In Banff: At the Banff Park Museum – The Legacy of Norman Sanson

On the downtown side of the Bow River Bridge, one finds a magnificent wooden building. The 1903 structure that houses the Banff Park Museum – advertised in a 1939 leaflet as the “Government Museum” – is the oldest still-functioning building owned by Parks Canada in its original capacity, and not only has the function of the building remained, but also the way it was functioning. The interior represents a museum from the era around 1914: stuffed animals in glass cases neatly presented in an environment of dark wood.

‘So it’s a museum within a museum,’ the girl at the desk said.

In fact, one steps into the very museum that Norman Sanson – Banff’s very own local hero (read all about him in Baffling Banff, see below) – helped put together. Well, almost. On an old photo of the museum, which I found on the second floor, I noticed that the animal heads hanging from the walls like hunting trophies had been displaced over time. Underneath the big glass lantern in the roof (designed to illuminate the museum with day light), now hangs, for example, a buffalo head that’s different from the one on the photo, which is darker and has the horns much closer to its head. But the head on the photo did not go lost: I saw it hanging above the stairs. And since my insatiable curiosity makes me wonder about the silliest things, I asked the front desk girl, who just climbed the stairs to see if people had any questions, why the two heads got swapped.

Compare the previous (yes, above) with the present head

‘Well, you sure got an eye for detail,’ she said. ‘Do you know that game called Memory, where you had to remember which card was where? I bet you were very good at that.’ She saw a little boy approaching with his parents. ‘Hey, how are you?’ She pointed at the glass case that held two stuffed bears: a black and a brown. ‘Can you tell the difference between the black bear and the grizzly bear?’

A young guy on the ground floor, who said that he was from Calgary and worked for the museum on a four-month contract, had a much more intelligent answer. ‘The day light pales the fur of the animals,’ he said. ‘They started noticing the damages in the 1940’s already. My guess is that they replaced the darker head with the lighter one to minimize the damage.’

‘Good thinking.’ I pointed at the head. ‘That could very well have been one of the very last buffaloes in the national park.’

He nodded. ‘Yeah, when you come to think of it…’

Buffaloes were once part of the ecosystem of Banff National Park, including as a food source for the native people of the area, but when the native hunters were given a hand by the European newcomers, who arrived with horses and shotguns and a remarkably strong market demand for buffalo meat and fur, the population went very soon from an estimated thirty million buffaloes on the Great Plains in the early 1800’s to near-extinction in the 1850’s. It was not just the hunting, there was also westward migration, plains becoming fenced-off farmland, diseases, and cattle from Europe that drank the water and ate the grass. The absence of buffaloes in Banff symbolises the increased presence of human beings.

Parks Canada, however, is going to reintroduce the buffalo to the park. One of the reasons – besides all the ecological reasoning behind such a strong move – is that visitors will be provided with a broader range of wildlife experiences, according to the institution’s website. My first response to that idea was that it strongly feels like Disneyland adding a new roller coaster to its rides in order to lure more visitors. Albertans, on the other hand, have raised concerns about human-buffalo conflicts and the animals leaving the park and going for a hike through downtown Calgary, which leads to this question: if the reintroduction of buffalo is so important, why, then, do it in such a crowded and mountainous area? The animals live all over the country; aren’t the empty plains of northern Canada a great alternative? Another concern was this: are there enough food resources for all animals once the buffalo has returned? Anyway, I just hope that Parks Canada knows what it’s doing, and that the underlying thought is not something like: “as long as the cameras flash happily behind the windows of the safari bus, it’s all good.” Yet, there is something poetic about the fact that money wiped the buffalo out, and that money will now bring the buffalo back.

The glass case in the middle of the ground floor showcases a collection of Rocky Mountain sheep, and on its roof an elk, a grizzly bear cub, some sort of tiny deer, an eagle, and a cougar. During my time in Banff, I never saw a cougar in the wild – despite the growing size of a very healthy population – and therefore I will take this stuffed sample as an incentive to have a closer look at this beautiful cat. He is big, powerful, but also invisible and, as a carnivore, potentially fatal. Perhaps because he is so evasive – a large cougar can be within meters from human beings, and nobody would ever know – his amount within the park boundaries could grow from 650 in 2001 to more than 2,000 in 2013. The cougar is a member of the Felidae family (the family of cats) and the fourth largest cat in the world, behind the tiger, the lion, and the jaguar. Despite it being number four, it is considered a small cat. And then number five, the leopard, is again – you guessed it, I’m sure – a big cat.

