Serendipity

Although the fieldwork is finished and we are often busy with other matters, Cape Sheridan and all the events of this summer are still frequently on our minds. We will be presenting lectures on our summer work at Université Laval in early October, and at Bowdoin later in that month. As we begin to analyze the material we collected we are also making plans to study associated collections at museums in Canada.

We wrote earlier that when we left Cape Sheridan we stopped at Lake Hazen to pick up Parks Canada staff who had been closing down the warden station there. One of the people we met was Doug Stern, a long-time Parks employee who has spent many years working and travelling in the north. Our meeting was quite serendipitous. A few years ago, in his travels Doug visited Pim Island, on the west coast of Ellesmere Island. This is the location of  Camp Clay, where the men of the disastrous Lady Franklin Bay expedition of 1881 had set up a camp after they abandoned their research station, Fort Conger, since relief ships failed to reach them in 1882 and 1883.

An interpretive drawing of the hut at Camp Clay, from Greely's book "Thirty Years of Arctic Service"

In the fall of 1883 they struggled to travel south where they expected to find caches of food, only to be disappointed – expeditions sent to establish the caches had failed to do so. That winter, seventeen men starved at Camp Clay, one was executed, and the remaining seven were near death when a relief party finally reached them in the summer of 1884.

Adolphus Greely and Donald MacMillan with the tablet commemorating the men who died at Camp Clay, before MacMillan sailed north in 1923

Ralph Robinson (l) and Donald MacMillan with the newly installed tablet at Camp Clay, spring 1924

Donald MacMillan sailed north with his schooner Bowdoin in 1923 with plans to overwinter in Northwest Greenland. Among his goals was to place a bronze plaque commemorating this sad event at Camp Clay on behalf of the National Geographic Society. This he did in the spring of 1924, having sledged across Smith Sound from his base at Refuge Harbor, on the coast of Greenland.

In 1950, ice conditions were such that MacMillan was able to return to Camp Clay for the first time in 26 years.

View of Pim Island from aboard the Bowdoin, photographed by Peter Rand, July 30, 1950

This visit was nearly a disaster itself, as pack ice rapidly blocked the Bowdoin’s exit. Only a fortuitously placed iceberg, which held the pack ice back long enough for MacMillan to guide the schooner to safety, saved the day.

The Bowdoin in danger in the ice pack, with the berg that saved it in the background. Four crew members are returning to the ship over the ice

MacMillan describes this near miss in his film “Far North.” But getting back to the present, on his visit to Camp Clay, Doug Stern found a cairn that MacMillan’s crew had constructed in 1950. In the tradition of Arctic exploration he found the record that had been placed in it and photographed it before returning it to the cairn.

Crew member Ed Thornton and Miriam MacMillan at Camp Clay, photographed by Peter Rand,July 30 1950.

The cairn built by Peter Rand in 1950, photographed by Doug Stern in 2009

Waiting for our flights at PCSP in Resolute Bay, Doug showed us the photographs. As you can see the note is in excellent condition. Even the author’s question “which lasts longer?” seems moot – both the pencil and pen signatures are clearly legible after sixty years. As is usual with such notes, the finder is requested to notify the author. But after sixty years, how do you do that?

Peter Rand's record, photographed by Doug Stern in 2009

Imagine how excited Doug was to learn that not only were we familiar with the events of that expedition, but that we knew the person who had left the record, First Mate (now Dr.) Peter Rand.  When we returned home we sent the photos on to Peter. He too was thrilled to learn that his sixty-year old note had survived, thanks in no small part to the strong steel container that the Bowdoin’s engineer Jake Wiles has made for it.

The record, and its container, made by Jake Wiles, photographed by Doug Stern, 2009

He noted that this is the second of his notes to be recovered. He had also put a note in a bottle and dropped overboard in Hudson Strait, at the south end of Baffin Island. That note was found eight months later, on the Outer Hebrides.

Although geographically immense, the Arctic is in many ways a small place.  Even chance encounters seem inevitably to result in the discovery of people or experiences in common. . Few in my experience have been as exciting, or perhaps as unlikely, as this one, with its links back through the history of Arctic research and exploration.

Thanks to Peter Rand and Doug Stern for their contributions to this post.

