Untitled photo

While Mary Schaffer’s photographs of the Alberta Rockies are evocative and historically significant, it was her writing that really grabbed my attention. While reading her book, Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies, I realized that Schaffer and her party weren’t just on vacation, they were on a quest. Understanding the difference has added a powerful new dimension to how I think about photography.

A quest is a personal journey in search of something important: a treasure maybe, new lands or even esoteric things like truth, or spirituality. In 1907, Schaffer, who was originally from Pennsylvania, spoke openly that the objective of her particular quest was to find what was then considered the near mythical Chaba Imne, the lake we know today as Maligne. In her book though, Schaffer confides that that the real purpose of her quest was to “learn daily those secrets which dear Mother Nature is so willing to tell to those who seek”.

I too am such a secret seeker. What really struck me about her book though were the similarities between her journey of discovery and what author Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, describes as a hero’s quest.

According to Campbell, a heroic quest usually follows a framework where an ordinary person, living an ordinary life, receives a call to venture into the unknown. Answering the call involves a journey in which the hero, usually accompanied by a helper or spiritual guide, is tested and challenged. Along this road of trials, the hero meets a feminine goddess figure who brings a fullness to the hero’s character and helps him realize the spiritual significance of his quest. In completing the quest, the hero is enlightened and returns to his ordinary world with a new understanding which he uses to improve humanity.

Most of the stages of Campbell’s hero’s quest can be found in Schaffer’s book. Three of them though are particularly worth exploring within the space of this article: the road of trials, meeting with the goddess and the return to the ordinary world.

The road of trials stage of the heroic quest is meant to test the mettle of the hero. Think of The Matrix, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as examples that epitomize this stage of the quest. Walk- a- bit, fight-a- bit and walk-a-bit captures the essence. Mary Schaffer’s descriptions of her road of trials, models the Campbell archetype. She and her travel companions were boiled and burned by the sun and then frozen by the perishing cold. They followed mountain trails through burned out forests that cracked and crackled like matchsticks, faced tempestuous river crossings, fallen timber and then were buffeted by wind storms, rain storms, thunder storms and snow storms. They faced mosquitoes and black flies, forest fires and tent fires. They built their campfires in mud, they ate in mud, slept in mud and tramped through mud. They were nearly drowned, their horses floundered in the muskeg and once, Mary succumbed to snow blindness. And most of those events occurred during the first year.

A good quest though, like a good novel or movie, should never be just about the road of trials. A good quest also tantalizes the hero through a meeting the goddess. As an example, think of Frodo meeting with Lady Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings. The goddess figure represents the heart of the quest. We know from reading Joseph Campbell and from watching quest movies that the goddess’ job is to point the hero in the direction of his or her own heart. ‘To thine own self be true’, as was said in another, even more famous heroic quest.

In meeting the goddess, Mary Schaffer met Mother Nature. Fittingly, Schaffer’s accounts of her positive experiences in nature read like luscious poetry and are elegant and artistic words of the heart. Alpine flowers are rimmed in frost needles. The moon’s rays are filtered through spruce boughs. Emerald green mountain lakes reflect snow covered rocky peaks, wildflowers and wild life abound. Mary’s words transport us to a wondrous, almost imaginative, fairy tale world. Yet hers is a true story, an actual, made-in-Alberta, heroic quest with a real secret that Mary reveals to us herself:

Go! I hand you the key to one of the fairest of God’s many gardens. Go! Peace and health are there, and happiness for [those] who will search (Schaffer, 1911).

The secret is the search itself.

We however, don’t have to search for mythical lakes to see things that stir the feelings of our very soul. We do, though, have to search. Fortunately, in Alberta, that’s not hard. Sunshine on cattails, a prairie sunrise, a rainbow, or misty mountain lakes are commonplace wonders in our province and all we need do is open the door and go. Peace, happiness and wonder await our search.

In 1908, Mary Schaffer and her party of adventurers set out on the second season of their journey and completed their quest. They found the lake called Chaba Imne and ‘the finest view any of us had ever seen in the Rockies’.

A quest though, is never just about achieving the goal. The hero’s journey requires the long road home and, once back in the ordinary world, the sharing of the secret of the quest. And sharing was another of Mary Schaffer’s lasting legacies.

Photographs in those days were black and white. But, Mary who was also an artist and a painter, hand-coloured the transparent slides of her images. The lantern slides as they were called, were used for presentations to lift the spirits of soldiers of who were convalescing oversees after World War One and to attract tourists to the Canadian Rockies (Lang, 2011).

As in her quest, Schaffer elevated sharing from the ordinary to the extraordinary. When she set off on her quest in 1907, the lake she was searching for was part of the Jasper Park Forest Preserve. It was protected. But, by 1911, when she completed the first formal survey of the lake, the forest reserve had been reduced in size and Maligne Lake was no longer part of the Preserve. So, she took action and lobbied for the re-inclusion of Maligne Lake within Jasper Park (Reichwein & MacDermott, 2009).

By sharing her photographs and her stories, and by passionately lobbying the governments of the day, the Preserve was eventually restored to its original boundaries. Maligne Lake was once again protected for all. Michale Lang, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, states that Schaffer’s contribution to the protection of Maligne Lake is a gift to all those who visit today.

Mary’s gift to me, though, was the understanding that I too am on a journey of discovery. I’m calling it a vision quest: to really see, with heightened awareness, the awesome beauty of the natural world around me. And the cornerstone of my vision quest is Mary Schaffer’s secret.


Majesty, solitude and wonder are there for those who search.

Works Cited

Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New Wold Library.

Lang, M. (2011). An Adventurous Woman Abroad: The Selected Lantern Slides of Mary T.S. Schaffer. Rocky Mountain Books.

Reichwein, P., & MacDermott, L. (2009). Opening the Secret Garden. In Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed; edited by I.S. MacLaren. University of Alberta Press.

Schaffer, M. T. (1911). Old Indian Trails, Incidents of Camp and Trail Life, Covering Two Years' Exploration through the Rocky Mountains of Canada. London: G. P. Putnam's Sons.


Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In