This post celebrates the 45,000th unique title Distributed Proofreaders has posted to Project Gutenberg: Down the Mackenzie and Up the Yukon in 1906. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!
Canada’s vast Northwest Territories province is comprised of nearly half a million square miles of land with a total population of only 41,970 as of the 2016 census. The harsh subarctic and polar climate has always made life difficult for humans, but that didn’t stop indigenous peoples from settling there, along with later incursions of Europeans in search of fur, gold, oil, and adventure.
In the summer of 1906, Elihu Stewart, the Canadian Chief Inspector of Timber and Forestry, embarked on a journey of thousands of miles on the Mackenzie and Yukon Rivers in order to assess the timber resources of the region. His report to the Canadian Government was published in 1913 as Down the Mackenzie and Up the Yukon in 1906. But it is no dry bureaucratic report. Stewart’s account vividly expresses his deep appreciation of the beauties of the landscape and his respect (from a white person’s point of view) for the indigenous and mixed peoples of the area. Part I of the book recounts his journey; Part II contains his observations of the natural resources and inhabitants of the region.
Travel in the region wasn’t easy in 1906, and Stewart – who was then over 60 years old – must have had a very hale constitution, not to mention courage, to undertake this journey. It began in Edmonton, Alberta, overland by a horse-drawn conveyance to the Athabasca River, where he boarded a steamer appropriately named Midnight Sun. The passengers included the noted explorer and ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who spent the winter of 1906-07 living among the Inuit. Stewart and his fellow travelers journeyed on various steamers and scows hundreds of miles to the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America. This is the source of the thousand-mile-long Mackenzie River, which ultimately empties into the Arctic Ocean.
Stewart and the others continued north on the Mackenzie River to its delta and the tiny settlement of Arctic Red River (now known as Tsiigehtchic, still tiny today with a population of 138 as of 2021). There he found a rather desolate community:
“It certainly was the least desirable place for any civilised man to choose for a home, that I had yet seen in all this Northland. A few houses, the church and the graveyard were all crowded on the side of a hill rising abruptly from the river. Perpetual frost was found only a foot beneath the surface of the soil, and we no longer beheld the emblems of civilised life, the vegetable and flower gardens, that go so far to make many of those lonely posts seem somewhat cheerful.“
The travelers then turned west to Fort McPherson, from where Stewart intended to travel “alone” (but actually with several native assistants) by canoe. After an arduous journey of canoeing, portaging, and camping, they reached the Yukon Territory. On the way, he experienced a strange mirage of a great city, and was shocked to find instead a rather sad Indian encampment:
“I saw only about forty half-starved creatures out on the bank to welcome us, while behind among the trees were a dozen dilapidated tents; the entire surroundings indicating want and starvation, sickness and a struggle for existence known only to those who are condemned to live in this Arctic land.“
It was experiences like this that led Stewart to include in his book an impassioned plea for a centrally-located hospital, reachable by canoe from the various outposts of the Northwest Territories. He suggested Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River, and indeed the Roman Catholic Church built a hospital there in 1916.
Stewart continued south on the Yukon River and gradually back to more “civilised” communities, such as the Klondike Gold Rush towns of Dawson City and Skagway, with their modern conveniences, entertainments, and colorful adventurers. He ended his journey at Vancouver, three months and 4,250 miles from where he started.
Elihu Stewart retired from his government job in 1907; he died at the age of 90 in 1935. During his tenure he initiated highly successful conservation programs under which millions of trees were planted and forest fire prevention measures were implemented all across Canada. Distributed Proofreaders is proud to celebrate its 45,000th title with this fascinating account of his extraordinary trip down the Mackenzie and up the Yukon.
This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.