Jasper Warden Days 1984.

SH: Wow, that’s wild. That would be very unnerving.
Darro: Yes, but initially I thought I was in trouble here, because I only had six shots, or five shots in my pistol and there were eight wolves, but I kept telling myself they wouldn’t do anything. And once I started moving they clearly weren’t being aggressive. Whether they were just curious or they thought if they got a chance they’d come in and grab Charlie ….. I don’t know what they were thinking. So there’s a wildlife story. (Tape 40:36)

Section 4: 11:47 am
SH: How about some public safety stories.
Darro: In about 1982, certainly in the time I was in Jasper I had the opportunity to climb quite a bit with Bruce MacKinnon in the early days. He was keen. Tom Davidson and I, went climbing somewhere most days off and often we were able to do a training climb somewhere in the Icefields area through the week, so I had the opportunity to get lots of miles in. Certainly in the winter we had great opportunity for ski touring, both on schools and different opportunities to go places on days off. I decided I’d like to take my guides license.

At that time it was quite controversial in Parks about guiding … who could be a guide; horse guides, hiking guides mountain guides. It was controversial in the whole community. Parks already had in place that you had to be a certified mountain guide through the ACMG to guide inside the park. That was pretty well enforced. We hadn’t done too much about horse guides at that point, but we did move into that area and then whitewater rafting came along. So, I got myself mixed up in that whole guiding milieu and that controversy that was going on in BC and Alberta and the National Parks. At that time there was a few mountain guides inside the Warden Service. Of course there was Peter Fuhrmann and Willi Pfisterer. At that point Clair Israelson and Tim Auger were guides.. I think those were the only two at that point. There were numerous others as the years went on … I can’t remember exactly when but Tom Davidson and I started in ‘82 and at some point Marc Ledwidge, Gord Irwin, Gerry Israelson as well.

Anyhow, as time went on, in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s there were a lot of technical rescues taking place. So mountain parks had a pretty comprehensive training program through Willi and Peter. More and more it was becoming clear that if we were going to enforce certified mountain guides, as part of the commercial component then we needed to have people on the same level with respect to qualifications. So it was decided that we’d endorse several wardens to participate in the (ACMG) training program and I was lucky enough to be one of them. In 1982 I started the sojourn for that and I met a lot of great people and we stayed friends for many years. Barry Blanchard is an example of one. He and I took our guides license together. Just recently he had written an article and he asked me to review it before it went into a magazine. It’s not published yet as this was just in the last ten days. So that was kind of neat to reconnect with him as well. So I made a lot of good friends both inside the Warden Service and outside the Warden Service in the guiding community. It gave us two components and allowed us an insight into where the ACMG is and what they were doing and the standards that they have. So we’d instill that in the Warden Service as part of our public safety training group. That started for me in 1982; Tom Davidson and I were the two candidates from Jasper that year. That sort of led me in a bit of a different direction, but I sort of maintained my backcountry horsemanship and had moved into the mountaineering field. I would say that those two things were what my career focused on for the most part and I found both of them to be very rewarding in different ways.

There were lots of rescues, multi park rescues like on Mount Bryce …. I remember that one in particular. A bunch from Banff and a bunch from Jasper …. we had to land on the col and then traverse across the north face of Mount Bryce to get over to a ridge where two guys were injured. I remember Tim Auger and I were on a rope together on that particular one. I think there was six of us that moved across the face. Snow was coming down; the weather was the shits and the odd slough was happening. We were able to get over there and were trying to figure out how we were going to get this injured guy across the face to where at least we could be in a spot where we could camp and the helicopter could land. Just at the last minute, sitting across the valley in a meadow from the north face, I can’t remember who the pilot was but he had the sling all rigged up, and we just got this little break in the weather. And bang, he came in and swooped up the two injured people and was gone just like that. Then the weather closed back in.

