People & Culture

A Canadian Geographic holiday tale: Christmas at the Devil’s Portage

Episode 73

Podcast host David McGuffin reads the story of Arctic explorer Charles Camsell, recalling a memorable Christmas along the trail to the Klondike in the 19th century 

  • Dec 12, 2023
Fred Camsell, Charles Camsell, DW Wright and Arthur Pelly in the Liard River Canyon. 1898.
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Dr. Charles Camsell, Arctic explorer and founding president of the RCGS, author of "Son of the North."
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For this holiday episode of Explore, we’re dipping into our Royal Canadian Geographical Society files for the reading of a story written by RCGS founding President and Arctic explorer Charles Camsell, recalling a memorable Christmas he had on the trail to the Klondike in the late 19th century.

In the early 1900s, travelling by canoe and horseback, Charles Camsell mapped hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of Canada’s north for the Geological Survey of Canada. 

Born at Fort Liard in the Northwest Territories in 1876, his father Julian was an English fur trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company. His mother, Sarah Foulds, was Metis, with deep roots in the Red River.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba, Charles Camsell returned to the Northwest Territories just in time to get swept into the Klondike gold rush. Like thousands of young men and women at the time, he and his friend Arthur Pelly went off to the Yukon to seek their fortune.

Lynne McGuffin, Charles Camsell’s granddaughter, found the following story in his personal files. It was dated 1937, around the time he was writing his memoir, Son of the North. For the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of host David McGuffin to read this to his wife and children on Christmas Eve as they moved from continent to continent, country to country, often celebrating the holidays far from family and home.

So pour yourself a favourite drink. Settle into a comfy chair by the fire. And enjoy this reading of Christmas at Devil’s Portage. Happy Holidays! 

In our second season of Explore, you can learn more about the Camsell family and their role in the fur trade, featuring full archival recordings of Charles Camsell and his brother Philip Scott Camsell recalling their memories of their Arctic childhoods.


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