Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918

When you discuss the discovery of the "New World" most people believe we knew everything about the continent of North America long before the 1900's. With stories of John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, and Samuel de Champlain, many people believe that once the battles between New France and British North America ended, the exploration of the continent largely ended. This however is not true. Many expeditions continued throughout the continent to help ups learn more about this mysterious land that would become Canada and the United States of America. One of these expeditions was the Canadian Arctic Expedition which ran from 1913 to 1918.

What would turn into one of the largest multi-country scientific expeditions was not originally sponsored by the Canadian government. The Expedition was supposed to be sponsored by the U.S. National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History. When the Canadian government came to understand the scope of the expedition, they stepped forward to sponsor it, especially as Viljalmur Stefansson, who would be the leader of the expedition, was a Canadian citizen.

The expedition would be divided into two exploring parties, dubbed the Northern Party, which would be lead by Stefansson, and the Southern Party, which would be led by Dr. R.M Anderson.

The Northern Party was to explore for new land in the North and West of what was already mapped of the Canadian Arctic. The idea of  finding other land masses (similar to the Canadian Arctic islands) or a small continent was thought to be possible. While looking for new land, ice depth, sound recording, magnetic, and marine biology experiments were also planned. The Northern Party would cover thousands of kilometres of lands never before seen, not even by the Inuit peoples of Canada's north.

The Southern Party was scientific documentation of the geography of the souther Arctic islands, geology, resources, wildlife and indigenous population of the Mackenzie River delta. Of particular interest was the possibility of copper deposits, and an expansion of trade routes. The objectives of the Southern Party was added to the goals of the expedition when the Canadian government took over the funding of the project. Dr. R.M Anderson, an Arctic Zoologist was put in charge of this scientific research.

The Expedition gathered in Nome, Alaska in July of 1913...unaware of the political strife that was beginning to boil in Europe, almost none would be aware of the events of the First World War until the end of the expedition. Thirty men of various disciplines would set off to explore the Canadian Arctic, and in the end seventeen would not return home.

The expedition was not free from disaster. When the expedition set sail from Victoria BC on route to Alaska, most of the men, supplies and equipment was loaded onto the flagship, the Karluk under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett. Once in Nome, Alaska, the Karluk was joined by two schooner ships, the Alaska, and Mary Sachs were purchased to handle the increased number of men and supplies with the expanding goals of the expedition. The ice  conditions north of Alaska were extremely severe during the fall of 1913, and the Karluk got trapped in the ice. Stefansson, with five of his crew left the ship to hunt for caribou. The two schooners, were able to navigate the shallower water closer to the coast line and made it to Collinson Point, Alaska before they were forced to winter.

The Karluk was frozen in the ice and drifted east, then west towards Russia, where it was eventually crushed in the ice and sank just off the coast of Wrangel Island, off the Siberian Coast in January 1914. Most of the crew made it to the island. 8 died while making the crossing on the ice, and 4 more were killed later while attempting to cross the ice when separated from the crew. Bartlett and an Alaskan Inupiat hunter crossed the ice to Siberia and travelled back to Alaska to arrange a rescue for his crew on Wrangel Island. Bartlett would meet up with the USS Bear and would rescue his crew in the fall of 1914, where three more had died from the elements and limited resources. The loss of the Karluk forced the expedition to purchase additional ships, supplies and hire more help at an additional added cost, and put the expedition behind schedule. The two new schooners were the North Star  and Polar Bear. This fleet of ships became know as the Expedition Navy, or the Canadian Arctic Expedition Navy.

The Mary Sachs would also not survive the expedition, and she gave her name to the community of Sachs Harbour, the engines can actually still be seen. The North Star was given as payment for services to Natkusiak, a hunter and key member of the expedition for his help during several years of service. The Alaska returned home to Nome, Alaska in 1916 loaded with people, specimens, and artefacts. The Polar Bear continued on as the expeditions main ship until 1918, and ended her career in Siberia.

According to the Museum of Civilization, "The Members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) travelled in and around vast areas of the western Arctic that are now protected as national or territorial parks, or as bird sanctuaries or wildlife areas. Among the areas traversed or sudied by CAE members are: Herschel Island Territorial ParkIvvavik National ParkAulavik National ParkKendall Island Bird SanctuaryTuktut Nogait National Park, Kitigaryuit National Historic Site, Bloody Falls National Historic Site, and the Coppermine River, a proposed Heritage River. Many expedition photographs of these places are available in the CAE photo collections and many specimen and artifacts brought back by the CAE come from these now-protected areas."

The expedition which lasted went from 1913-1918, had a huge impact on the northern communities and in knowledge for the scientific community. Four islands were discovered in 1915 and 1916 by the Northern Party, and were the last major island discoveries in the Canadian Arctic, and the only islands discovered by a Canadian expedition. (Several other islands would be discovered by the Air following the Second World War). The expedition also confirmed that Croker Land (sighted by Robert Peary in 1906) and Keenan Land (said to have been discovered by John Keenan in the 1870s) did not exist. 

The Sourther Party returned with thousands of specimens of animals, plants, fossils, geological surveys, artefacts from Copper Inuit and other northern cultures. They also returned with near 4,000 photographs, 9,000 feet of film,covering all aspects of the expedition.

More than fourteen volumes of scientific results were published as well as many scientific papers. Several books have been published on the Karluk disaster, but the vast majority of the story about the Canadian Arctic Expedition remains unknown in diaries. Only one has been published in full, Diamond Jenness' Arctic Odyssey

Other titles about the expedition include:
The Friendly Arctic by Stefansson
With Stefansson in the Arctic by Noice
Adventures in the Arctic by Montgomery, re-telling of Lorne Knight's original work.
The People of the Twilight by Jenness
Dawn in Arctic Alaska. 

The issue of Arctic Sovereignty, which has risen in recent years. was a huge concern during this period as well. Many of the Arctic island were transferred from Britain to Canada in 1881, but were mapped by a Norwegian, and numerous American explores had travelled on the Canadian islands where no Canadians had ever been or laid claim. This expedition allowed the Canadian government to add the islands to the maps, and lay official claim to then, as they were within the international water boundaries of the already established Canadian Arctic Islands.

Remembering History - The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-18