As the world’s polar nations continue to wrangle over boundaries in the Arctic Ocean’s seabed, it can seem as though sovereignty in the North has never been such a hot topic. Back in 1902, though, Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup had just spent four years mapping more than 260,000 square kilometres of Canada’s northernmost Arctic islands, and “in the name of the Norwegian King, taken possession” of them.
That colossal territorial claim loomed over diplomatic relations between the nations until 1930, when Norway recognized Canada’s title to the region. Canada did pay Sverdrup $67,000 for the maps, diaries and other documents from his second expedition with the polar ship Fram, and the old explorer died mere weeks later.
To celebrate Sverdrup’s historic polar mission, document scarcely seen lands and advocate for climate-change education, four modern explorers — American John Huston, Canadian Hugh Dale-Harris, Norwegian Tobias Thorleifsson and South African Kyle O’Donoghue — set out in late March 2013 on the 65-day New Land 2013 Expedition. They used powerful Inuit sled dogs to skijor (tow them on skis) nearly 1,000 kilometres across frozen ocean sounds, Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere islands — similar to the way Sverdrup journeyed over the same unyielding land more than a century earlier. “We had modern maps, but mainly used Sverdrup’s book New Land and his personal diaries as our guide,” says Huston. “We didn’t consult any modern explorers about the route, because we wanted Sverdrup’s experience.”
Here’s a comparison of select moments from the New Land 2013 Expedition and Sverdrup’s explorations during the Second Fram Expedition, from 1898 to 1902.
SVERDRUP (1898–1902) timeline
NEW LAND 2013 timeline
|Fall 1898 With sea ice blocking passage north through Smith Sound, Sverdrup readies the Fram and his 15-man, 80-dog crew for winter in the shelter of a bay (now Fram Haven). In October, American explorer Robert Peary passes Sverdrup’s camp on nearby Hayes Fiord, but refuses the offer of a cup of coffee.
Fall 1900 to August 1902 Sverdrup chooses to spend the expedition’s third winter in Goose Fiord. He and his crew would have sailed home before the following winter of 1901–1902, but they are forced to stay when the Fram becomes locked in the ice.
April 24–29, 1901 Sverdrup, ascending from sea level north through Trold Fiord, writes that it “became narrower and narrower the farther we went, with high threatening walls of rock on both sides. … But what a country for hares! … Hares hopping from stone to stone wherever we turned.”
May, 1901 On a 72-day mapping expedition around Greely Fiord and farther north, Sverdrup and Ivar Fosheim determine that Axel Heiberg is an island. Another team maps Amund Ringnes and Ellef Ringnes islands and more of the surrounding area.
April 1, 1902 Sverdrup sends his men off in parties to survey Beechey Island and the north end of Devon Island. He and Per Schei push north on their final expedition of the trip — a 1,550-kilometre, 77-day sledge journey.
May 8, 1902 Sverdrup reaches Lands Lokk (“land’s end”). There he stops, barred by gales, impassable terrain, a lack of big game and the condition of his dogs. He concludes that “on the whole … a number of the countries there in the west are islands.”
August 6, 1902 A strong north wind blows most of the remainingice out of Goose Fiord, and by 11 a.m. Sverdrup and his men are steaming out of the fiord. After a patch of thick fog clears, the Fram reaches open ocean and sails home to Norway.
March 31, 2013 A chartered plane drops the New Land 2013 team off at the north end of cliff-bound Goose Fiord. They find what they believe are navigational and topographical rock cairns left by the Norwegian explorers.
April 15, 2013 After three days camped on the sea ice at the mouth of Trold Fiord, a resupply flight can be called in at last. It had been delayed by low cloud cover and risky weather conditions. Even a failed delivery can cost up to $40,000.
April 18, 2013 As they pass through Trold Fiord and squeeze “up the gut” through the narrow river valley to higher land, Huston notes that the nine-metre-wide, cliff-lined gully is full of hare droppings.
April 27, 2013 While the sled dogs are taken to visit staff at the Eureka weather station and research base, the last resupply point of the expedition, a pack of wolves raids the expedition’s camp and steals Huston’s lunch bag.
May 10, 2013 In strong winds and “mystic, mysterious cloud and light formations,” the New Land 2013 crew reaches Lands Lokk — the northernmost point to which Sverdrup travelled. They give themselves and their dogs a rest day, during which they search for a cairn left by Sverdrup and Schei in 1902.
May 12, 2013 An empty cairn is found a few kilometres north of the team’s campsite at Lands Lokk. Originally thought to be Sverdrup’s, it is later determined that it may have been built by Robert Peary in 1906 and opened in 1930 by German explorer Hans Krüger.
June 4, 2013 Back in Eureka on day 65 of their expedition, the team boards a plane bound for Resolute.