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Reviewed by:
  • Mapper of Mountains: M.P. Bridgland in the Canadian Rockies 1902–1930
  • Suzanne Zeller
I.S. MacLaren with Eric Higgs and Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux. Mapper of Mountains: M.P. Bridgland in the Canadian Rockies 1902–1930. University of Alberta Press. xviii, 296. $39.95

Historians of both science and the Arctic in Canada have long appreciated Ian MacLaren's pioneering studies of exploration narratives as art and literature. More recently, Professor MacLaren has extended his investigations to environmental history, to help contextualize not only historical paintings, maps, and stories, but also social constructions of wilderness in this country. Mapper of Mountains continues this important work in a collaborative contribution to Alberta's centenary celebrations [End Page 342] (1905–2005), tracing the professional career of Morrison Parsons Bridgland (1878–1948), Dominion Lands surveyor par excellence in Alberta's Rocky Mountains. Far more than a simple biography, this fascinating book intertwines as major themes the dual roles of art and science in Bridgland's meticulous application of cutting-edge photo-topographic surveying techniques to mountainous terrain; Bridgland's active contribution to the rise of the Alpine Club of Canada as a social phenomenon; and the value of Bridgland's work as a baseline for the remarkable Rocky Mountain Repeat Photography Project begun in Jasper National Park in 1997, with invaluable ecological and cultural ramifications deriving from comparisons of photographic images of identical locations taken almost a century apart. MacLaren's discussion of selected aspects of this comparison is illuminating and well illustrated.

Indeed, MacLaren is at his best in laying out all of these important themes in tantalizing detail, not only for popular readers but also for scholars who might wish to pursue their richly suggestive historical connections. Bridgland's remarkable career epitomized the photo-topographic era in Canadian land surveying, from 1902 to 1931. By 1924 the federal government was experimenting instead with aerial photography, replacing the fine lines and shadings in Bridgland's hard-won images with the broader brush strokes enabled by wholly new economies of scale. The writing was thus on the wall for Bridgland, who had long felt undervalued, and who soon suffered the same highly clinical (to say the least) dismissal that had plagued too many of his illustrious forebears in the federal civil service. Equally captivating is the rare combination of physical stamina, sharp intelligence, and sheer good luck that saw Bridgland survive decades of incredibly dangerous climbs with neither effective training nor modern equipment to rely upon – a point of pride when 'flatland' inferiors among his otherwise experienced colleagues turned back in defeat while Bridgland went on to score yet another first on yet another alpine peak. With an Alpine Club amateur, in contrast, wandering fatally off of a precipitous rock face during a qualifying climb, and a junior surveyor drowning in Lac Beauvert, perhaps still more remarkable was the fact that so few injuries – let alone fatalities – occurred under Bridgland's watchful eye.

More perplexing are MacLaren's loosely documented claims, at best, that Bridgland, as a University of Toronto student, found his way to the Dominion Lands Survey through 'encouragement' from William James Loudon; that the rather obvious nickname 'Bridge' derived instead from Bridgland's 'notable strength and endurance'; and that the myriad geological, railway, and land surveys that characterized Canada's formative years reflected a pre-existing 'stress on knowing rather than imagining,' which 'runs deep in the Canadian mind.' In addition, readers interested in Canadian history more broadly might wish for [End Page 343] deeper explanations of the impact of momentous events, including the Great War and the Great Depression, upon the Dominion Lands Survey in general. And readers with still broader interests might wonder about both the British background of the alpine movement as well as its cultural roots in the Romantic aesthetics popularized by John Ruskin and others.

Such quibbles aside, a growing body of critical literature on the cultural uses of photography, including excellent work by Peter Geller and Joan Schwartz in this country and James Ryan in Britain, can now welcome in Mapper of Mountains the newest dimension in our understanding of the complex modes of territorial conquest. Albertans can justly take pride in...


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