You see, the Felidae family is subdivided into Pantherinae and Felinae. The former includes the tiger, lion, jaguar, and leopard; the latter includes the cougar, cheetah, lynx, and your grandma’s housecat. The differences between the two subfamilies could probably fill a few scientific books from cover to cover, but let us stick to the major one: those in the Pantherinae family roar, and those in the Felinae family do not. A cougar does not roar like a lion – despite, ironically, its other name: the mountain lion.

When you study its head, it has a striking resemblance with the head of the house cat – more than the tiger, in any case – but that is where all similarities end. The cougar is an enormous animal, especially thanks to its long body, which gives it a length of up to 2 meters 80. Compared to its body, the head seems disproportionately tiny and the tail equally long. To get a good perspective of the cat’s size, look up a hunting photo on the internet: you’ll see how smiling men hold up the enormous cat they just killed.

Once it happened to be the other way round. During the very first days of 2001, a thirty-year-old woman named Francis Frost was killed near Lake Minnewanka while cross-country skiing. The animal reportedly waited behind a tree, and, as cats do, attacked the unfortunate lady from behind – three hundred meters away from her car. The incident happened on the same day that another woman, who was walking her dog, was stalked by another cougar when she was close to the carcass of an elk, and a third cougar attacked a dog, who wisely ran off and returned later with only a few bite wounds. And in the last week of May 2013, a guy, walking between the industrial area and the townsite with earplugs in, was attacked. He was hit from behind and pushed to the ground. But the guy was lucky: he used his skateboard to hit the animal, stunned it, and got away without any injuries.

These are stories that come with living in a national park, but since hunting is forbidden wildlife thrives, and so there are plenty of natural food resources. Cougars dine on deer, elk and mountain goats, and equally sized mammals. The cat in general may seem like a coward because it always sneaks up and attacks from behind, but once it has caught a prey it won’t let go of it. In the case of elk or deer, it will suddenly make a run for it and jump up to the animal’s throat. The next thing that happens, is the cougar trying to get the animal to the ground, while the animal, obviously, tries to stay on its feet. The cougar will either use its forelegs to hang from the elk’s antlers or its own weight to bring the prey down if the animal is small enough to do so. Then it will bite at the throat to crush the windpipe as long as necessary for the prey animal to suffocate. Once the prey has perished, the cougar will drag it to a place where it can eat undisturbed, and even cover it up with foliage to come back to it later.

One Dutch tourist told me once that she felt like being in Jurassic Park – Dutch forests, in contrast, are perfectly fine for hiking on one’s own, without the need for bear spray or another tool to fight off an attacking animal, and the idea that in Banff National Park all these animals are roaming freely, gave her enough fright to not do anything foolish, like going out alone into the woods. The Banff Park Museum is a safe alternative for such tourists, where visitors to the national park can come as close as possible with the often invisible creatures the forests around the town harbor.

I said to the guy, ‘And this collection has mostly been brought together by Norman Sanson, hasn’t it?’

‘Yes. He was the curator until he retired in 1932.’

I laughed. ‘And he still hasn’t been replaced. He must have been quite the character.’

‘Absolutely! And a very passionate man: he climbed Sulphur Mountain more than 1,000 times to record the weather.’

‘More than that. He climbed the mountain for the 1,000th time on July 1st 1931, but then went on for another fifteen years, or so. And he would be out in the backcountry for days on end to collect items for this museum.’

‘You know,’ – the guy was speaking with passion himself now – ‘after he died, there were so many artifacts that they didn’t know what to do with them. And he had no family that could inherit all these items, so after they gave away as many things to other museums around the country and probably the United States as they could, there were still so many stuffed animals and specimens left that they decided to burn the lot.’

I frowned. ‘Burn the lot?!’

‘Yep. One big bonfire!’

I liked this guy. Sanson himself would have hired him. It was too bad he had to work with that chick upstairs, but then there are so many jobs in Banff that an employer just hires whoever is willing to be present.

‘And there are still 5,000 items in this museum,’ I said. ‘Sanson was completely obsessed by what he did.’

‘He had to, right? Nobody else took it upon him to collect items for the museum. And back then animals were sometimes killed for the purpose of being put on display in this museum.’

I imagined Norman Sanson to be a kind of John Wayne, who enters town after days in the backcountry and returns with the corpse of a cougar slung over the back of his horse, riding straight to the pub where the smiling bartender knows what the man’s drink is, and where he shares a handful of good stories with the crowd, before going home to stuff the animal only to add it to the museum’s collection that same evening – ready for the next day.

