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.

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