But there were six of us on the wrong side of the face and we had to get back to the col. I remember Tim and I were on a rope moving across the face and we were getting sloughs coming down. Somebody yelled, “Ice!” I’m not sure it was ice, I think it was a hard cornice that came off and came straight at Tim and me. We both got hit on the back of our helmets, our packs. I remember that I got hit in my left shoulder and at the time it really hurt but all I could think about was getting off there. To this day I still have a sore shoulder, and I think it was from that incident. I still find that if I don’t exercise it, it gets sore as time goes on.

SH: You probably didn’t do the paperwork did you?
Darro: No of course not. In hindsight that was just plain stupid. Anyhow, we were able to get off that one. The weather broke and the helicopter was able to get us all out of there. But it was one of those multi park rescues that sticks out in my mind.

Of course there’s a couple on Mount Robson, the same where we had people come from all the parks because we needed a pile of people, and a spectacular team effort and credit to Willi Pfisterer and Peter Fuhrmann to put together a program that allowed us all to have the same kind of training and then allowed us to come together as a group that really performed well. Especially when you have a lot of strong personalities in leadership roles. In all those years, either being in the leadership role or in the following role I don’t ever recall an incident where there was a disagreement with who was the boss on the rescue. I think that’s a testament to the caliber of individuals in the Warden Service that were in the public safety program as well as to the training that we received over the years from Willi and Peter. (Tape 10:49)

A couple of technical rescues that stick out in my mind, one was at Mt. Bridgeland. John Niddrie has a great pictorial of the Bridgeland Rescue. That was a pretty spectacular effort. Just ugly, ugly conditions on technical rock that was covered with ice and serious injuries to the party that was stuck up there. Again, spectacular flying from our pilots but again a group of guys getting in on the ground and getting to the individuals, and just getting this quick break in the weather that allowed us to get them off safely. In that instance, we all flew off. The weather was so bad it took us about six hours to get to them and then we got a break in the weather and were able to fly them off, good thing because it was going to be a long, long haul to get them off the mountain by ropes. Anyhow, that was one that stuck out in my mind.

Gerry Israelson on Oubliette on the Ramparts.

Warden School on Hooker Icefields.

SH: Gerry talked about that one. It was a good story
Darro: Yes, if there hadn’t been verglas over the rock it would have been a challenging rock climb but not overly. But as soon as you put that ice over it, it was like “Holy Shit” It just put it in a different realm and how we were able to improvise to get there and deal with it. That was a good one.

I had the opportunity to go to Kluane and climb several peaks up there. In 1977 I got to climb Mount Steele. We had planned to climb Lucania which is a sister peak. They are sort of twin peaks that have a little col in between them. We’d been stuck at about 13,000 feet for four or five days. Tons of snow fell; five or six feet. We couldn’t go up and couldn’t go down. We were in a spot that was relatively safe, so we just sat there and camped out. I remember Rick Kuneluis and Tim Auger were there. We built a system of snow caves … it was like a palace. We had nothing else to do for five days. Some guys slept inside the snow caves, some guys slept in their tents. When the snow started to settle it was still up to my waist when I stepped out into it. We started trying to punch a trail up the ridge and I remember carrying skis up about 400 feet and then skiing back into camp. I have a picture of a couple of us doing that. The ridge was pretty narrow, but it was good skiing. Then we were able to make a run for the peak. It was tough going. We all had to take turns out front just getting through the deep snow. It was cold. I remember my feet were freezing up and I thought I couldn’t afford to have frozen feet at this altitude because it was pushing 17,000 feet. I remember Tim saying “Let’s get into a bivy sack.” I took off my boots and he stuck my feet in his armpits and heated them up. We yacked for a little bit. I think there were only four of us at that time. Then we headed off up the mountain and got to the top of Steele. That was pretty spectacular.

Another time we went to Mount McArthur which is adjacent to the east ridge of Logan. Clair and I were running a training school with a bunch of the guys from Kluane. We had a little bit of a mishap. A couple of guys just slid on a piece of ice that had a long run-out, so we weren’t too worried about what might happen, but of course with crampons on, two people twisted their ankles quite badly. But we did get to the top, and we did get down and everybody was okay except for a few little ankle injuries. Those expeditions were always pretty special.

