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

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Comeau decided that the rock face was too perilous for them, and after scouting, he found what seemed to him to be a better place to climb the wall, a place from which the summit could be seen two thousand feet above. The climb from then on sounds excruciating. They passed along a mountain-goat trail only a foot wide on the side of a slide about a thousand feet long, and at last they reached a ridge, along which they scrambled toward a ledge in the side of a precipitous wall of rock. Walking along the ledge, at one point they had to negotiate a corner where the jutting rock was only six inches wide over a yawning void. At last they topped what they thought was the final ridge, and “suddenly there burst upon us the most wonderful and awful sight we ever hope to see,” my father wrote. “Stretching to the north for more than a hundred miles was the grandest profusion of snow capped peaks and jagged walls of rock, reaching into the sky, that the imagination could possibly picture.” They sat gazing at this glorious vision until Comeau called attention to the fact that what they thought was the top was not within five hundred feet of the summit. The top looked dubious to them, but they went on, picking out a stairway in the rock as they went.

As they neared the summit, my mother went ahead, and when the two men reached the highest point, she was there to welcome them with the cry, “This is Cannon Mountain.” My father had a bottle with him, and he wrote on a piece of paper a certificate of their being there and the name of the mountain, then placed the paper in the bottle, sealed it, and covered it with a pile of rocks.

They started their descent in midafternoon and made it down with just one incident, according to my father: An enormous boulder passed them, bounding through the air on a long jump of more than two hundred feet over the rock wall that had almost stymied their upward ascent.

They reached camp at nine o’clock and at noon the next day were back in the hotel at the foot of the lake, “astonishing the natives.” The mountain had been tried many times; members of the U.S. Geological Survey had attempted it only a week before and found it impossible.

My mother was apparently praised on all sides, Comeau swearing that she was as gritty a climber as he had ever seen, “including men.” Charlie Howe said to my father, “That’s a great woman, your wife,” to which my father modestly responded that she did have grit. “Grit!” Howe exclaimed. “She’s American clean through!”

“I never saw or heard of such wonders,” my mother commented, “and I am even resigned to looking like an ex-prizefighter just breaking out in smallpox for the sake of the glories that have been. We slept two nights before and after the ascent out under the pines as the poets advise us to do, but it is not at all what the poets say. The horrible No-see-ums, the invisible fly of the pines, bit from sunset to sunrise, and as they poison me frightfully, I am a sight for Gods and men. Then the mountain rock left the side of my face not what it once had been. But what of that, we are immortal! So long as the eternal mountains stand, Cannon Mountain will stand too.”

Cannon Mountain it was indeed named when the members of the Geological Survey who were mapping the region heard the story of the climb and reported it back to their Washington headquarters. And there it stood, for decades, the stunning peak at the head of Lake McDonald, the provenance of its name long forgotten except by a few members of the family, the story of its ascent recorded only in family letters, in a brief mention in my father’s autobiography, and in an article he wrote.

In late July of 1985, almost eighty-four years later to the day, two young Montanans, James Best of Kalispell and Ted Steiner of Whitefish, both experienced mountain climbers, scaled Cannon Mountain. At the top they found, partially concealed under a cairn, an old four-to-six-ounce clear glass bottle that had once contained a brand of malted milk bottled in Racine, Wisconsin. Inside, well preserved, was a folded note in pencil that read: “This is to certify that on Friday, July 19, 1901 Dr. and Mrs. W. B. Cannon climbed this mountain. Cornelia James Cannon was first to reach the top and named the mountain Cannon Peak. Denis Comeau was the guide.”

They left their find in place when they descended the mountain, but, having consulted with park officials, they returned the next day, retrieved the artifact, and substituted a plastic bottle with a new and identically worded message “for the benefit of future explorers.” They turned the original over to the Park Service.

There the response was more suspicious than enthusiastic. The chief of Glacier Park’s Interpretation Section told a newspaper reporter: “It appears there’s some inconsistency. The metal screw lid wasn’t used until the 1940s, and that type of bottle with pressed seams doesn’t seem to have appeared until 1920. And the writing looks like it could have been done yesterday.” There were dark hints of a hoax.