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Historical Vignettes of the North

Masthead - 'Dominion Illustrated' magazine, 1890
1st FEBRUARY, 1890

Yukon and Mackenzie Exploration

      In 1887 Mr. Wm. Ogilvie was sent in charge of a survey party to explore the Yukon district. Starting from Victoria in the spring of that year, he crossed from Chilkoot Inlet to the headwaters of the Yukon, and went down the latter to a point near the international boundary between Alaska and Canada, where he spent the greater part of the winter making astronomical observations for the purpose of ascertaining the position of the 141st degree of longitude, the international boundary at that point. His observations have not yet been completely reduced, but an approximate calculation shows that the boundary is nearly ninety miles below the point where it is marked on the United States maps. This is of great importance, as the line passes through the best gold-bearing districts yet discovered in the country.
      In the first days of March, 1888, Mr. Ogilvie left his winter quarters for the mouth of the Mackenzie River, following a route never travelled before by any white man and probably by no Indian. He ascended the Ta-ton-duc, a river flowing from the north into the Yukon; and then crossing a mountain range, he discovered the true sources of the Porcupine River. From this he went to Fort McPherson, crossed the Rocky Mountains to the Mackenzie, by which he returned south, thus accomplishing a journey of 2,500 miles, through a country hitherto very little known.
      The Yukon district appears to have a much greater value than was previously supposed. It would seem that for gold the best paying streams so far as discovered are in Canadian territory. About 300 miners were in the country in the summer of 1887, but it is difficult to say what quantity of gold they have taken out, as they are somewhat reticent on the subject. They all agree, however, that $8 per day is poor pay, hardly enough to cover expenses. Taking this as an average, they cannot have made less than $500 each, or $150,000 altogether. Obtained with the crudest and most primitive appliances, the result shows what may be expected so soon as communication with the interior becomes more easy, and the importation of improved mining mchinery possible. Drift coal was found at various places, indicating the existence of seams further up. Salmon abound in the rivers, but after ascending so far from the sea, it is not fit to become an article of export, although good enough as food for the Indians. The fur trade is confined to a few points; there are immense districts, teeming with game and fur-bearing animals of all kinds, where Indians never go. Part of the miners' supplies are procured in the country. The lowest estimate of this trade for 1887 is $60,000.
      The whole distance travelled during Mr. Ogilvie's explorations, from Ottawa back to Ottawa was upwards of 9,000 miles. Of this, about 5,000 was by rail; about 1,000 by steamship up the Pacific, from Victoria; nearly 200 by wagon; and the balance, about 3,000 miles, in canoes or on foot. Those canoes travelled about 3,000 miles by rail; then about 1,000 by steamer; were then carried about twenty miles to the point from which they made the descent of the Lewes river to the boundary (about 700 miles); they were then drawn on toboggans made for the purpose by one of the party, about 140 miles, and again were carried over the Rocky Mountains, eight miles, after which they made the ascent of the Mackenzie river, 2,400 miles. They were sold at Fort Chipewyan and are good for some years' service yet. During the winter on the Yukon the thermometer was very seldom above zero, and often 50° below. Taking astronomic observations when it is 40° and 50° below is very trying work; more especially when it is continued for more than an hour, as all the observations taken were. In the month of February, while marking the boundary on Forty-mile river, a tramp of over 120 miles had to be made on snowshoes in deep soft snow on which one sank to the knees every step. Food and bedding for the trip were drawn on two toboggans; of course all the time this was being done the party had to live outside without even the shelter of a tent, as two men could not do more than draw the necessary instruments, food and bedding for the occasion. The work being in the valley of the river, the sun never rose above the visible horizon, and as the thermometer was most of the time 30° or 40° below zero the comforts and pleasures of the trip can be imagined better than described. In March, while crossing from the Yukon to the Mackenzie the same hardships were suffered, but over a more extended time, stretching over a period of six weeks of extremely hard labor and cold weather; as instance, the 11th March the temperature was 53° below zero, and