Canada's Iron Man

Retracing the routes of mapmaker and explorer A.P. Low


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Reprinted with author's permission.

Originally published in Ottawa Citizen, 4-6-03.

George Kampouris is a freelance writer living in St-Isidore, Ontario

Top photo: Garrett Kephart




Low's original maps

Invaluable canoeing resources

Lake Mistassini 1885

1895 report map (quarters):





Ottawa adventurers retrace Low's routes

Two Ottawa outdoorsmen have gone to great lengths — at least 1,000 kilometres, in fact, through some of Canada's toughest terrain — to give Albert Peter Low his due.

Jim Stone and Max Finkelstein say Low, a 19th-century geologist and gifted mapmaker, is among this country's greatest explorers. But despite his epic accomplishments, he remains virtually unknown, his life story buried in archives.

To rectify that, the two men have vowed to plunder the vaulted record and bring Low back to life, at least in a literary sense.

For the most part they are relying on field notes, reports and maps from Low's groundbreaking expeditions but are hunting for more personal information.

Last summer, they took an epic voyage of their own, a five-week canoe trip retracing some of Low's routes through northern Quebec, an arduous journey that brought home the brutal realities of his original surveys.

The history of the Geological Survey of Canada is alive with tales of discovery and daring, but in 160 years of sending hard men to do tough jobs in unspeakably harsh places, the old-timers always repeat one story about Low.

It was in 1884, in the dead of winter on the shores of Lake Mistassini in northern Quebec that a survey expedition began to come apart.

Low and a provincial official named John Bignell were in heated dispute over who was in charge of the faltering expedition.

Low packed a sled with supplies, put on his snowshoes and walked off alone. The temperature was 40 below zero.

It took him a month to cross almost 500 kilometres of empty, frozen terrain to reach Quebec City where he caught a train to Ottawa. He demanded a letter making it clear that he, Low, was the expedition boss.

He then returned the way he came, arriving five weeks later to take full command of the survey. He was 23 years old.

This is only one episode in a life of adventure and achievement, yet Low's story, for the most part, remains untold, obscured by time.

As a student in the late 1970s, Jim Stone first learned of Low when he was checking background before a summer of geology work in the North.

He was amazed by maps and reports, created over a century ago by Low, that could still be used today.

"His field reports were models of clarity, detail and accuracy," Stone says, judging them to be "better than any written before or since."

While wading through accounts of Low's expeditions, it soon became clear he was more than an ordinary geologist but a figure of great importance -- in Stone's words: "Canada's first iron man."

Albert Peter Low was born in Montreal in 1861, the youngest of five boys in a family of United Empire Loyalists.

His father, John William, was an upright Presbyterian and proprietor of the New York Temperance Hotel in the St. Henri district of Montreal.

As a young man, Low enrolled in an applied sciences program at McGill and interned with the Geological Survey whose office was on campus.

He spent a summer on field expedition to the Gaspé Peninsula, a crash course in the type of gruelling fieldwork that would later become routine.

He graduated in 1882 with a first-class degree in geology and moved with the Survey to its new offices in Ottawa.

Low, a gifted athlete, became a member of the University Hockey Club at the time the famous "McGill Rules" were drafted -- hockey's first real set of rules.

The next year, Low would help found Ottawa's first hockey team, the Rideau Hall Rebels, along with J.R. Creighton and the sons of Lord Stanley who would eventually give his name to the Stanley Cup.

As a staff geologist at the GSC, he embarked on marathon surveys of northern Quebec, covering 12,800 kilometres of harsh terrain on foot, by dogsled and canoe: more than the distance coast to coast and back again.

He would later command the vessel Neptune on its historic voyage establishing Canadian sovereignty over much of the Eastern Arctic.

He published dozens of reports and was an excellent cartographer whose commitment to detail produced incredibly accurate maps of the northern interior.

Newspaper accounts fashioned him "a great explorer," heralding his discovery of vast iron ore deposits and marvelling at the natural wonders he revealed to the world.

The decision to write Low's biography came to Stone, a career diplomat with the Foreign Service, only after he became a paddling companion of Max Finkelstein.

Stone says his friend's day job was a positive influence: "When I met Max, he worked for Parks Canada and was being paid to go on canoe trips."

Finkelstein spent six months over the past three years following the land and water routes of Alexander Mackenzie across Canada to the Pacific Ocean, a journey he has chronicled in a book titled Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie. It was published last May by Natural Heritage Books, which has contracted to publish the book on Low.

"We both had an interest in the history behind the canoe routes we travelled," Stone said of the idea to write the book. "Max showed me it could be done."

Despite a wealth of information about Low's career, the two men found few accounts of the man himself. In 1886, Low married Isabella Cunningham, the daughter of a Liberal alderman. She died in 1898. Their first child, a son, died in infancy and their second son died in a flu epidemic at 19. Their only other child, a daughter, spent most of her adult life caring for her ailing father, who died in 1942. She never married and died without leaving any trace of her father's records or personal correspondence.

