Saturday, December 04, 2004

Yukon Expedition

Click here for photographs

From the perspective of the years, I look back to what was the single most defining time of my life. It was the first time I had been away from home for an extended period. It was a time which tested who I was, challenged my beliefs and courage, opened my eyes, and taught me that I could accomplish virtually anything I wanted in the future.

Many of the events do not appear here, but will be transcribed from my 1959 diary in the future. However, this small offering first appeared in the Sun Life Review, October 1959

Bruce Ritchie at Taye Lake, Yukon Territory

The 15-year-old son of Sun Life Unit Supervisor Lawrence G. Ritchie, C.L.U. (Ottawa Parkway Branch) describes how an interest in rocks and a little perseverance led to a fascinating two-month archaeological trip as guest of the National Museum of Canada this past summer.

THE TRIP which was to prove the most exciting part of the short 15 years of my life was about to begin. But first I should describe some of the events that led up to it.

Four years ago, while vacationing at Constance Bay on the Ottawa River, I discovered an old Indian campsite or at least I discovered a spot that seemed to have a number of Indian relics, such as pieces of pottery, skin scrapers and shells that had been used by the Indians. I took these for identification to the National Museum. Members of the department of archaeology showed interest, and asked me to take them to the site. The next spring a ''dig'' was organized, and I was invited to take part in lt. This activity was filmed and later a TV program was produced in which I appeared.

From the beginning I became fairly well acquainted with Dr. R S. ''Scotty'' MacNeish, head archaeologist of the National Museum of Canada. About a year ago I learned that Dr. MacNeish was going on an expedition to the Yukon in an attempt to trace the migration of the Indians from Siberia, and expressed an interest in it. Just before Christmas he invited me to go along. Mom and Dad said ''maybe''—that was one of the best Christmas presents I could receive.

The few days before June 22nd were a turmoil—not only did we have to organize my clothing and transportation, but I had to finish my school examinations. Finally, I was all packed and ready to go. Travelling with me was another 15-year-old Ottawa boy, Bill Baker, who was also interested in archaeology. We were to travel the 4,000 miles alone, neither of us was a seasoned traveler so you can imagine our feelings of excitement and uncertainty. Of course there was also a feeling of importance—after all, hadn't the Canadian Press sent along a reporter and a photographer to interview us? Our pictures and write-up were to appear in papers across the country!

The journey to Edmonton was uneventful. At both Edmonton and Dawson Creek we were met by representatives of the Boy Scouts. We arrived in Edmonton on June 24th. There Mr. D. R. Milne, Executive Commissioner of the Edmonton Regional Council of Boy Scouts Association, showed us as much of that city as time allowed.

"Klondike" Paddlewheeler, Whitehorse, Yukon 1959

At 5:30 that afternoon we caught the Northern Alberta Railways train (nicknamed the ''Muskeg Express'') for Dawson Creek, B.C. not quite as comfortable perhaps as the Super-Continental' but It got us there.

I was surprised that Dawson Creek was as large as it is. We were entertained by the Scouts representative, M. A. Dale-Johnson, and his son, Bob. That night we slept in a motel and had breakfast at a diner across the road. It was then I first realized that all cooks can't necessarily cook.

Travelling by bus the 917 miles of dirt road which is the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse is not exactly luxury travel, but the scenery is magnificent. An enormous amount of forest has been ravaged by fires, and anyone who has seen that sight is sure to be careful with fire in the future. The highway runs for 1,527 miles from Dawson Creek through to Fairbanks, Alaska. Each mile on the road is marked off, and Burwash Landing, our destination, is mile 1,093.

On June 27th we arrived at Whitehorse and were met by Dr. MacNeish, who had along with him Charles Martijn of Montreal and Dennis Kelly of Toronto, a couple of college students working on the expedition.

Whitehorse is just as I pictured it would be, rough and ready. The best-decorated places were the numerous bars and the lounges. The people were the finest. The long hours of daylight were also something new to me.

Kluane Lake, Yukon 1959 across from Burwash Landing, Mile 1093 Alaska Highway

The next day we drove to Kluane Lake, which we had to cross to get to our camp site. The location of our camp site was perfect. We were on a small ridge overlooking the lake. The water was as clear as the air after a spring rain, and smooth as glass when we first saw it. Our tents were pitched about 500 feet from the diggings.

If I started out with the idea I was on holidays, the next day I soon learned differently. We began work on a schedule of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one hour for lunch, six days a week.

