Tag: maps

Two New Releases

Two New Releases

Two new releases came out in December. One is the short fantasy story of the first case of Vallon Drake, the heroine of Afterburn and the American Geological Survey series. The story is called All She Can Be.

The second new release is the first in a contemporary romance series with  touches of magic and suspense. The novel, Unlocking Her Heart leads off a series of books in what will be the Unlocking Saga.

All She Can Be

Karen L. Abrahamson

When someone moves the Canada/US border along the flooding Red River, the American Geological Survey assigns freshman agent Vallon Drake to find the culprit and repair the damage. If she doesn’t it could destroy the peace between the two nations.

But solving a crime in the shadow world of the AGS is never straightforward, especially when assigning blame can have serious career repercussions.

Karen L. Abrahamson once again transports us to the change-ridden world of the AGS, but this time she takes us back in time to Vallon Drake’s first dirty little case.

Available on:

Unlocking Her Heart (The Unlocking Series, Book 1)

Karen L. Abrahamson writing as Karen L. McKee

When Kylee Jensen left Africa she left behind her fiancée and brought with her a badly broken heart. To heal, she seeks out her best friend in the idyllic lakeside town of Peachland where she meets bad boy vintner Brett Main. Kylee knows her barely mended heart can’t take a man like Brett, but meeting Kylee might just be the incentive Brett needs to change his ways. When a mysterious death disturbs the peace that Kylee sought, and she finds a puzzling bracelet that refused to be removed from her wrist, only Brett’s help can keep Kylee from being next on the killer’s hit list.

Karen L. Abrahamson creates a cast of wonderful characters in this, the first book of the Bracelet contemporary romance series. The book will take readers to the sun-soaked Okanagan Valley where orchards and vineyards cover the hills and sometimes magic raises its head, like the ancient Okanagan lake monster.

Available at:

Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Rajasthani girls with Mendhi on their hands. (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first blog about maps and decided that I would write a series on that topic– maps, their history, the people who made them, and how maps have been used by people. I did this because maps are integral to the series of books I write in the Cartographer Universe and I wanted to understand more deeply what maps have meant to humankind.

What I’ve come to understand is that maps can be a truth, a lie and a metaphor. They can present the ‘reality’ of the physical world—the mountains and rivers and roads and cities and can inspire men to superhuman acts just to complete a map. Just as often, though they represent lies or half-truths—the imaginary island of Brasilia, the shifting landscape of Prestor John’s Kingdom or, more overtly, contorted landscapes intended to lure the unwary into towns, gold fields and department stores. And that’s a problem, because we tend to think of maps as representing the truth and we don’t  approach maps with a ‘use at your own risk’ mentality or with the realization that any map may only represent the reality that the map’s maker wishes to represent. They’ve been used this way for centuries, so that the modern-day Chinese maps which change the location of major city thoroughfares to stymie the advance of any potential invasion are only an extension of the same tradition that caused British mapmakers to make erroneous maps of the West Coast of Canada (presumably to stymie the work of Spanish spies), and the Portuguese and Dutch Kings who kept secret their routes to the spice islands.

Ship off the Portuguese Algarve, (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps are much more than simply tools to convey or obscure information. Maps are a part of our psyche so deeply engrained that the map metaphor has seeped deep into our culture. Cervantes wrote ‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of travelling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’ Shakespeare wrote “In thy face I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty.”

The Camino Inca Trail to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps themselves are not truth, but metaphors. Once, in Fra Mauro’s time, they represented the mythical extent of man’s imagination and potential. Once, they represented the adventure, the spirit of mankind in the terra incognita of the empty sections of the map. Nowadays they represent the world as governments want it to be when they represent contested borders (think the current battle over islands between Japan and China, or the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that three countries claim). Maps are used to represent presidential aspirations, shifts in battlefields, oil pipeline routes, and enemy and friendly countries—not that these presentations are the truth, but they are one truth—the truth that the mapmaker wants us to believe.

