Jasperite pens book chronicling history of warden service
When Rob Kaye sat down to write a book, he knew it had to be about his home—the home that has never left his heart.
Although he’s lived elsewhere for more than 25 years, the former park warden said Jasper is always home. It was the place where he was born. It was the place where he first connected with nature. And it was the place where he began his career as a park warden.
“It doesn’t matter where I am, Jasper’s my home. It’s deep, deep in my heart.
“The book’s just about Jasper. It’s just about my time in Jasper,” he said of Born to the Wild: Journals of a National Park Warden in the Canadian Rockies.
As well as stories from Kaye’s own life, the book also chronicles the history of the warden service, from the 1900s through to present day, tracking the progressive shift away from the backcountry and into the front country.
“A lot of the book is about the backcountry because that’s where I was happiest,” said Kaye, who worked on the North Boundary in the Blue Creek district.
“What I really talk about a lot and what I want to get out to the reader is the warden service has changed big time, as with everything else. Back until the 60s, the early 60s, you had wardens out in the backcountry all year long.
“There was maybe six or seven wardens out in the backcountry all year, all winter and all summer, they’d only come into town a couple times a year, pick up supplies and get back out in the backcountry.”
That changed in the late 60s, when Parks Canada decided to get rid of the district system, which had wardens working in 14 backcountry districts throughout the park. That shift saw those wardens move into the front country for the winter months.
“That was a big shift,” said Kaye. “When the district system started to break up, wardens started to move into town and then it became a five to six month job in the backcountry.”
Kaye started working in Blue Creek in 1980. At that time there were eight backcountry wardens that worked five months a year, from May to October.
“In around the late 90s up to 2000, that eight wardens changed to five in the backcountry. Starting in 2004, that’s 11 years ago, there were only two backcountry wardens.
“There was one in the North Boundary and one in the South Boundary, instead of four in the North Boundary, three in the South Boundary and one in the Tonquin.
“Now there’s no one in the backcountry,” he said.
“There are two or three wardens that work part time in the backcountry. They’re still stationed in town and they might go out for extended periods sometimes, but they don’t have districts anymore and they’re not called backcountry wardens anymore.”
In his book, Kaye explores this shift toward the front country and, although he said he’s not lamenting the past, he addresses his concerns with the new approach, suggesting that we’re losing touch with the park.
Speaking about it, he uses the analogy of a house with a backyard.
“If you never go out into your yard, you don’t know what’s out there, you have no idea what’s going on day by day, let alone season by season.
“The wardens aren’t getting out into 97 per cent of the area of Jasper anymore. They’re very smart, they’re very well trained these days, but they’re not getting out into nature as much as they used to; they’re not getting out into the wilderness like they used to; they’re not getting a true feeling of the park.”
Without wardens in the backcountry, Kaye said there’s a lot to lose. We no longer have journals tracking wildlife populations and their movements or the state of the park’s infrastructure and there’s no one monitoring or keeping tabs on poachers.
To make his point, Kaye pointed to Mac Elder, a long retired park warden now in his 80s.
Elder worked on the North Boundary in the 50s and 60s and during that time, he kept tabs on the caribou living along the boundary.
“He knew what the population was, he knew where they went to, he knew their movement patterns and the wardens in Tonquin knew the same and the wardens at Maligne and Brazeau knew the same there.
“Can you imagine where we would be today if we couldn’t compare the caribou population today to what it once was? If those wardens weren’t out in the backcountry we would know diddly-squat about the caribou.”
While writing the book, Kaye spoke with numerous retired wardens from Jasper and the Rocky Mountain national parks, adding their stories, as well.
“It’s not a pure biography,” he said, noting that the purpose of the book wasn’t just to tell his own stories, but to record the history of the warden service—where it’s been and where it’s gone.
“I wanted to record some history because there’s very few of us around now that did this backcountry work. There’s only a few guys in their 80s that worked year-round and I wanted to get some of that history down.”
Kaye will be in Jasper May 30 for a book signing at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives. To pick up a copy of Born to the Wild, head to the museum between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.