Our Local Kootenay Legends

Our Local Kootenay Legends

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There are stories to tell in every region — stories of explorers or founders or characters that helped shape the landscape of current culture. Though these legends occasionally grow to fame beyond their respective regions, more often than not, their stories are held in local knowledge, kept alive through the generations using storytelling.

The Kootenay region — in its own right a present-day wilderness frontier — is still being shaped by mascots and legends in the making. But there are those who have gone before, laying the foundation of who we are and what we see in the Kootenays. It is their stories that give depth to our heritage; it is their legacy that helps travellers and locals alike understand Kootenay culture.

From time immemorial to as recent as the early 20th century, these are just a few of the mascots and legends that shape our Kootenay way of life.

Griz and Legendary Snow (Fernie)

If you’re curious why such spectacular snow falls over Fernie each winter, the locals have their reasoning: The Griz.

His story starts as a baby, and a spectacular baby he was: Born in the winter of 1879 — a particularly bitter season — within a slumbering grizzly’s den, “The Griz” was forced to defend his life when the bear awoke, hungry and recognizing this little human was not its own. Loud rumbles and roars accompanied the ensuing battle between bear and baby outside of the mountain den, spreading fear into the Fernie townspeople below.

Wandering up the mountain the next day, searching for the cause for the commotion, one townsman caught sight of a toddler running through the peaks with bear skin as clothing. When this man related his vision to fellow Fernie folks, it was dismissed as impossible. The man’s story was laughed away, all but forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until years later — a time when only the older generation of locals could remember such a tale. Their recollection was sparked by a tale related via a group of skiers who had just returned from a tour within Fernie’s Lizard Range.

While in the midst of their summit bid, they decided to rest. As they sat below their objective, one of the group glanced up at the peak they were approaching. There, atop the summit, stood a man with shoulders six feet in breadth, weighing 136 kgs, and covered in a coat made of grizzly fur. Glancing down at them from his perch, he unloaded his 2.5-metre musket into the sky and the skies, in turn, unloaded their contents — dry, Kootenay snow — in blankets.

When the skiers returned to town with their story, the elders of Fernie recalled the baby that was spotted in the bearskin years earlier, connecting the two tales and finally giving credence to the man’s story from so long ago.

Photo courtesy of Tourism Fernie-Jeff Topham

The legend of “The Griz” and his spectacular snow grew. Today, it’s celebrated in Fernie with the annual Griz Days Winter Festival.

“It is a great celebration,” says Jikke Gyorki, executive officer for Tourism Fernie. “The whole town comes out … it’s a great way for visitors to get to know Fernie mountain culture.”

How Golden’s “Kicking Horse” River was Named

You gotta admit: It’s a strange name for a river.

Kicking Horse, the glacially-fed ribbon of water that travels from Wapta Lake in Yoho National Park to its confluence with the Columbia River in Golden, might seem like a good name for a river that claims lots of Class III rapids, a few Class IVs, and at least one Class V section.

But the rough and tumble nature of its flow isn’t how the river got its name. You can credit Sir James Hector — and more importantly, a packhorse — for that. Back in BC’s early anglo-exploration days, the government enlisted the help of scouts to seek out the best route to take the Canadian prairie railroad westward through the mountains. Sir James Hector, a geologist, was part of that expedition. Enthralled with the formations of the area, Hector pushed through the difficult terrain that is now known as Banff and Yoho national parks.

But one of his team’s packhorses wasn’t so keen on the rough journey. Struggling through the fallen timber that was a major cause of travel troubles, the animal decided enough was enough and, looking to the nearby river, decided his fate was better served in its waters. The chain of events that followed sealed the name for the river — and the pass the team was crossing — forever. According to Hector, from his written description:

"...the banks were so steep that we had great difficulty in getting him out. In attempting to re-catch my own horse, which had strayed off while we were engaged with the one in the water, he kicked me in the chest, but I had luckily got close to him before he struck out, so that I did not get the full force of the blow."

Though not recorded in any journals, the oral version of the story resumes the narrative by saying Hector seemed so far gone as to be dead (rather than what he actually was: unconscious). As his team carried him to a grave they had prepared, he regained consciousness, narrowly missing the grim outcome of being buried alive.

In light of the events, the team decided the right thing to do was to christen both the pass and its river “Kicking Horse.”

