Photo: Monty Alford (middle) celebrating his 90th birthday with two of my predecessors. Alex Van Bibber (left) is now 97 years old and assisted Monty for almost 30 years of hydrometric surveys before I was hired. Vic Ponisch (right) also assisted Monty during that era.
Tomorrow marks the 90th birthday of my first supervisor at the Water Survey of Canada. Monty Alford hired me in 1978 in Whitehorse, Yukon to assist in field surveys. He has been the greatest role model any young stream hydrographer could ask for. His approach to his chosen career is that of an artisan with meticulous attention to the tools of his trade and precisely honed skills to match. He is always thinking of a better way of getting the job done. ‘Better’ was almost never faster. Better was always complete. He never came home from a field trip with excuses, only results. ‘Better’ was always thorough. There was never any possibility of flow hidden under thick ice or frazil that was not carefully probed. ‘Better’ was always accurate. His instruments were maintained with the greatest care and attention to detail. ‘Better’ left no doubt that the recording instruments were properly calibrated and maintained for reliable data collection until the next field visit.
Monty is legendary for many reasons.
Outside of his career his is well known for his many and various mountaineering, river and scientific expeditions. He guided Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of Mt. Kennedy; he led the Centennial expedition during which 10 previously unclimbed mountains (all greater than 10,000 feet) in the St. Elias ice fields were climbed and named; he traveled by canoe from the west coast to the east coast of North America; he was a member of two scientific expeditions to Antarctica. At the age of 87 he bought a sailboat and then sailed if from Victoria BC to Skagway Alaska.
A test of passage for any new recruit to the Whitehorse office is a winter measurement at the Wheaton River with Monty. This involved a 10 mile journey on skis, or snowshoes, carrying all of the equipment for the measurement. Monty’s preferred instrument for cutting ice is an ice chisel of his own design rather than the much heavier, finicky, gas powered augers that were available at the time. Getting to the site would take most of the morning. The cross section would be measured out and then then the real work of cutting ice would begin. The snow would be deep but the ice would be deeper. It was backbreaking work but Monty could not only out walk any new recruit, he could chop two perfectly rectangular holes through thick ice for every one ragged looking hole someone half his age could manage.
Monty is also famous for his perseverance.
One story I have never heard directly from him but which came from a reliable source is of a winter trip by ski-plane to measure a stream at the outlet of a lake. The plane landed on the lake ice some distance from the lake outlet. The lake outlet was ice-free and Monty was carrying his instruments to do a cableway measurement from the plane to the gauge. As he was approaching shore he fell through the ice. Unable to climb back up onto the weak ice where he fell through, he swam under the ice to the lake outlet where he was able to get to shore. Once on shore he was able to get a fire going and warm up. He now had a quandary. He had to get a measurement but his instruments were all on the bottom of the lake. According to the story, which I believe to be true, he stripped down and dove back into the water several times to retrieve his equipment so that he could return to the office with results not excuses.
I cannot measure the amount of data that Monty collected over his lifetime; I can’t quantify how much better his data is than if anyone else had done the job; I can’t sum the value of his data to science, the economy and the environment. What I can say is that Monty added a lot of value to my life; he inspired me to understand the science; he motivated me to care deeply about quality and he humbled me in terms of his accomplishments.