Carl’s Library: Mary Schäffer Warren

108 years ago…

A Merry Christmas

My darling brother: If you had only not been a boy I could have thought up O so many things to have sent you. But being a boy (however I am very glad you are) you will have to put up with a book. I do not know how good this book is for I have not read it. But the notice said many fine things about it.        ~ Sister Julia

In many of the vintage books I have acquired over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover reminders of the people who owned those books long ago, such as Julia’s handwritten note found in my copy of Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T. S. Schäffer.

Mary Schäffer’s husband, Dr. Charles Schäffer, had a passion for botany. His playground was the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, and shortly after their marriage, Mary made her first trip to western Canada with Charles, acting as his scientific assistant. She was awestruck by the magnificent scenery all around her. With her husband’s guidance, Mary quickly became a talented amateur botanist and enjoyed the work they did together. She collected and identified specimens, captured photographs, and painted beautiful watercolor illustrations of the alpine flowers. For Mary, this was the genesis of many annual transcontinental journeys via the Canadian Pacific Railway, from her home in Pennsylvania to the wild country known as Banff & Jasper National Parks.

Charles died shortly after their 1903 visit to the mountains. By that time, Mary was thoroughly in love with the Canadian wilderness, and as a tribute to her dear husband, she wished to complete the botanical guide of mountain flora that they had dreamed of writing. Mary enlisted her husband’s colleague, botanist Stewardson Brown, to co-author the project, and they set out for Alberta in the summer of 1906; the book, Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, was published the following year.

That great task now completed, Mary was eager to plan her next westward journey, with a desire to make it a grander adventure than any before…exploring new territory and spending more time in the wild. Over the winter months, Mary and her friend Mollie Adams began their preparations.

Old Indian Trails is the story of the 1907 and 1908 expeditions made by Mary and Mollie, along with guides Sid Unwin and Billy Warren.

To anyone who quizzed the group about the purpose of their travels during those two summers, they explained that they were looking for the sources of the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Rivers. In truth, they were happy just to be roaming through this beautiful wilderness, wherever the trails may lead.

But there was indeed one specific goal very much on their minds: to locate a mysterious lake which the Stoney Indians called Chaba Imne. Working from a sketch made by their local friend, a Stoney named Sampson Beaver, they finally found the lake in 1908. Its current name, Maligne Lake, was affixed by Mary, and she is credited with its “official” discovery.

From her earliest travels, Mary approached Indigenous Peoples with warmth and friendship, and showed an eagerness to understand their way of life. She had great affection for Sampson Beaver and his family; Mary looked forward to visiting them whenever she was in the area. The Stoney Indians referred to Mary as Yahe-Weha (“Mountain Woman”).

After so many years of enduring long train trips to see her beloved mountains, Mary realized there was no longer any point in maintaining the life she knew in Philadelphia. She finally made Banff her year-round home and married her long-time mountain guide, Billy Warren.

With her writing, her lectures and her lantern slide shows, Mary worked to publicize the beauty of this region. Even so, a part of her was saddened to see the peace and tranquility fade a little as more and more visitors arrived each year, and opportunities for trailblazing and discovery existed only in her memory.

Like many other titles in my library, I discovered this book due to its reference in another book (and once again, I can’t recall which one). That is one of the joys of nonfiction; I’ve enjoyed many books that I likely would never have found—and my library has grown—simply due to authors referencing earlier works on the subject at hand.

Of course, it’s hard for me to pass up any old book that happens to include a folding map…

Speaking of mountains: I know that a similar early edition of this book resides on the shelves of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, and I can’t think of a more appropriate home for it. I want to take this opportunity to mention that December is a great time to make a donation to the RMLL, as they are currently raising funds to support their 2020 workshops and restoration projects. Find out more about the Land Library and make a contribution by visiting

Companion book: I recommend the biography No Ordinary Woman: The Story of Mary Schäffer Warren by Janice Sanford Beck, published in 2002. The book provides a great deal of illuminating information, from Mary’s Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania to her final years with Billy Warren in their Banff home, and in between, we learn of her early travel experiences and her growing appreciation for wild beauty, her first trips to the Canadian Rockies with Charles, her fascination and fondness for the Indigenous Peoples she encountered, the botanical work with her husband and Stewardson Brown, her government-backed survey expedition of Maligne Lake in 1911, her journeys to other parts of the globe, and her environmental activism. Additionally, this book contains several of Mary’s previously unpublished articles and manuscripts, and many more photographs from her mountain adventures.

Photographs and text: Copyright 1911 by Mary T.S. Schäffer.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link:

Into the Great Wide Open

On each long journey in the Pontiac, I make it a point to grab some scenic video from behind the wheel. It provides a nice escape during the winter months when the car is asleep and I have cabin fever.

If you’ll follow the link below to Vimeo, you can spend four minutes riding along with me down the highest road in Saskatchewan…a narrow dirt track that winds across the top of the Cypress Hills, just east of the Alberta line. Big sky, big open space and the sound of rubber on gravel.

Watch the Video Here

September 2016

Cypress Hills


More scenes from last Tuesday’s drive to the top of Saskatchewan.

My final seconds in Alberta; the fence on the left marks the Saskatchewan line…


At the summit: The highest car in SK…


Heading back down…


A hill. And there’s no fence around it! I’ve written before of my strong desire to climb every hill that I see; when I find one that isn’t fenced in, you bet I’m going to the top, even if it isn’t a particularly high hill…


The view from the top. Spot the Pontiac yet?


Back on the prairie…


The Irrigation Ditch


Walking down a country road in southeastern Alberta one evening (heading back to the farmhouse after shooting the images posted yesterday), I looked to my left and was struck by the beauty surrounding—of all things—an irrigation ditch. The first thing I noticed was the well-aged piece of wood angling into the water to join its reflected twin. Then I saw the reflection of the barbed wire, and the many shades of blue present on the water’s surface. The cold water was so clear that, even in the fading daylight, it was easy to see the plants growing on the bottom. And those final minutes of the sun’s rays did a wonderful job of bringing out the colors in the grasses and the clouds.

This image is presented “as is” from the phone’s camera, without any color or exposure adjustments (it was only reduced in size for web use).

Prairie Moonrise

I almost never point my phone’s camera at the moon anymore because all previous attempts to capture a decent image have failed. When this scene appeared above a southeastern Alberta farm, I had to try one more time. Just love those backlit clouds.


Prairie Windows

Do you remember when you’d pray to never see the day
When someone would make you feel this way
‘Cause you knew they would cut right through you
And once inside, you were afraid they’d find
Nothing to hold on to


“Ring on the Sill”
Cowboy Junkies

(The car stereo happened to bring up that song shortly after this photo was taken.)


Dorothy is a small village in the badlands of southern Alberta. The old grain elevator still stands, though the roof has recently collapsed. Thanks go out to my friend Cam for telling me about this landmark.