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licensed to guide Harragin sisters

by Frances Rooney | January 12, 2007

With their assignment to Jasper National Park in 1928, 22-year-old Agnes Harragin and her sister Mona, 24, became the first women licensed guides in Canada’s National Parks system.

Mona and Agnes were born in 1904 and 1906 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies. When the girls were two and four, the family moved to Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and the sisters grew up on a small farm there. They loved it: the outdoors, the animals, and particularly the horses.

When a friend suggested that the young women try to get jobs as guides in the national parks, Agnes wrote to outfitters – the people who provide the equipment and often guides for trips into the mountains – in the parks at Jasper and Banff.

No one would consider hiring a woman for the work. But one man, Fred Brewster, did offer them jobs looking after one of the camps where travellers stopped to eat around the campfires and sleep in the tents provided.

In other words, they were offered “woman’s work” looking after the cooking and cleaning.

It wasn’t guiding, but it was a related job, and a way to get to know the area and the people involved. They jumped at the opportunity.

In June, 1927, Mona and Agnes landed in Jasper. From there, they went first to a camp at Medicine Lake, then they set up and opened a new camp at Malign Lake. They kept the camp running, fed the people who came through, and explored the area.

They talked with everyone they could to learn everything possible about guiding, outfitting parties, the terrain, the plants and animals, especially pack horses, and the people they worked with and for.

The two sisters got to know the region better than anyone else.

In 1928, Fred Brewster offered them the same jobs for the summer. They thanked him. They told him that they would only go back to the area if they were hired to be guides. Then they went on to plan what t hey would do when they couldn’t get jobs as guides.

But Brewster’s wife told him that she'd rather travel with women guides than men, and that the sisters deserved a break. Brewster offered them jobs guiding on the route from Jasper Park Lodge to Maligne Lake and back. It took some convincing to get the park authorities to issue licenses to women.

Agnes and Mona were ready for work.

The trip started to the north end of Medicine Lake, went down the lake by boat, then on horseback to Maligne Lake and south to Shovel Pass Camp. From there, the group would go back to Jasper.

Sometimes, the guides got a break, but for the most part they made the circuit continually, stopping only to change horses and people. Agnes and Mona shared 35 trail horses, but otherwise worked separately. One had the route out, while the other took the return route.

They were hired to guide, but, because the men hired to do the rest of the work did’t show up, the two caught, fed and saddled the horses in the mornings, then packed the food and gear on them, and cooked for the travellers.

When the men finally accepted the sisters as knowledgeable and skilled guides, they were liked and in demand. Although they usually spent winters at home in Salmon Arm, in 1928–29, Mona took Agnes to the West Indies, paying for their trip with money she had earned from selling her summer paintings.

The Great Depression began in the fall of 1929. Early the following season, Fred Brewster had to lay off Mona and Agnes. After only a few days of unemployment, an outfitter in Jasper offered them part-time jobs leading day-trips and some trips as long as two weeks.

In the fall of 1930, Agnes married Mark Truxler, who had also guided for Brewster. That New Year’s Eve, Mona also married.

Agnes left paid work and raised two children. Mona worked with outfitters until she and her husband, Charlie Matheson, a park warden, opened an outfitters and riding stable in Jasper in 1937.

After three years, they opened a guest ranch near the gates to the park. They retired in 1952. Mona lived until 1983.

Agnes and Mark retired in 1970; she died in 1988.

other early twentieth-century women of the western mountains
  • Ethel Unwin, who took over her brother’s outfitting and guiding business when he went to World War One.
  • Mary Shaffer Warren, photographer and adventurer, who spent many summers in the mountains with various friends, including Mollie Adams. Mary Shaffer Warren named Mount Unwin.
  • Mary Vaux, the American painter, a Quaker from Philadelphia, who painted in the Rockies. Mount Vaux is named for her.
  • Edith S. Watson, photographer, who spend decades traveling and photographing rural Canada, including the mountains of the west.
  • Victoria Hayward, journalist. Edith Watson’s partner and traveling companion.
  • Although she never went there, Mount Edith Cavell is named for the British nurse who was executed for helping Allied soldiers escape Brussels during World War One.
  • The tradition of women in the mountains continues. Cyndi Smith, who is now a conservation biologist at Waterton Lakes National Park, interviewed Agnes Truxler shortly before Agnes's death. Cyndi Smith’s writing has brought the story of the two sisters to life for many.
resources for this story
  • Extraordinary Women Explorers, by FRANCES ROONEY, Second Story Press, Toronto | 1995
  • Off the Beaten Track: Women Adventurers and Mountaineers in Western Canada, by CYNDI SMITH, Coyote, Lake Louise | 1993
  • Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson, Carlton University Press, Ottawa, and Images, Great Britain | 1996 :: McGill-Queen’s, Montreal | 1999

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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