Parks Canada staff are saving our history document by document

By David F. Rooney

All week Parks Canada staff have been feverishly trying to save the history of our two local national parks from the effects of their sudden drowning last Monday night and  their potential destruction by mildew and other fungi. It’s a race against time the ultimate outcome is still in question.

“We’re the triage unit,” said Rick Reynolds, Parks’ visitor services manager, as he and photographer Rob Buchanan examined cold, wet photos, slides and other documents pulled from a pool of cold water on Friday. “We’re not going to save everything. We’re almost out of time.”

The pool in question is an orange canvas pool filled with water, documents and images. They are being kept wet and cold at a salvage operation in one of Parks’ buildings on Mount Revelstoke because the low temperature water buys them precious time.

“It’s a lot of history,” said Buchanan who was drafted into the recovery effort as soon as he arrived back in town this week from a vacation in Turkey. “And some of it is irreplaceable.”

Among the documents that can’t be replaced are photos from the 19th century, original photos taken at the scene of the 1910 avalanche that killed 58 workers in Rogers Pass, hand-drawn maps and hand-written  journals from the days when the Trans-Canada Highway was pushed through Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

“We’ve even recovered the original maps made of Nakimu Caves after they were discovered in 1906,” Reynolds said. “There are literally thousands and thousands of documents here.”

All of those documents, maps and images were in the Parks Canada Archive that occupied a large part of the basement of the building housing the Parks offices and the Post Office. At least that’s where they were when a water main broke and filled the cavernous basement with seven feet of water.

While the news media were not permitted to enter the disaster area one Parks staff member who saw it after the water was pumped out described it as “an unholy mess.”

In the days since, staff have tried to save everything they could. Two conservators, Liz Croome and Jose Milne, were flown to Revelstoke on two hours notice from the agency’s Western and Northern Services Centre in Winnipeg to over see the salvage operation. Under their direction many materials such as paper records have been shipped up to the Parks compound in Rogers Pass and ensconced in a large walk-in freezer. They’ll later be sent off to be freeze-dried.

Thousands and thousands of other documents and images were taken to a Parks building on Mount Revelstoke where they were kept immersed in cold water until they could be individual examined, their value judged and then either dried and saved or discarded.

“Forty-eight hours is how much time the book says you have to save things after this kind of event,” Croome said as she guided me through the building. “We’re at what? Seventy-two hours? The cold water has bought us some time, particularly with the photographs and other images. If it was warm water their emulsions would have collapsed and they’d be irretrievably lost.”

Some other things such as animal pelts that formed part of the natural collection in the archive may well be lost.

“As you probably know, Parks doesn’t go out and kill and collect animals,” Milne said as we passed collections of rodents, martins and other mammals. Many of these were road kill before we got them so they were pretty rough. But they may be okay. The birds, however, don’t do well when they’re wet.”

Croome and Milne have helped organize the triage effort but they recognize that the real effort is being done by local staff — people like Reynolds, Buchanan, Lise Tataryn, Tania Peters, Tina Whitman and Marie-Claude Asselin who are all dressed in sweaters and whose fingers are looking a little blue from the cold.

“We’ve got the easy job,” Croome said. “We do the triage. For the people who live here this is a really long-term job. They’ll be dealing with the effects of this for years.”

And no one yet knows what the cost of the salvage operation will be, let alone the repairs to the building, said Parks spokeswoman Marnie Digiandomenico.

Here are images from the flood and the document-recovery operation:

Glen Sakiyama of Burridge's primes a pump outside the building housing Parks Canada Tuesday morning. David F. Rooney photos
Plumbers, electricians and staff performing the all-important archival salvage operation in the basement are the only individuals currently allowed in the basement. David F. Rooney photo
Triage time. Rob Buchanan looks doubtful as he examines an image. Thousands of images and documents — many of them irreplaceable — were drowned this week when a broken watermain filled the basement of the Parks Canada building with seven feet of water. Since that disaster, Parks staff, guided by two conservators from Winnipeg, have been working feverishly to save their precious pieces of history. David F. Rooney photo
Rick Reynolds squats to pull a photo from a chest of cold water. Everything that was drowned was kept in cold water until it could be examined and then individually dried. David F. Rooney photo
This pool of cold water has been kept filled with paper documents, photos, slides and negatives. Staff have been dipping into it to pull items out one by one. "The first 48 hours are the most crucial," said conservator Liz Croome. "We're almost out of time." David F. Rooney photo
Jacolyn Daniluk, Tania Peters and Tina Whitman hang photos and documents to dry at Parks Canada's makeshift recovery lab. David F. Rooney photo
Rick Reynolds holds an old negative up to the light. Keeping slides, negatives and old photos in cold water prevents the emulsion that contains the image or negative from breaking down. But you can only get away with that for so long. David F. Rooney photo
Marie Claude Asselin and Lise Tataryn sort through materials. David F. Rooney photo
Conservators Jose Milne (left) and Liz Croome of Parks Canada's Western and Northern Service Centre in Winnipeg were rushed out to Revelstoke with just two hours notice to oversee this historical salvage operation. Every room in the building where Park staff are attempting to save their archival material pretty much looks like this. David F. Rooney photo
Liz Croome peers at butterly collections, animal pelts and antlers that were pulled form the water. David F. Rooney photo
The mammal skins, like those of these rodents, fared better than the birds. And the butterflies, if they were securely pinned were pretty safe, too. David F. Rooney photo
Skulls and bones, not surprisingly, emerged from the water completely unaffected by the experience. David F. Rooney photo
More rodent skins. David F. Rooney photo
These bird skins are not doing so well and may not survive. David F. Rooney photo
These boxes contain journals kept by staff during those long-ago days when the Trans-Canada Highway was pushed through Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks. David F. Rooney photo
These two images were taken by astronaut Roberta Bondar. They appear to have weathered their dunking and will now be sent to the National Science Museum in Ottawa. David F. Rooney photo
Another room in the salvage building, this time in the basement, that is covered in drying photos and documents. David F. Rooney photo
Slides dangle from a line to dry. David F. Rooney photo
These old 19th century photos are curling as they dry. David F. Rooney photo
More pieces of history that everyone hopes will be preserved. David F. Rooney photo
Retired Parks staffer Mas Matsushita pitched in to help with the triage effort. David F. Rooney photo
Old photos soak in one of the document pools. David F. Rooney photo
Rob Buchanan peers at a slide. How many of the images will ultimately be lost is anyone's guess. So far it's too cool for mildew and other fungi to devour the dampened materials. As to the cost of the repair and salvage operation, no one is even willing to guess at the price tag. David F. Rooney photo