#301 Glory days of Park Wardens
First published May 7, 2018.
The Green Horse: My Early Years in the Canadian Rockies — A Park Warden’s Story
by Dale Portman
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2017.
$25 / 9781771602266
Reviewed by Michelle Murphy
Like many, I am captivated by the beauty and vastness of the Canadian Rockies – and curious about the men and women who played a role in their development and protection. The National Park Warden Service (created in 1909), and the National Parks Branch (1911), stipulated a warden presence throughout the national parks system.
The Green Horse, by Dale Portman, is an autobiography of his life as a National Park Warden during his changing and tumultuous working career, which extended from 1969 to 1998. Portman provides glimpses of the parks, the warden service, and the people he worked with, as well as many entertaining and captivating adventures of the friendships, challenges, and tragedies he experiences during the early years of his career – and of course the horses, both green (inexperienced) and seasoned by the trail.
Portman’s thirty years in the field were characterized by flourishing tourism, increasing complexity of mountain rescues, and a growing concern for natural resource conservation. In The Green Horse, Portman draws on his work experiences and recreational adventures to share stories of the landscapes and relationships he forged in Alberta and British Columbia while working in Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, and Yoho national parks.
In the first half of the book, Portman reflects on the childhood experiences that prepared him for his chosen career. His love of mountains began in 1954 on a family camping trip that instilled a determination to return to the mountains to live, work, and play. His dad’s transfer to Calgary in 1959 meant that his dream might become a reality.
During his twenties and thirties, Portman gained valuable backcountry guiding, climbing, and riding experience. His first job, at Deer Lodge in Lake Louise, introduced him to climbing, and he also acquired riding and ski-touring experience while working for the Mickle family.
When he joined the warden service in 1969, he trained in avalanche safety for two seasons as a winter “snowflake chaser.” He loved riding and hiking in Jasper and spending nights in cozy warden cabins or tents at primitive campgrounds. Portman portrays the veteran Jasper Park wardens of the 1970s – his mentors — as knowledgeable stewards of the backcountry.
Acquiring his dream job in 1973 as a backcountry warden in Jasper, Portman fell into the rhythm of busy summers, quiet fall seasons, and “lonely stretches” that brought both solitude and comfort. In the process, he acquired a deep attachment to the land.
While stationed at B.C’s Yoho National Park, Portman met his future wife, Kathy Calvert, one of the first two women hired as park wardens. Ominous changes were afoot at Yoho as park administration became pro-development. Portman’s new superintendent believed that wardens were too powerful, too concerned with environmental issues, and that they interfered with a business agenda. This rift between administration and wardens carried through into the 1990s, when Portman, seeing the writing on the wall, wrote his first protest letter warning of the potential collapse of the warden service.
Retired from the service since 1998, Portman continues to celebrate the “once-proud organization and its historic accomplishments” with his fellow former wardens.
Parks Canada terminated its warden service in 2008, leaving backcountry trails and infrastructure without maintenance and leaving the environment without protection. Although Parks Canada acknowledges that national parks are under increasing pressures from human impact, the last two decades have seen the effects of a stark change in policy. For example, environmental assessment procedures are now bypassed to cater to commercial interests.
In his final chapter, Portman hopes that Parks Canada will “again be a proud organization that provides quality service not only to those who frequent the high-use areas but also the backcountry visitors.”
Through the collection of short, easy-to-read chapters that make up The Green Horse, Portman takes the reader on an adventure through the Canadian Rockies from a park warden’s perspective, capturing stories of training, riding, backcountry skiing, climbing, and mountain rescues along with humorous moments of pranks and parties.
He draws attention to the essential role played by the once indispensable and now discontinued National Park Warden Service, and reminds readers of the valuable work and service provided by this fine organization.
A graduate student at the University of Alberta, Michelle Murphy is pursuing an MA in Recreation and Leisure Studies. Her research examines tourism development in the Canadian Rockies, specifically conservation politics and development decisions. Previously she completed a B.Sc. at the U of A. She also works as a research assistant and teaching assistant for the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. Michelle volunteers with the Sierra Club of Canada Foundation, Edmonton Chapter, and is a board member of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society.
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 Robert Burns and Mike Schintz, Guardians of the Wild: A History of the Warden Service of Canada’s National Parks (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1999), p. 7.
 Burns and Schintz, Guardians of the Wild, p. 249.
 See Rob Kaye, Born to the Wild: Journals of a National Park Warden in the Canadian Rockies, (Victoria: Grey Wolf Books, 2015), p. 333.