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Hugh Bostock Yukon's giant of geology

Hugh Bostock may be the single most influential geologist in Yukon history. He was born in 1901 in British Columbia, where his father, Hewitt Bostock, established a successful stock ranch and fruit farm at Monte Creek.

Hugh Bostock may be the single most influential geologist in Yukon history. He was born in 1901 in British Columbia, where his father, Hewitt Bostock, established a successful stock ranch and fruit farm at Monte Creek. Hewitt was very prominent in federal politics, being both and MP and a senator; he was later a cabinet minister in Mackenzie King’s cabinet, and finally Speaker in the Senate.

Hugh Bostock spent his youth running free on his father’s ranch until he was sent to school in Britain, where he attended Hillside, then Charterhouse in Surrey. He entered the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, at age 17. This was followed by three years at McGill University and, finally, studies in mining engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1925.

After a series of jobs at mines in British Columbia, Bostock got a summer job with the Geological Survey of Canada in southern British Columbia in 1924. Upon starting his first field season, he asked innocently how many hours of work he was expected to put in. Twenty-five was the answer, and with that he began 29 years of geological field work.

He continued this work in British Columbia until 1931, when he was appointed to take charge of the exploration of the Yukon Territory. He took to this job like a duck to water. When I met him in Dawson City in the 1980s, he struck me as a quiet unassuming man, which may explain, in part, why he took to the Yukon so readily. He once commented that the only people in the Yukon who knew of his father’s prominence were George Black, Yukon’s Member of Parliament, and George’s wife, Martha.

In his book, Pack Horse Tracks, he meticulously charts the course of his years in the field, starting with his time in British Columbia, and then his 23 field seasons in the Yukon. In all his years of dedicated field service, Bostock was able to spend only one summer, 1944, with his family. Every other year, he left his home in Ottawa at the end of May, and did not return until the following October.

Working in the Yukon was a challenge for anyone from Outside. Arrangements for transport and food had to be made months in advance. The Yukon was an isolated landscape in those days, and careful preparation was required. To get here involved travel by train, steamer and riverboat. Only after the construction of the Alaska Highway, was the Yukon accessible by automobile. He worked in all kinds of terrain and all kinds of weather in various regions of the territory, which he probably came to know better than anyone else in the Yukon.

He could be cut off from outside communication for weeks at a time. In other words, he was granted a great amount of freedom to conduct his work unfettered by the prying eyes of government bureaucracy. To him, this may also have been an appealing aspect of his job.

Bostock traveled far and wide using every form of transportation that was available through the years. He traveled on foot, by boat (anything from Yukon River steamers to canoes), pack horse, bush plane, and later, by automobile. His field crews were reliant upon food harvested in the wilderness, and Bostock had his share of close encounters of the bear kind, which he describes in a matter-of-fact manner in his narrative of 30 years of exploration.

The product of his work was a series of geological reports that helped to define the mineral character of the Yukon, as well as annual reports on the mining industry for the territory. His 1957 compilation of selected field reports of the Geological Survey of Canada (1898 to 1933) is one of the standard references most geological researchers turn to.

Bostock said that the climate was invigorating and the wilderness was enchanting, “but its people particularly were the outstanding attraction. There were misfits that came and went, but the honesty and comradeship of the permanent inhabitants were inspiring.”

His narrative of exploration in the North and west is filled with the richness and colour of the human landscape. With his literary brush, he paints a vivid portrait of the men and women who lived in the North between 1930 and 1954. His account is full of references of his encounters with policemen, government officials, miners, scientists and other professionals, but also with the many rugged individuals who by birth or by choice, called the Yukon their home.

During one field season, he had to admonish some of his summer students for taking the traps and other equipment someone had cached for the summer. Honesty and trust were the rule, not the exception, in the early times.

Pack Horse Tracks is a rare title that is not easy to locate, but there are copies at the Yukon Archives and the EMR Library in the Elijah Smith Building. It is a wonderful account of people and places in the Yukon for a generation, and well worth reading. I recommend it.

When Bostock retired in 1966, he had been awarded the Massey Medal by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his outstanding field work. He was later a recipient of the Astrolabe Award from the Geological Association of Canada (1988) in recognition of his achievement over a lifetime of field work and study. He has been inducted into the Yukon Prospector’s Association Honour Roll, and his name is inscribed on a plaque mounted below a statue that stands in the plaza in front of the Elijah Smith Building.

Bostock was 93 years old when he died February 1, 1994. A few months later, Mount Bostock, which overlooks the McQuesten River, was named in his honour.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in May. You can contact him at