Picture of ruins

Place Names

Posted Jan 27, 2016

We floated down to the glistening water of Glacier Lake with Cathedral Mountain majestically towering ahead, its protective stance at the entrance to the Cirque, holding our eyes like a magnet.

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The official name of the towering rock is Mt. Harrison Smith. It was named after the President of Imperial Oil and International Petroleum Co. Ltd. The famous mountaineer, H. F. Lambart was responsible for naming the mountain in 1944, just two years before his death. Lambart is known for being the first mountaineer to climb Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak and he was the first president of the Alpine Club of Canada between 1924 and 1926.

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But Cathedral, not Harrison Smith is the name that stuck with locals.

According to Canadian historian, Pierre Burton, Col. Harry Michener Snyder, a big game hunter who collected wildlife specimens for the American Museum of Natural History, was the first white man to visit Glacier Lake and in turn to see the mountain. His first visit was in 1932.

Little is known about Harry Snyder, though if you took the time to read the documents and minutes of meetings connected to his numerous companies, you might get an inkling to his personality. He was an Ohio born oil magnate, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Honorary Colonel of the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, holder of 27 rifle championships and a big game hunter who loved Canada’s north. Because of this love, he financed many scientific expeditions into the area, including Glacier Lake.

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Snyder purchased a cattle ranch in Sundre, Alberta in 1942 and lived there with his second wife, Louise. No one knows what happened to his first wife, Ida, who gave birth to their daughter, Dorothy in 1912. The only historical information there is of the first family is that Snyder brought his daughter to Yellowknife in 1935 so she could film the area.

Louise, the second wife, met Snyder when she was hired to look after him after his health failed. She cured his ailments and then “did the honor” of marrying him. They lived at Sundre in a huge mansion Snyder referred to as his “teepee.” They entertained prominent businessmen, politicians, including Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s father, and most of the scientists who took an interest in the Glacier Lake area. The teepee burned to the ground in 1955 at which time Snyder returned to the United States where he eventually died.

“Personally,” I said to my group of gapers, “I like the name Cathedral better than Harry Smith.”

“Cathedral seems more fitting,” Linda agreed.

After his first trip into Glacier Lake, Snyder had become obsessed with the area and took every opportunity available to return. In 1934 Leigh Brintnell, a local bush pilot flew Snyder into the lake. Brintnell ran Mackenzie Air, a company out of Yellowknife that was backed by Snyder. They came with George Gilbert Goodwin, assistant curator of the American Museum of Natural History. Although they stayed just a few hours, they named many of the prominent features. The Snyder Range was given to the surrounding group of peaks and the strip of spruce-covered hills to the south of the lake was called Colonel Mountain. The lake we stood beside, the creek flowing into and out of the lake and the glacier feeding the creek were all named after Brintnell.

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But Snyder’s naming was for convenience rather than official. Like Cathedral or Harrison Smith if you prefer, Brintnell Lake was renamed to Glacier Lake although the creek and glacier retained their original names. Another title that remained on the official records is Mount Ida, which stands on the south side of Brintnell Creek and west of Colonel Mountain. It might be a bit ironic that Ida, Snyder’s first wife remains next to him here while Louise received no such honor. And of course the Snyder Range was renamed the Ragged Range.

For two years after his 1934 visit, Snyder was busy at Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta but in 1937 he was again accompanied by George Goodwin and Lambart who was then working for the Geodetic Survey of Canada, to visit the area. They travelled by riverboat to Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni River and then north by floatplane to Glacier Lake. Snyder’s first wife, Ida, accompanied him on this trip.

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Snyder, being a big game hunter had a second motive for taking museum officials with him. In order to hunt in the area he needed a special permit, which he received by arranging to collect specimens for the Canadian and American museums. During his 1937 expedition, they camped at the same spot my friends and I were standing on after we disembarked from our plane. From this spot, Goodwin trapped small animals, Snyder shot the large ones and Lambart took infrared photos and triangulation readings of the mountains to be used to produce the first contour map of the surrounding Mackenzie Mountains.

That same year Snyder and Goodwin published stories in Natural History Magazine about their adventures. Both articles, especially Snyder’s included photographs and Snyder described Cathedral Mountain as a “white granite peak that overshadows the upper end of the lake, its perpendicular walls towering over 4000 feet.”

These stories attracted other scientists and mountaineers and the history of the lake began.

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While we were there, Linda, Peg, Deb and I planned on outdoing Snyder. We would go up and touch Cathedral Mountain and then pass through its gates into the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Once we’d had enough of that we would return to the lake and go up Frost Creek to the north of the lake and explore Red Mountain and its hidden treasures. And like Snyder we might unofficially name a few features after ourselves.