For the past 15 years Henry Vaux Jr. has been travelling to the mountains of Western Canada to take pictures. Unlike the millions of other tourists, he has a mission – to pay tribute to his ancestors and document the changes in the landscape that they photographed 100 years ago.
Vaux’s grandfather was George Vaux Jr.; his great aunt and great uncle were William and Mary Vaux. Together, the three of them photographed the mountains and scenery in Banff, Yoho and Glacier National Park, documenting the three mountain parks and making a significant discovery about the receding glaciers in the process.
Henry Jr.’s goal is to replicate those images 100 years later.
The Vaux family first came to the area in 1887 while enjoying a trip on the Canadian Pacific. On July 15, they stopped at Glacier House and the following day they walked to the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier, took some pictures, continued on to Banff National Park and then back to their home of Philadelphia.
The family on that trip consisted of George Sr. and his children Mary, George Jr. and William Jr. For the next 40 years, they would spend as much as their free time as possible in the Canadian mountains. George Jr. was the first amateur to summit Mount Sir Donald and Mary was the first woman to explore Deutschmann Caves. Their story was documented in the book Legacy in Ice: The Vaux Family and the Canadian Alps by Edward Cavell.
They were wealthy Quakers and a prominent family in Philadelphia society. Cavell described them as good Victorians, “committed, inquisitive and dedicated to the advancement of man’s understanding and appreciation of nature.”
The family’s second trip to the region was in 1894 when they spent a month in Banff, Lake Louise and Glacier. On that trip, they noticed the Illecillewaet Glacier had retreated. A few years later, in 1897, they were introduced to mountain climbing and ascended Mount Abbott and Asulkan Pass.
Meanwhile, William began his research of the glacier. Using his engineering background, he determined for certain that it was indeed shrinking. In 1898-99, the two brothers wrote a paper on glacier study that they presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences. It marked a significant breakthrough in the field, which George Jr. credited William for.
“It was his enthusiasm and love of nature which casued us first to enter upon them; he it was who had given most of the thought and study to the subject, who had done the larger part of the instrumental work, and all of the final reductions of the observations, in order to secure results,” George Jr. said upon William’s death in 1908 at the age of 36.
George Jr. passed away in 1927 but Mary returned to the mountains every year until 1939, earning the nickname the “Grand Dame of the mountains”. She died in 1940.
The Vaux’s other legacy was the photos they took – some 2,000 of the mountains, glaciers, lakes and waterfalls of Banff, Yoho and Glacier National Parks. They would carry glass plates with them in the mountains and then transport them back to Philadelphia – something that amazes Henry Jr.
“The idea of trying to pack those glass plates around with them in the mountains blows me away and then to get them back to Philadelphia without breaking them was no mean feat either,” he said.
Henry Jr. came up with the idea to replicate their photos when he was nearing retirement. He broached the topic with his father, Henry Sr. (George Jr.’s son), who encouraged him to do it.
He began his project in 1997 and this year he will be embarking on his final trip to capture the last few images in Rogers Pass. To start, he went through all of his families photos and grouped them by subject, whether they were of glaciers, waterfalls, mountains and people.
“I went through and I picked what I thought were interesting photos to reproduce,” he said, though he soon realized that some couldn’t be done because some views weren’t available anymore where trees had grown in to block the views.
The first thing Henry Jr. had to do was figure out where the pictures were taken from. “One of the things I learned relatively early on is those guys never got too far off the trail,” he said. His ancestors didn’t want to lug that heavy equipment too far through the bush, he surmised.
In some cases, the spots were obvious. While looking to photograph Consolation Lake in Banff National Park, he quickly realized that a large flat rock in the surrounding wetlands was the most likely spot they shot from. In other cases, it was a matter of doing a little bit of exploring before framing the picture as best as he could.
“You find some really compelling clues here and there but in other times its just a matter of framing it up so it looks like what they took,” he said.
Henry Jr. shoots all his photos using a medium-format Mamiya camera using black and white film; he said he has never owned a digital camera.
He said there are two significant changes over the course of the past 100 years. One if the retreat of the glaciers. The other changes are man-made such as the Trans-Canada Highway. Otherwise, he said, much is still the same due to the short growing seasons in the mountains.
“I can see trees out there that my grandfather saw,” he said. “The rates of change are so slow that there isn’t that much difference except for the glaciers, most of which are back at least two kilometres, and of man-made things.”
Henry Vaux Jr. revisits the Illeceillewaet glacier his family took great pains to photograph a hundred years ago.
“That’s a fantastic picture of the Asulkan Glacier,” he said. “There’s two people on the glacier and one of them I believe is my great-aunt Mary and the other is the guide. That’s absolutely my favourite.”
Unfortunately, it’s one he was unable to replicate because the glacier has receded so much.
Henry Jr. is aiming to publish the book of his photos in the fall of 2012. All that’s left to do is take the last few pictures, which he will be doing this month and then pair them up and finish up the writing.
“I have to tell you I’m pretty happy with them,” he said. “If you looked at them you would have to say they’re pretty close.”