I had the opportunity to go to Nahanni a couple of times as well. I actually went to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, which is a pretty impressive place. Not many people get there. You’ve got to fly into Glacier Lake which allowed us to get access up to the Cirque. When you get up there it’s like being in something out of Lord of the Rings, the way the peaks rise up out of the meadows, and the huge boulders that laid in the valley bottom. They just dwarfed you. It was a very magical spot. We weren’t able to climb any of those peaks. We did a couple of peaks adjacent to it. There was just bad weather the whole time we were there. There were two participants who had never been on a mountain before The Unclimbables which were technical pieces of work so we just didn’t have the strength in numbers to do it. But just to be able to go there and see it and look at the approach. It was beneficial for the Nahanni guys to be able to see all that. (Tape 18:27)

SH: How did the Warden Service change over the years? Centralization, affirmative action, changes in the 1990s, 2000s?

Darro: Certainly when I joined the Warden Service in the early ‘70s that was the start of when you needed to have some education. You needed to have at least two years of college in natural resources, so I think I was either the second or third group that were hired. There were a few people just before me like Keith Everts and Perry Jacobson and a few others that were seasonal wardens in Banff when I first started there. Shortly after that the first time I applied for the Warden Service in the ’70’s they wouldn’t accept my application because I hadn’t graduated but then because I’d been working summers they did allow me to apply, recognizing that I’d never go any further until I finished my education, which was not an issue. It just allowed me to participate until I graduated and of course I couldn’t take a full time job until then anyhow. So, I graduated in ‘74 and got a full time job in ‘75. At that time the older generation, a lot of them were ex-military that came back from the Second World War and had found jobs in national parks. A lot of them were cowboys, good horsemen, some of them were skiers but only a few. A lot of them learned that skill when they came into the Warden Service. And in those days, if you could ride a horse and maneuver on skis, you were a shoe-in for the job. A big part of the job was firefighting and backcountry work. In the late ‘60s when people started climbing more, there was that other element that came into the Warden Service as well.

As time went on more and more, we tended to be recruiting people that had university degrees and a much stronger natural resource background or biological background. In a lot of ways, it was inevitable that we’d have to be more aggressive and competitive in that field. But one of the consequences that fell into that, and I can remember one particular individual that had gone to school, I think he took Forestry from the University of Alberta,. And back in those days, especially in Jasper, your first summer as a seasonal warden for the most part … most of them were assigned a backcountry job. That was for a number of reasons. One is you have to see how this individual worked. Could they work by themselves, were they reliable, were they innovative. There were a whole bunch of different skills that came out of being a backcountry warden for a summer. But this particular individual was quite adamant that “I didn’t go to school for four years to shovel horseshit.” At the time I thought he just doesn’t get it, but as time went on I realized that more and more we were going to have those kinds of people. They’d gone to school for four to six years and had got their Masters and in some cases Doctorates. They aren’t going to want to pursue some of the other skill set requirements or duties seen as part of the Warden Service. That being the backcountry, that being public safety specifically and eventually even law enforcement.

So, in hindsight we probably should have recognized that earlier and didn’t. I left the Warden Service in 1992 and certainly made one of the tougher decisions in my career! The argument for specialization was becoming pretty strong. We had tried to avoid moving in the direction the Americans had gone years ago, where you had law enforcement rangers, you had public safety rangers, you had resource rangers. We tried to maintain that generalist concept with a few specialized individuals in each of the areas, whether it was in wildlife or forestry, fire related or biological or GIS, public safety, law enforcement. We tried, whether consciously or unconsciously, we had those individuals that rose to the challenge of that specialty and were recognized for it, which then allowed for us to have that expertise at the upper end as well as have a cadre of generalists that could still do the job in many different areas.

