Most Canadians assume that the Alaska Boundary means the Panhandle, that incongruous strip of territory that cuts off almost half of British Columbia from the Pacific Ocean. For them, it exists because an English lord sided with the Americans and, by doing so, gave away Canada's interests on the Pacific Coast.
Like many things in this world, it is not that simple. The Alaska Boundary was described in the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825, and the southern limit of the Panhandle was fixed at that time. At the Alaska Boundary Tribunal of 1903, both sides accepted this limit, and the main issue was Canada's claims to the heads of the longer inlets cutting into the Panhandle. Regardless of what Lord Alverstone did or did not do, the Panhandle would still be there; the loss was not so much territory as the snatching away of Canada's only hope of saving face in the settlement.
A great deal has been written on the political history of the issue but little on the work of the surveyors, both Canadian and American, who marked the boundary on the ground. I have concentrated on the latter, ignoring much of the polemics. Negotiations that led nowhere are mentioned briefly, or in a few cases, not at all. Nor has the boundary dispute been considered as part of the complex interaction between Canada, Great Britain, and United States on the North American continent. Instead, it is treated as a nagging issue that had to be resolved before the surveyors could set to work.
The surveyors involved were tough, competent men. So much so that, despite the great physical difficulties they worked under, there are no epic tales of heroism in the face of self-inflicted disasters. Between 1869 and 1920 about 150 government field parties did work along the Alaska Boundary. Most parties had at least six men and a few had over thirty. Yet of the hundreds of men involved, only three lost their lives through accidents in the field.
Today, when any part of the Alaska Boundary can be reached in a few hours by helicopter, it is easy to forget how remote it once was. For the surveyors there were steamers along the coast and on the larger rivers, but beyond they used canoes, poling boats, pack-horses, or hand-drawn sleds and, at times, backpacked. Even the outboard motor was a luxury, first available in 1920, the final year of the survey. Once in the bush or out on the glaciers the parties were thrown on their own resources without as much as a radio to call for help in an emergency.
Theirs was a remarkable achievement; one that both countries can be proud of.