Remembering Bob Nelson: A personal reflection

By Mike Nash, November 11, 2022

I first met Bob in 1978 in connection with an astronomical event, not through hiking. His name, however, was already familiar to me as the editor of the trail guide which I had purchased soon after arriving in town. It was my first year in Prince George and I had contacted Bob following a newspaper interview about the upcoming total eclipse of the sun early in 1979. Bob had travelled widely to observe several solar eclipses, and was the ‘go to’ person in Prince George for anything related to astronomy. As it turned out, I missed the 1979 eclipse, opting instead to take my first avalanche course from the late George Evanoff. I realized my lifelong solar eclipse ambition nearly 40 years later with the Great American Eclipse in Idaho in August 2017.

Continuing the astronomy theme, Bob was instrumental in assembling a large telescope in Prince George and in founding the Prince George Astronomical Society as part of that initiative. After he retired from teaching physics at the college, he also regularly obtained several weeks of observing time each fall on the Dominion Observatory’s big telescope in Victoria. His area of interest was binary stars, and in particular contact binaries, or stars that are close enough to be physically connected. He authored and/or co-authored more than a hundred scientific papers on those subjects.

Bob was an early adopter of digital photography and had assembled an impressive array of computers and scanning equipment in the basement of his home, both to aid in that hobby and to support his astronomical work. He also used that equipment and know-how to digitize and maintain the maps for the club’s trail guide, something that he continued to do right up to the end according to Dave King. When I was working on the biography of George Evanoff in the mid-2000s, I spent hours in Bob’s basement as he helped me to scan and clean up old photographic slides for that book.

Not content with helping to start a very successful hiking club, Bob went on to help found the Prince George Section of the Alpine club of Canada, and he was its Chair for the first few years. The PGACC was a member club of the FMCBC for several years before going its own way. As well as Section trips, Bob was also a regular participant in the ACC’s flagship General Mountaineering Camp held each summer.

Bob’s astronomy and mountaineering interests intersected for me on a memorable overnight Ramblers hike from Dome Mountain to Erg Mountain. We camped halfway along the ridge between the two peaks on a beautiful, clear night as Bob regaled us with an hour of binocular astronomy. That particular hike has never been repeated as the Dome Mountain and Slim Lookout trails are likely no longer in existence, and in any case are no longer accessible. The Erg Mountain Trail, the establishment of which was another of Bob’s notable achievements, is still very much alive. Bob apparently felt that this wonderful peak deserved to be recognized as a physical unit of measurement. The word “Erg” (centimetre-gram-second unit of energy) is derived from the Greek “Ergon” meaning WORK, which is certainly what you need to do to get to the top. That name is now enshrined in Erg Mountain Provincial Park. The following, written 20 years ago, is an excerpt from my book, Exploring Prince George, pages 139-140:

“Perhaps the finest day that I have ever spent in the mountains anywhere was in June in the mid-1990s when I went to Erg Mountain with the man who, 20 years before, had given it its name and had led the trail-clearing. Bob Nelson and I were alone, and the snow had melted from the alpine meadows four weeks earlier than usual. What we found was entirely unexpected. The alpine meadows were carpeted with the best display of flowers that I have ever seen anywhere; so alive and so fresh that we moved with exaggerated slowness to try and avoid treading on a single plant. As we climbed the ridge overlooking the spectacular Cariboo Range to the south, and Mount Sir Alexander to the north, a hoary marmot (usually shy animals) allowed us to approach within touching distance. The animal had sensed our oneness with the world that day and perceived no threat from us. Neither Bob nor I were in the slightest hurry, nor wanted the day to end—we didn’t summit until late afternoon, and it was 11 pm when we ate supper back in Prince George. Relishing one of the peak experiences of my life, on my favorite trail, I mentally thanked Bob for having pioneered it.”

Mike Nash, November 11, 2022