Collector of priceless bird eggs, finder of Con’s gold

Yellowknife mining engineer and naturalist William McDonald with young ravens in the 1950s

‘Bill Mac’ mined the wisdom of the wild

Your house is on fire. What do you grab? Your wallet? A treasured painting? Photo albums? Not Bill Mac. He grabbed his cigar boxes. Dozens of them. Even while flames licked at his cabin door, he dashed in again and again, scooping them off a high plywood shelf. Back outside he laid them gently on a cushion of grass near his lakeside cabin. Then he dove back in.

Drawn by the smoke, Bill’s Jolliffe Island neighbours saw him run from his cabin, with cigar boxes piled high on his outstretched arms and second-degree burns on his hands.

The story made front-page news: Fire Takes Valued Collections. The date: July 10, 1953.

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“The Jolliffe Island residence of W. L. “Bill” McDonald, well known authority on many phases of Northern life, was completely destroyed by a double outbreak of fire on Tuesday night. With the house went valuable collections of birds’ eggs, along with collections of historical and archaeological interest.”

No one knows what caused the fire, or how many of Bill’s precious eggs were lost to the flames. But he managed to save a few hundred in those carefully piled cigar boxes.

Collecting wild bird eggs was a particular challenge for a man paid to carry rocks in his pack. But Bill’s grander vocation was mining the wisdom of the wild. No one paid him to collect those priceless eggs, now stored in the inner sanctum of Yellowknife’s museum; nor those plants, lichens, mosses, insects and fish which he regularly shipped to eager academic colleagues in the south.

“He was first and foremost a naturalist,” says Bob Bromley, Yellowknife’s noted birdman and Bill’s field apprentice. Bill wanted to do a biology degree at the University of Alberta, but back in 1913 when he enrolled, it wasn’t on offer. So he went for what he figured was the next best thing: rocks.

Trained as a mining engineer, Bill enjoyed a lucky April Fool’s Day in 1936 when he discovered a quartz vein on the west shore of Yellowknife Bay that “just splashed with visible gold.” Northern Canada’s largest gold producer, the great Con Mine, rose from that very spot.

It was Bill’s pivotal role in pushing back the frontier of Northern geology that earned him a lasting place on a map that hitherto had been largely blank. A colossal series of cliffs lining the East Arm of Great Slave Lake bear his name – the McDonald Fault. So does a large water body whose existence was flatly denied by one of Bill’s early field supervisors until Bill politely led him to its shore – McDonald Lake. To this day, a lakeshore road in Yellowknife named McDonald Drive winds through the heart and soul of a community built on gold. Then there’s the school.

In September 1982, 11 years after Bill’s death, NWT Commissioner John Parker presided over the opening of Yellowknife’s newest school, William L. McDonald Junior High. In his closing remarks, Parker described Bill as “inquisitive, observant, and quietly unpretentious, yet so far ahead in so many fields. He was a wonderful man.”

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