By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the Canadian Archipelago had been mapped except for some blank spots in the far northwest. It was not known if more islands existed and, if so, where anyone should look for them. Exploring and mapping the remaining parts of Arctic North America fell to men like Otto Sverdrup (see Explorer’s Tales blog of 1/9/2016) and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. These hardy men were not seeking a new passage as in the past, nor were they vying to reach the North Pole. They simply explored as discoverers wanting to fill in blanks on the map of the Arctic. Stefansson (1879 - 1962) undertook to explore the unknown areas in the northwest.
Stefansson, born in Canada to Icelandic immigrant parents, was trained as an anthropologist with a focus on the native people of the Arctic. During his studies of the Arctic Stefansson became skilled in survival, exploration, and mapping methods, and these assets became the basis for the Canadian government’s support of his major exploration project in August, 1913. Unfortunately the project began badly when Stefansson’s expedition ship, Karluk, commanded by Captain Bartlett, became locked in ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. Stefansson left the ship and walked over the ice twenty-five miles to Point Barrow.
The story of the ill-fated Karluk is an interesting saga by itself, but here it will suffice to say that the icebound ship drifted westward toward Siberia, was eventually crushed, and sank in January, 1914. Twenty-five survivors and sixteen dogs then walked 80 miles over the ice to Wrangle Island, existing on rations salvaged before the ship sank. Captain Bartlett and one man walked from Wrangle Island another 200 miles over the ice to the Siberian coast, then east to the Bering Strait where they boarded a ship to Alaska and arranged for a rescue. A ship finally arrived in September and the remaining survivors were rescued. Eleven of them had died during the six-months waiting for rescue. Captain Bartlett became a hero.
Stefansson, on the other hand, met some criticism for having left his ship as soon as it became icebound. He explained that he left with five men, two of whom happened to be his exploration party, for a ten-day hunting trip, and the ship drifted away while he was gone. When he discovered he could not return to the Karluk, Stefansson hiked to Point Barrow, Alaska. After wintering at Point Barrow, in March,1914 Stefansson, with his crew of two men, began their long-lasting trek of discovery on foot with one dogsled. Stefansson’s previous experience had taught him to live off the land, so they carried no provisions. His party reached Banks Island where they established a base camp for the winter of 1914-15. In spring of 1915 they began their exploration for new land by going westward onto the ice of the Beaufort Sea.
Stefansson had been told by Eskimos there would be no seals over the deep water seas. Also he had heard this same information from whalers and from seasoned Arctic experts such as Robert Peary and Fridtjof Nansen. Stefansson assumed that none of those informants, including the Eskimos who always stayed close to land, had ever actually tried to hunt seals in deep water areas. His hunch was correct and he discovered that seals existed far from land in sufficient numbers to sustain his party of three men and six dogs indefinitely. He commented that two seals per week were enough for their needs. Because Stefansson carried no provisions, they essentially lived off the sea for five years. In his studies of Eskimos he learned that for a period of up to nine months their diet was nearly 100% meat and fish, with no carbohydrates. By adapting to this diet his exploration party proved that people accustomed to a European diet could adapt to a diet of only fat and meat, including animal entrails.
Stefansson described in great detail the technique for hunting seals that he had learned from the Eskimos. To approach a seal basking on the ice, one must begin by crawling and wriggling seal fashion from about three hundred yards away. By keeping such a low profile the hunter will probably be unnoticed by the seal until he is about two-hundred yards away. The seal is napping but raises its head every few minutes, scanning the area for polar bears. The hunter must crawl forward when the seal’s head is down, and stop when the seal looks up. When the seal sees the hunter’s approach, the hunter must stop, turn his body to the side, and make seal-like motions, such as raising his head, or rolling on his back and raising his knees toward his chest briefly to imitate the scratching movement made by seals. If the hunter were to stay perfectly still, the seal would become suspicious and slide into the nearby water. Eventually the hunter will come within one-hundred yards of the seal and can easily make a successful rifle shot to its head. In this way Stefansson managed to live in the Arctic subsisting on the land and sea.
Finding no new lands to the west in the Arctic Ocean, Stefansson returned to Patrick Island to complete the survey done by Leopold M’Clintock in 1853 as part of the Belcher expedition in search of Franklin. Stefansson’s party found no game on Patrick Island, but found seals on the ice. They completed the mapping and returned to base camp on Banks Island for the winter of 1915 where they were met and resupplied by a ship that Stefansson had arranged in advance.
In the spring of 1916 the three men began a grand loop by dogsled that included surveys of Brock Island and Borden Island, which were the first new and uncharted islands they had encountered. Stefansson claimed these islands “in the name of King George V on behalf of the Dominion of Canada.” The process of making a formal statement and a map validated the claim. They found two more unmapped islands, Meighen Island and Lougheed Island, before returning to their base camp. On the return to Banks Island they passed by Mercy Bay where McClure and crew on the Investigator had been icebound for two winters. They found some articles from the McClure expedition of 1852 and updated the map of the area. In the spring of 1917 Stefansson’s party pushed northward onto the ice of the Arctic Ocean, but finding no additional islands returned to base camp, ending the field work of the project.
Stefansson became well-known among Arctic professionals by demonstrating that expeditions could be sustained for extended periods of time on the ice, even though some of the smaller islands lacked game. He found several new islands and compiled a great amount of scientific data on ocean depths, ice movements, winds, and currents. Stefansson gave high praise to his two companions, Storker T. Storkerson and Ole Andreason, who spent so much time with him. “They are as well-suited for this work as it is easy to imagine. Neither of them worries or whines and both are optimistic about the prospects. This last is important. Traveling with an empty sled and living off the country is no work for a pessimist."
After Stefansson’s discoveries, the map of the Canadian Archipelago was essentially completed and the period of extensive mapping expeditions using dog sleds came to an end. His expedition achieved its objectives but marked the end of an era. The previous time of ships intentionally becoming icebound for the purpose of exploration and mapping gave way to the new practicalities of aviation. Soon an exploration party could be airlifted to a site in a day rather than months, and planes could return to resupply them at regular intervals. Radio contact now kept workers in the Arctic in constant touch with the outside so help could arrive on short notice when needed. The days of a few courageous, hardy explorers disappearing into the wilderness for months with no outside contact were rapidly coming to an end.
McCoy, Roger M. On the edge: Mapping North America’s coasts. New York: Oxford University Press. 2012.
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1921.