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April 27th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 17
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Joseph Burr Tyrrell – The Pacer in the Pass
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear photo
A diminutive George Mercer Dawson party outside Fort Misery -1879.
It occurred to me the other day that I, along with every other coal miner that has worked the coal seams on both sides of the Crowsnest Pass, owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. George Mercer Dawson and the young geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell who accompanied him in 1883 through this area mapping the coal seams and terrain. It was Dawson’s final report that led to the development of some of the first coal fields in the Pass.

Dawson was an outstanding Canadian scientist and surveyor who began his career with the Geological Survey of Canada in 1875. Dr. George, as he later became known as, was a formidable explorer despite the fact he has suffered Pott’s disease (tuberculosis of the spine) which has left him stunted in growth and with a humped back. His native guide used to refer to him as “Skookum Tumtum” meaning brave, cheery man.

Tyrrell’s first biographer, W. J. Louden described Dawson thusly. “Though a hunchback, and small in stature, he was one of the hardiest travelers and could eat and drink and hold his own with the most robust, whether at the dinner table at the Rideau Club or in an Indian camp. He was strangely indifferent to the welfare of his men upon a trip. They might eat or not, sleep or lie awake, be eaten up by flies, be cold, wet, sick or hungry, but as long as they did their work nothing else mattered.”

J. B. Tyrrell actually graduated with a degree in law from the University of Toronto in 1876 but his doctor advised him to work outdoors for health reasons. And work outdoors he did. He joined the Geological Survey of Canada in 1881 and spent the next seventeen years exploring many sectors of Western Canada. This included a brutal 3,200 mile trek through uncharted country known at the Barren Lands from Lake Athabasca to Chesterfield Inlet on the northwest side of Hudson Bay. Check that out on a map sometime. It will blow your mind.

But it is the survey where he accompanied Dawson as a geologist in 1883 through this area that we will focus on, with excerpts from his diary which make for a fascinating read. Tyrrell’s job on the expedition was to conduct a “pace survey” and keep a diary but it was the pace survey that was the tricky thing. According to Louden, Tyrrell, after some experimenting: “decided to use the Roman pace, from left foot to left foot, a thousand of which made the Roman mile. Joe’s single step averaged nearly two feet eight inches, so that after some practice he acquired a steady habit of walking at this rate. His pace (about 5.3 feet) was longer than a Roman soldiers and came very close to today’s 5,280 foot mile with a thousand paces.
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Louden continues: “As he had no counter or mechanical device to assist his memory or take its place, he invented various methods of his own for counting tens, hundreds, and thousands, generally using little sticks which he transferred from one pocket to another.” Carrying a compass in his left hand he took direction and found his pacing to be fairly accurate. It just occurred to me that a hole in his pocket could have proved disastrous!

J.B. started the survey July 6th, 1883 in the Pass and noted that setting out on foot was the surest way to see the mountains. Tyrrell’s notes on July 9th are noteworthy and read: “Crow’s Nest Pass, Elevation 4,438 feet. In the morning I went back on the trail for about half a mile to connect with the survey of yesterday, while Dr. Dawson went up a creek to look for coal, some of which I had seen in the gravel bed of the creek. The lunch point to-day was given out at breakfast as Crow’s Nest Lake, which I reached about two o’clock in the afternoon and was pleased to find that Dr. Dawson had decided to camp the rest of the day at that stop in order to explore a wonderful cave in the vicinity. I went over with him to see it and we spent the afternoon there. There was a grand gateway at the entrance like that of some huge Norman cathedral, with a clear floor of crystal water which wells up at the back.

One dry passage of four feet high leads back one hundred feet and then drops under the water. Old Indian devices (pictographs) in colour were to be seen on the threshold and over the entrance to the passage and the other side of the main entrance. It seemed to be lately inhabited by bears and marmots.”

The next day, the 10th, Tyrrell writes: “Crow’s Nest Lake: For a couple of miles the trail runs along the steep end of the Lake, and here I collected a number of interesting fossils. Lunch in a little valley where I sorted out and changed the papers on some plants; then started off up a little valley with mountains to the right and left of me, a beautiful wooded country where I shot a blue grouse with my revolver, which we afterwards had for supper. Mosquitoes bad here, air has grown warm. The bush is the finest I have seen on the trail; pine, spruce and poplar. My hands are swollen to twice their natural size from the stings of insects. Tried the rifles to-night and turned in under my blankets to sleep for the first time on British Columbia soil.” Sounds like our pacer was at Summit Lake on the border. Note his spelling of today and tonight with a dash which is old English.
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The very next day they camped at the fork of Michel and Alexander Creek where “we amused ourselves by burning coal which is found here in the creek. The following day, July 12th, his notes read: “Michel Camp: In the morning we investigated the coal seams here. I found one about three feet thick near the forks, a fine bituminous coal, evidently first quality gas coal. I collected flowers also in the swamps and pressed them in camp. After dinner two parties passed us on the way to Kootenay and a little later we started after them. We went up Michel Creek and over a height of land, about a thousand feet high, into the valley of Coal Creek where we camped for the night, a dreary place. Graydon shot a woodchuck which we had for supper; not bad in flavor but exceedingly tough.”

So it appears they headed south at the Coal Mountain turnoff and then west up and over into the east side of Coal Creek which they followed down into what would eventually become Fernie. This is where Coal Creek meets the Elk River which explorer David Thompson called the Stag River. It should be noted that in 1894 Tyrrell came across Thompson’s biographical recollections (11 books of field notes, 39 journals, maps and a narrative). He had them published in 1916 as David Thompson’s Narrative, probably one of the most important exploratory works ever published in Canadian history.

I’ll leave you with some sobering notes from July 13th when they camped in the Elk Valley after crossing the river. He writes: “A most gorgeous view from here. Fires are burning in the distance and it is beginning to get smoky. But there is not much danger from the fire, as the country all around has been burned over dozens of times. It is frightful to see so much fine timber gone, rampikes standing in millions all over the country; an incalculable number of cords of wood destroyed through carelessness. We have so far travelled whole days through forests almost entirely destroyed by fire.”

And so J.B. and Dr. George passed on through the Elk Valley and on to other adventures. In 2007 another wonderful biography on Tyrrell, written by respected author Heather Robertson, was published. It is entitled: “Measuring Mother Earth” – “How Joe the Kid Became Tyrrell of the North”. In it she observes of Tyrrell that as their party moved southward in the Rocky Mountain Trench: “He had found his stride, his wind and his muscles. He was perfectly content walking alone, with the mountains and his thoughts for company.”
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April 27th ~ Vol. 85 No. 17
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