In this day and age when maps are no longer produced by a person hunched over vellum and ink, we must remember that many things influence the mapmaker’s pen. Everything from politics, funding sources and the publishing company’s allegiances represent what is filtered onto the page. Which brings me to my final conclusion about maps and the truth. They have always been creatures of the imagination and not of the truth, no matter that they grew out of scientific endeavors, but now that purpose of inciting the imagination is being used with more strategic purpose than ever before. Can we trust maps? No.

As Herman Melville stated so well:

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Porto boats at dawn , Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen L. Abrahamson
Road Maps and Avarice

Road Maps and Avarice

Uigher apothecary shop, Kashgar, Western China. I doubt this shop still stands as the Chinese have torn most of the old city down for new ‘Chinese’ development. (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

Yes, it is all about the money.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Klondike gold rush and how that led to cartographic oddities that misled gold seekers into taking ill-advised routes to the gold rush. But other maps are also intended to ‘sell’ to their users—including the ubiquitous road map.

Americans often claim that they invented the road map, and indeed Americans certainly created the most extensive collection of roadmaps just as they advanced their road systems. But there are earlier versions of roadmaps. In the third century the Romans produced a six meter-long map of roads and distances between certain points called the Peutinger Table (now stored in a Viennese museum) and during the time of the crusades crude journal/maps of routes to the Holy Land were produced. But the modern road map is largely an American invention.

These maps didn’t originate with cars in mind, but as a result of bicycle clubs in the late 1800s when cyclists were searching for maps of paved roads to enjoy their activity. Cars soon took over and road maps developed as promotional tools to encourage people to travel to, and live in, new places. Of course, as new locations opened up, land sales increased, and as the car culture grew and people travelled more, road maps did wonders for the bottom line of the oil companies.

A Peruvian cowboy in the Sacred Valley. These roads still resist development. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps were used for promotion by other companies, too. In Canada, department stores developed road maps that showed that ‘all roads started or ended’ on Yonge Street, Toronto, the location of their store. Maps produced by oil companies specifically marked the location of oil refineries and invited people to visit these new ultramodern facilities. Maps produced by exhibitions/fairs included images of vehicles speeding to that location. Road maps were not just a means to open up a person’s eyes to the many places in the landscape, they were a means to direct that person’s attention to a specific location in an overt attempt to separate that person from their money.

City maps were more of the same only concentrated in a microcosm of what was going on all over the United States. John Jacob Ast0r became the veritable poster child for land speculation through his exploits in Manhattan. Astor bought his first lot on the Lower East Side in 1800 and gobbled up numerous lots afterwards to make a fortune in property values. What was bought for$50 an acre in 1800, was worth $1,500 in 1920 and as the City’s grid system was planned well before the city finally took shape, Astor was able to parlay his wealth into $25 million—the wealthiest man in America when he died in 1848. How did he do that? By looking at the street map of the city. Then he could sell properties—always at a profit—to take the cash and purchase more property in as-yet undeveloped areas that would be worth even more in the future. For example, a sale at $12,000 allowed him to purchase lots that would be worth $80,000 in a few short years. All because the road maps, like the maps to the Klondike, told him where to go.

Which brings me to the latest development debacle in Greater Vancouver: a developer not only leveled all the trees on the property that was soon to hold four mega houses, he also leveled the trees in a local park, on private property and along a salmon spawning stream. I’m not holding my breath given the history of cutting down trees in these parts, but here’s hoping a large part of his profits go into reparation.

Mist over the Fraser River. These peaceful scenes are ending as hihg-density development occurs. (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson


Danger-Maps, Belief and New Madrid

Danger-Maps, Belief and New Madrid

Schwedigon pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Schwedigon pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Most of the maps I’ve written about over the past year have been maps setting out the geographic formations of the world—regardless of how skewed the map-maker might have made the map in order to influence the beliefs of others. But some maps are made to represent truth and to save populations from dangers, so today we’re going to look at a specific type of map—those used to convey earthquake danger. I’ve been researching this because it relates specifically to the current novel I am writing called Aftershock.

