Early Geological Mapping

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 earliest geology maps of the Yukon show only the rocks that line the major rivers; there are vast blank areas beyond the shoreline. If people wanted to cover a large distance in the shortest time you travelled by boat, mapping as you went. 

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.

The Klondike gold rush brought the GSC back to the Yukon on a number of projects. There was now a railway from the coast to Whitehorse and scheduled boat service on the Yukon River system, making travel easier. 

One project was to traverse and map the Mackenzie Mountains near the Yukon-NWT border. Joseph Keele spent an entire year in 1907-08 travelling from Ross River to the Mackenzie River. They took a steamer up to Ross River but beyond that they built small boats and had three pack dogs. The land was not suitable for horse travel due to the lack of feed. Dogs could pack 20 kilograms and could be transported by boat. During the winter months they built sleds for the dogs to pull supplies on a hundred kilometre hike over the continental divide to the headwaters of the Twitya River.

Pack horses were the favoured means of transportation where the terrain was favourable and there was ample natural feed for the horses. The most renowned of the GSC geologists to use horses was Hugh S. Bostock. He first joined the GSC in 1924 and was appointed chief geologist for the Yukon in 1931. Within two months of taking the position, Bostock was on the steamer Princess Louise to Skagway. He arrived in Whitehorse by the WPYR railway on June 21, and three days later he was on the paddle wheeler Casca to the north end of Lake Laberge. Here he joined a topographic survey party who were already in the area.

Their base camp had 14 horses belonging to an Indigenous guide and his helper. They also used flat bottom, square stern wooden row boats. Known as Whitehorse boats, they were equipped with a six horsepower outboard motor. When they moved camp up the Teslin River they found that lightly loaded boats could travel about the same speed as the packhorses travelling along the riverbank carrying the bulk of the supplies. 

Bostock spent the next twenty years traversing through the Yukon with packhorses. Upon his retirement from the GSC in 1966 he was convinced to write his personal memoirs. In 1979, “Pack Horse Tracks – recollections of a geologist’s life in British Columbia and the Yukon 1924-1954” was published. The book is full of fascinating stories about his many Yukon adventures and the locals he met. 

Bostock painted and wrote poetry as well; the Yukon Geological Survey’s core library on the Alaska Highway is named after him. He tells a great story of having lunch with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1954. They were in a suite in the back of a Royal Air Force plane on the way to Whitehorse from Vancouver. 

Aviation came to the Yukon in 1920 and the first commercial air company was formed in 1927. Yukon Airways and Exploration Company, was based in Mayo. Other companies soon followed. During the 1930’s planes on floats and skis, were used extensively on Yukon lakes and rivers, as they are today. Packhorses continued to be used by prospectors and geologists through the 1950s and 1960s. J.E. Muller of the GSC spent several years in the 1950s mapping the entire Kluane Lake area using horses and boats. 

The arrival of the first helicopters revolutionized travel. In the early 1950’s Hiller 360s and Bell 47s, (the ones you see on M*A*S*H) started doing survey work. In 1952 a Hiller 360 crashed south of Old Crow and in 2014 local aircraft historian Bob Cameron arranged for it to be moved from the crash site to Whitehorse. Bob spent hundreds of hours restoring the helicopter. One of the very first helicopters in the territory, it can now be seen at the Yukon Transportation Museum. Today helicopters remain the preferred means of fast, low impact, transportation in the mountains.

Drones are quickly becoming the latest game changer for mapping. That annoying buzz over George Dawson’s head in 1887 came from mosquitoes. For today’s geologist, it is more likely the hum of a drone.


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