What’s That Wednesday? Mystery Map

This post was written by Leanna Williams, the museum’s Social Media manager.  Leanna is a graduate student in the UAF Arctic and Northern Studies department, where she focuses on Alaskan and polar aviation history.  

If you are a follower of our Facebook page, you may have seen this tattered old map featured in last week’s “What’s that Wednesday” post. This map is such a rich, interesting object that we just had to feature it both here on the blog, and on our Facebook page. Click through the photo slideshow above to get more angles and to see the fascinating detail of this object.  

This is a geologic survey map of the Koyukuk-Chandalar region, that was used by Sam O White, Alaskan wildlife agent and bush pilot.  White arrived in Alaska in the 1920s and became a game warden in 1927.  Alaskan author Jim Reardon wrote White’s biography, based largely on White’s own writing: Sam O. White, Alaskan: Tales of a Legendary Wildlife Agent and Bush Pilot.  

As a game warden for the Alaska Game Commission, White enforced wildlife laws across a wide swath of Alaska.  He began his career as a wildlife agent traveling by dog sled, but quickly saw the advantages of aviation for his line of work.  White recounted, “[w]hen I saw what an airplane could do, I realized that the only way the Game Commission was going to get anywhere enforcing wildlife laws in Alaska was by taking to the air” (128).  That’s not to say that aviation, still in its infancy in the territory in the 1920s, was without challenges of its own, which brings us back to our map.

First, you might notice that this paper map is fixed to a muslin-type fabric.  Why would that be?  White began his flying career in open-cockpit planes, first a Golden Eagle Chief monoplane, soon replaced by a Swallow biplane.  Flying around 80 miles per hour, a paper map on its own just wouldn’t hold up in the open air, so pilots often fixed maps to fabric so they would hold up.  

​Second, why a geologic survey map?  Without knowing for certain what map selection was available to White, we can say that with a high degree of likelihood, pickings were slim.  Many accounts from the early bush pilots like White, Eielson and Wien recount that maps were simply not available for the areas they were flying.  My hypothesis is that this map was probably the best available option.  It is interesting to note that this map was based on surveys from 1899-1909, and incorporated sketch maps from prospectors.  Even with those contributions, much of the map is missing topographical detail, highlighting the challenges facing both surveyors and the bush pilots who used these maps.  

White recounted further that, “[i]n my early days of flying in Alaska, based on available maps, almost no location in the Territory was in the right place.  If, based on the map, one flew from Fairbanks to Beaver, the village on the Yukon River, you could find yourself fifteen to twenty-five miles out of place when you hit the north bank of the Yukon” (Reardon, 135).  

With these shortcomings of maps. White and others had to adapt and find their own ways to navigate.  Looking at the map, you may see some straight lines drawn from Bettles and a place called Nolan, connecting to Lake Creek, near Little and Big Squaw Creek.  Some hand written notes appear to say “50 min,” which corresponds to the five evenly spaced hatch marks along the line to Bettles.  These notes and waypoints would have been important for navigating.  White said that because of the shortcomings of maps, as mentioned above, pilots learned their own ways of navigating across remote stretches. He said that he learned to cross rivers and creeks at specific angles, to fly on a straight course to the places he was trying to reach, and to watch for the landmarks that would keep course (Reardon, 135).  The lines on the map here would correspond to this navigational technique.  

One final interesting element to note is the “Yukon Bush Air Charter, Ruby, Alaska” stamps on the muslin side of the map.  These stamps suggest that this map remained in White’s possession for a long period of time and was used even after White made the switch to a closed cabin aircraft.  Yukon Bush Air Charter was a business that White owned and operated, beginning in around 1945.  Reardon recounts in White’s biography that White won mail contracts to fly mail out of Ruby, to places along the Koyukuk and around the region (Reardon, 298). Since we know white began flying in open cockpit aircraft around 1930, and launched Yukon Bush Air Charter in about 1945, it would suggest that this map was in use for at least fifteen years.

​Thankfully, White wrote extensively; his words are well preserved and organized in Reardon’s biography.  Readers can imagine this map, tucked away in a flight bag or pulled out to reference a landmark, traveling along with White as he began as a game warden, as a pilot for Wien, and then operating Yukon Bush Air Charter.  It’s extraordinary the story a simple old map can tell.  Follow us on Facebook to keep up with more of our What’s That Wednesday object profiles.  

Rearden, Jim. Sam O. White, Alaskan: tales of a legendary wildlife agent and bush pilot. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.

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