March/April 2011

Albert Low

The “Iron Man” of the GSC

By Correy Baldwin

Albert Low’s photo of the birchbark survey canoe on Lake Mistassini in the summer of 1885. James Macoun, foreground, holds a survey rod | Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

In the winter of 1884, a Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) team was waiting out the bitter weather at a Hudson Bay Company post on the shores of Lake Mistassini, deep in the wilderness of northern Quebec. The two lead members of the team had been arguing for months and now, stuck together in cramped quarters, their disagreement was reaching its height. The young, stubborn, no-nonsense geologist Albert Low had had enough of the team’s leader, John Bignell – and the feelings seemed to be mutual.

Their differences too great to be resolved, Low decided to take matters into his own hands. He packed up his things and, accompanied by two other men, marched out into the blowing snow. He was heading back to Ottawa to convince the GSC to put him rather than Bignell in charge of the expedition. He was facing a 300-kilometre trek by foot and just as far by sleigh before even reaching a train station, and the blizzards were howling.

The two men were part of a joint expedition of the Quebec government and the federal government’s Geological Survey to survey Lake Mistassini, rumoured to be just as large as the Great Lakes. Bignell, a land surveyor for the Quebec government, was given leadership of the expedition and Low was brought in as the team’s geologist. At 23 years old, it was Low’s first major assignment with the GSC. Bignell was 67 and much more experienced.

The team was to take an unexplored route into Mistassini to survey a large area to the east and south. Bignell decided that they would winter at the HBC post, which, given the unknown route, would require an early departure. But, as Bignell assembled an unnecessarily large team, the departure was delayed until the end of August. Low was not impressed.

Frustrated by the delay, Low left early with his team and arranged to meet Bignell at a halfway point. There, he waited impatiently until Bignell arrived. Travel became difficult as winter set in and eventually the team was forced to stop to build toboggans and snowshoes to complete the journey. By mid-December, they were trekking in minus 40 degree weather, their food supplies running out.

They finally arrived at the HBC post on December 23, hungry and weary. Low wanted to begin surveying the lake immediately, but Bignell opted to wait out what was shaping up to be a brutally cold January. Low was fed up. He considered the entire expedition a disaster and blamed Bignell.

By the end of the month, the two were not on speaking terms and when February arrived, Low decided to leave for Ottawa. His trek out of Mistassini was no easier than the trek in: heavy snowstorms slowed the journey and forced him and his two companions to abandon some heavier equipment including, incredibly, their tent and stove. They spent the rest of their nights huddled in snow caves.

Low eventually reached Ottawa and reported to his superior, Dr. Selwyn, detailing his grievances about Bignell’s leadership. Selwyn wrote to his Quebec counterpart, E. E. Taché. Convinced by Low, the two agreed to recall Bignell and to put Low in charge. Low set out once again, this time armed with a dismissal letter.

By the time Low set out by foot from Lac Saint-Jean, it was the end of March and spring was setting in. This time his trek was slowed by slush and mud. He eventually ran out of food and had to be rescued by men from the HBC post, but he finally made it back to Mistassini, more-or-less triumphant, on April 29. He handed Bignell the dismissal letter and sent the furious surveyor back to Quebec City.

Bignell had been busy while Low was away, having emerged from the post in February to begin surveying. Now Low continued with the work and surveyed the circumference of the lake by birch bark canoe after the ice breakup.

The lake turned out to be much smaller than suspected – nothing compared to the Great Lakes. Still, the trip had been a success for Low, whose stunt secured his status in the GSC. The Mistassini trip would be the first of many expeditions. He spent nine seasons in the field, eight of those in the Quebec-Labrador region. He quickly gained a reputation as a rough traveller and hardy explorer.

Such qualities were to be admired, but they were also just part of the job. It was an era when geologists were expected to truly rough it in the bush. You could say that Low had big boots to fill: the walls of Sir William Logan’s office, the first director of the GSC, were famously lined with dozens of worn-out field boots.

Low more than lived up to expectations. All in all, he spent nearly 1,600 days in the field and covered well over 13,000 kilometres. He also became known for his accurate and meticulously detailed field notes, reports, sketches and maps.

His 1892 expedition up the Chamouchouane and Eastmain rivers was the first of five years of surveying by canoe, a period that solidified Low’s reputation as an expert in the geology of northeastern Quebec and Labrador. His 1893-94 expedition into the largely unexplored Labrador Peninsula was his longest, covering over 8,000 kilometres.

On that trip, he discovered the vast deposits of iron ore that make up the Labrador Trough. He immediately recognized the potential of these deposits, which a half century later would support a massive iron mine industry in the area, centred around Schefferville, Labrador City and Fermont.

Low resigned from the GSC in 1901 to prospect for iron at Hudson Bay, although he returned in 1906 to serve as its director. He retired in 1913.

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