Oil in the North

The Story of Discoveries in North-west Canada

Dr. T. O. Bosworth June 1 1917

Oil in the North

The Story of Discoveries in North-west Canada

Dr. T. O. Bosworth June 1 1917

Oil in the North

The Story of Discoveries in North-west Canada

Dr. T. O. Bosworth

EDITOR'S NOTE.—.Away in the Western part of the North-West Territories of Canada, in the region of the Great Slave Lake and thr Mackenize River, lies one of the richest treasures of the America Continent awaiting the tide of progress and development. .4/* yet this thing has hern seen hy but few people able to realize its value and importance. The treasure is not gold, but is petroleum, which ofteif nowadays is much more profitable to find.

Long ago, in the days before the commercial worth of such substanrts was known, the springs of petroleum, pools of tar, and burning bituminous rocks were found by the early explorers of the north land. In later years many of th>m were carefully observed by R. G. McConnell I now Deputy Minister of Mines) and were described in'

1 *90 in his must interesting memoir on the Mackenzie Basin.

D is only recently, however, that any important investigation fas been made by geological experts experienced in the petroleum industry. .4 large expedition was undertaken by Dr. Bosworth, formerly of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and well known to thr petroleum mining world.. The party consisted of four geological surveyors and a number of assistants, river-men and Indians, together irith an outfit ¡»eluding steamboats, scows and canoes.

The explorations were earned on throughout the most promising parts of all the great region between Edmonton and the Arctic Ocean and so widely were the survey parties distributed that some of them were working a thousand miles apart.

The full r, suits of the expedition hare not been made public, but it is known that la number of promising oil districts were located and that the finding-4 corroborated all that McConnel had observed, and more. Large popis of oil and tar were found in many places and copious seepages of light oil associated with rich oil sands and with all the evidences proper to great oil fields.

The full import of the scientific dtJjcoveriet doubtless will be known in duc courte.I lit the following jsiges, however, arc a few notes descriptive of the journeys on these great water highways of thr north. Since fArfr notet were written the construction of the wf*c railroads to Peace River and to MeMurray, and the improvements in shipping have already made the north country much morA easily accessible than it was in 1914 and *• a

growing public interest in thr possiktmtiet of this immense new country which it gradually bring brought within our reach. I

HE Arctic WHO Ocean would bv journey favor of io the the preat water system of the {Athabasca and Mackenzie should be ready, waitinp, at the bepinninp of Mar. So soon as the ice has broken up and cleared sufficiently)for the scows he should|“stay not the hour of his poinp. only po.’t Be-, fore him lies 1,800 miles of down-skream travellinp, fraupht with manv troubles and unavoidable delays, and perhaps some perils, and almost as soon as that has been accomplished it is time to turn {about and face 1,800 miles of up-stream travellinp in order fo pet out before winter closes up the country in its icy prm.

Leaving Edmonton we proceed by rail a hundred miles northward t o Athabasca Landing, which is the end of “steel” and the starting point of the long water route to the Arctic. About the end of April this little place wakes up from its winter sleep and takes on an almost hectic activity. Parties of strange men are gathering there, men of many nationalities, bound on adventurous errands. Tents are springing up and the whole place resounds with the uproar of the dogs, the clatter of strange tongues and the incessant hammering from '

the river banks wrhere the annual building of scows was under way.

We left Athabasca Landing in company with fifteen other scows, drifting down the Athabasca River easily at three miles an hour for many days for a distance of about 200 miles. Then came the long struggle through the 90 miles of fierce rapids and the many obstacles which so long have been a barrier to the highway of the Northland.

The difficulties encountered during this part of the water route have been often told by travellers, however, and it is my intention to pass over this part of the journey. Suffice it to say that after the customary troubles and misfortunes we came safely through them all—the Pelican, the Stony, the Grand, the Brulé, the Boiler and the rest. And already we had arrived at one of the wonders of the North, for here, about 350 miles north of Edmonton, are the great Tar Sand cliffs of the Athabasca, so little known only because of their inaccessibilty.

The Tar Sand is a sheet of sandstone about 200 feet thick more or less completely saturated with heavy oil. It is almost wholly black, although at the surface it weathers to a paler color. The rock is rather soft and plastic and can be carved with a knife. It is exposed alon the Athabasca for a hundred miles an plainly is spread over at least 2000 square miles and possibly over as much as 10,000 squaremiles. /

All through this district the oil and gas are seen. Where the tar sands

are underground extensive seepages of gas occur and travellers camping at such spots cook their food over the gas vents.

The exposure of asphaltum along the Athabasca is greater than all the other known asphaltic outcrops, pitch lakes and oil seepages in the world put together.