Most of us are familiar with California’s San Andreas fault, the 800 mile long fault that stretches northwest-southeast in California and that brings Los Angeles (west of the fault) two inches closer to San Francisco (east of the fault) each year. This much-talked about fault line has been the subject of disaster movies and books, and also of reams of geological research. The damage caused by the fault’s quakes led the State of California to have the San Andreas and other surface faults mapped and to require disclosure of proximity to fault lines in any residential real estate dealings in the state. The trouble is, that even though these maps are available, most people – even those who have lived in proximity to a faults line seem uninformed about the dangers and new buyers of homes are positively unaware of their proximity to faults even though they sign disclosures in their ‘offer to purchase’ agreements. Why? Because maps and the language around them can either be used to convey danger or to minimize it. In the case of the California real estate disclosures they say that the house is in the San Andreas zone, but they don’t specifically use the language ‘earthquake fault zone’.

Cypress knees and trees, Orlando (2012) Photo (c) Karean Abrahamson

Another example or earthquake danger maps, and one dear to my heart (given I live on the south coast of British Columbia, Canada), are the ones that show the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean basin. Nothing brings home the dangerousness of the place I live as seeing the numerous dots presenting quakes over 4.0 magnitude in recent history around the Pacific. You see, there are so many dots that a thick black line extends around virtually all of the Pacific except for the stretch bordering the Antarctic and a small section of North America – the part of the coast where I live. Okay, so there hasn’t been a moderately sized quake here in the past 20-30 years (yes, Seattle has had one, but not here, so far). In fact there hasn’t been a really big one here in a heck of a lot longer than that. But historical evidence and that ring of dots around the ocean says that there’s a very good chance one will happen one of these days. Around here we grow up being told to be earthquake prepared. Are we? Given the number of schools that haven’t been seismically upgraded, I’d say ‘no’, even though the maps are there to show us the danger.

So why do we refuse to listen to the maps? A likely answer lays in another part of America. Right in the heartland of the U.S., where Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky meet, in 1811/12 near the small community of New Madrid, a series of massive earthquakes (magnitude 7.5 and 8) wiped out entire fledgling towns, sent sand and water geysering into the air and lifted huge chunks of the landscape. The only thing that stopped huge loss of life was the fact that few people lived there.

Research into the quake says this type of quake will happen again. The trouble is the quake zone isn’t at the edge of a tectonic plate and there isn’t something like really a visible fault line to show where the quake will occur because these quakes occur far underground—that’s also why they are so devastating—and so life in the Midwest has mostly been focused on the danger of tornadoes, rather than the lurking danger right underfoot.

Sunrise over Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

The trouble with this type of deep earthquake is that shockwaves travel farther and wreak more damage. In fact, geologists predict that such a quake today would be felt from Colorado to Washington D.C. and could wipe out most of the country’s central infrastructure.

As a result when, in 1990 a prominent inventor named Iben Browning predicted a major quake would occur in the New Madrid fault zone between December 1 and 5th of that year, the media promulgation of maps showing concentric areas of damage seriously impacting cities like St. Louis, Nashville, Birmingham, Little Rock, Jackson and Chicago started to get people taking the danger seriously. Children were kept home from school during the danger days. T.V. crews descended on the area like flies on road kill and everyone held their breath.

When nothing happened, of course finally people began to listen to the scientists who had previously laid out why the big one wasn’t likely to happen at that exact place and time. But the maps had done their damage. They’d laid out a ‘cartography of danger’ that hadn’t arisen. As a result, even though the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee try to prepare people for earthquakes because the risk of the big one still exists, they have an even more uphill battle than they do in California or here in the Pacific Northwest. You see, seeing a fault line on a map may not bring home the importance of believing, but when what you believe the danger presented on the map and then nothing happens, you’re less likely to believe in future danger.

