IT'S A WIND that still frustrates Yellowknifers. Blowing in from the south, it stirs up rollers over the considerable width of Great Slave Lake that funnel, white-capping, into Yellowknife Bay. This wind tells us why the city’s houseboat community is sprawled out the way it is, with dozens of floating homes clustered in coves or hugging the north sides of Precambrian outcrops for protection.
This wind puts an end to fishing trips and afternoon paddles on the big lake before they even start. And according to Jock McMeekan, an eccentric newspaperman from Yellowknife’s early days, this wind is directly responsible for the city we know today.
As the story goes, Johnny Baker and Hugh Muir had spent many exhausting weeks in 1934 fruitlessly prospecting down the Yellowknife River system. As they paddled southward along the eastern shore of Yellowknife Bay to get to Duck Lake (just northeast of Dettah), a September storm kicked up. Battered by wild waves, the two men barely managed to steer their loaded canoe to shelter.
Baker and Muir set up camp. An historic decision.
The winds didn’t abate, so the two prospectors choked down an unpleasant meal—“Flytox (insect repellant) in the pancakes”—before poking about their surroundings. Climbing a small hill, they soon came across a wide quartz vein with visible gold. Baker, canonically referred to as Yellowknife’s founder, would later describe feeling a “fantastic exhilaration” at that moment, as he and Muir made what came to be known as the Burwash discovery.
News reached the south, motivating a few small prospecting crews to journey north that winter to stake claims on present-day Joliffe and Latham islands. By the end of the following summer, the bay area was all staked up, including land that would eventually host the multigenerational Giant and Con gold mines—twin economic drivers of a town that has since blossomed into a Canadian capital city of 20,000 people.
All of this because of a storm, writes McMeekan. “It is certain that, had the 12th day of September in the year 1934 A.D. been a calm day, the whole history of Yellowknife would have been different, and the lives of the tens of thousands of people who have been associated in many ways with the settlement would also have been different.”
THE PASSAGE APPEARS in Jock McMeekan’s Yellowknife Blade, a compilation of columns he wrote for the Yellowknife Blade newspaper that he hoped would provide an early history of the city. (“The Storm that Made Yellowknife Possible” was initially published on July 9, 1960.) Part-autobiography, McMeekan’s book was put together by Gladys Gould, a friend and fellow reporter in Yellowknife. In the foreword, she describes the collection as “on-the-spot coverage of the history of a gold mining town,” of which “scholastic perfection is not the forte.”
But McMeekan could certainly tell a story. Born in London in 1903, he immigrated to Canada in 1925 and spent his twenties working around—and writing about—Québec mining camps. He arrived in Rouyn during its mining boom and started the Copper-Gold Era, which he claimed was Canada’s first bilingual newspaper. (The terms “first,” “biggest,” and “only” come up often whenever McMeekan lists his own accomplishments.) McMeekan documented the abounding speculation and paranoia in the nascent mining region with zeal, but his paper would fold within a year. (“Too many cooks handling the cooking of the broth,” he later lamented.) He went on to edit a min- ing newspaper in Montreal, before following work north—taking a job underground at Noranda Mines, then prospecting and staking in northwest Québec.
He first came to Yellowknife on March 13, 1935, touching down on the ice of Yellowknife Bay in a Fokker Super-Universal aircraft as part of a five-man crew hired to work the serendipitous Burwash discovery, made the previous September. Baker was also in this party, and he would spend much of that summer exploring the west side of the bay—and making the initial Giant mine finds.
McMeekan and Baker, then respectively 32 and 33, lived in close quarters—tolerating uninspired camp food, the chill of early spring, and the inevitable bouts of a colleague’s snoring or flatulence. They also swapped stories. And it’s a safe bet McMeekan did most of the talking.
Cyril John Baker, by then a veteran prospector in the area, was pragmatic and to the point. Born in England in 1902, he earned an engineering degree at Cambridge in 1926 before coming to Canada. Like McMeekan, he found work around the Québec mining boom. His bosses flew him to Great Bear Lake during the staking rush of 1932, following news of Gilbert La- bine’s uranium discovery, and he searched alone, for weeks, without success.
But he returned the next summer. And, when the ice was gone in mid-July, famed bush pilot Wop May flew Baker and Herb Dixon to the headwaters of the Coppermine River. The two men slowly worked southward to Great Slave Lake. It was a miserable three months of what Baker later called “toughly concentrated foot slogging prospecting.” Baker and Dixon took turns—one man would travel by foot, following the river and examining rocky outcrops, and the other took notes while piloting the canoe. They frequently came across nasty whitewater that required them to either break portage routes through thick brush or line the canoe with two ropes—one man pulling the canoe forward from shore and the other, waist-deep in icy water behind, keeping it straight so it didn’t tip. Baker once nearly drowned. “It was a rugged trip and we had some close shaves, but came out of them,” he told an interviewer five decades later. The saving grace was a promising discovery they made at Quyta Lake, 50 kilometres from present-day Yellowknife. This spurred their plans for 1934.
Baker’s letters from Yellowknife Bay in the summers of 1935 and 1936 demonstrate a single-mindedness about his work, with diligent records and concise daily observations relayed in terse prose. McMeekan, on the other hand, was a raconteur and a romantic. In 1940, he founded—and edited, printed and published—the Yellowknife Blade, which he boasted was “the only independent newspaper in a million square miles.”