Tragic news

Our enjoyment at being home was tempered recently by the sad news that a First Air plane en route from Yellowknife crashed just outside Resolute Bay. Miraculously, there were three survivors, but the crew and eight other passengers were killed instantly. In a second, and eerily ironic miracle, Canadian Forces were on hand for Operation Nanook, one element of which was to be a practice drill responding to a plane crash. The drill was cancelled as the medical and other personel lept into real action, working with volunteer first responders from the community minutes after the plane went down.

Investigators have recovered the aircraft’s black boxes and have warned that it will be weeks or months before the cause of the crash will be known. Anyone who has flown in the north knows that the pilots there have remarkable skills, operate with great care, and frequently work in conditions that their more southern colleagues rarely experience. Accidents will happen though, and when they do it is a reminder of the vastness of the north and the remoteness of these communities. The serendipitous military presence underscores how far northern settlements are from the kind of sophisticated emergency services we take for granted in the south.

All of the victims of the crash will be mourned by family, friends, and colleagues, but northern researchers particularly feel the loss of Marty Bergmann, the head of the Polar Continental Shelf Program. A fund to advance scientific research in the north has been established in his name at the Winnipeg Foundation. Should other funds be established in honor of other crash victims we will post information about them.

Traveling Companions

Peary immediately set his men to work sledging and hunting once the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan and supplies were offloaded and stored on Floeberg Beach. Teams of Inughuit and Westerners went on month-long trips. The forays away from the ship gave the Westerners opportunities to gain important dog handling and sledging skills and allowed the collective group to learn the terrain and figure out how to work together and overcome language barriers. By early spring, when the hard work of crossing the Polar Sea began in earnest, teams of Inughuit and Westerners traveled effectively together, and some men became close friends.

Our little Peary doll and Samson Simeonie, our polar bear watcher, developed a close camaraderie as well. Samson enjoyed taking Peary exploring as much as we did. Together the duo documented some Cape Sheridan sights.

Traveling buddies

Peary standing on salt deposits

A number of ponds in the area have dried up, leaving salt deposits. The salt taste is mild and pleasant, and to everyone’s liking.

Peary measures polar bear paw print

Samson and Peary were always looking for evidence of animals at Cape Sheridan. They came across tracks left by musk oxen, fox, wolves, various kinds of birds, as well as a polar bear. Happily, Samson judged the bear’s paw prints, which are rather large, to be a number of weeks old, and none of us came across any evidence of recent bear activity in the area.

Peary enjoyed climbing up to examine the Alert and Roosevelt cairns — so much so that Samson built Peary his very own Inukshuk!

Peary paying his respect at the Alert cairn

Peary climbing the Roosevelt cairn

Peary with Inukshuk built for him by Samson

Human-made objects from all time periods were always interesting, but most fascinating were the remains of structures and material culture on Floeberg Beach left by members of Peary’s expeditions.

Peary amidst North Pole expedition cans and remains of a shipping crate

Exploring, surveying, and excavating are hard work. Samson often heated water for our afternoon tea and a badly needed chocolate break. Peary often supervised preparations and then settled in for a nice afternoon nap.

Peary enjoying a nap following our afternoon tea break

Once back in Resolute, Samson went home. Waiting for his flight south, Peary spent his time watching “Operation Nanook” Canadian armed forces activities around him. He was also impressed by the logistical base of operations of the Polar Continental Shelf Program and the helpful men and women staffing the facility. He loved his venture north and hopes that people will take him on their travels throughout the world, especially if they are headed to polar regions.

Peary aboard a Polar Continental Shelf Project truck

Peary surveying tents associated with "Operation Nanook"


Homecomings

Susan and I arrived back home a few days ago, sad to have left the remarkable beauty of the north, but glad to be able to sleep in our own homes once again. Camping can be fun, but it does grow old after a while. The photograph of our kitchen tent, tied down with many guy lines to combat the increasingly frequent westerly winds, will give you an idea of why! As many of your know, trying to sleep or work in a tent being buffeted by strong winds can be a stressful experience.

The kitchen tent, strongly tied down after a windstorm at the end of July

Our flight home was uneventful, the most remarkable part of it perhaps the lack of sea ice. This year may break the record for summer sea ice loss, depending on the weather this next month.

The hamlet of Resolute Bay seen from our departing airplane

Like Peary, we were welcomed back by friends and family who listened to our stories and fed us very well. Unlike Peary, we will not spend the next few months receiving honors for our accomplishments, or traveling the world on a lecture tour (although we do plan to provide an illustrated lecture here at the college!). Nor will we face a media frenzy over whether we were where we said we were! We will be spending the next few days collecting ourselves, tying up loose ends from our field work, and getting back into the rhythm of work at the museum.