So when the big one does hit, it will be Aftershock, indeed.

A pile of bricks is all that remains in earthquake-prone Peru. The ruins of Huaca Pucllana, Miraflores, Peru. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.


Maps, Klondike Gold and Northern Pipelines

Maps, Klondike Gold and Northern Pipelines

One of the Kane Lakes, Central British Columbia (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’ve mentioned previously how maps are actually an argument on paper to convey, or propagate, a specific belief system. A good example of this was seen in the late 1800s during the famed Klondike Gold Rush that lured many a man (and woman) north to what was then viewed as the last frontier on the continent.

In the early 1880s little was known of the geography and geological wealth of the north but, extrapolating from gold strikes in places like Cassiar, British Columbia, there were rumors abounding of what might be found. As a result of the lack of real information, the Geological Survey of Canada sent surveyors north and by 1887 a report, with maps, had been completed that outlined the territory’s geological features and mining prospects as well as its geographical features. The report went so far as to predict gold finds in the Yukon and in 1896 that came true, with the discovery of placer gold on Rabbit Creek.

The resulting gold rush led to a demand for maps of the area. When the Geological Survey ran out of official maps, private companies and cities and towns took over. All of them wanted their piece of the Klondike pie, so many cities and private operators developed maps of the Klondike that presented their city, or their route as the best-easiest-most direct (you choose which) way to get to the north. They couldn’t all be right, so of course, they lied or at least doctored the truth to be in their favor.

Old farmstead, Yukon (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Case in point were maps that gave the impression it was only two or three days from Edmonton to the Klondike, because the prospector just had to navigate two waterways and they would arrive at their destination. Other maps skewed the projection of the earth (a projection is used to take the landforms of a round earth and place them on a flat map. Every projection skews the land formations to some degree, but different projections can be used to make different part of the land look larger or smaller). These new maps emphasized the huge distances of some routes and made others look shorter. Of course they also failed to mention things like mountain barriers or the high costs associated with steamer passage across lakes that blocked the short way to the promised land.

Which brings me back once more to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. While Enbridge and the Canadian Government show maps of the pipeline route and claim that it will be built to withstand the rigors of northern British Columbia and will pose limited risk to the landscape, the fact is that they haven’t even allowed a full environmental assessment of the area the pipeline proposes to cross. The trouble is, we’re unlikely to ever have such an assessment, because the Canadian Government has failed to provide its scientists with the resources (time, staff, funding) to complete such an assessment within the time the Government’s process now allots.

As a result the rhetoric on safety and responsibility we’re hearing from the Canadian Government sounds an awful lot like the maps to the Klondike from Edmonton. A road trip of two to three days of easy travel.

Right. And we’re supposed to believe it.

The government seems to be hoping that, just like gold on the Klondike did to prospectors, black gold to be sold to China will inflame our imaginations and distort our knowledge of geography – and make us believe anything.

Not going to happen, Mr. Prime Minister.

Old homestead, Yukon (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson


Maps, Dreams and a Road Trip to Port Townsend

Maps, Dreams and a Road Trip to Port Townsend

One of the lovely old buildings along Water Street, Port Townsend. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This past week a good friend and I embarked on one of those memorable institutions of Americana (or Canadiana—we are both Canucks)—the road trip. Not that it was one of those great ventures across the continent like so many novelists have captured. No this was a small road trip—actually more of a mini or micro-mini road trip all the way from Vancouver, Canada, to Port Townsend, Washington. Why did we go? Just like any other road trip, we went because it was there and because it was a point on a map that we hadn’t visited before.

Road trips seem like an important part of our North American culture. Maybe it’s our love of the automobile or maybe it’s the distances, but I know people who think nothing of hopping in their car and driving for days on end just to visit a friend, or to be able to stand on a point of land and look out at the Pacific Ocean. Yes, they might have been able to fly to the location quicker and more conveniently, but the road trip makes the process of getting there just as important as the arrival.