“He was a newspaper guy, so he wanted to make [his stories] interesting and fun and more exciting,” says Yellowknife prospector, artist and historian Walt Humphries, describing McMeekan. “The guys would come to town and they’d tell him stories. And whenever someone tells you a story, it usually gets distorted a little bit—particularly if they’re drinking beer at the time.”
Prospectors, Humphries readily admits, have a proclivity for telling tales. “We always joke in the bush: when you find something, you have to make up a good story because people want a story with it.” He has a point. Can you name a town that owes its origins to a prospector who answered nature’s call, trudged into the bush, and defecated on what turned out to be a motherlode? (The image doesn’t exactly translate to a coat of arms.) A sudden storm, though, has a whiff of destiny.
In a comprehensive interview with Baker in 1993, Humphries brought up some of the claims McMeekan made in his history of Yellowknife. Humphries asks specifically about the existence of a sawmill in the Burwash area that McMeekan said predated the mining camp. An “imagination,” Baker responded.
Of McMeekan’s Yellowknife Blade in general, Baker said: “Well, I have his book and I’ve read it and he wrote it long after these events took place.”
“You can’t take (it) as actual history.”
SOME CREATE HISTORY with their actions, some with the pen.
There’s a storyteller’s impulse to work back through time to identify one single, decisive moment that initiated a series of cause-and-effect events that resulted in a given outcome.
McMeekan traces the city of Yellowknife’s beginnings to an early fall storm. There are no other accounts that dispute—or support—the fact that strong winds forced Baker and Muir to shore on the east side of the bay. There, they would find gold, creating a buzz that focused mining activity on Yellowknife Bay. It really wasa big deal. “The discovery of the Burwash gold vein in 1934 is considered such a pivotal moment in history that the City of Yellowknife marks it as its founding year,” local historian Ryan Silke once wrote in EDGE, a Yellowknife-based magazine. McMeekan, technically, isn’t wrong.
Yet, in September 1934, that fateful storm was just one of the many inconveniences Baker and Muir encountered. Any number of random events would have caused them to detour or delay their plans, putting them on the water—and at the mercy of the storm—on September
12. On that day, the men just happened to find shelter in that bay. As they had done hundreds of times before, they scraped away moss, lichen, and other overburden to examine the bedrock. Only this time, they discovered gold.
In other words, it was just another day of prospecting. “They got incredibly lucky and found something,” says Humphries, who believes they would have covered that ground eventually. “Now, would they have found [gold] if they had come at it from another angle? Who knows?”
It seemed only a matter of time before a significant gold discovery was made in Yellowknife Bay. It was already a known commodity, thanks in large part to an enigmatic prospector named E.A. Blakeney, who passed through the area—and into local lore—on his way to the Klondike in 1898. Blakeney sent a sample of gold-rich rocks, which he said he’d taken 10 miles from the mouth of the Yellowknife River, to Ottawa. Nothing else is known of the man.
Baker’s own 1934 prospecting season built off of the 1933 discovery with partner Herb Dixon at Quyta Lake. In fact, five years earlier, a group of prospectors with Dominion Exploration actually set up a base camp and fuel cache near where Bak- er and Muir made their Burwash find. The Dominion group was searching for copper on the Arctic coast by aircraft. Silke notes that one of the men, L. Donovan Clarke, in his memoirs, later expressed regret about sitting on a gold mine without knowing it. “The prospectors were so focused on copper mineralization that they overlooked the gold potential of the area,” says Silke.
Of course, Wıìlıìcheh (Yellowknife Bay) has been home to the Dene long before Blakeney or Clarke or Baker ever set foot in the North. (Sir John Franklin passed by the village of Dettah, near the mouth of the bay, on his first Arctic expedition in 1820.) Wıìlıìdeh (Yellowknife River) was an important summer fishing area, teeming with spawning inconnu. Caribou herds, sometimes comprising hundreds of thou- sands of animals, would migrate through the area. Hunters harvested caribou in the fall, while the meat was fat and the hides were best.
When Baker and Muir pulled their canoe to shore in September 1934, the only permanent structures on the bay belonged to the Yellowknives Dene. Not far from the Burwash discovery, there was a cemetery that marked the final resting place of those who died during the 1928 epidemic. That summer, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s S.S. Distributor steamship spread a devastating influenza virus through the heart of the Northwest Territories, killing as many as 30 percent of the Dene in communities it stopped at on Great Slave Lake and down the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River). Many survivors fled in the aftermath, living on the tundra, and not returning until years later.
How different would the bay look today if the Burwash discovery was never made? Would caribou still come through Wıìlıìcheh in great numbers if a storm hadn’t blown in on September 12, 1934?
WITH THE THREAT of freeze-up nipping at them like horseflies, Baker and Muir hurried to complete their work at Burwash in September 1934. With their own claim sheets exhausted, they paddled back to the main camp at Quyta Lake to inform the rest of their crew. The entire group made a frenzied return to stake the Burwash property.
Did Baker ever think about that storm in his later years? Did he ever contemplate the role it played in his good fortunes, or in the inception of a vital city in Canada’s North— home to so much triumph and tragedy?
We’ll never know. Unlike McMeekan, Baker never mentioned it directly in an interview or in writing.
And in the fall of 1934, there was no time to dream about all that might come of the discovery. Myth-making was the last thing on Baker’s mind. He had work to do. As he told Humphries in 1993, “We staked like madmen.”