the party had to sleep outside in that. As the whole outfit to be moved amounted to about 3,000 pounds and there were only five men to do it, the progress was necessarily very slow, and very laborious. In the soft deep snow the weight of a man would sink the snowshoe into the snow up to the knee, and the exertion of pulling the toboggan would sink it more. This was extremely fatiguing and wearying, and although the temperature was generally down about 25° and 30° below zero the perspiration would, under the exertion of drawing the heavy loads, flow as freely as in July at 90° in the shade. One would think that cooling off after a day's exertions of that kind, when the thermometer was 30° or 40° below would be sure to bring on at least a cold, more especialy as there was no shelter to cool off in, but fortunately for the success of the expedition not one of the party had the slightest touch of any ailment while absent. Under the provocation of exercise of that kind, the stomach becomes very active and will dispose of about three times as much food as under ordinary circumstances. The quantity of tea one would drink, too, would surprise a prize beer drinker.
      Coming up the Mackenzie river had to be done by what is locally called tracking, that is hauling the canoe by a string, the party doing so walking, or rather running along the shore; this is no easy labor, as any one who has tried to pull a loaded boat faster than a slow speed knows. This was done by each member of the party in his regular turn, and as a rule the man on shore had not a very happy time, and his misery was a source of fun for the ones in the canoe, they in their turn took the chaffing of the "passengers" good humouredly, knowing that "revenge" was coming soon.
      On the way out from Lake Athabasca, in December, dogs were used to haul the necessary provisions for the party, and their own food. As a rule the team of dogs - four - will haul about 400 or 500 pounds weight, and as each dog will eat from six to eight pounds of fish each day, one can see that as a means of freighting their usefulness is limited. A rule is that four fair dogs can haul their own food and the bedding and food of two men for a seven days' trip. The distance from Lake Athabasca to Lake La Biche travelled by the party with the aid of dogs is about 425 miles. Fish for dog fed was picked up along the way from Indians; were it not for this aid it would be impossible to make such long journeys with dogs. The time occupied in travelling that distance was thirteen and a half days. At the end of the journey most of the dogs were pretty well used up; in fact the team would not have gone more than a day longer. Most of the men, too, were not sorry that the "job was done."
      It is needless to say that there was no riding for any of the party on the way out. The whole of the journey had to be made on snowshoes, and as the road has to be "tracked" for dogs the party had to keep ahead, each one in his turn "making track" in the trackless snow.
      Dog drivers carry a whip peculiar to the "craft." The handle is about eighteen, and the lash about sixty inches long. It is heavily loaded with shot, which is plaited into it. This makes it so heavy that a good blow will almost cut through a dog's skin. One accustomed to the treatment of dogs at home will often witness treatment of them here that makes his blood boil, until he starts to drive himself; then he does not think quite so hardly of the native driver, though his animals are often punished needlessly. It may be stated generally that a kind driver makes but slow progress. A story is told about a high church dignitary, who was making a journey with dogs, and becoming quite shocked at his driver's profanity absolutely forbade him scolding the dogs any more, except in a mild way, and use his whip in the same manner. Some days after, the good man noticed that he was away behind time; at a known point he remonstrated with the driver on his slowness; that worthy demonstrated to his Reverence that it was impossible to make time with dogs, with his system of driving. The good man granted the driver an "indulgence" for the remainder of the drive, and finished his journey on time.
      The party passed through many scenes of peril and had some strange adventures, but it is needless to refer to them here as it would take up too much time. They saw many scenes of grandeur and beauty, which will probably not be looked on again by white men for many years to come.


  • For a large map showing the region that Ogilvie explored, click here.
  • The river that Ogilvie called the Ta-ton-duc would in 1896 be named the Klondike River following the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, a tributary stream.
  • The Lewes river is the old name for the upper Yukon River.

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