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Robert Porsild, 1898-1977

Arctic & Northern Biographies

The history of Johnson's Crossing Lodge

The Whitehorse Star, Tuesday, January 3, 1978

Bob Porsild, 'A Giant of a Man'


    "A giant of a man, in more ways than one" is how Bob Porsild appeared to many Yukoners, and his death at 79 last Friday at his home in Whitehorse has removed from the daily scene one of those quiet pioneers who helped to build this country.

    Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 28, 1898, he was one of three children who moved with their parents to Godhaven on Disco Bay in Greenland in 1906 where their father operated the botanical station for the Danish Government.

Bob Porsild, 1898-1977     Dr. Morten Pedersen Porsild founded, and for more than 30 years directed the Arctic Station on Disco Island. One of its objectives was to train young scientists in Arctic exploration and research, and Dr. Porsild started with his own youngsters.

    As well as their usual lessons, young Robert and his brother Erling got plenty of botanical and anthropological lore and after their studies had plenty of time to run loose, searching for specimens.

    Their heroes in those days were two fellows about ten years older... "Big Peter" Freuchen and "Little Knud" Rasmussen.

    After studying botany and biology at the University of Copenhagen, Robert was ill in 1922 and was advised to leave his studies and get into some outdoor occupation. He travelled to Chicago and went to work in the building trade for four years.

    In 1926, with his botanist brother Erling, Robert was invited by the Dominion government to study and report on vegetation in Canada's far northwest. Reindeer herds were to be driven overland from Nome, Alaska and little was known about where the best forage was for such a trek.

    The three-year study required them to travel around the Beaufort Sea and adjacent country north of the timber line from Nome to the Mackenzie River.

    The summer of 1926 was spent in Alaska studying reindeer husbandry and here the Eskimo language learned in their boyhood "through our ears, not on paper" stood the brothers in good stead.

    "The nouns are the same, though the build-up of the words is a little different," Bob Porsild told interviewer Lyn Harrington in an article for Beaver Magazine several years ago, and added "My Eskimo is slipping now because I don't use it anymore."

    In the fall of 1926 they left Nome by dogteam and travelled to Point Barrow and then to Demarcation Point, Herschel Island and on to Aklavik, at that time the center of government.

    The following year they travelled the district by dogteam, boat and on foot, collecting botanical specimens.

    In the winter of 1928 they travelled up the Mackenzie River to Fort Norman and Great Bear Lake and across the lake to Dease Bay.

    A map of the Canadian north is necessary if today's reader is to appreciate the distances covered by the two brothers.

    As Bob Porsild wrote in notes about that journey: "Spent entire season of '28 circumnavigating Lake... Bob collecting. Late in Fall returned to Ottawa with all collections, amounting to 16,000, including many new specimens. Began writing official report."

Marriage and Travel

    Erling Porsild stayed with the Dominion Government on the reindeer project until 1937 when he was appointed Dominion Botanist at Ottawa.

    Robert took leave in April of '29 and travelled back to Denmark and Greenland to spend the summer at his old home, meanwhile collecting more plants.

    At the beginning of the new year he reported back to the Canadian government and headed north that spring to Aklavik.

    He built a corral and quarters for the Lapps, soon to arrive with the herd, their families and himself, part-time manager, in anticipation of a prize specimen he had collected while home in Denmark.

    His fiancee, Elly, arrived September 15 and three days later they were married at Aklavik's Anglican Church and set up housekeeping at the Reindeer Camp on the east side of the Mackenzie Delta.

    Their first child Betty was born in Aklavik the following year, and the population of the camp grew with the arrival of Erling Porsild and his wife and three Lapp families.

    In 1932 they all moved to a winter camp, building five new houses and other buildings.

    In November of 1932 he received a telegram from the government ordering him to advance, with three iof the Lapp herders, across the border into Alaska where the reindeer herd of approximately 3,000 was on its way toward the Mackenzie River, and turn the Lapps over to the man in charge of the drive, Andrew Bahr.

    Mr. Porsild wrote of this portion of his assignment in an article entitled "A Seal For The Government," in the Spring, 1971 issue of The Alaska JOURNAL, telling of the hardships encountered because of lack of food in the Eskimo camps along the way.

    The government's money had been useless on the trip to meet the herd, but the Alaskan Eskimo had given their last seal to the Canadian visitors, and in return, received the last slab of bacon and bag of rolled oats from the travellers.

    After meeting Andrew Bahr and completing his assignment, Robert Porsild added some instructions of his: Mr. Bahr was to watch especially for the camp of Aklak, and leave with his people as he passed, two full-grown reindeer, with the compliments of the Canadian government.

    For the rest of the winter Mr. Porsild travelled back and forth from Herschel Island, relaying supplies to the reindeer party.

