Mountain place names book includes weighty and whimsical

By Lynn Martel - Rocky Mountains

Fable, Fingerboard, Sugarloaf, Sugarplum, Jigger and Job.

Some books are meant for serious, sit up straight and pay attention reading, while others are meant for having fun wiling away a long drive, or waiting out an August snowstorm in a cozy alpine hut.

Canadian Mountain Place Names, by Glen W. Boles, Roger W. Laurilla and William L. Putnam, is definitely the latter kind of book.

Originally published in 1990 as Place Names of the Canadian Alps, this recently released, updated and revised edition published by Rocky Mountain Books, the mountain focused branch of Heritage House, serves up 280 pages devoted to toponymy - the study of place names.

And in the case of this volume, it covers the origins of names applied to hundreds of peaks above 2,740 metres (9,000 feet), comprising much of the Rockies of Alberta and BC, the Selkirks, Purcells, Monashees and Cariboos of the Columbia Mountains, and a few creeks and passes tossed in for good measure.

Once past the introduction, which very usefully includes mini biographies of a distinguished cast of characters with such recognizable handles as Norman Henry Brewster and Sterling Brown Hendricks, and their roles in applying many of the labels subsequently listed, the fun really begins.

Indulging in the roguish act of opening the book at any page, the reader is enticed to keep turning, as an interesting history emerges of those who explored Western Canada's great mountain ranges long before the arrival of a DVD player-equipped SUV.

Throughout the pages, with a great many of the peaks bearing the names of prerequisite generals, kings, explorers, missionaries, mythological figures and castlery, as a bonus, one absorbs a surprisingly robust helping of the history of the great wars and battles and monarchies of 19th century Britain and Europe.

And accompanying that theme, a great many peaks are listed with names derived of military origins, such as Mount Marlborough, named for Admiral Burney's flagship during the battle of Jutland.

Turning more pages however, reveals the delightful discovery of mountains and passes bearing the names given them by native North Americans, long before Europeans began arriving and naming them for themselves and each other, including Yukness Mountain - the Stoney word for sharpened (as with a knife), and Numa Pass and Creek - the Cree word for thunder.

In sturdy company, a great many others bear names of literary origins, including Mount Moby Dick, named for its resemblance to Herman Melville's great white whale, Lilliput Mountain, so named for the jumble of rocks along its skyline that resemble a horde of little people described in Gulliver's Travels, and Nautilus Mountain, its name derived of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

Cast among the weighty and the notable are peaks with downright frivolous monikers, such as Zekes Peak - named for Golden-based veteran mountain guide Bernie Schiesser's dog, which accompanied the first ascent party on what proved to be an easy scramble.

And then there are clever names, such as Listening Mountain, named by the Alberta/B.C. Boundary Commission of 1913 to 1925 for the pointed resemblance of a portion of the summit skyline to a pair of wolf's ears on the alert.

Other names evoke memories of a climbers' favourite things - aside from climbing - such as Martini Peak, christened by an early ascent party who enjoyed a cocktail in celebration of their ascent.

And others still display not so favoured reminders, as with Dismal Glacier and Pass, named by the first ascent party, which included author Putnam, who were, "wet and weary from travelling through a two-day snowstorm. Their dog nosed her way into their already soggy tent, shook herself free of the damp and refused to budge."

Compiled by three men with intimate knowledge of the encompassing mountain ranges, and accompanied by Boles and Laurilla's first-rate photos, as well as Boles' striking pen and ink sketches, the book also includes a sometimes quirky, other times insightful smattering of toponymy related anecdotes and assorted wisdoms.

Fortunately, it also features a hearty helping of humour, as with the story behind the naming of Disaster Point, so called by Deville, because while exploring with Sir Sandford Fleming along the Athabasca River, the latter's brandy flask was crushed against a rock by one of their packhorses.

At which point, the men might have been somewhat mollified if they had at least packed along such a book as this one to keep them amused by the campfire.

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