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Canada’s unsung expedition

A century after the start of the thrilling expedition that strengthened claims to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, the first Canadian Arctic Expedition remains a largely unknown part of the country’s history

  • Dec 31, 2012
  • 1,956 words
  • 8 minutes
CAE ships anchored at Bernard Harbour, Nunavut, in 1914 Expand Image

In the Arctic waters off the coast of northeastern Siberia, thick pack ice surrounds a wooden-hulled ship, relentlessly grinding at its timbers before finally punching a gaping hole in its side. As the frigid water pours in, the crew abandons the stricken vessel and watches from the ice as the captain remains on board, playing records on the ship’s Victrola. At the last minute, with the sounds of Chopin’s “Funeral March” filling the air, he steps onto the ice and watches his ship slip below the water, leaving them stranded hundreds of kilometres from civilization, marooned in one of the most unforgiving and dangerous environments on Earth.

The sinking of the Karluk and the trials of its survivors in 1914 certainly make for a thrilling tale of Arctic adventure, one that you could imagine being made into a Hollywood disaster epic (see “Surviving the Karluk” below). But the loss of the ship is just one short chapter in the otherwise largely unheralded but extremely fascinating story of the first Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE), whose 100th anniversary is this year.

For many Canadians, the CAE is still a largely unknown part of this country’s scientific, geographic and historical heritage, but it marked a critical moment in the exploration of Canada’s North and had a lasting impact on the nation’s sovereignty. From 1913 to 1918, expedition members discovered new land, remapped territory, collected thousands of specimens and artifacts and forged links with Inuit communities, ties that live on today in places such as Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., named for one of the expedition’s schooners. The CAE’s work resulted in 16 scientific volumes on everything from insects to geology, almost an hour of film footage and thousands of photographs that provide a captivating glimpse into an era better known by most Canadians for the First World War than for polar exploration.

“It was a very important event from a scientific point of view,” says David Morrison, former director of archaeology and history at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau, Que. “It was also the Canadian government’s first major incursion into the western Arctic and was essentially the vehicle by which that region came under the knowledge and control of Canada.”

But the expedition was very nearly not a “Canadian” one at all. Its leader, the Canadian-born American citizen Vilhjalmur Stefansson, initially planned — with the support of the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History — to carry on work he’d done during a previous expedition in the North from 1908 to 1912, exploring the land around the Beaufort Sea. Prime Minister Robert Borden, concerned that his nation’s sovereignty could be at risk if an Americanbacked expedition discovered new land in the Arctic, intervened, and the Canadian government assumed sponsorship.

It was decided that the CAE would be divided into two teams. The Northern Party, led by Stefansson, would focus on discovering and mapping new land north of the Arctic mainland; the Southern Party, led by American zoologist Rudolph M. Anderson, was tasked with recording details of the flora and fauna, as well as the language and culture of the Copper Inuit, along the mainland’s northern coast — a decision that paid huge cultural dividends. “A lot of that early traditional knowledge did not always get passed down,” says David Gray, an Arctic biologist and historian who has spent nearly 40 years researching the CAE. “But Diamond Jenness [the expedition’s anthropologist] documented a unique culture before other cultures influenced it. He recorded sounds and songs, which was quite rare at that time, and collected samples of every aspect of Inuit material culture.”

The expedition began in June 1913, when its flagship vessel, the Karluk, set sail from Victoria, captained by Newfoundlander Robert Bartlett, who’d been a member of American explorer Robert Peary’s three Arctic expeditions between 1898 and 1909. After a brief stop in Nome, Alaska, the Karluk was to rendezvous with two other ships assigned to the Southern Party and establish a base at Herschel Island, off the Yukon coast, but the Karluk never arrived. Two months after leaving Victoria, the ship was locked in by ice, trapping Bartlett and the rest of the Northern Party.

In September 1913, Stefansson and five others left the Karluk to hunt caribou. When they returned, the ship was gone, presumably sunk. However, it had simply moved with the drifting pack ice. The Karluk would spend nearly four months at the mercy of the wind and the currents before its Victrola was heard for the last time on Jan. 11, 1914 (see “The CAE ’s human touch” below).

It was an inauspicious beginning for the expedition, but the loss of the Karluk didn’t dampen Stefansson’s ambitions. He arranged for more ships and supplies and hired more men so that the Northern Party could continue its work. Over the next five years, the men journeyed across the western Arctic, discovering four new islands (Brock, Borden, Meighen and Lougheed), correcting mapping mistakes made by previous expeditions and conducting soundings of the ocean floor, which enabled the preliminary mapping of the continental shelf.

Anderson’s Southern Party, meanwhile, proved to be just as successful. By the time its mission ended in 1916, they not only had completed mapping the Arctic coast from Alaska to Bathurst Inlet but had also collected thousands of samples and artifacts — everything from animal, plant and fossil specimens to tools and weapons used by the Copper Inuit and other cultures — and had accumulated about 4,000 photographs and 2,700 metres of film.

