Three brass badges that read “National Parks of Canada Guide” and stamped with a number and a year, from 1928 to 1930, defined and changed the lives of the first two licensed women trail guides in Canada’s national parks — Agnes and Mona Harragin.
Born in the West Indies, (Mona in 1904 and Agnes in 1906) the family moved to Canada, and the sisters grew up on a small farm near Salmon Arm B.C., with a passion for horses and the great outdoors. The family could not afford horses yet their father, however, presented the girls with a cow, which Agnes promptly trained and rode.
Knowing the girls love of horses, a family friend suggested they try for a job guiding in the national parks. Immediately, Agnes wrote to outfitters in both Jasper and Banff National Parks, asking for a job. The replies were consistent; “We don’t hire women as guides.” But Fred Brewster, a pioneer outfitter in Jasper, did add that he needed two women to look after one of his tent camps. Grasping the opportunity, Agnes and Mona accepted the jobs, arriving in Jasper in June 1927.
The morning after their arrival, Agnes and Mona were on the trail to Maligne Lake to help prepare the newly built chalet for opening, as their camp would not open for two weeks. At the end of each day, the two would explore the area or simply sit by the lakes edge until it was too dark to see. Agnes wrote that she “felt a surge of happiness in having chosen to find myself a niche in such surroundings.”
Soon the sisters were on their own at the rustic Medicine Lake Camp, three wooden-framed sleeping tents and a cook tent with an extended room for dining. This was the lunch stop for tourists riding to Maligne, but occasionally a party found it necessary to stay overnight.
It wasn’t easy, but the sisters unquenchable thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for the job found them learning all they could about packing and guiding from the outfitters that passed through their camp. They even volunteered to wrangle the horses for the guides (getting up at 3 a.m.,) a job the men were more than happy to pass on to the sisters. Between hunting horses in the dark and daytime exploring, the women were soon the experts on the Medicine Lake area — but they still weren’t guides.
The following season Fred Brewster wrote the Harragin’s, offering them the job as cooks/hostesses again – and they could choose the camp they wanted. They appreciated the offer but replied saying that unless they could guide, they would not return to Jasper. The women were overjoyed when Brewster extended an offer for them to guide on the “Circle Trip” from Jasper to Maligne Lake and return.
Later, they discovered they were hired on the insistence of Mrs. Brewster, who felt that they had earned the chance, as she, for one, would far rather make the journey with “one of her own kind.”
When they presented themselves at the government office for their licenses, the National Park authorities were alarmed and initially balked, but after a brief confrontation – and the license payment of $1, Mona and Agnes became the first female guides in a National Park.
They shared a string of 35 head, but worked independently, seeing each other only in passing on the trail and occasionally in camp. Originally they were promised packers, but the packers never showed up, so Agnes and Mona began – and ended - their day in the wee hours of the morning; catching, saddling and doctoring their animals. Because both sisters were small, packing was a challenge and often they either had to stand on a stump or another pack box to position the packs correctly. Soon they were proficient at tying the diamond hitch, which kept the boxes from shifting while on the trail. All this, plus they readied all the “dude” horses, got the riders mounted and led the way. The only job not required of them anymore was cooking — other employees at the camps filled that job.
The sisters became popular guides in Jasper and eventually left Brewster’s to work for Hughes and Kitchen, taking out mostly day trips. Mona though, guided a few long trips; one to the Tonquin Valley (she handled the horses and cooking) and a two-week trip to the Brazeau district. On that outing, she had a wrangler to assist with the horses.
Both sisters married fellow guides in 1930. Agnes married Mark Truxler, a fellow guide and they had two children.
Mona married Charlie Matheson, a park warden, and she joined him on backcountry patrols. Eventually they started the Circle M Dude Ranch just east of the park boundary. Mona died in 1983, predeceased by Charlie.
The Truxlers moved to Entrance, near Hinton, in 1936, eventually working for the parks department, retiring in 1970. Agnes passed away in 1988, Mark in 1990.
Mona once said it best, for both her and Agnes, as to their feelings about guiding:
“Well, you see, I’ve never been afraid of anything. I don’t know why, but it’s true. Guiding turned out to be a lot of trouble and hard work. But for me, it was worth it. Just to know I could do the job.”