While Haig-Brown made his mark writing books about fish and rivers, Riggall took pictures. Lots of them, some 14,000 black and whites. The famous U.S. photographer Ansel Adams may have captured the stark ruggedness of Yosemite, but Riggall celebrated the visual poetry of Waterton. In the United States Riggall would be famous, but Canadians don’t celebrate conservationists much.

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Bert Riggall, hand-tinted photograph. Photo courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, V26_lll_b9_-pa_41.

Many of these evocative images decorate the pages of Bert Riggall’s Greater Waterton: A Conservation Legacy. The handsome picture book, published earlier this year, not only honours a vastly under-appreciated pictorial gift to the nation but offers the reader a chance to walk or ride (Riggall quickly learned the value of a cayuse) back in time when rural living wasn’t regarded as some kind of unfortunate lifestyle choice.

In this regard Riggall’s photographs are both unique and iconic. Whether he was photographing pack trains crossing the Old Man River or hikers sitting on the top of Panorama Ridge, he captured the buffalo energy of the place. His sweeping vistas of mountains and prairies show us what the Piikani saw on their vision quests while sitting in high rocky perches known as “dream beds.”

Almost every Canadian has at one time or another been exposed to black and white images of Banff, captured to sell scenes to rich people. But Riggall’s photographs of the greater Waterton area go beyond Canadian Pacific Railway propaganda. His dreamy photographs are really visual love poems to the land. And his vistas show the busy hand of industrialism from oil drillers to road builders. Riggall didn’t capture scenes; he documented a life well lived in a land well loved.

Riggall, a man who valued precision, left other important legacies, and they were mostly people. His daughters Kay and Babe could outride and outshoot any man. Kay married Andy Russell and made some more legacies. One was Charlie Russell, the great bear conservationist, film maker and raconteur.

Bert Riggall, The Nunatak. Photo courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, SPP20-7.

Before Russell passed away this year, he wrote a lovely piece about what he learned from his grandfather. (It is just one of many fine essays in the book by the likes of Sid Marty and Fred Stenson.) Riggall taught Russell how to record bird movements and load gun shells just right. He also taught him the value of living in one place and caring for it over time. Riggall taught him “how to be quiet and watch all the wondrous details of nature.”

And ultimately that’s what Riggall’s inspiring photography invites us all to do: find a mountain trail, and on that trail be quiet and appreciate the mystery of creation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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