When I was 10 years old, I wrote the Canadian Tourism Commission for information to help me research a school report. In return I received an envelope stuffed with brochures and an enormous map of a single province. In order to see all of the map at once, I had to tack it up on the only wall in my bedroom that didn’t have windows or closet doors.
I spent hours imagining floating down the intricate blue lines on the map. I studied the speckles that marbled the top half of the province, picturing raw-knuckled Inuit families coming out of their igloos to grab their fish dinners out of the nearest lake. I practiced pronouncing the names of the towns I saw: Flin Flon, Kindersley, Moosejaw. I quickly adopted a favorite town as an interjection that I used nonstop and for any occasion— the surprise of a stubbed toe, the joy of getting a second helping of dessert, a substitution for the swear words I heard my dad say. After three days, my brother aggressively suggested other words for me to use, but I just loved the way it felt in my mouth: SASS-kuh-TOON suh-SKAT-choo-win. I defied him to think of another place in the world that was more fun to say.
My passions followed me to college. Much to my parents’ dismay, I changed my major constantly: English, English As A Foreign Language, Psychology, Spanish, German, Cartography, Geography, Sociology. I was in search of the best combination to prepare me for my destiny of single-handedly running a travel program on TV. The pathway to that lofty goal, however, forsook me. I settled for a Creative Writing degree and, after graduating, quickly realized that the travel show industry was minuscule and difficult to break into. Disheartened, I took a job at a bookstore instead.
So imagine my excitement when I found Amos Burg, Jr. in my family tree recently. An actual National Geographic adventurist in my humble family? Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!
Amos grew up along the banks of the Columbia River. He spent nights in his canoe dreaming of meeting exciting new people in far away places. Early on, he decided his life’s goal was to run all of the major rivers of the western U.S. At 19, he launched his boat into the Columbia river’s source lake, high up in the mountains of Alberta. When he wasn’t steering his way through dangerous rapids, he was thoroughly documenting the 1,243-mile trip back home to Portland, Oregon. Upon his success, he made national news and immediately submitted his diaries and photos to National Geographic. They were quick to utilize him.
Canoeist. Essayist. Photographer. Cinematographer. Politician. Spy. I’ll let my research links above list off the details of his many accomplishments, but, suffice it to say, Amos Burg was the epitome of my childhood dreams.
His biographer describes him as a sensitive boy, and a worrying, fastidious adult. A dandy in dress and manner. A writer all his life. An advocate of preserving native cultures and the environment before it was cool. I flatter myself to think we have a lot in common (although we did both write for NG, his effort to do so was more arduous by literal miles). Amos– my grandfather’s first cousin of all people– is who I’m striving to be. He is proof to me that some dreams are genetic (further evidenced by my nephew’s long fascination with international flags and Germany). He is the reason I’ve spent thousands of hours researching my family. He is my uncontainable map of Saskatchewan all over again.