AN OLD MAN SHOWS THE WAY
One day in 1954, atop the highest point of land on Marble Island, northwest Hudson Bay, I was observing angles with a theodolite when two Inuit, passing by in a Peterhead boat, came onshore and climbed up the steep hillside to visit me. One was quite young and spoke good English but the other man was very old and could only communicate with me through his younger companion. The old chap was still very spry but was obviously well more than 80 years old.
During the course of our conservation the young lad told me that he had been to school in Frobisher Bay. At the mention of that place the old man took a few paces away from where we were standing and laid his ancient, long-barrelled rifle down on the flat rock face with elaborate care. I asked the young fellow what the old man was doing and was told that his old uncle was pointing his gun in the direction of Frobisher Bay—more than 700 miles away.
Intrigued by the confident manner in which the old chap had adjusted the pointing of his rifle so precisely I had him use instead a 16-foot-long piece of straight two by four that my survey team had left nearby when building a triangulation beacon. I got the old fellow to put one end of the two by four on the small bronze survey marker I had set into the hilltop rock face and point the other end at Frobisher Bay way over the curved edge of the world’s horizon. Then I took a reading with the theodolite cross-hairs centred on the far end of the straight two by four. After that I got the old man to point the stick towards what he considered to be the direction of Cape Dorset, Churchill, Chesterfield Bay, Povungnituk and Pelly Bay. And each time he did so I precisely measured the angle of the two by four with the theodolite.
But when I asked him to point the 2” x 4” to Moosenee or Pangnirtung he refused. When asked why, he said simply that he had never been to those places. But he would point to any place he had ever been to in his life. Months later, back in Ottawa I calculated the true bearing of each of those places from the geodetic plug I had installed on Marble Island that day. Every one agreed within two or three degrees of the old Eskimo's two by four pointings.
He was a human GPS system long before the modern electronic one came along.