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magazine / so03

September/October 2003 issue


Three Arctic islands were the last large land masses discovered in North America
By Derek Hayes

EXPLORATION OF THE ARCTIC extended well into the 20th century before the last pieces of northern terra incognita were spotted and plotted on maps. Few islands of any size were found after the mid-1940s, but one notable exception was the aerial discovery in 1948 of Prince Charles Island, Foley Island and Air Force Island in Foxe Basin off the west coast of Baffin Island.


Prince Charles Island, the largest of the three, is 120 kilometres from north to south and 95 kilometres wide. Hard to miss, you would think. But the islands remained uncharted, likely because they are ice- and snowbound most of the year and have very low elevations: the highest point on Prince Charles Island is only 73 metres above sea level.

Whether the islands were known to the Inuit is undocumented, although it is probable. Land in the position of Prince Charles Island was reported in 1932 by a tug captain, W. A. Poole, but his information never made it onto any map. The islands were finally seen and mapped by a Royal Canadian Air Force crew flying a Lancaster from the 408 Squadron out of Frobisher Bay, N.W.T., now Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Prince Charles is the last person for whom a newly discovered major part of Canada has been named — 1948 was the year of his birth. Foley Island was named for the RCAF navigator on the discovery flight, who was killed in a flying accident early in 1949. Following a time-honoured tradition, Air Force Island was named in recognition of the RCAF’s role in surveying the North.

Aerial surveying eased the task of exploration in the Arctic but was by no means comprehensive until the coming of the satellite. Many apparent islands have since been found to be nothing more than islands of ice, which goes a long way to explain the myriad sightings of "land" over the centuries.

Excerpt from the Historical Atlas of the Arctic by Derek Hayes (Douglas & McIntyre).

Aeronautical charts of eastern Foxe Basin from 1946 (left) and 1949 (right) provide before and after views of the three islands found in 1948. Prince Charles Island, the largest of the three at 9,500 square kilometres, is almost twice the size of Prince Edward Island.


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