    The following year, he resigned from the government post and with his wife and child moved to Vancouver, B.C. where he managed the Denman wharves for a time.

Back To The Yukon

    But city life wasn't right for the Porsilds and after 18 months they returned to the north, starting at Whitehorse.

    Here, with two partners, Bob built a 35-foot river-boat and following the birth of their son Aksel, travelled to the mouth of the Sixty Mile and then up Ten Mile Creek to build four cabins and went into placer mining on the creeks nearby.

    The two partners left but the Porsilds stayed on the creek until 1940 by which time Elle (who was born in Dawson) and Johanne (who was born at home, her father acting as midwife) had joined the family.

    The Porsilds moved into Dawson where Bob worked with YCGC on Bonanza Creek and the following winter worked on the construction of the airport at Snag.

    In the spring of 1943 he was working with Ole Wickstrom supplying firewood to the U.S. Army camps so sent for his family to join him in Whitehorse, on the first boat of the season, the AKSALA.

    Later he started a small boatyard on the east side of the Yukon River where he built eight or ten boats, then contracted with Standard Oil for work on the Canol Road until the end of the war.

    In the next few months he built the 38-foot cabin cruiser ARROW for Mike Nolan at Marsh Lake, then moved up the highway to Burwash to build the lodge for the Jacquot brothers, in 1946-7.

    Then he contracted with the Department of Indian Affairs to move nine buildings to Teslin where an Indian residential complex had been planned.

    In the fall of 1947 he bought the American camp site at Johnson's Crossing and thus began another chapter in Yukon history.

    By the spring of '49 the lodge was open, after many months of hard work by all the family. For the next 15 years the Porsilds continued to expand the lodge, gradually enlarging and adding buildings.

    What started "with about twenty prefabs, an enormous mess hall, an ancient White flatbed and not a penny in hand" became one of the best known stopping places on the Alaska Highway.

    "Elly and Bob Porsild made friends and goodwill for the Yukon among people from every province in Canada and every state in the USA; people who came as travellers up the Alaska Highway and stopped at Johnson's Crossing, Mile 837, for a meal and a rest. The hospitality and friendliness extended to tourists and road crews during their 17 years at JC was second to none in the north."

    So said the Rotary Club of Whitehorse when proposing Mr. and Mrs. Porsild as Mr. and Mrs. Yukon for the Sourdough Rendezvous.

Retirement And More Work

    In 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Porsild "retired" after selling the camp to their daughter and son-in-law, Ellen and Phil Davignon who have continued to operate the lodge.

    After a holiday in Denmark and a visit with brother Erling in Ottawa, the Porsilds returned to make their home in Whitehorse.

    There was no problem about using his retirement time usefully. The National Museum contracted with them to collect botanical specimens in the north-central Yukon about which little was known.

    This dovetailed neatly with the construction of the Dempster Highway eastward from the Klondike Highway near Dawson through the Ogilvie Mountains on into the NWT.

    "A good country for botanizing," Bob Porsild said, "because the Ogilvies were not glaciated. Plants grow there that won't grow in the siltbanks of lower altitudes. And the climate is different."

    Bob and Elly Porsild loaded their camper and headed up the Dempster three summers in succession.

    Their expeditions were successful beyond all expectation, for they found fifty species formerly unreported in the area, gathering miles beyond the end of the road and up to 6,500 foot level.

    They found an eight-inch butterwort with the same purple flower and light green basal leaves as its two-inch cousin farther south and located two new species of Taraxacum (dandelion) plus an extremely rare pink dandelion (carneocoloratum) also reported from Alaska.

    In two summers, the couple collected 464 different species, four to twenty specimens of each; extra sets were used for exchange with museums and universities in Scandinavia, the Soviet Union and Alaska.

    When they could collect ripe seed from rare species, these were sprouted under controlled conditions in Ottawa.

    Among the 830 plants known in Yukon, 250 are grasses, Bob Porsild's special interest dating back to the days of the reindeer trek.

    The National Museum chopped its budget and the contract ended, but the Porsilds continued their collecting through 1969-70 just because they enjoyed doing it.

Nominated To Order of Canada

    In recent years, the Porsilds have been very active in community work, particularly in the Golden Age Society of which Mr. Porsild was the first president.

    Founding members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Whitehorse, they have continued to serve the north in their own generous way.

    The two brothers who travelled northern Canada together in the early years following common botanical interests, have died within six weeks of one another.

    Dr. Erling Porsild who retired as Director of the Herbarium in the National Museum in the early 70s was taken ill while holidaying in Vienna in October, 1977 and died there in November.

    Internationally known in botanical fields, the Porsild name is commemorated in the Porsild Highlands on Southampton Island in the Canadian Arctic.

    Robert Porsild had been nominated as a Member of the Order of Canada prior to his death at his home in Whitehorse.

Bob Porsild and his dog team