There are many projects we put on hold while we were away that we need to catch up on, to say nothing of those that museum staff completed in our absence. We have to catalogue the objects we collected, and prepare a report on our summer’s work, all while getting a new exhibit ready for the spring. In the back of our minds we will also be thinking about plans for the future, and when we will next be back in the north.

Farthest North

To this day, Arctic explorers and travelers delight in comparing notes on their most northerly experiences. At Cape Sheridan we were very aware of not only how remote our camp was, but how far north it was. Examining maps, we continue to be astonished at how far north we really were.
Explorers such as Peary were obsessed with reaching as far north as they possibly could go. We were primarily interested in the archaeological sites we had come to document, but even so, took the time to note our own farthest north.

Samson, with Peary, Fred, Genny and Susan at their farthest north

While explorers often engaged in heroic feats to reach their farthest north we marked ours with a pleasant picnic overlooking Mann Bay, slightly farther north than our camp on the Sheridan River. Peary of course joined us that day, revisiting a spot he had last seen when Bartlett coaxed the Roosevelt to it’s farthest north, just two miles beyond Cape Sheridan, in the vicinity of Mann Bay.

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Departures from Cape Sheridan

Our camp, showing Samson's yellow tent and our kitchen tent

We flew out of Cape Sheridan on the afternoon of August 7th. Strong, warm westerlies had been blowing for 24 hours, and just when we thought they would calm down, our tents would get buffeted by strong winds. We knew the twin otter was on it’s way to pick us up, but wondered whether it would be able to land given our short “runway” and the winds. But land it did, ahead of schedule, sending us scrambling to take down the tents.

The pilot and copilot loaded our gear carefully, placed us at the rear of the aircraft for weight balance (luckily we had a light load), taxied to the end of the gravel river terrace, and turned the aircraft into the wind. Then the pilot backed up the plane a bit more — its wheels were at the very edge of the gravel! Clearly he wanted every bit of runway he could get. He revved the engines and down the terrace we went, getting airborne and flying above the high terrace behind the camp just in time!

Twin Otter taking off from our "runway" at the Sheridan River

Clearly the pilot knew his aircraft, as Bob Bartlett knew his ships, though happily the airplane behaved better than the Roosevelt, which in 1906 had, as Bartlett and George Wardwell often noted, “a mind of her own.”

In 1906 the Roosevelt left Floeberg Beach on July 31, after a bad encounter with ice which destroyed the rudder and sheared off two of the propeller blades. She followed the same route used in 1876 by the Alert, inching along the coast. The Roosevelt was leaking badly and behaving unpredictably. It took a full six months to get her home to New York, with multiple stops along the way to try to repair the rudder the men fashioned from parts of the ship.

Ice and open water at Floeberg Beach

The Roosevelt’s 1909 departure from Cape Sheridan took place on July 18. Bartlett, unwilling to repeat the 1906 experience, decided to blast out of winter quarters. As always, he turned to one of his favorite tools, dynamite –which he often referred to as “Mr. Dupont”– and blasted his way through the rubble ice into Robeson Channel, where he let the vessel drift south with the current.

We heard and watched a great deal of melting of sea ice during the last few days at Cape Sheridan, and watched the thick rubble ice begin it’s march south, replaced by thinner and flatter ice from further north. By August 5 we could see open water beyond Cape Rawson, and by the 6th Floeberg Beach had open water as well, though the ice was right offshore, ready to come back in, as it had in 1906 when it damaged the Roosevelt.

It was with mixed feelings that Genny and I left Cape Sheridan and watched a now familiar landscape disappear. We flew past the memorial to Marvin, quickly left the Sheridan River behind us, and flew beyond the range of our long survey walks. But to our delight we learned that we would be picking up a Parks Canada crew at Lake Hazen, an important hunting and fishing area used heavily by the Peary Inughuit and hunting parties. We relished the few moments we had on the ground at this historically important but remote place.

A beautiful reflection in Lake Hazen.

Now we are at Polar Shelf waiting for a flight to Iqaluit and then Ottawa. Again Resolute is our Battle Harbour, from which we are sending communications south, though unlike Peary we are not waiting for the press to descend on us. Genny looked at the weather forecast for Alert. Cape Sheridan should see snow on Friday. I wish I could see it, even for a brief moment.