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.”