Sunken treasure: Photos from mystery camera found in Yukon lake inspire hunt for owner

Gavin Gardiner found a camera in a Yukon lake, and used the pictures on it as clues to eventually reunite the camera's owner with his lost gear and photographs.

Gavin Gardiner plucked the camera from the water, powered it up, and scanned the photos for clues

Gavin Gardiner found a camera in Yukon's Nares Lake, not far from where this photo — the last one on the camera — was taken, two months earlier. (Terry Johnson)

A weekend at the cabin led to a surprise international mystery for one man in Carcross, Yukon, after he discovered a working digital camera in a lake and turned to social media to find its owner.

Gavin Gardiner and his partner had just arrived at their Nares Lake cabin on Oct. 28 when they spotted a camera sitting clear and uncovered in the waters off the beach.

"I actually ended up having to strip down and wade in about 20 feet offshore, and it was there under about five feet of water," said Gardiner.

Gavin Gardiner found the mystery camera and thought, 'let's get a bunch of detectives on it.' (Submitted by Gavin Gardiner)

"Luckily it was a sunny nice day, but it was still late October in the Yukon — so pretty chilly."

The couple left the camera to dry out, and while trying to remove the memory card later that evening, it powered on.

"There was a picture of a couple of canoers that was taken pretty much where the camera had been found," he said. "The date stamp was Aug. 12, so it had obviously been there for a couple months."

Since it wasn't fully dried out, Gardiner shut down the camera. They gave it two more days to dry, then tried again.

"It booted up like a charm," he said. "There was a bit of dust and dirt and sand in the case, but other than that it seems just like new."

There were about 50 photos on the camera. They show a large group of travellers exploring the region — Teslin, Whitehorse and Skagway, Alaska make appearances.

"There's a few pictures of the parking lot at Canadian Tire here in Whitehorse," Gardiner said. "They obviously hiked the Chilkoot Trail. Then it goes down to Bennett, so there's a few photos of them canoeing on Bennett. But most of the photos are actually of ducks or small wildlife that they saw."

One picture on the camera showed a bunch of canoes and gear being loaded onto a White Pass train — a useful clue, as it turned out. (Terry Johnson)

Gardiner says that right from the beginning, they knew it would make a "great post" on the Whitehorse Buy and Sell Facebook group. They had seen others post similar quandaries in the past, and thought it would be a good way to track down the camera's owners.

"Let's get a bunch of detectives on it," he said.

Solving the mystery

Response to the post was almost immediate.

Some people suggested contacting outfitters, Parks Canada, or the White Pass Railroad (one photo shows some of the travellers loading up canoes and gear onto a White Pass train).

Gardiner sent off some emails, and included the photos.

When Gardiner's email appeared in her inbox at the White Pass ticket office, Allyson Nannini quickly got on the case and scanned through her August reservations.

'It felt like a little mystery,' said Allyson Nannini, who works for the White Pass railway. (Submitted by Allyson Nannini)

"It felt like a little mystery," she said.

One reservation, from Aug. 10, jumped out at her: it included 17 canoes, kayaks and gear.

"It was exciting — I immediately recognized it because we don't have a lot of reservations for that much gear," said Nannini.

She knew it was her best bet.

It took a couple of days to get in touch with the man who had made the reservation. The camera wasn't his, he told her, but he knew how to track the owner down.

"[He] said there were a lot of shouts of excitement," recalled Nannini. "It must just make their day."

Finding the shutterbug

Meanwhile, in Anchorage, Terry Johnson was just starting to navigate his way around Facebook. 

"I'm kind of a troglodyte when it comes to technology," said the University of Alaska professor.

Last week, he finally created an account for himself — not knowing how useful it would be in just a few days.

Friends started getting in touch. Word was getting through the grapevine, from Facebook to White Pass and finally to him: someone was looking for the owner of a lost camera.

Johnson had lost a camera.

Terry Johnson's 'waterproof' camera. (Gavin Gardiner)

He had bought it just before a big trip last summer to hike the Chilkoot Trail, and paddle in the Yukon. He'd used it a lot, on the trail and on the water, but at some point it fell out of the pocket in his paddling suit. 

"So that was that, it was gone," he said. "Nothing to do, didn't have any pictures from the trip."

He was sorry to have lost the photos. He had hiked the Chilkoot Trail 40 years earlier, and this time was very different.

"It seems like the mountains have gotten steeper since then, and the trail has gotten more rugged," he said. "It was a fairly demanding trip for someone in my demographic — my family would have liked to see [the photos]."

'Really heroic'

Eventually, Gardiner managed to get in touch, and told Johnson the story of how he had found and retrieved the camera.

"I thought that was really heroic of him," said Johnson.

Johnson was amazed to hear the camera was still working.

"It was underwater for two and a half months. I think that says something about the gaskets."

Most of all, though, he's blown away by the effort to reunite him with his photos.

"The most amazing thing was that he would have taken the trouble to try to find the owner. And this huge community of people passing messages back and forth eventually got through to me," Johnson said.

"That was the best part." 

Johnson says Gardiner has offered to mail the camera, and Johnson said he'd cover the costs. He's also offered to host Gardiner, if he visits Anchorage.

"He could have just said, 'Oh look, I found a camera' and taken it home, and that would have been the end of it," said Johnson.

"But you, you live in a nice country, of nice people."

Terry Johnson on the Chilkoot Trail. He was upset thinking that his family would never get to see pictures of his hike. 'It was a fairly demanding trip for someone in my demographic.' (Terry Johnson)


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