Eagle Pass

© David Watts  Nov 02 Edm-Calgary


   Not on a shield or a coat of arms

                         With talons bared to prey

                         But riding the thermals of Eagle Pass

                         Showing Moberly the way

                        Though the crags between two great rivers

                        Becoming what they would be

                        And the way where we would draw a line

                       That would reach from sea to sea.


  There’s the northwest Pass(age) that Rogers found 

  And the one at the Great Divide

  In the last great crack through the mountain ramparts

 The eagles were our guide:

 Between the great Columbia basin

 And the Fraser roaring free

  Is a notch in the walls where eagles wait

 Above where the eye can see–


 Walter Moberly came by on a quest

  And stopped to scan the skies

  He fired a shot in the air overhead

  And watched the eagles rise:

  He followed their flight above the cliffs

   From his spot on the ground below

   When they passed through a gap in the valley wall

   He saw where the line would go.


There are cities and towns and mills and farms

In this far-flung land of ours

But still you can stop in the wilds of wind

And rocks and peaks and stars:

In the space of unknowing your eyes are open

And your heart can hear the sound

As the eagles rise with the cry of your soul

As you you stand upon the ground.


                          Not on a shield or a coat of arms

                         With talons bared to prey

                         But riding the thermals of Eagle Pass

                         Showing Moberly the way

                         Though the crags between two great rivers

                         Becoming what they would be

                         And the way where we would draw a line

                         That would reach from sea to sea:

                         Meeting here at Craigellachie.


Notes on Eagle Pass

Many countries have used the eagle as a national symbol. Rome and Germany are two well known historical examples, and a chart of today’s world flags and coats of arms will show many more. Though Rome had a mother wolf nursing two human infants as the symbol of the city, the eagle was the symbol carried on a standard by Roman legions across the Empire. The Roman and German eagles were at rest—perched. The American eagle is apparently airborne—its wings are outstretched while its two talons hold a laurel wreath and a bundle of arrows, respectively.

President John F. Kennedy gave a State of the Union address that used the symbol to emphasize the need for balance in U.S. foreign policy: maintaining arms strength while working to make “the United Nations a forum to end the Cold War rather than an arena in which to fight it.” It appears the eagle’s popularity as a symbol comes from its strength and size—largest of the flying birds. For some regimes its prowess as a predator may also be a factor, consciously or unconsciously.

The significance of the eagle in Canada is somewhat different. It has never been an official national symbol, the beaver and maple leaf having had undisputed precedence there in our history. But it became a symbol in the west in the story of Walter Moberly and Eagle Pass. Its role here was that of a guide rather than a monarch—one that resonates nicely with First Nations’ history.

Moberly, a surveyor for the former colony and new province of British Columbia was looking for a pass between the Columbia and the Thompson-Fraser river systems. The Fraser estuary was a natural destination for a transcontinental railway—since the 1846 Oregon Treaty the Columbia’s mouth was now in American Territory, despite generations of British explorers and traders who wanted what is now the Washington-Oregon states boundary to be the international one. But the Columbia with its Big Bend swing was central to the southern interior drainage system—one reason it became part of the Province’s name rather than “British Caledonia,” another proposal.

When the Macdonald Government made the decision to follow a more southern route than the Yellowhead, the Columbia River was inevitably along the path. It was a tributary of the Columbia, the Kicking Horse River, that the C.P.R. followed from the Great Divide in the Rockies down to Golden, BC. From there it was another Columbia tributary, the Beaver and its tributary, Bear Creek, the line followed up to the summit of Rogers Pass in the Selkirks. On the western Selkirk slope it was a third Columbia tributary, the Illecillauet, the Railway follows down to Revelstoke.

Here the smaller river joins the larger one, now flowing south to the U.S., while the Railway, almost finished with the system, crosses the Columbia and follows its fifth and last tributary, Tonkawatta Creek to Clanwilliam—as far west as the Columbia drainage extends. To go farther west in Canada now entails joining up with the Thompson-Fraser system. To find a link between the two systems was Moberly’s quest when he came to the Valley of what is now the Eagle River, fired his gun, and watched the eagles fly through the gap where the Railway was later to go.

This was as much of the story as I knew when I wrote the song. Later, reading the account from Moberly’s journal, I discovered that he was actually firing his handgun at a nest of eaglets in a tree – not the valley wall- and it was the parent’s flight he followed. After briefly considering revising the song, I decided to leave it as I wrote in my earlier unknowingness. In many of our his/her stories we have chosen to focus on the inspirational rather than the brutal side.