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I spent a morning this week reading about the Northern Gateway pipeline, which, if it is approved by the National Energy Board, will carry oil-sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia and thence via supertanker to the ever-open crankcase of China.

Afterward, I stopped by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, as I do from time to time, though I admit a rare-book library may seem like an old-fashioned place to hang out, obsessed as the world is these days with technology and response rates and "going forward," as managers like to say.

The funny thing was this: When I told Anne Dondertman, the acting director of the Fisher library, that I had been reading about the new proposed pipeline, she immediately started talking about a set of maps that were made 130 years ago by Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist/paleontologist/explorer/

historian/apple farmer/mining executive who was one of the first scientists to describe what we now call the Alberta tar sands.

"They're very evocative things," Ms. Dondertman said. "They're not really what you'd think of as maps."

Tyrrell was the first to survey the territory north of the 60th parallel that stretches from Hudson Bay to what is now Fort McMurray, Alta. Because no maps existed, he often had to consult the local Dene and Inuit he met as to where he was, and how he could get to where he was supposed to be.

"They just sort of drew these maps together on pieces of brown paper," said Ms. Dondertman, a tall woman with white hair. "And I've always wondered, how did they make them? How did they find the scale, and get it down on paper?"

Later, she took me down into the bowels of the library where, in addition to the building's 700,000 volumes, there is two miles of "stuff" (Ms. Dondertman's word) that is yet to be catalogued. There – amid such treasures as an entire wall of Alice in Wonderland editions and the world's most thorough collection of Canadian beer labels and stacks of Victorian mass-market yellowbacks, a complete run of Canadian Grocer magazine (1889 to date) and a clay cuneiform bill of sale from 1789 BC (the oldest artifact in the Fisher collection: "I like it because it's the same shape as a BlackBerry," the director said) – she opened a wide metal drawer and pulled out Tyrrell's map.

Right away, I could see it showed what kind of a country we once were, back when we were still modest enough to assume there was always more than one answer to a question.

'The whole country was a vast solitude'

Joseph Tyrrell had a lot in common with the three-person commission that will spend the next two years listening to testimony for and against the Gateway pipeline. (Hearings began this week in Kitamaat Village, where most of the submissions were from local residents.)

Tyrrell was keen to open Canada up to development, and keen to know how that would affect local people's lives. But he was aware that every patch of territory served an array of interests.

Born in 1858 in what were then the wilds of Weston on the northwest edge of Toronto, Tyrrell was an amateur botanist who studied Latin at university and intended to become a lawyer, as his father wished. But a bout of tuberculosis forced Tyrrell's doctors to recommend an outdoor life, whereupon his father's friendship with John A. Macdonald landed the lad a job as a third-class clerk with the Geological Survey of Canada. Salary: $500 a year.

He started as a pace surveyor, counting off distances step by step across vast swatches of terrain: the Crowsnest, Kicking Horse, Bow, and North and South Kootenay passes were all surveyed by Tyrrell. Along the route, he made big mining finds: coal in Fernie, B.C.; more coal and the remains of what came to be known as the Albertosaurus at Drumheller in Alberta (the nearby Royal Tyrrell Museum is named for him); phosphates and other minerals in Saskatchewan; and gypsum, limestone and amber in Manitoba.

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.

A miracle of cross-cultural cartography

For a two-by-three-foot sheet of brown kraft paper sketched lightly in pencil, Kakkuk's map is an oddly gripping artifact. It's too faint to reproduce well, but anyone can visit the library and see it. Drawn out of scale and proportion, with its bloopy lakes and tendril rivers and Tyrrell's tiny but always legible writing marking rapid after rapid, the map looks more like a child's drawing of a cow's digestive system than it does an escape route from death.

It's hard to fathom how they worked it out. Ahyout was a talented mimic, but neither he nor Tyrrell spoke the other's language, and they shared no cultural reference points. Yet somehow, together, surrounded by their mutual need and the terrain they were trying to map, by translating the specific physical experiences of the route ahead into marks on a piece of paper, the strangers fashioned a mutual understanding.

Maybe, if they are intimate enough, the Gateway hearings will accomplish the same thing. Maybe the native communities along the route will decide the oil-sand sluiceway is in their interests. Maybe Enbridge, the pipeline builder, will decide to end it at a less environmentally delicate terminus, such as Prince Rupert.

Is two years really too long to study how we should use the land we share, when that land is the primary practical heritage we'll leave to the future? In the 1970s, Mr. Justice Thomas Berger conducted three years of hearings on the potential economic and environmental impact of the proposed Beaufort Sea pipeline. That pipeline was cancelled, and Judge Berger's report became a virtual charter of rights for both the environmental movement and Canada's first nations.

Joseph Tyrrell was a capitalist at least as much he was an environmentalist. After he left the Geological Survey in 1898 – when his salary was still only $850 a year – he moved his wife and three children to the Klondike and set up shop as a gold-mining engineer.

Seven years later, he returned to Toronto and became president of the Northern Canadian Mining Corp. He opened up the Kirkland Lake gold play, made his fortune and bought a massive commercial apple orchard that eventually became the grounds of the Toronto Zoo.

Tyrrell wrote about all of it in his unpublished autobiography, a neat, handwritten copy of which is also available for anyone to read at the Fisher library. But none of it is as moving as his accounts of the long days in the Barren Lands, watching his new Inuit friends hunt caribou from kayaks.

Tyrrell couldn't figure out how they did it at first, because they threw their spears without breaking the rhythm of their paddling. Finally, he asked Ahyout why it was that the hunter who killed the animal never got the meat. Ahyout replied that it wasn't the Inuit way: The reward went to the man who spotted the game, not the man who bagged it.

They way they saw it, that was the easy part.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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