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  • Written by Phil Jenkins
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  • Written by Phil Jenkins
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The Memoirs of George Mercer Dawson

Written by Phil JenkinsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Phil Jenkins


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: January 13, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-55199-153-5
Published by : McClelland & Stewart McClelland & Stewart
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George Mercer Dawson is a towering figure in Canadian history — and science — as the man who led the Geological Survey during its exploration of the Canadian West, mostly from horseback or from a canoe. A tough job for anyone, it was an extraordinary achievement for Dawson. Born in 1849, Dawson was crippled by a childhood illness that left him hunchbacked and in constant pain. He never grew taller than a young boy, and he never let his disabilities stop him. An avid photographer, amateur painter, professional geologist and botanist, and by necessity an ethnographer, Dawson wrote constantly: poetry, journals, reports, notes, and more than five thousand letters, his first at the age of six and his last just two days before he died in 1901.

But Dawson never wrote his memoirs. So, a century after his death, Phil Jenkins has lent him a hand. Using Dawson’s own words, and filling in the gaps in Dawson’s voice, Jenkins presents the man who left his heart in western Canada. Their countless stories — from witnessing the last great buffalo stampede to encountering the timeless customs of the Haida — evoke the real excitement of the age of exploration. Dawson knew the pain of unrequited love, suffered the bite of a million mosquitoes, and yet he travelled on, over mountainous physical odds, to become one of the most respected and enjoyed of Victorian Canadians, in the thought-provoking times of Dickens and Darwin.

From the Hardcover edition.


In the latter stages of the Summer and Autumn of 1873, my employment with the Commission saw me to following on behind the waggon train, which was itself following the astrological imperative of an agreed though imaginary line on a very real and sometimes difficult terrain. Whereas the main party was obliged to proceed as though laying rail, I was able to drift a bit more, somewhat like the dust that rose in large plumes behind the carts….

Journeying out and back from Wood End, I was in the land of the buffalo. Indian hunters I met told me about them as well as they could, given our mutually foreign tongues. One band of Indians I encountered had killed about 800 buffalo in three days, generally with steel pointed arrows which sticking in the flesh stopped the animal very effectively and were a great saving of ammunition. Even those Indians possessing good rifles were armed also with bow and arrow for the chase.

Every hole containing water was poached up by the thirsty beasts and they had created well worn paths in every direction. Buffalo are very fond of rolling over and over in the dust and the whole plain was dotted with their wallowing spots, the sod broken in a circular patch and the area filled with dry powdery dust from constant use. A buffalo wallowing in one of them raises such a cloud as to altogether obscure himself, and it has a most singular effect when he suddenly stands up and becomes revealed. The appearance of the animal was altogether nightmarish and weird; it looked like a survivor of a bygone age or a revivified Tertiary monster. The head is densely matted with black hair, among which short horns stand up, and sports a long beard. The hinder quarters and hind legs seem to dwindle rapidly away, as though so much bulk had gone into the front end that the rear arrived too late. The animals I saw were beginning to show a short thick growth of fur, a good winter coat already looking immensely thick and strong.

The animals stalked slowly along in lines one after another, or fed in little herds. Often they lay down in groups in precisely the attitude assumed by a cow. When disturbed, they broke into a strange lumbering run, but withal made good time, and twirling their little pig-like tails could give a horse a good chase as it sought to get abreast of them. Their bellow has a hoarse hollow metallic sound and strikes a peculiarly eerie effect when heard coming across the prairie after dark.

While I was in Wood End, for a day and a night we were engaged fighting a prairie fire which threatened to burn up the depot. Several days earlier, it transpired, while I was still out of the Depot, some men from one of the final surveying parties about eighty miles West had made a fire for cooking and a gust of wind carried it among the grass and in a minute they had to run for it and leave their hard-earned wood pile to its fate. We were camped near the place at the time, so we were kept in a state of anxiety all night. The wind fortunately began to take the fire eastward and left us safe. It seemed to be travelling at a rate of twenty miles a day and it made itself evident to the South long after departing. As it travelled away, we made our way into Wood End. Then towards evening the wind changed to the southwest and the reflection in the sky became very bright. A guard was put on, and by the time I turned in, about twelve o’clock, the smell of smoke was quite palpable. In less than half an hour I was called up and found volumes of smoke drifting past through which the moon looked quite red. The wind was transporting lots of ashes as well as smoke, and the whole southern sky was in a glare.

The camp, fortunately, was on a peninsular around which a moat­like stream wound on all sides but one. It seemed likely that, though the brook was fringed with bushes and small trees filled with dead leaves, the fire would not cross it in dangerous volume. Dr. Burgess, the Commission physician, was the only officer in camp at the time so we consulted in harmony as to the best plan of defense. All attention was given to the narrow neck of the peninsular which was grassy and had a fringe of bushes on each side. The men set to work and cut out a clear space in the bushes and drenched a broad track with water from the creek. A number of old oat sacks and such were tied to sticks to form “beaties” and a row of buckets filled with water placed along the line to wet them in. The fire very soon appeared over the crest of the valley and beating it out first in one direction and then in another occupied us until about half­past three. I turned in for the second time at about four, all immediate danger seeming to be past. Then between seven and eight another alarm was raised, the fire having crossed the stream and coming down now from the North side. All hands turned out again and worked the greater part of Sunday morning getting this too put out. We took breakfast around eleven and no one seemed disposed for any physical activity the rest of the day.

From the Hardcover edition.
Phil Jenkins

About Phil Jenkins

Phil Jenkins - Beneath My Feet

Photo © Rod McIvor

An author and performing songwriter, Phil Jenkins has written for a number of magazines, including National Geographic Traveller, Equinox, and Heritage Canada, and was a feature writer for Ottawa Magazine for five years. His first book, Fields of Vision: A Journey to Canada’s Family Farms, a national bestseller, was published in 1991. His second, An Acre of Time, published in 1996, won the Canadian Author’s Association Lela Common Award for History, jointly won the Ottawa Citizen Non-Fiction Award, and was made into a play nominated for a Governor General’s award. His third book, River Song: Sailing the History of the St. Lawrence River was published in 2001. From 1991 to 1996, Jenkins was the book columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, and he currently writes on interesting city rooms for the newspaper. He has also recently released a CD, CarTunes, with the band Riverbend. He lives in Chelsea, Quebec.


“[An Acre of Time is] original and engaging . . . an act of scholarship and imagination.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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