Boat pulled onto dock at Coupeville, Whidbey Island. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

My first road trips were in the back of my parents’ black Ford sedan, travelling across the continent not once, not twice, but at least five or six times because my dad was posted at a military base on one side of the continent and ‘home’ was always on the other side. Dad would drive and mom would ride shot gun and play navigator with the road map. For summer holidays we took road trips from the Pacific Northwest to Utah and California or Montana. Those were memorable trips and brought home at a young age, just how huge the continent was and the diversity of all the places there were to visit and all the different people you could meet along the way. We’d play games of spotting license plates from other places, and I’d count the horses I saw in the fields.

My first independent road trip was right out of high school when, with two friends, we drove to Mexico and back in a Ford van affectionately known as the Dorf. At eighteen it was adventure and an announcement of independence to the world. It took all three of us to places we’d never been before, following the map down the coast and back up I5. We got lost travelling at night playing leapfrog with the long haul truckers and then turning off when exhaustion made us look for a place to sleep in the Van. We got chased off by locals and scared by someone prowling around us and ended up taking turns and travelling right straight through from central California to home in one sitting following the long straight road laid out on the map for us.

Lovely old Heritage house, cum B and B, Port Townsend. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

What is it about the road trip that draws most of us to such a trip at some point in our lives? Is it simply the love for the automobile and the feel of power that wheels us away from the moorings of our life, or is the call to adventure that dreamers dream of and writers write about? Or is it the vestigial need to explore that remains like a tailbone in our psyche?

Wooden boat hull reflections. Port Townsend has a long history of wooden boat building. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Either way, my friend and I explored the heritage byways and backwaters of Whidbey Island before climbing on a ferry and crossing to Port Townsend. We followed the city map of heritage houses and explored the town before heading on our way again looking for opportunities to fall of the map before climbing back on again to eventually find our way home. At one point our trusty map failed us and it took a kind trucker and his GPS to put us straight again, but that’s the nice thing about road trips: you meet nice people most of the time. When we got home my friend and I were both ready for another, longer trip. We’re already scanning the maps for new places we haven’t seen. Any recommendations?

A Port Townsend cat makes us welcome by licking the window. (2012) Photo (C0 Karen Abrahamson
Mystical Dunvegan and the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Mystical Dunvegan and the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Along Kane Lake Road, British Columbia (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The furor in British Columbia about the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline got a little bit more interesting this past week. First of all we had Enbridge providing the public with maps of the coastal route to be used by oil tankers. Those maps conveniently left out all the islands and difficult narrow ocean channels those same tankers would have to navigate. Then we had the announcement by a B.C. newspaper mogul that he was exploring the potential for building an oil refinery on the Northwest coast of BC. His rationale was that with so many people concerned about oil tankers travelling the treacherous and pristine British Columbia waterways, why not process the oil in BC, create new jobs, and only ship processed gas and diesel. This would alleviate some of the concerns over a potential oil spill as both gasoline and diesel are easier to clean up and don’t pollute like oil does. Of course the reaction has been mixed. Even the oil companies aren’t sure they like his alternative, but Enbridge’s maps and the newspaper mogul’s vision put me in mind of the ‘town’ of Dunvegan.

Abandoned Yukon Homestead (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I say ‘town’ with parentheses because Dunvegan was never actually built, but in the saga of Canadian maps it has a place of ignominy. You see, as the Dominion of Canada was busily surveying and dividing the country to encourage development it led to a boom in land speculation. These high stakes games were trying to anticipate where the next great land boom was going to take place. Dunvegan seemed like a likely place.

Located six hundred and fifty kilometers north of Edmonton, Alberta, Dunvegan was a convergence point for a number of native trails and a regular route for explorers and map makers. Indians camped there. Two creeks met there. A fort was built at the location and provided a jumping off point and point of safety for missionaries, explorers and homesteaders. Dunvegan became one of those mystical places on the map like Finisterre was to the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France.

