Jasper Park Warden A.L. Horton Retires After 31 Years
One of the last of the “old wardens” has hung up his Stetson.
Three decades ago, when A.L. Horton was a 25-year-old prairie boy looking for a job to compliment his conservation enforcement diploma, the son of a newspaperman from Vegreville, Alberta, didn’t know much about the national park warden service.
As such, when Horton made it through a screening interview (conducted by now-retired Jasper wildland fire manager, Alan Westhaver) and subsequently enrolled in warden school (rooming with now-retired Jasper fire and vegetation specialist, Dave Smith) he couldn’t have possibly imagined the career he would carve out.
“When I look back at it now, it was a lifetime of experiences,” Horton said.
These days, to make a career in the national park service is to streamline into a particular discipline, be it ecological integrity, law enforcement, wildlife conservation, fire management, or visitor safety. But when Horton was coming through the ranks, a park warden was a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades. Chief Park Wardens of the day valued a breadth of experience over stovepipe specialization, and up until the mid-2000s, wardens were as readily relied upon to lead a pack string of horses for a month-long trip in the backcountry—clearing trails, monitoring wildlife, suppressing fires, helping hikers and conducting poaching patrols along the way—as they were to carry out environmental assessments, perform high mountain rescues or arrest campground drunks on the May long weekend.
“My first posting was as a campground cowboy at Tunnel Mountain in Banff,” Horton recalled. “We were ‘armed’ with a radio, a metal clipboard full of various tickets, a set of handcuffs, and a big black Maglite flashlight.”
Wardens typically took on assignments in a two or three-year rotation, often at remote outposts where the learning curve was steep and self-reliance was not just an asset to the job, but a necessity to survival. Horton had several of these postings, one of his favourites being at Saskatchewan Crossing.
“It had everything I was looking for,” he said. “Horses, backcountry, remoteness.”
For 19 years Horton added experiences, knowledge, and skills to the blank slate he entered the service with as a young man. He busted poachers in Elk Island National Park and readied colts for the backcountry at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch. He climbed over high cols with teams of horses while summering out Banff and studied avalanche paths on snowy passes while wintering out of Lake Louise. He trapped bears, heli-darted wolves, and reared trumpeter swans. He helped protect indigenous artifacts on Haida Gwaii and taught kids to rock climb in Kluane. Whenever he went somewhere new, Horton never knew exactly what duties a particular post might entail. However, because he was open-minded and adaptable, his supervisors continued to challenge him.
“They let me experience my potential,” Horton said of his colleagues.
Because of his strong solidarity with the history and the values of the service, Horton’s sense of self was tested when he and his warden colleagues were ordered to hand in their badges in 2008. A federal ruling instructed Parks Canada to arm its workers with handguns due to the dangers of the job, and the agency subsequently cleaved off the law enforcement division of the warden service to deal with enforcing the National Parks Act. The remaining staff were reclassified as resource management and public safety specialists.
“That had a big impact on me,” Horton said. “Until then, the warden service had been my life.”
By this time, he’d moved to Sunwapta Station, where a cohort of Jasper characters who were in the same boat made suffering the career blow a bit easier, but the writing seemed to be on the wall for the generalists. Horton said he felt exposed as he made the transition to a public safety specialist.
“Working with visitor safety at a high level without a mountain guide background, I always felt a little vulnerable,” he admitted.
However, Horton soon found his niche. His calm demeanour and situational awareness made him a natural fit for search and rescue operations and his good detective work saved the life of at least one person when Horton pieced together a series of cryptic postings and photos to determine the location of a suicidal young man. Horton spent the next eight years with visitor safety, and while he was perfectly capable of hanging from helicopters and bombing avalanche slopes, his real strength came as an incident commander.
“I wasn’t going to be slinging in as a leader, running a rescue in technical terrain but I could figure out how to coordinate these things,” he said.
In 2018, Horton took a year off. When he came back to work, he had the opportunity to return to his roots as a generalist. Horton helped out with the human-wildlife conflict team, carrying elk calves to places their protective mothers wouldn’t pose safety risks to people and chasing grizzly bears up into the subalpine. He wrote avalanche bulletins and subbed in on rescues as required. He also embarked on trips on the north and south boundary trails, during which he collected data for JNP’s ecological integrity program.
Moreover, on those extended backcountry outings, Horton was able to play a role that so many of his senior wardens fulfilled for him in the 31 years since he came out of warden school: that of a mentor to his younger colleagues.
“It was fun to share what I know,” he said. “It was important to me to pass on those stories of the old times.”
Like the story of when he was gored by a bison in Elk Island National Park, perhaps? Or when he was buried by an avalanche near Parkers Ridge? Or when he was scaling a cliff while the sedated wolf in his backpack gradually came to…
Either way, it felt good to be an all-rounder again.