One hundred years later, much of what was documented and collected can still be seen. Although the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s year-long exhibition on the CAE ended in April 2012, archival photos and films can still be viewed online, and the museum currently has a smaller version of the exhibition touring across Canada until early 2014. But Gray believes that the CAE deserves even more attention — perhaps nothing so dramatic as a film about the Karluk disaster, but at least something that rivals the lavish attention the search for Sir John Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and Terror, received last summer, both of which were lost during his 1845 quest to discover the Northwest Passage.

“It’s not as old, and it’s not the same story,” says Gray. “But this has everything in it, from birth, marriage and death to adventure and discovery — and it’s the human story of the people who were part of the expedition that’s most exciting.”

Surviving the Karluk

After the Karluk sank on Jan. 11, 1914, 25 expedition members were left stranded on the ice. They built a makeshift camp and survived off the supplies they had hauled off the ship. Knowing that travelling across the ice in the middle of the Arctic winter, when there was virtually no sunlight, would be hazardous, Captain Robert Bartlett decided to wait until February, when daylight returned, to try to make the 140-kilometre journey to the relative safety of Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia. But four of the survivors decided to set off earlier on their own and were never seen again. Bartlett sent four other men ahead to Wrangel Island, but they ended up on Herald Island, about 60 kilometres to the east of Wrangel Island. The men were never seen alive again; their remains were discovered on the island in 1924.

The 17 remaining survivors left their camp in mid-February and arrived on Wrangel Island in early March. Soon afterward, Bartlett set off with Kataktovik, an Alaskan Inupiat hunter, to get help. They journeyed 1,100 kilometres, travelling over ice, through part of Siberia and across the Bering Strait, before arriving in Alaska in late May, where Bartlett wired Ottawa with the news that he and some of his crew were alive. By early September, eight months after the Karluk sank, the castaways had been rescued from Wrangel Island, but not before three more had died. Of the 14 survivors, only one, John Hadley, a hunter, rejoined the expedition.

The CAE ’s human touch

The Canadian Arctic Expedition left a rich legacy of scientific and geographic knowledge, and it also created deeply personal links with the people of the North — people such as Lucy Adams. Historian David Gray, who has spent nearly 40 years researching the CAE, explains how family history finally came home for one Inuvik, N.W.T., woman.

When I first met Lucy Adams in 2002, she had never seen a picture of her father and knew barely anything about her mother. Lucy, who died last July at the age of 81, was the daughter of Uttaktuak, an Inuit woman from the Baillie Islands area, off the north coast of Cape Bathurst, N.W.T., and Peter Lopez, an ex-whaler from the Cape Verde Islands. Both were members of the CAE from 1915 to 1917. Lucy’s mother died when she was three and her father when she was eight. Her memories of both were dim, especially of her mother.

Fortunately, I was able to share with Lucy stories about her parents from several of the expedition diaries. I told Lucy that her parents had travelled to Melville Island, in the High Arctic, with Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Northern Party in 1916. Her father hunted caribou and muskox, caching the meat for the men who were sledging farther north in search of undiscovered islands, while her mother skinned the animals, dried the meat and made winter clothes for the men. Lucy, a skilled seamstress, was pleased to discover that she shared a common artistic talent with her mother, who expedition photographer George Wilkins noted was an accomplished artist and “extraordinarily fond of drawing.”

Although Lucy had a picture of her mother, an image of her father was more elusive — all she could recall was that “he was six feet tall and dark and had really curly hair.” I knew that Wilkins had photographed Lopez, but this image was missing from the expedition’s collections in Ottawa. Remarkably, the negatives were found in England in 2008 and were put up for sale on eBay. I purchased copies and was finally able to give Lucy the first picture she had ever seen of her father, taken on Banks Island, N.W.T., in 1916. In it, you can see the resemblance between father and daughter. “Oh, thank you!” she said. “That’s so good to have.”

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Drawing ice at Fullerton, Canadian Government Arctic Expedition, 1903-1904. (Photo: Albert Peter Low/Geological Survey of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-123619)
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Katuktok, July 4, 1916; Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918 (Photo: Rudolph Martin Anderson/Library and Archives Canada/PA-132356)
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Copper Eskimos in Coronation Gulf, April 7, 1916 (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/C-035145)
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J. Sullivan, Koptanna and Kogvik, July 4, 1916; Canadian Arctic Expedition,1913-1918 (Photo: Rudolph Martin Anderson/Library and Archives Canada/PA-132359)
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Canadian Arctic Expedition party, Nome, Alaska, ca. 1913. (Photo: Rudolph Martin Anderson/Library and Archives Canada/e002712837)
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Uluksoak and other Inuit going to their camp, 29 July 1915 (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/C-035377)
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Inuit fishing in a creek, photographed by members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, N.W.T., 30 June 1916. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada/PA-178317
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Mukpie, a Point Barrow Inuit girl, was one of the youngest on the aboard the SS Karluk and one of the only survivors, 1914. (Photo: Lomen Bros./Library and Archives Canada/PA-105139)
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Copper Inuit fishing behind stone weir in creek, N.W.T., 1913-1916. (Photo: Canada: G.H. Wilkins/National Museum of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/e002280199)
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Inuit man with bow case and quiver taken by the Southern Party, Coronation Gulf, N.W.T., May 21, 1916. (Photo: Rudolph Martin Anderson/Library and Archives Canada/PA-165740

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