Stone and Finkelstein figured one good way to learn about their subject would be to follow in his footsteps.

"We wanted to find a way into his mind and heart and maybe into his soul," said Stone.

So the pair put together a marathon canoe trip that would string together several of Low's well-known routes through northern Quebec to James Bay.

They encountered their first obstacle when attempting to plan their trip using current topographical maps.

They were bewildered by the task of selecting a path through the maze of lakes and swamps along their projected route.

"We were lost and we weren't even out of the house yet," said Stone.

"Modern maps are made from air photos and are virtually useless for navigation," says Finkelstein. "When you're on the water everything looks different."

They dived back into the archives and came up with a prize: Low's original maps and field notes.

Using these, they fashioned an itinerary that wove together the route followed by Low on three separate trips.

As Finkelstein pointed out, "Low's maps were made in a canoe on the water and clearly show the way to go and important things like landmarks and portages."

They set out in early August, driving eight hours to Lake Mistassini. From there a floatplane ferried them to Lake Naococanne, another 300 kilometres north where they unloaded their 17-foot canoe and 150 kilograms of gear and supplies.

"Low would have taken weeks just to get to our starting point," said Finkelstein of their inauthentic shortcut. "We didn't have all summer."

Ahead of them lay 1,000 kilometres of hard travel that would span five weeks, through 87 portages over rough ground, past abandoned trading posts in the middle of some of the most isolated country on Earth.

They first dipped their paddles under ominously dark clouds that would soon unleash a rainstorm. For weeks, the same high winds, frequent rain and impenetrable fog that dogged Low's voyages would accompany them on their odyssey.

"I only got wet once," Stone remarks. "I didn't dry out until (the journey) was over."

They were wearing lightweight, fast-drying modern fabrics that were tougher than the wool and cotton garments worn by Low and his crews.

"Their clothes were never dry," says Stone, "and Low reports that boots rotted right off their feet."

Occasionally they would climb to high ground to scout the route ahead and were greeted with the same endless panorama of hills, lakes, muskeg and vast stretches of burnt forest: a landscape blackened by natural forest fires ignited by lightning.

Low reported in 1895 that most of the region "is destitute of forest trees, these having been removed by frequent extensive fires."

Today, his biographers describe the charred boreal forest as "the bleakest scene in a bleak land."

The worst parts of the journey, both men agree, were the portages. Even with the benefit of maps, they proved difficult to find. Finkelstein calculated they spent one full day out of the first week simply looking for ways to get around treacherous rapids.

Each portage offered its own particular ordeal: steep drops of 60 metres or more over fields of slippery, moss-covered rocks, through bogs, thick bush and tangles of tree trunks. The men were soaked by the constant rain and blinded by choking clouds of black flies.

Low was plagued by much the same difficulties. Stone recounts how the pages of Low's notebooks were splotched with tiny black dots, collateral damage in the constant war with blood-sucking bugs.

In one passage, Low drew an arrow to one black fly corpse, noting "I am much worse looking than the book."

The two Ottawans travelled each portage twice, first hauling gear and then carrying their canoe.

One leg, the Long Portage on a tributary of the Eastmain River, took them nine hours, most of it spent trying to find their way.

The hazards the two men faced were endless, the possibility of physical harm always near, yet the trials of portage always gave way to the serenity of rafting downstream.

"You get a certain satisfaction getting reasonably comfortable in the face of hardship," says Finkelstein, despite memories of constant fatigue. "Small things become great pleasures."

By contrast, Low and his crews hardly rested at all, tasked as they were with mapping every mile they travelled.

Low rarely touched a paddle and concentrated instead on sketching shorelines, recording measurements and making notes.

There were frequent stops while sightings were made with survey equipment. To save time on open stretches of water, distances were recorded by counting paddle strokes.

Low was an able photographer who left behind a library of images. He recorded details of aboriginal life and frequently collected rock samples and botanical specimens.

One of his greatest feats was to map the Grande River which would eventually be diverted to feed the James Bay hydroelectric project.

"It was a sobering thought to realize that every drop of water we paddled over would pass through the turbines at LG2," said Stone.

In the end, Stone and Finkelstein ran out of time 80 kilometres short of James Bay, their ultimate destination. They arranged by satellite phone to meet a friend at the point where the Rupert River crosses the James Bay highway. There, they pulled their canoe from the water for the long ride home.

Both men say they've acquired unique insight into the character of A.P. Low, particularly the strong will he used to drive himself and his crews on these demanding expeditions.

Low presents an iron exterior but his would-be biographers are still hoping to find personal correspondence, "a mystical trunk in someone's attic" that may provide a window to the private person inside.


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