When hikers head out to the mountains this long weekend, some will choose their route by word of mouth, others will use a trail app — but plenty will reach for a well-worn copy of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.
The guide, affectionately known as “the Bible” to some outdoor enthusiasts, has been on the bookshelves and in the glove compartments of Alberta hikers for more than 50 years.
It’s thought to be the first comprehensive hiking guide to the region and is Canada’s longest-running hiking guide still under its original authorship, according to the book’s publisher.
But when Brian Patton first approached Bart Robinson about the project in 1969, neither one was thinking far beyond that summer.
“Brian came up with the idea … and I said, ‘Sounds great,’ thinking at the time that it would never be in publication for more than a few years,” said Robinson, the guide’s co-author.
At the time, both men were kicking around the Rockies and working at the Banff Book and Art Den.
Patton saw a gap in the market for a book of his own: a local hiking guide that would spark interest in hikes beyond the most popular trails, and that would include photos and, most importantly, accurate measurements.
To measure the trails, the pair drew inspiration from the traditional surveyor’s wheel but needed something a bit more rugged to go over bumpy rocks and roots.
Bike wheel was ‘hell pushing through mud’
They approached a local bike seller, who built them a custom creation: an odometer slapped on top of a full-sized bicycle wheel.
“They were hell pushing through mud and up over scree fields and so on, but generally they worked pretty well,” said Robinson.
The first edition featured trails from Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Waterton Lakes, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke national parks, along with some trails around Mount Assiniboine and Mount Robson provincial parks.
To cover such a large surface area, the men opted to divide and conquer, rarely hiking together except on certain trips to make sure they were still coming up with the same measurements.
It was tedious to interrupt hikes to take down measurements, and the bike wheels drew some hecklers, but the pair said the field work was a joy.
The hard part came later: sitting around in Patton’s apartment (he’d thrown his mattress in the living room to turn his bedroom into an office) translating notes from more than 100 hikes into a comprehensive guidebook.
“We didn’t have any idea how the book would be printed or or how it would be distributed,” said Patton.
The Banff Book and Art Den stepped in to help, starting up a publishing imprint — Summerthought Publishing — to bring their book into the world. The word “Summerthought” references the time that Banff residents have in the winter to dream up summer projects.
The trail guide came out in the summer of 1971 and surprised both by becoming an immediate success, climbing to the No. 2 spot on the Calgary Herald bestseller list.
“We sold them by the caseloads,” he said.
‘First and best’
Gavin Fitch, who sits on the board of governors with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, remembers the book coming out in the summer of 1971. That was right around the time his family first started hiking and backpacking.
“As long as I have been hiking, the trail guide has always been there,” said Fitch.
For a long time, Fitch said, if you wanted to know what trails were out there, how long they were and how much elevation was involved, the trail guide was “really the only source.”
“To my mind, it was the first and it’s always been the best,” he said.
While the trail guide didn’t make Patton or Robinson rich, it did turn them into celebrities of a sort within the community of hikers and outdoor lovers.
“I could go into Calgary on totally unrelated business and my name was recognizable to anybody that I would happen to meet there,” Patton said.
The book also served as a springboard to careers focused on natural and human history: Patton as a regional historian and shepherd of the more recent editions of the trail guide, and Robinson as a journalist, editor and conservationist.
More than 50 years after it was first published, the book is now in its 10th edition and is still a fixture at bookstores like Canmore’s Cafe Books.
“It is one of the popular choices,” said retail manager Nina Albert, adding they’ve sold about 450 copies of the latest edition.
While sales have slowed in recent years — and there are now more options people can turn to for trail information — Fitch says the book still serves a role as a useful, reliable source of information about the Rockies.
“I think the book will stay alive for a long time as a print edition in a world that is now gone very digital,” he said.