Mountains of Blackflies

By Martha Sellens

One of my favourite parts of being an archivist is solving archival mysteries, especially when they result in something unexpected. One of my recent mysteries took me from a piece of artwork to blackflies—and I’m not talking about an unexpected (and unwanted!) visitor in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) archival vault.

It all started with a couple of prints from the Geological Survey of Canada. I was working on improving their description in our database so that people could find them. (These are the improved descriptions for item 5067117 and item 5067118.) The prints were from 1883 and had been acquired by the archives so long ago—before 1925!—that there wasn’t much information about them in our records.

So I started digging. The prints were panoramas, nearly an arm-span wide and as tall as a trade paperback book. Both were prints of the same drawing showing the view of the Notre-Dame or Shickshock (now known as Chic-Chocs) Mountains in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. To make things easier, they also had a title, artist and printing house included in the print image, so I was immediately able to link it back to A.P. Low’s report on his 1883 expedition for the Geological Survey.

Black and white print of a drawing depicting a series of rounded mountains. There are trees and grass in the foreground. The print is titled and has some small labels along the top edge indicating cardinal directions.

Panoramic photolithographic print of the Notre-Dame or Chic-Chocs (Shickshock) Mountains in Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec. Drawn by L. Lambe from a sketch by A.P. Low, to accompany A.P. Low’s 1883 report to the Geological Survey of Canada. The prints in LAC’s collection (R214-2887-9) are not yet digitized. Image courtesy of NRCan (GEOSCAN).

A.P. Low led a small team of surveyors into the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula in the summer of 1883 to examine the geology of the area, as well as to create and improve maps of the region. The Geological Survey of Canada was often one of the first groups of surveyors in an area and they quickly realized that they couldn’t document geological features without creating maps as well. Low’s report describes some of their day-to-day tasks as well as their scientific findings. It was published as part of an 800-page volume with all of the Geological Survey field reports from 1882–84. You can download a digitized version from the Natural Resources Canada website or consult the physical book in LAC’s library holdings.

LAC also holds many of the field books from these surveys. These are the notebooks the surveyors used in the field to keep track of their daily findings. With my curiosity piqued, I ordered in A.P. Low’s notebooks to take a look. I’m not a geologist so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to understand his notes, but that’s half the fun! Most of the notebooks were filled with numbers and quick sketches, but in the back of one, I hit the jackpot.

Most people expect government records to be bureaucratic and boring—and many of our records live down to these expectations—but it’s so exciting when you find something that proves that even the work lives of nineteenth-century public servants could be funny and interesting.

In the back of one of A.P. Low’s field books, I found the pencil sketch he drew of the Chic-Chocs (Shickshock) Mountains. The very one that they used to create the final drawing that accompanied his report and in the prints that started my current investigation. It’s a fairly simple pencil drawing, spread over two lined pages in the back of the book, but the shading and the line work starts to trail off somewhere in the middle.

Why did he stop? Fortunately for us, he wrote down the reason: “Unable to finish on account of the Black Flies!” His comment is accompanied by a suspicious smudge and three little blackflies doodled near the description of his sketch.

Photograph of a red leather notebook, open on page 98. The pages are lined and there is a pencil drawing of some mountains and three small flies. A note at the bottom reads, “Sketch of some of the Mountains seen from Mount Albert looking North.” To the right another note reads, “Unable to finish on account of the Black Flies.”

Sketch of the Chic-Chocs (Shickshock) Mountains on page 98 of A.P. Low’s field book #2276, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec. Geological Survey of Canada (RG45 Vol 142). Photo by Martha Sellens.

I can just picture the surveyors baking in the June sun on the top of a Quebec mountain and cursing one of Canada’s most annoying predators. It can be easy to forget that behind every record—even the bureaucratic and boring ones—are the people that worked together to create it. This notebook, and the more formal prints that led me there, is a great reminder of the people—and blackflies—behind the records.

Other LAC related resources:


Martha Sellens is an archivist for the natural resources portfolio in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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