So much did Dunvegan enter the public consciousness of the day that it was included in the name of the first railroad to the Peace River in British Columbia, the Edmonton-Dunvegan and British Columbia Railroad. The trouble was, the railway never actually ran to Dunvegan. This was never mentioned in all the real estate material selling land to Englishmen and Easterners. Nope, the material and the maps showed the rail running to the town. Along with the railway the maps showed wharves along the waterways and development. But that wasn’t the only problem with Dunvegan. The many maps of the town being used to sell the land to the unwary, showed quarter sections of land without bothering to mention the topography. Think vertical cliffs and steep drops. Though the land was sold to many, not one lot was built upon because of the many difficulties.

Kayaking Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia (1996) Photo Karen Abrahamson

Which brings me back to the proposal for a pipeline and a world class oil refinery on the north coast of British Columbia. Sure, you could build the refinery, or you can talk about it, but such a refinery is dependent upon a pipeline across the same type of terrain that turned back the land investors in Dunvegan. I like to think that unlike the unsuspecting purchasers of land in Dunvegan, the British Columbia public won’t be taken in by maps and rhetoric that enhance non-existent amenities and that minimize the dangers that do.


The Past, the Future and Map Wars

The Past, the Future and Map Wars

Dhow off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’ve written about how maps created belief systems in the people of old. In ancient days, stories and maps of Prestor John led people to Asia and Africa in search of his kingdom. Mariners believed that the Indian Ocean was a huge inland sea surrounded by Africa that swept down and around to join with Asia. When North America was discovered, maps of the mythical Northwest Passage, led explorers to seek the real passage. But maps do more than that. Maps are sources of propaganda and maps are sources of conflict. You see maps, their systems, omissions and scale (as examples) are often used to take forward propaganda or a dominant world view. They have been used this way close to home in Canada.

For example, for many years maps of Lake Superior were left largely blank, because people believed the lake was very deep. But the truth was that fishermen didn’t want their secret ‘fishing shoals’ mapped for others to find. It was only after military vessels went missing (not to mention the Edmund Fitzgerald) that in 1930 that the Canadian Hydrological survey confirmed that there is a mountain rising in the middle of Lake Superior creating a large shoal. This shoal had been known to American fishermen, but no one had ‘told’ because the area was a magnet for fish.

Recent visitors. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps as propaganda were used extensively in the settling of Canada. The Dominion of Canada turned surveyors maps of soil and rivers into grid maps that were then artistically enhanced with pastoral images of farms and young golden-haired women clad in white dresses. Atlases of Canada were created and sent to Europe and America in hopes of encouraging immigration. The art was focused on meeting the pastoral desires of the Europeans and in particular the British. Slightly different art work was used for maps sent to America. It didn’t matter that the images didn’t reflect the prairie landscape (The images were more of Ontario). It was the dream of the pastoral lifestyle that drew the immigrants that Canada needed.

These same maps with their grid lines were sources of conflict because they established expectations about how people would inhabit the landscape. The grids were set out in sections six miles by six miles, based on latitude and longitude, regardless of the lakes or waterways they crossed. As I mentioned in a previous blog (here) the Metis found the grid pattern foreign because they settled land based on long strips of land that swept back from water courses and that allowed everyone access to water. But immigrant groups from Eastern Europe also had challenges with the grid pattern. They were familiar with more communal, village styles of land allotment, where the land was marked off from the village in a manner more appropriate to communal living. As a result these groups (the Mennonite, Doukhobors, and Hutterites) subverted the grid style by purchasing the land, but then subdividing it according to what worked for them.

Kayaking the coast of British Columbia (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps were also used as propaganda by commercial entities such as the railroads. Canada’s two railways, Canadian Northern (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) battled for ridership through their maps. Maps were developed that left out or diminished the competitor’s railway. For example, CN created a triangle route map between Edmonton, Jasper National Park and Vancouver that played with scale. In this map CN’s journey through scenic Jasper was presented in large scale so that the route through Jasper leaves little room for any other details, while the rest of British Columbia was presented in small scale that didn’t allow CPR’s rail lines to even exist—according to the map. The interesting thing about this map is that no one then, or even today, notices the scale issues with the map—we accept what the map presents as reality.