Experiments conducted by the writer in the laboratory showed the tar sand to contain 14 gallons of petroleum to the ton in ordinary samples, and in some cases as much as 20 gallons, of which a proportion is gasoline. The total amount of petroleum, presuming the bed to extend over 10,000 square miles, must be in the neighborhood of 200,000 million tons! At our present rate of consumption this would accommodate the world for 2,000 years. It still remains to be proved, however, whether we can get the petroleum out of the rocks profitably.

Of recent years many have travelled dowm the Athabasca River to Fort McMurray. A fair number have passed on-

ward and across Lake Athabasca to Fort Chippewyan and thence down the Slave River as far as Fort Smith, where If. miles of rapids forms a barrier to navigation But beyond Fort Smith the country is little known except to the trappers and hunters of the North, and away from the river bapks almost nothing is known.

The most interesting part of our trip, therefore, began as we reached Smith’s Rapids, about 150 miles below Great Slave Lake. Below the rapids we transferred our outfit to a little river steamboat, which had been built there and so travelled with much more comfort from that point on. The Slave River is from a half to three-quarters of a mile wide, but it is very shallow and several times we stuck. At length, however, we reached the mouth of the river and slowly chugged through a difficult delta into the' Great Slave Lake. Violent storms are encountered on this great inland body of water, storms which blow up so suddenly that boats may be caught unawares and dashed to pieces. Such a storm delayed our advance for two days.

The Great Slave Lake is the third largest lake in America, being about the size of Ireland. Although we only crossed the Western end of it we were for a lon£ time out of sight of land. But in places we were in water so shallow that our boat, drawing only five feet, was often in difficulties. There was calm, hot weather at this time and a haze over the water. Mirages appeared along the horizon having the form of beautiful islands with low shores clad with large trees. These continually receded into the distance and finally dissolved into thin air.

Altogether the Great Slave is a lake to cross in haste, a mysterious, fickle and cruel body of water. We hurried across it as fast as we could for a storm followed in our wake—and it was rather an anxious time, for the numerous shoals and sand banks made fast travelling precarious.

There are two trading posts at the western end of the lake— Fort Resolution and Hay River. The latter may be an important post some day when tho railroads are extended northward and connect there with a line of steamboats plying north on the Mackenzie River to the Arctic. At this post. we found many Indians encamped, waiting for Treaty Day.

They belonged to Slavie tribe, who have promised through their chiefs to obey the laws and to recognize Government ownership of the land. In return the Government officials visit certain posts f once a year and bring bounties to the Indians. Five dollars is given for every man, woman and child and so much per head of flour and munitions. The result is that large families are popular here. Children are borrowed and lent and even sold. The officials have to watch carefully or the same children will be shown many times over by the wily red skins. Those encamped at Hay River, as we passed, nearly had a serious disappointment for the Indian agent, who was following close on our heels, was wrecked on the Athabasca. His scow broke in half on a cascade and he and his crew narrowly escaped in a canoe. All the baggage went overboard. Fortunately the “treasure chest” came ashore.

AND SO we passed on out of the Great Slave Lake and into the mighty Mackenzie. This is a splendid river more

than a mile wide, but open for only about four months in the year. When the thaw comes each spring the ice slowly breaks up and jams until gradually it forces its way down to the sea. The river banks as a result are deeply grooved and smoothed by the ice.

The first post we reached was Fort Providence ami here, as at all other posts, many Indians were encamped awaiting the arrival of the treaty money. Another hundred and fifty miles brought us to Fort Simpson, one of the important posts of the north. We were the first arrivals of the year and our advent created much excitement. Every living soul was waiting on the river bank, hungry for news of the outside world. The interest of the post’s inhabitants was accentuated on this occasion by the fact that the food supplies at the post were very nearly exhausted. There was a scramble for mail, too. One man who had ordered the handle of a gramaphone two years before was very much disappointed when he found that we did not have it

We continued our way steadily north-

ward, finding the trading pas's at distances from one hundred and fil ty to two hundred miles apart Througho it all this stage of our journey the scei lery was monotonously similar, but it wi s noticeable that the trees were becoming : smaller. We made various explorations ir land, but found great difficulty owing to t íe denseness of the undergrowth and he muskegs. It was seldom that we law any animals at all. but the mosqui oes and “bulldogs” were very much in evi lence.

In the first two hundred mile i beyond Fort W’rigley there was a gres change of scenery, the river flowing through a mountainous country. We w; re then passing through the Mackenzie Mountains. After a further space of tnro hundred miles we reached Fort Horman, which is a very small post, but ge; graphically an important one, for h »re the Mackenzie River is joined by ti e Bear River which flows in from the Es it from Great Bear Lake. The Bear ; merges from a land of mystery, for the »untry around the Great Bear Lake hi a been very little explored. It was son ewhere hereabout that the Franklin Arete expe-

dition perished after travelling northward by the route which we had followed.

