The railway went only as far west as Maple Creek in Saskatchewan: You could drive a horse and buggy from there to Alberta's Fort Macleod, but beyond that you were on your own. The territory, as Katharine Martyn points out in her excellent monograph, J. B. Tyrrell: Explorer and Adventurer, was still wild enough that Tyrrell had to stay up to guard his horses at night.
“The whole country was a vast solitude and one could travel for weeks at a time without seeing any white man or in fact any human being,” Tyrrell wrote years later in the journal Science.
Like most people today (and like many Victorians), he was obsessed with new technology: He owned an early Hawkeye camera that used newfangled rolls of film in place of glass plates, and was the founder of the Ottawa Microscopical Society. At tobogganing parties and dances at Rideau Hall during the Ottawa winters, when he wasn't writing up reports of his summer surveys, Tyrrell slipped a pedometer into his pocket and discovered that he had danced 21 miles in the course of an evening.
Tyrrell was looking for ways to make money from the land, but to him money wasn't the land's only significance. His survey reports from Western Canada are models of digression, as likely to reflect on the earlier travels of David Thompson or describe the remains of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post he wandered across as they are to map geological synclines.
He even tried to learn the Stoney and Cree languages. (Wouldn't it be thrilling today if the Gateway commissioners tried to learn some of the Northern Wakashan languages spoken along the B.C. shore?)
But his most famous expedition nearly killed him. In 1893, the surveyor and five companions travelled by canoe from northern Alberta to Hudson Bay. On May 26, the non-stop-note-taking Tyrrell wrote in his field journal, “I drove from Edmonton to Egg Lake with a man named Lyons to inspect a bed of Tar Sand said to have been found there.”
Five days later, on May 31, the party set off in two 18-foot, cedar-strip Peterborough canoes on the first leg of their journey – a 470-mile paddle up the Athabasca River to Fort Chipewyan. That took two weeks.
To help with the paddling, Tyrrell had hired three Iroquois from the Kahnawake reserve near Lachine, Que. – one of them, Pierre Louis, liked to run the roiling local rapids in a solo canoe on Christmas Day for fun.
Armed with his latest Hawkeye camera (also in the Fisher collection, as is its walnut film loader), the party shot the first-ever photographs of the Barren Lands Inuit. Then they shot 60 caribou, with guns. “The coast was a forest of antlers,” Tyrrell noted.
But the territory was so unknown – even more unknown than the proposed Gateway corridor is to most Canadians today – that Tyrrell landed hundreds of miles north of where he wanted to be on Hudson Bay.
Winter descended sharply in mid-September. Beset by dysentery and close to starvation, the group was finally rescued by dog team 29 miles north of Churchill in Manitoba. They had travelled more than 900 miles.
But even that nightmare couldn't make Tyrrell sit still. He returned to the Barren Lands the following summer to chart the Kazan River, where he again got lost, and again feared the river was going to empty him into the Arctic Ocean as winter arrived.
Fortunately, halfway there, Tyrrell's party ran into Ahyout, an Inuit chief, and Kakkuk, his son. They helped Tyrrell make the maps the Fisher library now owns. The natives were living in a camp of seven skin tents with 42 members of their family.
Ahyout's map convinced Tyrrell that continuing up the Kazan was suicide. Kakkuk's showed him an uncharted alternative river that would flush the explorers into Hudson Bay closer to Churchill.
Thanks to the new maps and route, Tyrrell was home by October, having travelled 2,900 miles in 6½ months, 1,750 of them by canoe. Tyrrell rewarded his Inuit guides with the most valuable commodities he could offer: tobacco, field glasses, a rifle, ammunition and his respect.