So while maps are supposed to be presentations of reality, the big question the map reader has to ask themselves is whose reality (or wishful thinking) are they reading. Sometimes it is helpful to step back from the map and ask what does this map tell up about the people who developed (or paid for) it? Or what was going on at the time it was made? Or Why was this map even made? I think of my local community developers who, like the Dominion of Canada with their maps, are presenting the paved-over reality they would like to have made. The question is whether this is the map of the future we want, or whether, like the Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors, we can  subvert it to a better reality.

Mapmakers, Spies and the Alaska Highway

Mapmakers, Spies and the Alaska Highway

Cabin on the Kane Lake Road, B.C. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Last week I wrote about characters in the Canadian Cartographic past. I thought I’d continue that theme this week with an illustration of how mapping is not the objective scientific pursuit we all think it to be. Instead, mapping is an exercise influenced by politics, exploitation of resources, culture and religion. Hubris comes into play in there somewhere, too. Mapmakers influence perception through their use of scale, their level of detail and even just by what they choose to put on the map. Determining which maps are actually made is perhaps the penultimate influence on public perception.

One of the most memorable Canadian mapping ‘junkets’ involved an American millionaire by the name of Charles C. Bedaux.

In 1934 Beadaux, then living in France, initiated the Bedaux Sub-Arctic Expedition, that planned to use specially built tractors and horses to traverse, map and cut a road from Edmonton, Alberta, through northern British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. The 1,800 kilometer route was to go through Fort St. John, Redfern Lake, Sifton Pass and Telegraph Creek. While the media reported that Bedaux claimed the expedition was purely scientific, there were other rumors abounding.

Woodland trail, Yukon, Canada (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In any event, this strange expedition left Edmonton with a crew of 43 people including Bedaux’s wife, her Spanish maid, and an Italian Countess to tend to Bedaux, along with the usual accoutrements of pate de fois gras, champagne and a gamekeeper. Oh yes, and a movie cameraman to record the adventure. This was not your usual surveying venture, but along with this cavalcade of oddities, were a topnotch group of scientists and surveyors. Poor sods.

Immediately after leaving Edmonton they were caught in rainstorms that slowed their progress and caught them in muskeg, even though Bedaux’s vehicles had extra wheels that were to lift them over the worst obstacles. Bedaux had brought everything with him from French cook pans, lock and tackle to lift the tractors over vertical terrain, and claw-foot bathtubs. All the equipment literally weighed  ton.

As the expedition progressed, the situation worsened. The tractors’s problems didn’t get any better and had they to be pulled out by some of the expedition’s 100 pack horses. When even this didn’t help them make better progress, he determined to start divesting himself of equipment. Not the bathtubs and champagne of course, but scientific equipment like the surveyor’s theodolite. The situation became more bizarre as Bedaux railroaded the surveyor’s assistant into becoming his houseboy, and demanded the other scientists become actors in staged moviemaking involving forest fires and staged stampedes of the horses.

Old water mill in the countryside near Besoncon, France (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Finally, after 14,00 kilometers, Bedaux abandoned the expedition over 400 kilometers from Telegraph Creek. Bedaux returned to France, but the meticulous maps and drawings prepared by the surveyor of the venture, one Frank Swannell, went on eight years later, to lead to the building of the Alaska Highway which followed Bedaux’s route north from Fort St. John.

And Bedaux, well his fate wasn’t quite so memorable. You see one of the rumors about Bedaux was that his venture was really a testing ground for German military transport trucks in alpine conditions. During World War II Bedaux hitched his star to the Third Reich and acted as go-between between the Germans and the Vichy French. It is suggested that he passed information to the Germans, and in 1943 he was captured in North Africa by the Americans. He was brought back to America and charged with trading with the enemy, but in 1944 he overdosed on barbiturates and died.

