Mapping Canada from the Clouds

A. G. DEXTER April 15 1927

Mapping Canada from the Clouds

A. G. DEXTER April 15 1927

Mapping Canada from the Clouds

Thanks to the airplane and the camera the modern map-maker can accomplish in a week what formerly three years


THROUGH the eye of the camera Canada’s Northland is yielding its secrets.

Epic tales of exploration: Sir John

Franklin perishing in forlorn Arctic seas;

Mackenzie scratching his name upon the living rock of the Selkirks; David Thompson stumbling, groping through the wilderness of the North-west; Champlain, LaVerendrye, and the hosts of those whose blood leaped at the call of a virgin continent—these will ever remain classics of heroism.

But, in sheer achievement, the greatest of them shrinks into insignificance in contrast with the youth of to-day who climbs into the cockpit and, with the roar of the motor deafening his ears, photographs the earth below as he wings his way through the heavens.

The great explorers and the legions of their progeny— the prospectors, trappers, timber cruisers and surveyors—literally tore their way through the wilderness. They moved in a cell, their vision restricted by walls of forest or hill. They could not hope to see the earth steadily and see it whole. Today, perched as it were on a cloud’s edge, the aerial photographer looks out over the world: it reels past below him as though eager to show the face it has denied so long.

Application of aerial photography to map making is not the least important discovery that Canada has given the world. Like all discoveries, its progress at first was slow; critics who challenged the accuracy of the new maps had to be silenced. But gradually came conviction. Gradually the hard-headed scientist—he of the acid face and horn-rimmed spectacles—was compelled to yield. To-day one little super-sensitive photographic plate, a mere bit of glass, blinking down at the Canadian wilderness for a hundredth part of a split second—just while the camera shutter snaps—is seeing and recording more than whole armies of surveyors, forestry experts and agronomists ever saw or recorded.

In dollars and in knowledge it means much to Canada. There is always romance in discovery. At first the camera was only asked to tell where land was and where the water. Then, after looking at many photographs, a nature loving map-drawer thought he could identify the kinds of trees. Experts from the Forestry branch of the Interior Department were consulted. They said that the variation in color between different kinds of trees was sufficiently marked to warrant investigation. So photographs were taken of a well timbered and easily accessible section of the country and these, compared with the reports of ground cruisers who went through the district carefully noting the location and the variety of timber, proved that a person well versed in forestry could distinguish from an aerial photograph the various kinds of trees which grow in Canada’s Northland. Just as the expert bending over his microscope in the laboratory learned by experience to identify various bacilli, so the skilled map-drawers of the Dominion Government had learned to read the

photographs taken from the air. The art of map making had been revolutionized.

“What are these horrible looking pock marks?” you ask, pointing to a photograph which looks like a square inch of skin of a smallpox patient magnified several hundreds of times.

“Oh, those are willow sloughs,” answers the mapdrawer.

“And this black mass is rock?”

“No. Just burnt over timberland.”

But this is getting ahead of the story.

/^ANADA emerged from the war with an ^ air force famed for skill and courage. Never dreaming of the vast contribution which airmen were to make to Canadian industry, the government as a matter of military policy organized the Royal Canadian Air Force under National Defence. But it required time for a fighting force to adjust itself to warless life; no Germans haunted the clouds above Lake Ontario, Lake Winnipeg or Burrard Inlet.

Then in 1921, A. M. Narroway, head of the Topographical Surveys Branch of the Department of the Interior, conceived the idea of plotting maps from aerial photographs. In that year a trial was made.

One difficulty had to be overcome.

A map-drawer, ordinarily, divides his paper into squares, at so many inches to the mile, and fills in the details one square at a time. If, keeping this steadily in mind, you imagine yourself on a high pinnacle overlooking a mighty plain all divided into squares of equal size, you will appreciate the difficulty. As you looked away to the horizon, the squares would appear smaller and smaller. The lines would converge to the centre. This is exactly the prospect which greets the eye of the camera in the clouds, with the exception, unfortunately for the map-drawer, that nature failed to mark the world up into small squares. How could the topographer translate perspective in the photograph into hard actuality on the map?

Given two facts, the problem was soluble. If the height at which the photograph was taken and the angle of the camera were known, a mathematician could work out the rest. When he had the answer, he could devise a spider’s web of lines which, if laid over the photograph, would subdivide it into squares just as accurately as if one measured it yard by yard.

In 1921, the year of experiment, thirty-one photographs were taken, covering forty-five square miles. The map was plotted out, tested by ground surveys and found accurate to a fraction of one per cent. Parliament, in the following year, appropriated sufficient money to enable the work to be pressed forward. There was no lack of scope. The very best of the old maps show vast

white spaces extending northward from the railway lines to the Arctic Ocean. A few rivers and lakes are drawn in, but no one, least of all Mr. Narroway, pretends that these details can be considered even relatively accurate.

The call for better maps came with increasing insistence. Amazing development of the newsprint industry compelled governments and capitalists to seek more accurate information of northern areas, even though cost of ground surveys was enormous and required half a decade to accomplish.

The 1927 capitalist, in the thick of the present day industrial struggle, cannot wait five years to ascertain if a given area contains sufficient pulpwood to support an investment of millions. Before aerial

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map photography there was nothing else for him to do. He could, perhaps, hire airplanes to make investigatory flights, at tremendous cost and little profit by way of information. But as no manufacturer could afford to set up an equivalent of the Royal Canadian Flying Corps and the Topographical Surveys Branch, he took the only course which offered security for investment. He demanded an area so large that chances of insufficient pulpwood were negligible.

