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How Lake O’Hara’s Alpine Circuit Ended Up Being Yellow & Blue

Trail markers on the alpine circuit.

Trail markers on the alpine circuit.Have you ever wondered who painted the trail markers on the “Alpine Circuit” at Lake O’Hara? There’s red and orange squares side by side, as well as blue squares with two vertical yellow stripes. Sometimes you see all of them on the same rock.

Who painted them? How were the colours chosen? It turns out it’s a multi-generational story, with a handful of cast members who ought to be celebrated for their efforts to keep us hikers in the right place on the mountainside.

Famous Lake O'Hara trail builders Carson Simpson and "Tommy" Link.

Lake O’Hara trailblazers – literally – Carson Simpson and “Tommy” Link.

First up in our cast are trail builders George “Tommy” Link and Carson Simpson. Through the 1940s, they worked to create most of the alpine circuit we enjoy today, putting up the routes to Wiwaxy Gap and All Soul’s Prospect, as well as the Huber and Yukness Ledges. Since there was little to indicate where the trails were, Tommy decided to mark the route with red and orange squares of paint. He had researched the colours, and believed that they would be easy to see for people who are colour-blind.

In 1969, the legendary Tim Auger started working as the district warden at O’Hara, and became a protege of Tommy, who was by this time in his 80s. Tommy took Tim out to all the trails he had built, and since the paint squares were fading, Tim repainted the red and orange in the early 1970s.

Park Warden Tim Auger painting route markers at Lake O'Hara in the early 1970s.

Park Warden Tim Auger painting route markers at Lake O’Hara in the early 1970s.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when my friend Edwin Knox, now retired from the Waterton Lakes National Park Warden Service, got his first trail crew job… at Lake O’Hara! He started in 1984, and spent three summers up at O’Hara. Edwin overlapped the era when the trail markers were changed. I interviewed Edwin for a couple of hours this spring (thank you, Edwin!), and got the whole story. In 1986, it was decided that the orange and red squares needed an upgrade: they looked too similar to the brightly coloured lichens on the rocks, and they weren’t ideal for those who are colour-blind.

Rob Hemming painting alpine markers in 1986

Rob Hemming painting alpine markers in 1986. Photo by Edwin Knox

That summer, Edwin was on a crew that included Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison (who later became the first woman in Canada to become a full mountain guide). Diny had studied fine art in university, and from her knowledge of the colour wheel, she knew that two colours from opposite sides of the wheel would give the highest contrast and be the most visible – even to those with colourblindness – so she chose blue and yellow. In the first week of August that summer, Edwin, Diny and Rob went on a mission to paint the new squares on the alpine route. They had little stencils, small paintbrushes, and a couple of cans of paint.

Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison painting alpine markers in 1986.

Rob Hemming and Diny Harrison painting along the Huber Ledges in 1986. Photo by Edwin Knox

Edwin provided me these photos of Rob and Diny at work. I love the Parks Canada “uniforms” circa 1986: blue or pink shorts and bare chests or bikini tops!

When you next do the alpine circuit, make sure you tip your hats to Tommy, Tim, Diny, Rob, Edwin, and all the other great O’Hara trail crew members who have followed in their footsteps. Without them, we’d almost certainly get lost up in the high country!

Tommy And Lawrence book coverIf you want to dig into the history of Lake O’Hara’s trails, I recommend Tommy & Lawrence: the Ways and the Trails of Lake O’Hara, by Jon Whyte, edited by Chic Scott.