Read any good books lately (#3) – John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Ranges

John Clarke – Explorer of the Coast Ranges, by Lisa Baile, published by Harbour Publishing 2012, ISBN # 978-155017-583-7, 287 pages including many wonderful photographs. This is a wonderful book that can be found in the Cranbrook Public Libarary.

I came across this book by accident when I was researching material on Wade Davis. It turned up in a Cranbrook Library search of Wade’s books. He wrote the introduction to this biography. This is a story  of the extraordinary British Columbian climber, explorer, conservationist and educator, John Clarke. Over the years I became vaguely aware of John Clarke from numerous fragments of literature in climbing magazines. This gentleman, originally from Ireland, while growing up in Vancouver,  developed a passion for the Coast Mountains that became the central theme of his existence. Every summer for over 25 years he would literally pack his gear and wander off the down town streets of Vancouver to head off into the wilds of British Columbia. He would return in the winter to find work, accumulate funds and plan and prepare for the next summer’s adventure. More extraordinary is the fact that for the majority of these expeditions he traveled alone. Later on, for a number of years, he did hook up with fellow climber and explorer John Baldwin. We tend to forget that there are huge swaths of our province that are a literally unmapped “jungle”, albeit, wet, snowy, glaciated, and over grown with Devil’s club and Slide Alder. This book, coming hard on the heels of the Wade Davis Amazonian lecture at the Key City Theatre  was a reminder that we live on the edge of a geographical wonderland that, in some ways, is just as magnificent and awe inspiring as the Amazon. John’s legacy is the filling in of details of the landscape in The McBride Range, The Misty Icefields, Mt. Mason, The Manatee Range, Toba watershed, Whitemantle Range, Kingcome-Knight Traverse, Klinaklini & Silverthrone Glaciers, Mt. Willoughby / Machmell, and the Jacobesen Bay / Chuchwall River area. He also explored ranges north of Bella Coola. His explorations resulted in over 250 first ascents. His climbing career morphed into that of a conservationist and educator. The loss of his friend Randy Stoltmann in an avalanche right in front of his eyes precipitated a career change for John Clarke. Randy was a noted conservationist  and his death left a gaping hole in the conservationist community. John stepped into that gap. His passion for the mountains was a natural catalyst for working with the many conservation groups and aboriginal communities. The  mountains and explorations are not his only legacy. He also had a passion for the preservation of historical buildings in Vancouver. It seems that during his winter months he photographed and catalogued the disappearing buildings of Vancouver. His work as a conservationist, historical and environmental, also led to a career as an educator. This may have been the beginning of his “settling down”, although by our criteria his new life was still a life of passion, commitment, ideals and excitement. The changes provided him with some stability and  assured income. Because it would have taken him away from his central obsession with the mountains, John had always steered clear of romantic commitment. That came to end with his obsession and marriage to Annette Lehnacker and the birth of his son Nicholas. Also around that time he was awarded the Order of Canada for his lifetime of exploratory mountaineering in the Coast Mountains and his recent achievements as an educator and conservationist.  When Nicholas was born in 2002 it would seem that John’s life was complete. However, and here is the emotional kicker, shortly after the birth of his son, John Clarke at the age of 58 years  was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. John died February 23, 2003. This is a man we should all thank and remember.


John Clarke’s first ascents in the Coastal Ranges of British Columbia

 ps. Note on the map that despite John Clarke’s extensive explorations there are still great swaths of the province that are still “unexplored jungle”.


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