Retracing great-grandfather's historic canoe trek

An Ottawa native is about to set out on a long canoe journey in the pristine northern wilderness, following the path of his great-grandfather.

Journey meant to honour great-grandfather's work, recent Supreme Court decision protecting region

Geologist Charles Camsell (left) on an expedition in 1914. (David McGuffin)

An Ottawa native is about to set out on a long canoe journey in the pristine northern wilderness, following the path of his great-grandfather.

David McGuffin will be retracing the steps — and paddles — of his great-grandfather Charles Camsell, a geologist who embarked on the first formal mapping expedition of the Peel River watershed in Yukon in 1905. 

"My great grandfather was a pretty amazing guy in his time," McGuffin, who was born in Ottawa and is a reporter for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"He worked for the Geological Survey of Canada for well over a dozen years and most of that was spent up in the north, in the western Arctic charting hundreds of thousands of square kilometres by canoe. This is all before the advent of airplanes," he said. "He's a person who had an incredible tale to tell."

Near the Wind River, in Yukon's Peel watershed region. (Ellen Woodley)

Camsell grew up in the Northwest Territories in the 1870s. Along with spending years with the Geological Survey of Canada, he founded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and served as a deputy minister of mines and commissioner of the north with the federal government, settling in Ottawa.

Camsell travelled 4,000 kilometres on that trek on the Peel River. McGuffin, accompanied by his cousin Terry Camsell, will be covering just a fraction of that distance — 500 kilometres by canoe.

The three-week journey will start from the headwaters of the Wind River and continue along the Peel River until it ends at Fort McPherson in northern Yukon, McGuffin said. 

Supreme Court case

The Peel watershed is a pristine area of sub-Arctic wilderness about 68,000-square-kilometres in size. It was the subject of a significant Supreme Court decision last year that centred on Yukon's land use planning process and what happens when a government fails in its treaty obligations. 

The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately ruled in the favour of Yukon First Nations in their fight to protect the region.

A map shows the expansive Peel River watershed. (CBC)

McGuffin said when he heard the news, he remembered his great-grandfather had spent some time there.

He said he thought an expedition of his own now would be a great way to honour both the work Camsell did as the first person to plot the region on a map and the Supreme Court decision. 

Opportunity to learn

Camsell took notes along the way in the Peel River expedition, describing coal and iron ore deposits and how he panned for gold, McGuffin said.

"His field notes are very technical, geologically. I think geologists would all find it fascinating. It's a bit of a slog for me but I'm learning and learning."

The notes also serve as a window into how Canada was seen at the time, McGuffin added. 

"He was there to open that region up to mining, actually," he said. "It's interesting in a way and sort of reflective of the mindset to how land is used has changed in the last 100, 113 years since he did this trip."

A map of the Peel and Wind rivers created by Charles Camsell on his 1905 Peel River expedition. (David McGuffin)

But McGuffin won't just be following the path that Camsell took.

He said he'll also be having conversations with the people who had a stake in the Supreme Court case. He will be talking to First Nations who saw the court decision as a big victory, to mining companies and to politicians about what the court case means for one of the biggest untouched areas of wilderness in the country and for Canada itself.

"[We're] going up there to see and listen, to take in what is an incredible piece of this country," McGuffin said.

"[We will be] touching on some of the incredible beauty he saw back at that time, beauty that's really not changed a whole lot. And you can't say that for a lot of parts of Canada."

McGuffin leaves for Whitehorse on July 14. 

David McGuffin grew up hearing stories about his great-grandfather a geologist and adventurer who mapped a vast swath of Yukon wilderness in the early 20th century. 6:41