Ktunaxa’s Naⱡmuqȼin: The Creation of People & Kootenay Landscape

Within the First Nations traditions of the Kootenay region, the people share legends that have been told over millenia. From the trickster coyote — known by various names to numerous First Nations people — to the Ktunaxa’s belief in the Grizzly Bear Spirit that dances in Jumbo Valley, their stories have kept characters alive for the over 400 generations that have lived in this region.

Out of respect for the Ktunaxa people and the depth with which they share their stories, I will refrain from paraphrasing the story of the Chief animal, Naⱡmuqȼin, and his part in the creation of the entire Kootenay landscape — including the Hoodoos in Eastern Kootenay — and the people who eventually came to inhabit it. Instead, I invite you to read the Creation Story, which relates the epic war that Naⱡmuqȼin faced in ancestral times; the Ktunaxa have recorded this story online for all to enjoy.

Nels Nelsen: Bringing Revelstoke Early Fame

The history of skiing around Revelstoke precedes the resort of the same name by years: 115 to be exact.

The first recorded demonstration of “Norwegian snowshoeing” — or skiing — in the area took place in 1892 within what is now Mt. Revelstoke National Park. However, it was one immigrant, Nels Nelsen, that brought international acclaim to the now infamous ski town.

Nelsen, a newcomer from Norway, rooted himself in Revelstoke in 1912, bringing his home country’s love of skiing with him. By 1915, he helped bring the Revelstoke Ski Club, now one of the oldest in Canada, into prominence. By that same year, the creation of the town’s first winter carnival and the development of a ski hill — or “Suicide Hill”, the biggest natural ski jump in Canada — at the base of Mt. Revelstoke could also be chalked up to Nelsen.

Photo courtesy of Revelstoke Museum and Archives, Circa 1916  - ID P1852 + Barton Photo

It is that discipline within skiing that Nelsen is most famous for. Ski jumping also squarely placed Revelstoke on the international map.

Nelsen, later famous for his world record-holding (and self-breaking) ski jumps, first began holding his annual tournaments at Suicide Hill 1915. Internationally regarded as one of the best ski jumps in North America, Nelsen’s tournaments not only brought ski jumpers from around the world who were hungry to compete, but also attracted thousands of spectators to Revelstoke who viewed the town as the “Capital of Canada’s Alps.”

In 1984, because of his world ski jump records, as well as for his part in developing the sport of skiing in western Canada — including work that united eastern and western Canadian ski associations — Nels Nelsen was inducted, 41 years after his death, in the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

Where Canada’s Winter Carnivals Began (Rossland)

Rossland, 1897: Olaus Jeldness, a mining immigrant from Norway, hosts a friendly competition for friends atop Rossland’s Red Mountain. What began as a mountain-top tea party ended as an event that would foreshadow the future fate of the mountain.

Organizing the group at the summit, Jeldness directd his party to strap on something he’d brought from Norway: long, wooden apparatuses he called “skis.” The friends did so, probably with an attempt at hiding signs of trepidation. This being the last decade of the 1800s, it would likely have been the first time anyone in the group — other than Jeldness — would have used the gear.

Then Jeldness sent them flying.

It must have been a success: The event has been commemorated annually ever since.

The following year, Jeldness formally organized Rossland’s Winter Carnival as a competitive event. In the years since, the mountain from which that original party descended became part of Red Mountain Resort, and the party’s single feat of flying down from that peak became part of a larger docket of events that makes up the Winter Carnival.

Photo by Steve Ogle at the Rossland Winter Carnival

Now over 120 years old, the Winter Carnival is the longest-running celebration of winter (and dizzying descents) in Canada. As Rossland local Deanne Steven says, the townspeople continue to honour Jeldness’ tradition by gathering with the intent of “going downhill as fast as we can and in as many ways as we can.” 

Words by Gina Bégin.  Top photo by Dave Best of the Kicking Horse River. 

Gina Bégin - Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. On a quest to reach the distant adventures of North America, she lived in her car, traveling to ski the backcountry of Alaska, sleep under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climb Colorado's frozen canyons, photograph Nova Scotia’s coves, backpack in southern US wildernesses and munch on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But after three years living on the road and seeing the many wonders this continent had to offer, she chose the place she knew would fit an explorer looking for a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains.

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