Monty Alford and two friends on his 90th birthday.

Monty Alford – Inspiring Hydrographers Since 1949

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.

  • Marcus
    Posted at 2:42 pm, September 6, 2013

    What an inspiration! You were so fortunate to have a such an influence in your life. It sounds like he is the type of individual who will continue to inspire for many years to come.

  • Ana Thomas
    Posted at 4:22 am, October 28, 2014

    Your blog is nice… thanks for valuable info……

  • Tony Polyck
    Posted at 9:19 am, August 19, 2017

    I was just thinking about Monty and looked him up on the internet and found out he had passed. Right now I am feeling sad and nostalgic.
    I had known Monty since 1976, when I became involved in Yukon water management for DIAND. Over the years, we would run into each other in the field and I have to chuckle when I remember his staff complaining about doing winter flow measurements and travelling to sites by ski. The other thing I remember is their admiration and their underlining love they felt for him.
    I also had the privlege of knowing his beautiful family. His lovely wife Renee was even my French teacher!
    After Monty retired, I hired him to teach a Yukon winter survival skills course to my staff and he did a bang-up job that everyone enjoyed. Everyone also got a copy of his excellent book on survival skills that should be in every field persons pocket.
    Monty always walked everwhere. I can remember walking from Riverdale with him at -38 and he was hard to keep up with even at the age of over 80!
    The last time I saw him he asked me if I was interested in crewing his sailing boat and unfortunately I didn’t. We moved out of Yukon three years ago, after forty years.
    I will always fondly remember Monty. He was a legend and an iron man to the end. RIP .

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