Right there, up on the wall over my right shoulder, is a framed photograph showing two pages from the battered field book of Frank Swannell. Swannell was a surveyor with the British Columbia Department of Lands during the first three decades of the 20th century.
I came across his work while researching a book on maps, and was fascinated by his geometrical measurements and hand drawings of white water rapids and mountain ranges in the Rockies.
The Swannell field book is my reality check whenever I get caught up in some dazzling digital mapping idea.
Case in point: Google’s recent release of Google Map Maker, a tool that will allow Canadians to correct Google’s digital maps by adding roads, trails, libraries — any point of geographic interest that is missing or awry. It’s just the latest example of how crowdsourcing can be applied to creating and improving maps.
There is a lot to be said for map-making by mouse click. Cartography, after all, is more mainstream now than ever before. But it’s also worth remembering that many, if not most, of the maps that have indelibly shaped us as Canadians are products of daring, personal risk, sweat, endurance and ingenuity.
Swannell’s maps of northern B.C., in particular, were hard won. Swannell made his name as a surveyor who could cover huge areas quickly while labouring under difficult conditions. He did the Omineca, Ingenika and Finlay watersheds, as well as the Nechako Basin, densely pockmarked with lakes.
Swannell was of the generation of surveyors who had to literally cut their own paths while lugging some 1,000 kilograms of supplies and sensitive measuring equipment. Rudimentary sails and makeshift rafts took the place of outboard motors. Don’t even mention the mosquitoes.
For his troubles, Swannell received $15 a day.
One entry in his field book tells of his efforts to do a reconnaissance of a terrifying chasm on the Upper Finlay River. Some of his companions refused to proceed, so daunting was the challenge. On his bird’s-eye drawing of the rapids, Swannell offered an annotated map of how his party picked a path, indicating where they had to bail out the dugout canoe and where they were swamped by eight-metre-high waves. It took them three days to get through the four-kilometre-long canyon from hell. But Swannell emerged with a new map in his hand.
You won’t find the Upper Finlay on Google Map Maker.