A Message In A Bottle: Or, Honeymoon On Cannon Mountain

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In July of 1901 my father and mother left St. Paul, Minnesota, on the second leg of their honeymoon for the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve, which is known today as Glacier National Park. My father, Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon, was a young instructor in the Department of Physiology of the Harvard Medical School, and my mother, Cornelia James Cannon, a recent graduate of Radcliffe College with the class of 1899. They had been married some three weeks before and had with their usual energy and sense of adventure paddled a birch-bark canoe down the historic St. Croix River and then for sixty miles along the broad Mississippi between its impressive bluffs. As my father wrote in his autobiography, The Way of an Investigator, they were twice reported as Indians and occasionally regarded as harvest hands looking for jobs. Then, sunburned a dark brown and toughened by the hard work of propelling their heavily laden craft and making and breaking camp every day, they were ready for fresh adventure. So they set their faces west and boarded a train for Montana.

It was my mother’s first journey west, though my father had on various occasions taken the train from St. Paul to Kalispell, Montana, and back with his sisters on passes from their father, who worked for the Great Northern Railroad. They would sit up in the sooty day coaches and watch the great wheat plains of the Dakotas and Montana unfold before them, dotted with the remote huts of homesteaders.

 

In a letter back home my father reported my mother’s delight in all she saw, from these same oceans of Dakota wheat to the sweep of the rolling prairies of Montana, “but her enthusiasm knew no bounds when we clambered into the engine at Blackfoot and started up the slope to Summit. She could not suppress her cries of delight as new snow-capped peaks came into view.”

They got off the train at Belton, Montana, and spent the night under the pines by the shore of Lake McDonald. Next evening they took the boat for the upper end of the lake. It was piloted by Charlie Howe, described by my father as “a long, lank figure, with broad-brimmed hat and buckskin coat. He is a guide of the region but is of an easy going Rip Van Winkle variety, hunter by necessity, loafer by nature.

“As we were going up the lake,” my father continued, “Cornelia expressed a desire to climb all the mountains in sight.” Apparently Charlie Howe pointed out Goat Mountain, a massive peak standing at the head of the lake, and said it was “the worst” mountain in the region; no one had ever reached the top, and the first person reaching the summit had the right to put his name to it.

Howe’s tale must have fired my mother’s competitive instincts, for she persuaded her amiable bridegroom to consult a guide named Denis Comeau about trying the ascent of Goat Mountain. My father wrote, “Howe has told us that ‘time, water, and vitality’ were the essentials to climbing a mountain, and we thought if water could be provided, we could supply the others.” Although Comeau was slightly skeptical, not promising an ascent, he was willing to try. Neither my father nor my mother had ever climbed a mountain before, being natives of comparatively flat Minnesota.

 

On July 18, the night before the climb, they camped under the stars at the foot of Goat. They started their ascent at seven the next morning. At half past ten they reached the snow line and sat down to eat their morning snack. My father rather offhandedly remarked in a letter to his father that “the climbing had been hard, but, aside from a stone falling and grazing Cornelia’s face, had not been exciting.”

The excitement was not long in coming. After eating, the three started up again and had reached a height of five thousand feet when they were confronted by a perpendicular wall of rock, nearly a hundred feet high and stretching all around the mountain as far as they could see. Needless to say, they had none of the equipment of modern climbers like ropes, slings, wedges, and so forth, just boots and bare hands. They tried crawling up a narrow crevice; my mother went through, and so did Comeau, who was small and wiry. But my father was “too thick,” as he reported. “I was wedged in that narrow crack, unable to go up or down, and with a slide of smooth mountainside running almost directly below me for hundreds of feet. I finally felt my footing and got down.”