Underhill makes its mark in a new century

Carl Friesen's favourite place to work is on remote mountaintops, 50 to 100 kilometres away from roads. He'll stand there, accompanied only by the wilderness, a pile of rocks and, sometimes, a First Nation man.

Carl Friesen’s favourite place to work is on remote mountaintops, 50 to 100 kilometres away from roads. He’ll stand there, accompanied only by the wilderness, a pile of rocks and, sometimes, a First Nation man. His companion will turn and remark, “I’ll be back here one day.”

And because of Friesen and Underhill Geomatics Ltd., the company he is vice president of, it will be easier for that man to return to that location. Because the rocks he’s standing near weren’t placed there haphazardly. The one-metre high piles, or rock cairns, stand as markers for land boundaries.

Defining boundaries is what Underhill does. The company does geomatic, or surveying, work for a wide range of clients: from White Pass & Yukon Route Railway to mining companies and all levels of government.

“You don’t really see us,” Friesen said of surveyors. Most people may be most familiar with surveyors working along the side of the highway, but their work influences everything from hydroelectric dams, mines, subdivisions, condominiums and First Nation land claims.

“Nothing gets built unless it’s surveyed,” said Friesen.

And Underhill’s been at it longer than most. Brothers Clare and Jim Underhill began the company in 1913. It is the oldest surveying company in the Yukon, and one of the oldest in the country. Tim Kopeke, now Yukon’s ombudsman, opened the Whitehorse office in 1970.

“I think half (of Whitehorse) used to work for us,” said Friesen.

In British Columbia, where it has its head office in Vancouver and another in Kamloops, it operates as Underhill and Underhill. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the company had an office in Atlin, where it did survey work for the Tulsequah Chief mine.

Now, Underhill provides a wide range of geometric services. They define land boundaries and do land surveys needed to make legal lots. They also do engineering surveys – which Friesen calls “dirt work”- needed to be done before buildings, roads, pipes or bridges can be built. And surveyors take aerial photographs to help capture the contours of an area. Engineers use aerial photographs to create plans, and ultimately designs, for buildings and subdivisions.

Surveyors go everywhere, because it’s their job to help make the “middle of nowhere” a “somewhere.” At every bend in a boundary, or every kilometre or so, they pound iron bars into the ground. These “monuments” mark the territory. Before GPS or electrical measuring devices, surveyors mainly used 300-foot chains to mark boundaries. In the Yukon, much of the boundaries of land are still line cuts in the forests, said Friesen.

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Field notes line a bookshelf in the company’s Whitehorse office. There are more in the basement. When mining companies need information about a potential site, they often come to Underhill. “Chances are, we’ve been there before,” said Friesen.

There’s a reason for that. “It’s mostly about keeping the clients happy and doing what they need,” said Friesen. The company’s structure has helped, too. It has always stayed small, with an average of between 60 and 80 employees in total, said Friesen. They don’t own any of their buildings. It “operates like a family business,” said Koepke.

But like any family, Underhill has seen its struggles. Friesen began working for the company in 1972 as a summer chainman. His uncle was a partner in the company, and Friesen needed the job to pay for school. In 1989, he bought a partnership in the company.

Shortly after, it took a nosedive. In the 1990s, Underhill lost a million dollars on a contract with BC Hydro to convert its paper files into a digital system. Underhill completed the project, but his company was “basically worthless,” Friesen said.

First Nations land claims changed that. The Umbrella Final Agreement had millions of dollars set aside for surveying. Many of the First Nations wanted their lands cut out. Underhill won over half of the contracts. Underhill has also worked on First Nations land claims in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Surveys for land claims are “one of the last frontiers of the world,” said Friesen. And since the mid-1980s, they’ve been a predominant focus of the Whitehorse office.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Friesen. He counts working in Pelly Crossing with the Selkirk First Nation as one of his career highlights: “beautiful country, great people, out in the middle of nowhere.” Workers fly into remote communities and live in camps for a month or so. Since the company hires First Nation members to do jobs like cooking, it’s possible to really get to know the community, said Friesen.

Surveyors may define unknown parcels of land, but the job includes a lot of uncertainty. “Some things are beyond your control,” said Koepke. His surveying career included bear encounters and helicopter accidents.

In the 1970s, when Friesen started, the industry didn’t depend on calculators or computers. “It was all very physical, and it all took a lot of time, and there was a lot of mathematics and error.” In the decades that followed, he travelled around the world teaching surveying companies how to use GPS technology.

Work that used to take weeks now takes days, or less. Land still has to be cut, but a lot of the work isn’t as physical. A survey between Whitehorse and Carcross takes “as long as it takes to get there,” said Friesen.

“Every time an old tradition goes away, you kind of feel sad about it,” he said. But it’s important to serve the customers well, and that means learning how to use technology well. They do more projects now and need fewer people to do them.

The company still looks at surveys the Underhill brothers made. Someone will always return to the land.

“You’re always going to be working off of old surveys that were done by people like me and people like these guys, and you make your mark,” said Friesen. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re going around putting our marks on the ground.”

The company will host a centennial celebration at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on April 5.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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