Bear Mountain is close at hand here, a magnificent mass nearly two thousand feet high. We scaled it and near the summit appropriately enough, was a bear busily and passively engaged in eating blueberries, but he fled so swiftly that we could not get a shot at him. From the top of the mountain we had an extensive view over hundreds of miles of untrodden forest with here and there a blue lake and several winding rivers.

Food had now become scarce as there had been a shortage in every post that we passed making it impossible for us to replenish our supplies. Neither game nor fish could be found, however, and our stores consisted only of flour, sugar and dried apples with a scanty supply of bacon and beans.

IN DUE course we reached Fort Good Hope and so passed into the Arctic Circle. It is approached through a narrow part of the river known as the Ramparts, where for many miles the river is bordered by great vertical cliffs of mas-

sive limestone where no landing can he made It seemed almost as though \vt were passing through a giant w’all which nature had built to keep all intruders out from the Land of the Midnight Sun.

During the time that we remained within the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed continuous sunshine and lost all count of time. The sun hung low in the sky and never set. so there was nothing to divide night and day, or one day from another. We ate when we were hungry and slept when u’e became fatigued; and in the meantime made great haste to get along, for the time that one may remain within this territory and get safely out again by water is very short.

We pushed on several hundred miles from Kort Good Hope finally reaching Kort McPherson, where the Delta of the Mackenzie River barred further progress. The water here is so shallow that no steamboat has yet attempted to pass through into the ocean. Many trips were made inland through forest, over mountains and along tributary rivers. Some

of the land that we traversed probably was new to the tread of white men. The country is beautiful, but similar in character throughout. There were spruce, poplar, silver birch and willow bushes, although everything was dwarfed and the poplar and birch were few and far between. Wherever we went the river banks were bright with flowers, and there was a luxuriant growth of grass due to th** long hours of sunshine. The flowers and plants were surprisingly British in character-many being to me indistinguishable from those of the north of Scotland. Especially beautiful were the wild roses that we saw, the Michaelmas daisies, and hare-bells, the largest I have ever seen. On our return trip we found the country bountiful with berries of many kinds. We found raspberries, black currants, red currants, strawberries, gooseberries, cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries— every kind of berry that we had ever sçen or heard of.

With reference to the results of the oil explorations, very little can be told here.

Continued on page 95

Oil in the North

Continued from page 14.

The tar sand (of cretaceous age) which contains such an immense quantity of petroleum already has been referred to. This oil district is in the northern part of Alberta. But it is in the Devonian rocks that the most conspicuous seepages of fluid oil are found. Thus, on the shores of the Great Slave Lake, in porous dolomites of this age, there are many pools of oil and spreads of tar, so that bottles and pails can readily be filled with oil. And along the banks of the Mackenzie River in certain places the oil is flowing out into the water copiously from outcropping oil sands belonging to the Devonian formation. In one locality these seepages are continuous for several miles. The indications are as good as could possibly be desired and the only drawback is the distance.

OUR TROUBLES on the return journey were greater than on the trip north. Behind us the winter was creeping on and threatening to overtake us.

Our little steamboat was in bad condition and not strong enough to battle with' the strong current against which we had to proceed. Sometimes, we could hardly make any headway, so fierce

Continued on page 96

were the elements against which we had to contend. We used wood as fuel and almost every day had to stop to cut a fresh supply.

One day we narrowly escaped shipwreck in the Sans Sault rapids. For several hours we battled against the current without making any headway whatever. In fact we began to slip back in a bad place in the rapids which would have meant inevitable disaster on the rocks. We stoked in the wood until the boilers threatened to burst. We tacked first one way and then another, vainly striving to beat our way up against the swift waters. Towards evening, just as our fuel was nearly at an end, we began to move—very slowly at first. Probably the current had slackened. At any rate we finally won our way up the rapids and into the quiet waters beyond—just as our fuel gave out!

To make matters worse, we were very short of food and found it impossible to secure any supplies at the trading posts. We did manage to borrow some from the Missions and from the police, and in that way were able to keep going. At one post where we had hoped to get supplies we were met by the only white man standing on the bank with a basin in his hand asking for flour.

IT WAS only at the posts that inhabitants were seen. The Indians on the Mackenzie belong to several tribes and there are many different tongues among them. There are, however, in each tribe some men who can talk Cree and in that way communication among tribes is kept up.

; At one post we met a new missionary who was just learning the Cree language. He had a book to show how to make the right sounds and by means of this he had learned to conduct his church services fairly successfully, although he himself did not know a single word he waa uttering.

Some of the Indian languages are very picturesque and tuneful. They have an especially apt way of coining words. In Chippewyan, for instance, the word for the gramaphone is “the voice in a box.” The name for the North-West mounted policeman is “the man who speaks, the truth,” which is a deserved tribute, although what the Indian probably means is “the man whose word is law.”

