Myrtle Raivio: Alberta’s First Woman Guide and Outfitter

by Annette Gray
 
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?”
 
raivio_award_thuAt 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 Mountains.
 
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.
 
Perhaps it was her mother’s untimely death which fired in young Myrtle a fierce sense of independence and forced her to learn the skills of trapping, hunting and wood cutting. She often told about her first trapline which consisted of small rabbit snares set among the willows next to the family’s log cabin. These traps she tended conscientiously, knowing each pelt was important for her family’s welfare. Myrtle also became an ardent horse lover, riding and memorizing every landmark in the miles of timbered country adjacent to what is still known today as the old Sands’ Ranch.
 
When her father remarried, Myrtle became a mentor to five more siblings and, after some formal schooling in Slocan City, British Columbia, she began cooking in the camps her father set up for hunters. In 1932 she married Niilo Raivio who predeceased her in 1948. Two sons, Clarence and Ken Ravio were born to this union and later the boys worked with her on the trail.
 
In 1949, after six years of apprenticeship (partly served under her father) she acquired her own Guide and Outfitters’ license, embracing a career which spanned over fifty years. In this capacity, she often found herself traveling to conventions, such as the annual convention organized for the preservation of wild sheep. This conference hosted by the Foundation of North American Wild Sheep, not only helped Myrtle keep abreast of current big game policies, but also supplied her with many new clients. Traveling to such states as Wyoming, Nevada and Louisiana, she met other guide and outfitters, as well as hunters and conservationists from all over the world. Other trips took Myrtle to Montana, Wisconsin and Hawaii. Traveling as she did, was it any wonder she was able to speak so knowledgeably on international issues?
 
Most people in the region knew Myrtle as a capable business woman. Few knew about her voluntary work. When Myrtle’s mother-in-law, Amanda, and brother, Carlyle, were confined to Rocky Mountain House Hospital due to lengthy illnesses, Myrtle became a regular hospital visitor. Her visits were considered a ray of sunshine to both staff and patients alike. Once or twice a day you would find Myrtle at the hospital, dressing, feeding or running errands for various convalescents on the ward. She was never happier than when she was getting books, cards or pushing a wheel chair for a needy shut-in.
 
She was also an excellent seamstress, making the royal blue western shirt she wore when accepting the trophies (shown here). She seldom, if ever, used a ‘store-bought’ pattern while sewing for herself, her family or a neighbor. She simply took the recipient’s measurements and tailored the garment to fit. Once, when a group of little girls joined dance classes, Myrtle made each a pretty ‘made-to-measure’ dance costume. On another occasion, when a young pregnant mother could not afford a new dress to attend a wedding, Myrtle saved the day by whipping up a gorgeous maternity dress. She also made tack for her horses, crafting leather and nylon into bridles, martingales and halters.
 
Myrtle won many trophies during her years of guiding, perhaps her finest award being the Rocky Mountain Trophy for five years of registering the largest animals taken each season. Of this trophy, Myrtle proudly remarked, “I won it with goat, sheep and moose. It’s really a very attractive thing with wild animals mounted on it.”
 
In her many years as a Guide and outfitter, I never had the opportunity to travel in the mountains with Myrtle, but those who did, give glowing reports of their experiences. Except for personal items, Myrtle supplied all the necessities for a well run camp and scheduled the day’s activities to suit the needs of her clients. She was known to pay attention to details, assuring that travelers under her care, whether human or equine, were safe, comfortable and well fed.
 
However, ensuring the safety of others meant that Myrtle frequently put her own life on the line. Her son, Clarence, recalled one such incident in the spring of 1957, when she narrowly escaped drowning. Clarence, a teen-ager at the time, was working with his mother guiding a group of geologists in the country south of Chetwynd, British Columbia. Because the geologists needed rock samples from a fairly large area, it fell to Myrtle to get her charges safely across two rivers, the Sukunta and the Pine. The spot Myrtle chose for the crossing was just above the confluence of these rivers. She assigned the men and supplies to boats, while she, alone, planned to swim the horses across the Sukunka to a gravel bar. Once there, she intended to rest the horses before swimming the more placid Pine River.
 
“I told Mom it wouldn’t work,” Clarence recalls. “It was spring and the Sukunka was running deep and fast, but Mom was determined.”
 
Myrtle started into the water, riding her saddle horse and urging the other seven head of horses along as she went. Seconds later, all eight horses were down, being swept along by the current to where the Pine tumbled into the Sukunka. Clarence still shudders as he remembers the scene of horses struggling in the giant whirlpool made by the meeting of the two rivers—heads bobbing, feet thrashing as the frenzied animals fought their way to shore—but, to everyone’s horror, there was no sign of his mother.
 
Presently her body surfaced some distance downstream and a boat went to her rescue. When pulled from the water she was unconscious—more dead than alive—having been struck on the head by her horses’ flailing hooves. Yet, a few days later Myrtle was back on the trail, directing the camp as if nothing had happened.
 
Did she enjoy her work? To use Myrtle’s words, she said, “I wouldn’t trade my life for any other. Sure it’s hard work and this fall the weather’s been miserable. But I just love it.”
 
Yes, except for days of wet snow and the occasional complaining camper, Myrtle’s career was fashioned to her liking—a career cut short by death on August 8th, 1982 while she was awaiting heart surgery.
 
At her passing, a neighbor paid Myrtle this tribute. “If you had seen her in that pretty blue serge suit, with white hat, shoes and gloves to match, the day she and brother Carl climbed on board the plane to Wisconsin, you would have thought the same as I, that Shorty, call her what you may, indeed she was the “Lady Guide of the Foothills.”