An archaeological site is excavated by digging holes five feet by five feet and as deep as the layers go. Each layer normally indicates a culture or occupation. This digging is usually a delicate operation performed with trowels and brushes, each bit of dirt being examined for relics. Each square is numbered and each relic found is marked to indicate the exact location of the find.

After a day of work and before we took off across the lake for supper we had a ''skinny'' (clothesless) dip in the 40-degree water of Kluane Lake to rid ourselves of the dust of past centuries! Fishing, an after-hours recreation, was good. My first time out I caught a Great Northern Pike 31 inches long, weighing 8 pounds. I took a picture as proof of delivery.

The greatest shock I had on the trip was my introduction to work. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. was something new and strange for a boy just turned 15; I took poorly to it. As I look back now I must have been a bit of a headache to Scotty thank goodness he proved tolerant and a good man to handle discipline.

Although there was a sameness to each day's work, it became more interesting as my knowledge of what I was doing increased.

Burwash Landing, Kluane Lake, Mile 1093 Alaska Highway, Yukon, 1959

Crossing the lake often proved exciting. One evening we started across the lake to go to Burwash Landing for supper. The waves were unusually high and the boat was taking in a fair amount of water. It was only through the grace of God that we did not attend our own funerals that day.

July 3rd was a cloudy, cold morning. At 6:30 I was awakened by an alarm clock that was placed at my ear by Dennis and Bill it was my turn to cook breakfast, the first time I had been required to do such a thing. I made bacon and eggs but the eggs were frozen stiff in two minutes -- it took three minutes to freeze the bacon. Since I knew how well I cooked, I had Pablum. Fortunately for the crew, they only had to eat my cooking in turn; also, with time, both my cooking and my disposition improved .

Recreation over the weeks varied: fishing, mountain climbing, chasing wild horses, riding, and the general recreations one finds only in frontier country.

Letters from home were important but at first we had to take the long trip to Whitehorse to get them. Later, arrangements were made to bring our mail to Burwash Landing where we could pick it up.

Some days were discouraging. You can imagine how one might feel working (with another person) in a hole 5' x 5' all day and coming up with not one, or maybe only one, artifact. But these were offset by days that, according to Dr. MacNeish,were highly successful, and would add to his knowledge of the movements of Canada's early inhabitants. To add a little competitive interest we devised a point system for the artifacts we found, the reward to the person earning the most points being a pie. Our finds consisted mostly of micro-blades, scrapers, projectile points, burons, pieces of bone and other miscellaneous items.

Micro-blades were used as knives. A series of them was placed in a grooved piece of wood or antler and formed a cutting edge. The scraper, of course, was used to scrape the skins free of flesh before they were cured. The projectile points consisted of arrow-heads and spear-heads. A buron is a tool used to groove bone or wood into which the micro-blades are placed end to end.

Flat bottom boat with 5 hp motor, Kluane Lake, Yukon 1959

Our old river boat was in need of a new bottom, so Dennis, Kelly and I volunteered to take it to Destruction Bay where the work would be done. Destruction Bay got its name back in the gold rush days because of the many people who lost their lives in storms on the lake. It was almost our destruction too. Here is an excerpt from my diary:

''July 17,1959. Dennis and I got the job of taking the boat from Burwash Landing 10 miles to Destruction Bay. On the way we stopped at a little bay for a lunch of canned tuna fish and canned fruit. We then found out from the Indians that we had run over one of their fish nets. The nets were checked, and luckily we had not damaged them.

''Just as we rounded the first point the big waves struck us. The boat bounced up and down and progress was slow. With us in the boat was ''Buck,'' a Labrador Retriever, who belonged to one of the natives. The waves battered the boat, she began to fill and needed bailing badly. When I tried to land we stuck on a sandbar. We managed to float the boat again after getting her bailed out. We had traveled about 3 hours and the boat was slowly filling with water. We rounded a point about 4 miles from Destruction Bay's pier and that was a]most the end of us. Waves five and six feet high struck the boat and tossed it around like a match stick. A Chinook wind hit us and the air became surprisingly warm. The wind was so strong that it made little breakers on the big ones. With every wave that hit the boat we took in water. We headed for shore because the boat was sinking. I was up to my ankles in cold water; all the equipment in the boat was afloat. Just as we reached shore a huge wave hit us and completely filled the boat.'' A day or so later we got the boat to Destruction Bay where it was rebuilt.

Champaign, Mile 973 Alaska Highway, Yukon 1959 Bruce Ritchie

My two months in the Yukon had many highlights, not the least the Queen and Prince Philip's visit to Whitehorse. Whitehorse being less populous than Ottawa, I was able to get quite a few close-up shots with my Brownie.