Thus ended another bit of Canadian cartographic history. But one wonders. Maybe we have the Germans to thank for the Alaska Highway.



The Character of Canadian Cartographers

The Character of Canadian Cartographers

Alpine flowers, the Kane Lakes, B.C. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In many of my map posts I’ve written of the unusual people who led the map making ventures, whether mystical Frau Mauro of Venice, the ancient Chinese voyager General Zheng He, or the dedicated native British East India Company surveyors who surveyed the Himalayas. Of course Europe and Britain and America have their own cartographic heroes, so I thought I’d take a few moments to mention a couple of religious cartographers who played a huge role in mapping Canada.

Jesuit Father Frencesco Bressani came to New France (Lower Canada) in 1641 as a missionary and with the express plan to measure astronomical eclipses in order to calculate longitude. At age 32, only a few years in-country, he was captured by Iroquois just outside Trois-Rivieres and was tortured, burned, beaten and mutilated for two months. Somehow he survived and was ransomed to the Dutch and returned to France. Regardless of his ordeal, he came back to New France the next year for four years before returning to Italy where, in 1657 he published his map, the Novae Franciae Accurata Delineatro.

This map, considered the rarest of Canadian maps, not only shows Native territory, but is most valued for its many illustrations. These give an astounding view of Native life as well as vivid drawings of the martyrdom of many missionaries, including being slashed with glowing bark, being placed in boiling water and being cut up alive. Dangerous work, cartography.  Of course the map comes with controversy. Was Bressani even able to draw, when his own letters indicate that his hands were so badly mutilated that he could no longer do mass properly? (One hand had only one finger left.) Historians believe the map was drawn by one Giovanni Frederico Pesca, in Italian engraver, working on Bressani’s insightful information.

Kane Lakes, (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Jesuits like Bressani were responsible for much of the early mapping of Canada, but in the 1800’s the missions and religious mapping was assumed by the Religious Institute of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This order was founded in 1816 in Paris with the motto that meant Right to the ends of the Earth! and they lived up to this when they established their first mission in Canada in 1841 with a focus on Canada’s north along the Mackenzie River Valley. Long-bearded and black robed, the Oblate fathers became well known to the Natives, but none more so than Father Emile Petitot.

Petitot came to the Mackenzie River in 1862 only two weeks after he was ordained. He stayed for twelve years, most of the time travelling with Native companions through the uncharted north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean and between the Mackenzie and Laird rivers. He made detailed observations of the Native communities, down to the condition of their teeth and the level of stammerers in specific populations. He learned much of the Native means of living including the guiding marks they placed on river channels to show which were open and which were dead ends. He made maps that set out geographic data of the interior of the northern basin, and discovered the Riviere a Ronciere-Le Noury—a river that geographers denied existed for eighty years, until aerial photography proved Petitot was right.

Quebec churchyard. (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Petitot’s maps made him something of a celebrity in Paris, Ottawa and London, but he was also watched closely by his superiors. Historians describe Petitot as something of an absent-minded dreamer who longed for long voyages, but who also was apt to freeze his fingers because he’d forget to wear his mittens. As well, his missionary duties went something by the wayside. He spoke native dialects fluently and was accepted by the Native groups he met, but he had some unfortunate predilections towards young native men and was excommunicated at one point. Mental illness also plagued him. He variously predicted the end of the world,  proclaimed his superior had murdered Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and could become erratic and violent. During these dark spells he would be tied down and placed under guard to stop him from running naked in the snow. It was not until 1882 that he was quietly placed in a Montreal mental hospital after which he returned to France for good.

Petitot’s departure ushered in an era where the religious orders were no longer so prominent in Canadian cartography. But their memory lives on in the ranks of Canada’s memorable cartographers: the devout, the brave, the mad.



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