by Annette Gray
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On the afternoon I visited Myrtle Raivio’s final resting place in Pine Grove
Cemetery, Rocky Mountain House, a chill west wind cut through my jacket and
hurled dry leaves among the headstones. Yet on this blustery October day the
wind had little to do with the way my eyes were watering. No, remembering
Myrtle, remembering that this was the time of year she would normally be in the
mountains caused the words chiseled in the granite slab to fill me with sadness.
“Lady Guide Of The Hills,” the epitaph read. What truth those five words held
because, not only was Myrtle the first woman guide and outfitter in Alberta, she
was every inch a lady.
I recall the many times she came into our mechanic shop to have repairs done
on her truck. I can picture her now, the curled-up brim of her western hat
tilted above sandy eyebrows and soft blue eyes, asking in that undemanding way
of hers, “Have the boys got time to look at my truck, today?”
At such times, I would happily leave my book work to visit while her truck
was being readied for the rough roads she so often drove. Over a cup of coffee,
she would quietly pondered over a wide range of local and international
events—and believe me she spoke intelligently on a wide range of subjects .
Environmental issues held a special place in her heart. I well remember my
husband and I attending a forestry meeting with Myrtle and thinking afterward
that she was far more knowledgeable about “timber management” than the evening’s
guest speaker, a college graduate.
She loved the mountains. For over fifty years “Shorty,” as she was called by
close friends, guided both Canadian and American hunters into the west
country—and this was no small endeavor. The hunting season was three months
long, September 1st to November 30th. Other clients, geologists and sightseers
traveled throughout the summer. Regardless of the duration of the trip, fifteen
to twenty-five head of horses were required for each party of travelers going
into the mountains. A minimum of two guides and a cook were needed for each
party. In the fall of 1955, Myrtle operated fifteen camps simultaneously in the
mountains west of Nordegg. All told, she used 103 head of horses and had a
packer and cook at each camp. Later on, while continuing to guide, she owned and
operated a large PMU barn and a productive trapline. Another time she had her
own sawmill, cutting and skidding the logs herself. She also constructed her own
trapper’s cabin—an unusual accomplishment for a woman. It was fourteen feet
wide, twenty feet long and made with timbers which she squared on three sides
and raised with a minimum of assistance.
Yet even as she competed with men, in what was traditionally known as a man’s
occupation, she retained her femininity. Friends and neighbors commented that
she was a “fine-looking woman,” “dignified to the core,” “always appropriately
dressed,” and “never gaudy.” In 1962, the community demonstrated their
admiration for her by electing her Queen of Central Alberta Light Horse
Association. And what a beautiful queen she made!
Still, the question remains, why did this petite blonde choose to work in
such a difficult and sometimes dangerous, male oriented occupation? To find the
answer we go back to her childhood.
She was born Myrtle Sands in Evarts, Alberta on July 21st, 1914. Shortly
after, she moved with her parents, two brothers and a sister to a cabin on the
Baptiste River, 45 miles north-west of Rocky Mountain House. Her father,
Clarence Sands, originally chose this remote home site to set up a trapline,
then began guiding big game hunters into the mountains in 1919. Although the
area had an abundance of wild game the Sands family were a long way from
civilization. So it was that Myrtle’s first school was the great outdoors where
she learned geography and biology first hand in the foothills of the Rocky
Life was anything but easy in the early 1900’s, especially for the young
Sands family who lived so far from town. Yet they learned to be resourceful,
producing their own food, clothing and tack for their horses. Roads were poor
and tragedy struck when Myrtle was four years old and her mother died of
appendicitis enroute to hospital.