We all recognized that there was no way we’d ever have the numbers to build a complete, specialized unit in each of the fields or the disciplines in the Warden Service. I think that is still true to this day and I think we suffered for it up until the big change that took place around the question of specialization, and that was the whole firearm issue.
So I guess it was a natural evolution. There was a period in the early ‘90s after I left the Warden Service that I feared for the future of the Warden Service and talked about it with a few people. I said, “there’s a movement, especially in Ottawa and Eastern Canada, to move away from what we were doing, specifically in the West.” There were some individuals in Ottawa who were pushing that quite strongly and had a place at the Executive table. It was something that I was conscious about and I found myself in debates quite regularly on that topic whenever I was participating in some of the national task force and/or issues at the time. But, in hindsight the die had been cast long before the firearm issue had come up, in my opinion. So, the changes that took place over the years certainly changed the Warden Service dramatically. I believe, certainly the guys that I grew up with in the Warden Service and am still friends with, that I sort of lost contact with a little bit when I was living in Australia … I think we had the opportunity to be around in the best years of the Warden Service in those years and the mandate of the national parks as we saw it then. Because, say the mandate hasn’t changed but I would argue quite vehemently that it has changed dramatically. (Tape 29: 20)

SH: Do you want to expand on that?
Darro: The National Parks Act is pretty clear about what the mandate is. The interpretation of that seems to go on a pendulum that swings back and forth over the years. There was a period in my career when I think the pendulum had swung too far to one direction around ecological integrity to the detriment of visitor experience, for the sake of discussion. Now the pendulum has swung way too far the other way in my opinion as well. So, this schizophrenia that became evident in Parks in the ‘90s still prevails today although I’ve lost contact with a lot of people in Parks. I don’t know that many that are working anymore, I know a few, but all you have to do is visit some of the national parks and see the condition of our facilities, the deterioration of our capital investments there. The lack of focus on the greater part of the national parks which is non high use areas like the backcountry. I think the road we are now on we will regret at some point, or maybe we have already. We will regret that, and it may take awhile, and maybe the pendulum is starting to swing. I’m not close enough to it to know if it is or not.

SH: What about the Warden Service was important to you? The idea of protecting and preserving national parks, keeping people safe, etc.?
Darro: Well I think certainly in my career that was the thing I was most proud of and still am today. I spoke about Hal Shepherd here, earlier on. One of the things that I still carry with me, and I took a little bit of heat from some of my peers over this, but I’ll tell you, when you showed up for work in Yoho you made sure that the buttons were done up on your shirt, you had your Stetson on and your uniform was clean and pressed. It instilled a sense of pride in an organization that probably came out of Hal’s military background.

But it was just one of those things that allowed you to be part of something a little bigger than your world at the time,…. it didn’t matter where you went, we all wore the same uniform and we were all trying to do the same thing and that was that our job was to protect these wildlands and protect the visitors that come to them. That was the bottom line. Those two things governed and should govern everything that we do. Except again, depending on the interpretation of what those things are depends on where the organization goes as a whole. Of course, that depends on who is doing the interpretation of those things.

SH: Good answer. Are there any legends or stories associated with the Warden Service that you can share? Is there anyone from the Service that stands out in your mind?
Darro: Certainly for me Willi Pfisterer who was my mentor and friend. I learned a lot about the mountains from him and a lot about leadership from him in a whole bunch of different areas, not just in the mountaineering end of the business. I learned a lot from him and he was an individual who I think a lot of people will think back and think this is how Willi would have done this, and this is what Willi taught me to do in situations like this. So for me he was certainly one of the individuals that still stands out in my mind in terms of forming the backbone of the Warden Service and national parks in Western Canada.

Some of my peers, sort of my generation, there are several of them, you always knew that they were going to be there when you needed them. They were always the people you called first depending on what the situation was. But there was a group of individuals both in Banff and Jasper in my experience and Yoho Kootenay, that you just knew they were there when the time was right. I’m not sure if that makes them legends or not, but certainly they were individuals that stand out during my career as being exceptional. Some of them I had to do with more than others. Certainly, in the horsemanship area, most of my experience and/or interaction was with people in Jasper, but some in Banff as well over the years. I had the opportunity to travel with a few of the individuals who were a little bit older than me in Banff, back in the day.