National Geographic : 1936 Jun
CANADA'S AWAKENING NORTH BY LAWRENCE J. BURPEE Secretary for Canada of the International Joint Commission WITH the nose of our plane pointing north we were flying over the rich farm lands of northern Alberta. We had left Cooking Lake, Edmonton's seaplane base, half an hour before, and shortly afterwards had sailed over the dull gray ribbon that was the North Saskatch ewan, mud-colored like most of the rivers of North America's vast interior plain. We were flying at 5,000 feet, and the land below bore that curious resemblance to a checkerboard that one notices in farm coun try seen from the air. We were following for the moment a highway that runs north from the provincial capital. The checkerboard broke up into isolated farms, and the highway degenerated into an old-fashioned dirt road. Patches of tim ber became more common, and the farms ever fewer and more humble. We were crossing the pioneer fringe of Alberta-and then we had left it behind. Below were no farms, no roads, no signs of human habitation or occupation; noth ing but interminable, primeval forest, broken by occasional outcrops of rock and half-hidden rivers and lakes. A RAILWAY IN THE WILDERNESS And then I looked down upon something reassuringly familiar. Through a gap in the forest ran two bright, parallel lines, and on these, directly underneath, puffed a ridiculous toy train. That railway and its fellows represent the first step in Canada's opening up of the North Country. Although there were trappers and fur traders and missionaries north of 54 long before the railways, they never were much more than tolerated by the North Country. One should, however, make one excep tion. Fur traders did build posts in the Peace River Valley a century or more ago.* Around these posts gradually grew up in fant farming communities. As news got abroad of the exceptional quality of the land, settlers drifted in from the south, by the rough wagon road from Edmonton, and settlement spread up and down the valley. * See The National Geographic Society Map of Canada issued as a supplement with this number of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE. As long ago as 1876 the first prize for wheat at the Philadelphia Centennial was won by a Peace River farmer; the Peace River country was again successful at Chi cago in 1893; and the name of Herman Trelle, of Wembley, appears several times on the list of those who have won world wheat championships. THEN CAME AIRPLANES The Age of Steam dealt a staggering blow to the exclusive spirit of the North Coun try, but it remained for the Age of Air Communication to convince it that the white man had come to stay. For those of us who live in modern com munities it is extremely difficult to realize what the airplane and wireless have meant to northern Canada, a million and a half square miles. Not long ago I spent an evening with a man who had been trapping in the North for half a century. As we sat smoking our pipes before a log fire, I asked him what the telephone, telegraph, electric lights and airplanes meant to him. In the slow, measured tones of one who has spent much of his life alone, this veteran replied: "When I came north, Edmonton was a trading post of the Hudson's Bay Com pany. Winnipeg was a muddy little settle ment sprawling along the banks of the Assiniboine. "I outfitted at Winnipeg and took the old water route to the Saskatchewan; paddled up from Cumberland House to the Churchill by Frog Portage; up the Churchill to La Loche Portage; down the Clearwater to the Athabaska; down the Athabaska and the Slave to the Mackenzie and Simpson. It took several months. "There was some traffic up and down the Mackenzie, taking down supplies to the lower posts and bringing back furs, but it was little and far between. Mail went down with the brigade once a year. Tea, sugar, flour, bacon-that's about all the food that came from outside. If we wanted fruit, we could pick berries. We seldom did. We could live off the country pretty comfort ably, what with moose and caribou and the rivers full of fish.