I found the Indians very friendly and generous (much more so than white people) and became well acquainted with many of them.

Joe Jaquet (pronounced Jocco) was a big-game guide and had a number of horses. These ran loose when not in use. Many an evening I would catch one and go for a ride. One evening we helped Joe and his wranglers round up the herd, an exciting evening if ever I've had one. This was the Wild West !

Canyon Creek, Yukon 1959

We moved from Kluane Lake to Canyon Creek on August 8th. We set up camp there, but because numbers of children showed signs of upsetting our camping gear while we were up the hill digging, we moved camp down to Champagne 20 miles away. At Champagne we rented an old unused store and stayed there. Every morning we would drive the 20 miles up the highway to Canyon Creek and dig there on a high bank overlooking the Aishihik Valley.

At Canyon Creek there were 11 layers of differently coloured sand, and in each layer we found artifacts, indicating that there had been 11 civilizations or cultures living there, the earliest about 7,000 years ago and the last only about 200 years ago. The holes sometimes reached a depth of 7 feet and each layer had to be trowelled off separately. The layers varied in thickness as the drifting of the sand changed with the climate and the amount of wind .

Charcoal from these layers will help get an exact date of the occupations as carbon from charcoal can be dated by using a complex process known as ''Carbon 14.'' Obsidian, or volcanic glass, of which many artifacts were made can also be dated by measuring the ''pattenation'' or film which forms on all glass through a chemical reaction caused by age. Even the glass on your windows can he dated through this process even though this film is too thin to be detected by the human eye. If you are wondering ''Wouldn't the film indicate the time the volcano erupted?" the answer would be ''yes'' if the glass had not been broken or chipped. But artifacts have been broken or chipped off the original rock, and each chipping exposes fresh surface where pattenation would then begin. This fresh surface would then be dated and the age of the knife blade, spear head, or scraper could be determined.

We dug at Canyon Creek for a week and found about 150 tools that Indians had used.

Taye Lake, Yukon 1959 - Bruce Ritchie, Dr. R.S. MacNeigh, Forestry pilot

Scotty arranged with the Yukon Forestry Department to have us flown into Taye Lake where we would work for a week. Dr. MacNeish and Ron, a native boy, would fly in first with our equipment in a Beaver seaplane, then Bill, Charles and I would fly in by helicopter from Champagne.

On August 10th we landed at Taye Lake and set up camp 3 miles from the future digging site. Evidently the pilot of the seaplane could land only in that one place, so the day after we landed we walked the full 3 miles to the site.

We followed a horse trail which, the map said, led to a trapper's cabin. We had gone about half-way when we heard the roar of a waterfall. Crystal clear water was cascading over a sharp rock ledge into a deep gorge. The trail crossed the stream just above the waterfall and we pushed on to the site. Ron, Bill and I decided to explore the gorge on the way back from work. When we got to the site we did a bit of surface collecting there were chips and artifacts all over the place.

Bruce Ritchie, Taye Lake, Yukon 1959 Archaeological Expedition

Scotty and I decided to see if the cabin was in good enough shape to stay in. It was. It was built of logs and the roof was covered with earth. Evidently the owner must have just shovelled the dirt around his cabin onto the roof, stones and all, because when Dr. MacNeish examined the roof he came back down with quite a collection of Indian relics.
We found a little row-boat on the bank of the river and, after thinking it over, decided to stay there. After all, the owner wouldn't need the cabin until he went trapping in the winter.

While Ron was taking the boat to camp the rest of us fixed up an old log bridge which crossed the river to the cabin. Although the river was narrow, the current was swift and keeping one's balance on the slippery rocks was no easy task. Quite often we almost went swimming and the water at the time wasn't what you would call warm. After struggling with the logs for half an hour or so, we finally had the ''bridge'' repaired but as it was only three logs wide, we had to be careful where we stepped because working in wet clothes isn't pleasant.

Our week at Taye Lake was considered fruitful. Then we were flown out and returned to our dig at Canyon Creek where we stayed until it was time to leave the Yukon .
It was hard to say good-bye to all the friends we had made in the north country, but it was inevitable. School opened on September 8th, and both Bill and I had to get back.
Instead of returning by train we came back in the truck. This was also a new experience to me because it was my first trip through the West by road.

Home looked extra good, and surprisingly enough, I've been quite able to adjust to eating home-cooked meals again and soaking in a nice warm tub!

Dr. R.S. MacNeish, Bill Baker, Ron Chambers, Charles Martijn, Bruce Ritchie - Yukon Archaeological Expedition, National Museum of Canada 1959