To-day he may obtain a government map which will show him the timbered areas at a glance. In five minutes he can reach a fairly clear conclusion upon the pulpwood resources of a country and pick out the strategic points where ground cruises are required.

There is the experience of Manitoba. Four years ago, governments, newsprint manufacturers, forestry experts, everyone, agreed that the maximum newsprint development possible in Manitoba was one 200-ton a day mill. Three years of aerial map photography have proved conclusively that northern and north-eastern Manitoba are heavily timbered. Already a 250-ton mill is building and it is conceded by all concerned that there is wood for a further development of 400 tons per day, perhaps more. The mill under construction is drawing wood from a restricted area, use of which capitalists tyould have ridiculed a few years ago. Information of this kind

undoubtedly is precious to manufacturers, but it is doubly precious to governments charged with the responsibility of administering resources.

A God-Send for the Prospector

DROSPECTORS in early post-war *■ years, who pushed their way by lake and trail into Red Lake and Rouyn, into Northern and Eastern Manitoba, were ‘off’ the map. When they came back to civilization and the mining recorder’s office and babbled about their strike nearby a lake somewhere in the Northland, the recorder could only produce a government map as bare of detail as the Sahara is of trees, and say: “I don’t see any of these lakes and rivers you mention.”

If the prospector were wise, an old hand, he would produce a log. He would say: ‘‘I left the railway at such a point and traveled twenty miles north, fifteen miles north-east, and ten miles east. There I found a lake and near the east side of it I staked a claim.”

Together they would draw it in on the map and register the claim. Meantime another prospector entering the district from a different point might, and frequently did, reach the same lake and stake the same claim. Returning, his ‘strike’ would be drawn in on a map and registered, without prospector or recording officer realizing the duplication. The inability of a prospector to register a claim accurately became a very serious discouragement to mining development and the wonder is, indeed, that more confusion did not occur. Red Lake, centre of a highly mineralized area, was shown on the old maps surrounded by a vast expanse of white paper. It was placed scores of miles out of position. The 2,100 lakes within a thirty-mile radius of Red Lake, discovered by the aerial photographs, were known only to trappers and prospectors who tried to thread their mazes.

Filling in the Blank Spots in the Map

REALIZING that the aerial maps would be the final wor4 in map making, the government experts, to prevent duplication, divided the Dominion into sections roughly 250 by 390 miles. Every inch of Canada was included, from the most northerly tip which Ellesmere Island thrusts into Arctic desolation, to the vineyards of the Niagara peninsula, and from the moldering ruins of Louisburg, on Cape Breton Island, to the westermost cape of Vancouver Island. Each section was numbered and subdivided into four or more parts, each with a letter to distinguish it. It was decided to map the Dominion in units of letters, and to so make the maps that they could be pasted one beside the other. In this way, if the Dominion is ever completely mapped—a most remote possibility— and one had a wall large enough, a complete map of Canada could be pieced together. Pressure of demand compels that mapping be made in isolated areas, and this system ensures against overlapping.

In the early years several long aerial expeditions were carried out. Photographs of the Nelson and Churchill rivers from their source to the Hudson’s Bay were taken: Rheindeer Lake was reduced, for the first time, to the black and white of ink and paper. These flights, covering thousands of miles, were historic events in themselves. The Rheindeer Lake feat was accomplished in 1924 and was hailed as one of the greatest of post war flying achievements. Indians and Eskimos who scoffed at rumors of the great white bird which would flutter down from the clouds and pitch on to the placid waters of the lake, yet speak in hushed tones of the awe-inspiring fulfilment.

Sensational flights, while they kindled enthusiasm in all who read, did not meet the demands of industry. In later

years a policy of concentrating on areas where accurate maps are most needed has been followed. All of the Red Lake area has been mapped and much of the Lake Winnipeg basin. This year it is proposed to extend mapping operations eastward to the Lake Nipigon region in Ontario where large pulp and paper developments are pending, and, also, to Wood Buffalo Park, just across Alberta’s northern boundary. The Federal government has been transferring buffalo from Wainwright to Wood Buffalo Park at the rate of 2,00') annually and, if the movement is to continue, accurate knowledge of food resources is necessary.

Three Years’ Work in a’Week!

I N THE 1926 flyingseason 56,000 square 1 miles were photographed and mapped. nefore the development of aerial map photi graphy such an area would have required many years to survey and the cost would have been high in the millions. The Federal government accomplished the job at a cost of three dollars per square mile, including all charges.

There was a proposal, a few years ago, to urvey Island Lake, on the OntarioManitoba boundary northeast of Lake Winnipeg. The Topographical Branch estimated the job would require a large

survey party three years to accomplish. The cost, running into six figures, was prohibitive.

This lake was photographed last summer in less than three hours and was plotted out on a map in less than one week.

Largest demand for new maps comes from the men who, either in search of fortune or as part of every day foutine, tramp the face of the wilderness. Indian trails, followed since time immemorial, are being abandoned. Portages, never before dreamed of, are being opened up: circuitous paths are falling prey to their age-long enemies, the wild forest growths.

Other countries are interested in Canada’s’discovery. At the present time a large scale exhibit, showing how serial photographs are transferred to the map sheet, is being prepared in Ottawa for shipment to London. United States topographers have studied the Canadian system with profiL and inquiries are received frequently from distant lands— Africa, Australia and other continents with great unmappeu areas. And the work is yet in infancy.

Across his desk in an old ramshackle office building in Ottawa, Mr. Narroway looks at a large scale map of Canada, one of the old ones. Gradually, year by year, the great white spaces are shrinking.