50 Year Old Canoe Mystery
Ever been traveling and hear a story? Maybe it was true, or maybe not. This travel mystery involves a stretch of rapids in the Maligne River, a Hollywood film, and a canoe hanging from the rafters of the Maligne Lake Lodge in Canada. It took 50 years to solve – at least part of the mystery.
It began with a hiking vacation in the Canadian Rockies taken by my wife and myself in the summer of 1956. Being New Englanders, we were awed by the magnificent snow-capped mountains. But as whitewater enthusiasts, what struck us even more were the many rushing rivers. I remember hiking up the Berg Lake Trail and being impressed by the rapids in the Robson River thinking they might be too wild for running with the 17-foot Grummans most of us were using in those days.
As an alternative, a park ranger suggested we check out the rapids on the Maligne River.
Back then you reached Maligne Lake by taking a shuttle bus over a very rough road that followed up the river. Jane and I were the only passengers, and when our driver noticed our keen interest in the rapids, he entertained us with stories about the river. Most of the memories have now faded, but the one that has haunted me all through the years involved a Hollywood movie that was filmed in Maligne River, with a stunt man running the rapids in a canoe. Our driver even described a net being stretched across the river to catch the canoeist in case of an upset. (Frankly, not knowing all the details, I think I would have preferred to take my chances without the net.)
I always wondered what that film was. Recently, with so many of the old films available on VHS or DVD, I took a renewed interest and decided the best way would be to investigate the mystery with a return to the site of the mystery.
So half a century later I returned to Jasper National Park with my companion Mary Dow. Our first stop was at the Visitor’s Center in Jasper where we uncovered the name of the movie: Rose Marie, a 1936 MGM classic starring Nelsen Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. We also discovered that the original canoe used in the film might still be around. Where was the next question.
Next we drove to Maligne Lake, the road had been paved since our last trip, with only occasional glimpses of the rapids. When we reached the lake, we found the old boathouse where Jane and I had rented a boat those many years ago and rowed to a campsite all the way up the lake. It still looked about the same, as well it should. It was built by the legendary guide Curly Phillips in 1928, and is now preserved as a historic building, the last remaining structure of his old Maligne Lake Camp.
As Mary and I sat in the Maligne Lake Lodge having our lunch while admiring the magnificent view down the lake, I asked Mary if she remembered ever seeing the film Rose Marie, and to joggle her memory I hummed the theme song, “Indian Love Call.” A couple from Ontario sitting next to us overheard me, instantly made the connection, and came over to chat. Oh yes, they had seen that film many years ago. When I then asked if they knew the whereabouts that historic canoe, they suggested we glance overhead. Lo, there it was, hanging from the rafters directly above us!
A plaque on the canoe reads as follows: ORIGINAL CANOE FROM THE MOVIE CLASSIC ‘ROSEMARIE’ STARRING JEANETTE McDONALD AND NELSON EDDY.
Mystery solved at last? Well, not quite.
The next step was to view the movie. I found a VHS copy of it easily enough on the Internet. Alas, the only canoeing scene in it appears to have been filmed in the MGM studio with the lake painted on the movie set background. Surprisingly, however, Nelson is seen going through the motions of a proper J-stroke.
Further research reveals that most of the outdoor scenes in that 1936 classic were filmed in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe, and none in Canada. As for the plaque on the canoe, even the Jasper National Park website admits that it is mistaken, not to mention its misspellings of MacDonald and Rose Marie. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking to be associated with that famous film. The same misinformation appears in several travel brochures. One would even have you believe the canoeing scenes were filmed on Lake Louise!
Using the Internet, I finally discovered that it was actually the 1954 MGM remake of Rose Marie, starring Ann Blyth and Howard Keel, that was shot on the Maligne River. That mostly awful B-grade movies only redeeming feature is the spectacular Canadian mountain scenery surrounding the Lake. Maligne Lake appears in the opening scene, followed shortly by the heroine paddling her canoe down some class 2 rapids in the Maligne River. Mary and I suffered through the rest of the film anticipating better canoeing scenes . Unfortunately there were none.
As for the crude planked canoe hanging from the rafters? It bears no resemblance to the fake birchbark canoe shown running the rapids in the film. Just where did that canoe come from? That looks like one mystery we won’t be able to solve.