Book Review of “Great Lengths, A Celebration of The Surveyors of Ontario”

A surveyor and a platypus walk into a bar….

All right, I made that up, but did you hear the story of the surveyor that crashed through the ice in sub zero temperatures, had to chop wood wearing nothing but a pair of frozen boots and spent the next two days surveying in excrement covered clothes. Character.

Speaking of character (although in a different context) there’s the story of the future OLS that joined up to fight in the Spanish Civil War, befriended an American journalist named Ernest Hemingway, fought in World War II (Second Canadian Field Survey Company) and once, after gaining his commission and en route to northern job, fell out of the aircraft in which he was a passenger only to land, unhurt, in a lake below.

Seriously… You can’t make this stuff up.

Judging by the fact that you’re reading this article I can guess two things about you. One, you have an interest in Geomatics (duh…) and secondly, that you more than likely enjoy being entertained. Assuming I’m right, you’re in luck.

While I suspect that the majority of readers are not surveyors, I’m confident that all of you have a connection to surveying in some way. It’s possible that you took a course, worked a summer as an assistant, or have a friend or relative that has ‘done some surveying’. And if none of the above, then try what the author of ‘Great Lengths’ did one afternoon and take a look out the nearest window. Consider that pretty much everything in sight; the buildings, roads, sidewalks, parks, utilities – everything – all started with a surveyor.

For a profession in which so many people have a connection and one which touches us all at some level, it’s surprising how few know the backstory.

This is not your typical, old-style ‘history’ book; it does not contain page after page of names, dates and places but rather it’s a history that comes alive through the memories, images, stories and voices of participants. Especially the stories.

The introductory chapter is a good overview of the book itself, engaging the reader by moving back and forth in time, introducing a variety of characters and snippets of stories to follow.

The Great Survey of 1900

In the opening chapter we learn about The Great Survey of 1900 in which ten survey teams were deployed to each assess a portion of the north roughly equivalent in size to southern Ontario (approximately forty thousand square miles). Each team consisted of a surveyor, a geologist, a timber assessor, a soil reader, a biologist and support crew of paddlers, provisioners, cooks, guides and axe-men. The challenges and logistics stagger the imagination.

The chapters that follow detail, again through memories and stories, the development of the province through the surveying of townships, farms, roads, railways, highways, power dams, cities, mining claims, The St. Lawrence Seaway, pipelines, airports and suburbs.

Andro Linklater, in his book ‘Measuring America’ (Plume/Penguin Group) may have hit the nail on the head when describing the personality of Ferdinand Hassler (US Coast & Geodetic Survey, early 1800’s) as having “a contradiction exhibited by so many land measurers that it is almost a defining characteristic – a passion for exact definition and extreme wilderness.”

Poetry of Surveying: I’m talking soil, trees, river, stars

That characteristic is associated with surveyors throughout the book and holds true today. I think it’s sentiment is perhaps best illustrated by Mr. William Webster when he so eloquently commented that “life in the field is what produces that data, but it also transcends it, gives you the poetry of surveying: I’m talking soil, trees, river, stars – maybe even a hawk or an owl, and if you’re lucky some interesting people. And of course air – fresh air.” Thank you Mr. Webster, nicely phrased.

Great Lengths is a quality product; a nicely illustrated, well written and presented collection of events, stories, memories and profiles of the members of The Association and their contributions to the development of the province and to Canadian culture.

There are many aspects of this book I appreciate but two are top of mind for me. First, you don’t need to be a surveyor to enjoy this book. Second, regardless of how much, or how little time you have available, be it two minutes, or two hours, this is a book you can pick up at anytime, flip it open anywhere and you’ll find something; an event, profile, or story of interest that will entertain and educate.

I truly enjoyed the opportunity to read and review Great Lengths. Thank you to The Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS), for providing GoGeomatics Canada with a copy for review.

Dedicated to Ontario Surveyors

The book is dedicated “For the members of The Association of Ontario Land Surveyors, past and present”. If I had one suggestion it would be to add the word ‘future’. I think it’s a great vehicle to engage the subjects of ‘’future’ profiles.

Speaking of which, for those of you that may be looking for opportunities in the field of Geomatics where you will be challenged mentally and physically, have the opportunity to engage with and employ really cool technology and literally invent your own future, please consider spending some time with Great Lengths.

And for the rest of you, consider the following definition of the word ‘survey’ which states “look carefully and thoroughly at (someone or something)” and ‘survey’ this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Great Lengths, A Celebration of The Surveyors of Ontario

Author – Charles Wilkins

Pages 230

ISBN 978-1-894801-33-1
Hardcover price: $50.00

ISBN 978-1-894801-32-4
Softcover Price: $40.00 (Amazon.ca)