The missionaries certainly are heroic characters, living lives of hardship in a service that seemed to yield but little in the way of temporal return. They were always glad to meet us and to hear news of the outside world.

From them we heard many interesting and amusing stories of the land. One Bishop whom we met was something of a doctor and was often called upon to heal the sick. In one place they brought to him a man with a cut on his back. The bishop promised to put a plaster on it provided the back was washed first. After much persuasion the Indian’s squaw agreed to this and enquired exactly as to the size and shape of the plaster. When the bishop returned with his plaster he found the back waiting ready for him. On it a small piece had been washed—the exact size of the plaster. It seemed useless to ask for more so into this place forthwith the plaster was inlaid.

The methods of trading in these parts are peculiar. No money is used, but all prices are quoted in terms of

skins. The cash value of a skin is now about one-third of a dollar. Originally the beaver skin was the medium of exchange. When an Indian came to the trading post to buy a rifle he brought with him beaver skins and laid them one upon another in a pile. When the pile was as high as the rifle the exchange was made. Every year the rifles were made longer and longer!

An Indian works for you for six skins a day. You pay him for his services by writing on paper that he is to receive a credit of so many skins at the nearest post. He takes this and uses it in due course; and you square yourself with the trading company. Calculations in the store are done by means of beads. The Indian brings in his fur and, as each one is accepted by the storekeeper so many beads are handed to him. Then the Indian buys his supplies of flour, sugar, tobacco, etc., handing the beads back to the storekeeper accordingly. Good Indians are allowed credit at the store where they trade on the strength of what they are likely to catch in the coming season. The larger the debt the prouder is the Indian —for it shows what a fine hunter he is.

AND so at last we retraced our journey of one thousand miles up the Mackenzie River and returned again into the Great Slave. Although the stormy season had arrived, and I knew the evil reputation of the lake, it was necessary to make some explorations of surrounding territories, and we embarked upon a risky voyage to a part of the northern shore.

I set a course by means of my instruments and, as soon as we were completely out of sight of land, a violent storm came up out of nowhere and tossed our little ship about like a cork. The Indians and breeds in the party became sea-sick; and all of us had an anxious time. However, fortune favored us and we reached the coast As we neared the shore, which loomed up through the storm as remarkably rocky and dangerous, we threw out two anchors, but even then we nearly drifted on to the rocks. Finally we fixed two large spars to keep her off the shore and before we felt safe had no less than eight cables stretching out in all directions t* rocks and trees.

The storm continued for several days, but the good ship held together.

On this coast we found there was a great abundance of fish—whitefish which we caught in nets, and pike and “conies” —the latter a fish peculiar to this lake, which we caught with spinning bait. Here we could throw out the line and continually draw in fish, as many as you pleased—and all sizes, from 8 to 20 lbs. and even larger. In the fall the Indians gather here and catch hundreds of tons

of fish for winter food for themselves and their dogs. •

There were also trout—the largest in the world—which we caught in the deep water by setting hooks at night. Some of these weighed 40 pounds, and it is said that they sometimes attain to 60 pounds.

We recrossed the lake in another bad storm and had to shelter for two days in the lee of an island.

In due course and very laboriously we retraced onr way along the Slave and Athabasca, meeting with various adventures on the way.

Along the river were several new crosses marking the places where men had been drowned that season on the journey in. We picked up all the men we could at McMurray who wished to travel out, but our party was really insufficient for the task and most of us were in rags and without any sound boots. Besides ourselves were several Indians and halfbreeds and three prospectors from Nevada who had been washing gravel in the North in search of gold.

All were footsore and worn and very hungry. Once we found a dead deer which had died of a bullet wound, and though it smelt unpleasant we were glad of it as food.

“Tracking out” up the Athabasca River is perhaps the hardest work in the world.

Often we had to wade through tributary rivers where we could hardly keep our feet. Yet never must t,Jie pull on the rope be slackened. At times men would sink deep/into soft mud and had to be hauled out with ropes.

In one backwater which we crossed, just whilst we were in it up to our waists, a man called out: “Tom, this is where your brother was drowned. He sunk into this soft mud and we could not get him out with the rope. He is down there yet.”

It would be difficult to properly describe the struggles we went through during these three weeks. But at last we got our boat up through all the rapids and through all the 300 miles.

The last day of our toilsome journey was a day of clear air and bright sunshine, and it is pleasant to wind up this description with the recollections of the glorious beauty of the Athabasca Valley on this day.

The forest in its autumn dress was a blaze of color and beauty. Green trees and brown trees and dark spruce trees, and best of all the poplar trees, which were a blaze of brilliant gold, and all amongst the coloury foliage loomed the rough brown trunks of the pines and the glittering silver stems of the poplar and the birch.

Wearily and gladly we crawled up the river banks at Athabasca Landing all safe and sound.