When you fly over Yukon and British Columbia, look out your window if you can. You will see an endless, rugged landscape, broken by lakes and rivers. The first geologists who came to map this vast land did not have the fortune to do a flyover first. As different means of transportation evolved over the past 100 years, so has the way maps have been made.
The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was created in 1842. The survey’s earliest days were spent mapping around the Great Lakes and locating coal reserves in Nova Scotia. After confederation the GSC expanded their reach to the west, mapping potential routes for the new railway in 1871. The GSC mounted their first geological expedition to the Yukon in 1887. This was organized due to sovereignty concerns triggered by a trip Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of the United States Army made in 1883. Schwatka traversed and mapped the length of the Yukon River naming many of the features we know today.
The 1887 expedition to what was then known as the Yukon District of the Northwest Territory was led by George Mercer Dawson. The expedition had three parties. Dawson and his four men traveled up the Stikine River and into the Liard River to Frances Lake, then overland to the Pelly River and finally up the Yukon River and over the Chilkoot to the coast. William Ogilvie a land surveyor and his party started at Dyea went over the Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River. His goal was to establish the exact location of the boundary between Yukon and Alaska. The final crew led by Richard McConnell split with Dawson at the Liard River and went downstream to Fort Simpson and beyond.
After taking the newly built railway from Ottawa to Vancouver, Dawson’s expedition caught an Alaskan steamer to Wrangell, Alaska. Then up the Stikine River as far as you could go by boat, to Telegraph Creek. From there the trip to Dease Lake was by pack horse along a cart trail constructed by the British Columbia government. The trail followed a long used route the Tahltan Nation used for trading with the indigenous peoples of the interior.
Dawson arrived at a still frozen Dease Lake in early June and set about to whipsaw planks to construct three wooden boats. With the addition of five indigenous guides and boatmen they headed out on June 18th, just after the ice went out. They travelled down the Dease River to the Liard and then slowly up the Liard and Frances Rivers, arriving at Frances Lake on July 8.
Here they left their boats to make a three week hike overland into the Pelly River drainage. There the GSC crew built a canoe with canvas they had packed in. A canoe was better suited than a wooden boat for the rough sections of the upper Pelly. On August 11, they reached Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River and built their fifth and last boat. This boat took them up the river to Lindeman Lake where they hiked over the Chilkoot to Dyea on September 20 to catch a steamer south.