Despite its limited size, the museum has devoted a significant portion of the second floor to Norman Sanson by re-creating his curator’s office. Just like the weather record station atop Sulphura, it looks like he has just gone out for the day. In fact, he has: a handwritten sign on the door says, “Gone up Sulphur! N.B.S.” The office looks entirely real – books on ecology, the big note book with handwritten sentences, the drawing of mountain sheep on rocks, the 1914 telephone, the fishing net, the enormous row of old-fashioned encyclopaedias – and because the rest of the museum represents the same era, the possibility to walk into Sanson seems real. The museum is like a time capsule that transports one back to 1914 the moment one steps through the front door, and it is hard to think of a greater way to pay tribute to the man and his impressive legacy.

The Banff Park Museum is one of the very few buildings within the townsite of Banff where they do what a national park facility is supposed to do: to educate the visitors. Norman Sanson got the message. And ironically, he was “just” a Parks Canada employee, though still irreplaceable.

This text has been taken from Baffling Banff by Jeroen Vogel.

All books at a glance

In the Netherlands: Why The Dutch Are Not Different
Dutch travel writer Jeroen Vogel goes on a journey through his own country. This entertaining account will be released later this year. 

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In Australia: Two Years In The Land Down Under
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In Australia is a delightful, fast-paced travel story, filled with witty and sharp observations, that paints a striking picture of a faraway country that is so recognizable and, at the same time, so immensely unique.


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In Vietnam: From Saigon To Hanoi On The Infamous Honda Win
Traveling from Saigon to Hanoi on a Honda Win motorbike—two Dutch friends decide to give it a go. Once the bikes have been purchased in Saigon, they embark—without any experience—on an adventurous journey that takes them along the coast and into the Central Highlands.

On the way, they lose each other in Saigon’s impossible traffic, sleep in dirt cheap hotels, continuously experience engine trouble, marvel at the breathtaking landscape, and end up in tiny villages. Everything goes according to plan, until two Italian backpackers and their stunningly beautiful Russian passenger, who seem to be in a rush to get to Hanoi, join the two Dutch friends. While one of the Dutchies can barely go faster than 30 kilometers per hour uphill, the other Dutchie holds on to the jolly Italians, who are inclined to cover five-hundred kilometers per day.

Can their friendship—and the trip—withstand the ever-growing annoyances?


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In Britain: The Long Path To Cape Wrath
Walking the length of Britain – the other way.

Most people walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, but, according to Bill Bryson, the longest distance one can travel in a straight line without crossing salt water stretches between Bognor Regis and Cape Wrath. Dutch author Jeroen Vogel decides to become the first person ever to walk “The Bryson Line.” He shoulders his backpack, turns his back to the English Channel and starts heading north. 

What follows is an entertaining and inspiring tale about missing waymarkers; fields with bulls, sheep, cows and more sheep; resilience; encounters with Brexiteers; getting lost; avoiding high hill tops and horse flies; too many pints of beer; fairy tale villages and literally reaching that goal, the destination.


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Baffling Banff: The Perfect Introduction To Canada’s Favourite Little Town
Well-researched, detailed, hilarious, uncensored, and incredibly honest, “Baffling Banff” is the perfect introduction to Canada’s favorite little town.

Jeroen Vogel’s unique way of blending a travel story with history, insight, opinion, and humor makes for a terribly readable book that will entertain and educate both Banff’s visitors and inhabitants.


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American Safari: Travelling The Americas Overland From The Polar Bears To The Penguins
North and South America are two completely different worlds – socially, economically, linguistically – but together, the two continents make up the only landmass that stretches from the arctic to the Antarctic.

Jeroen Vogel sets out to travel from the polar bears in Canada to the penguins in Chile on buses and trains until he reaches Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. Traversing fifteen countries, from tame Canada and commercial America to corrupt Honduras and poverty-stricken Panama, he finds himself in more than just one precarious situation that needs dealing with on an extraordinary and adventurous journey.

The result makes engaging reading for anyone who simply loves a good travel book, especially if the tale is told with a spin of humour.


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In Venice: The Courier In Charge
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In New York State: The Camp Counsellor
Jeroen Vogel spent three summers as a camp counsellor in New York State. In this book he tells the story of his last summer, looking back on the previous two, and explains why being a camp counsellor is simply the best job in the world! This book will be released later this year.

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