Last message from Cape Sheridan

In this message Genny gives us an update on the progress of the archaeological explorations and describes the group’s activities since we last heard from them, including encounter with the military and a musk ox! This is the last message we will receive from Cape Sheridan, as the team has left the field and are now back in Resolute, a bit early, but having accomplished what they set out to do – investigating the sites occupied by Robert Peary and his expedition. Genny describes excavating a workshop, a living space made from supply boxes (like those you can see in the picture below) and other sites associated with Peary and the Roosevelt. They’ve found lots of wood and many types of animal and fish bones!

This lantern slide shows the Erik offloading the huge amount of supplies Peary needed for his expedition

Exploring the environment of Floeberg Beach

In this message from Cape Sheridan, Susan describes the environment of Floeberg Beach. Although she and Genny are working on exploring the many historic sites in the area, they are also taking time to bird watch, make friends with some curious seals, and get visits from an Arctic fox. Susan gives a complete impression of what she and Genny are experiencing – the sights, the sounds, and the extremely changeable weather. Listen along to find out what it’s really like to camp and work in this remote region.

Susan and Genny are observing a group of Eider ducklings, like the ones seen in this photo

2017: sadly the audio file is no longer accessible. The following is a transcript:

“Here we are again,” as Bob Bartlett used to say, reporting from beautiful Cape Sheridan, where since we last spoke it has been sunny, calm, stormy with high freakishly warm winds, and sunny and calm again. We have spent the last three days documenting the historic sites of Floeberg Beach. The beach got its descriptive name in 1875 when one of George Nares men coined the word floeberg to describe the massive ice floes that ground themselves on this shore. The Alert wintered at the south end of the beach, and in 1905 Peary and his team built structures on the central part. In 1908 they moved to the more protected northern end.

We have been mapping, photographing and closely inspecting a variety of these structures, all while keeping a careful eye on our surroundings. This means we see a  variety of interesting things. The most obvious is the ice, which rarely moves but provides a nice backdrop for pictures and, when the wind isn’t blowing, a pleasant soundscape of gentle dripping as the ice melts, punctuated by booms of collapsing ice.

Beyond the rubble ice to the south west we can see the glaciated coast of far northwestern Greenland.  To the northwest we have a view of the United States range of mountains, which on warm sunny days seem twice their normal size, thanks to a mirage effect well known in the north.

We have been watching five eider ducklings become increasingly independent of their mother as swim amongst the ice floes. A handful of curious seals visit us, swimming in the small area of open water by the beach. We also get regular visit from perhaps the most northerly Canada geese, snow buntings and a lone gull.

The birds and seals mean that there must be life in that cold clear water, but we have seen little evidence of it, two tiny shrimp, and a starfish only two inches across.

On land the one animal we have seen is a bold and curious arctic fox, but there is plenty of evidence of other animals too, muskox, arctic hare, and lemming.

Today we saw perhaps the most curious thing yet, many small patches of the tiny flat pebbles that make up the beach floating on the calm surface of the near shore waters.

It is tempting to spend all of our time observing the natural wonders of this expansive land, but since we are really here to do archaeology, we want to assure you that we are spending our days puzzling over the remains of hundred year old stone structures.

Genny and Susan travel back in time

Genny and Susan have been crossing the river to reach the sites they are most interested in, including campsites and cairns from Peary’s 1908-09 expedition and the 1875-6 Nares expedition. In this recording, Genny describes visiting the Roosevelt monument left by Peary and his crew (Genny and Susan added their names to the papers left at the cairn in 1985 in a sealed bottle) and the Marvin Memorial, which was erected in honor of Ross G. Marvin, Peary’s assistant and the only casualty of the North Pole Expedition. Traveling back in time to these historic sites is hard work – Genny says the group covered over 12 kilometers that day, and had to turn in early because they were so tired.

A colored lantern slide of the Marvin Memorial:

The Ross G. Marvin Memorial, Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, 1909

2017: sadly the audio file has been lost. The following is a transcript:

Hello from Cape Sheridan, on a cloudy Friday evening.

We are all tired this evening after some long days. Being on the wrong side of the river proved to be quite a challenge. We are near the mouth of the river, where it runs very swiftly and in places is quite deep. Not far inland it has carved a gorge into the gravel and bedrock. For a few days we felt like Captain Bob Bartlett battling the ice as he tried to get the Roosevelt as far north as possible.  Like him though, we eventually reached our goal, and found a place where we could cross the river without getting too wet.

Yesterday was our first day across and in our enthusiasm we may have over done it a bit. We first visited the two sites on Floeberg Beach, where first in 1905 and again in 1908 members of Peary’s expeditions constructed workshops and homes. Eager to get a sense of the area, we continued down the beach to the site where George Nares of the Royal Navy  overwintered with his ship Alert in 1875-76 Everywhere we went there were tantalizing glimpses of historic cairns. we couldn’t resist, so headed toward them. Cairns of course, are typically placed on high points of land where they will be visible from a great distance.

We first reached the Alert’s cairn, after a long climb over alternately hummocky tundra and jagged rocks.  The view is indeed spectacular, with rubble ice as far as we could see. From there it was a relatively short jaunt to the Roosevelt cairn, built in the spring of 1906. There we found a canister with a notebook and surprisingly functional pen, which had been placed there in 1985 for visitors to record their names and comments.

Our last goal was the memorial cairn for one of Peary’s assistants, Ross Marvin, the only casualty of the 1908-09 expedition. Standing at the Roosevelt cairn it was hidden from view, but having looked at it frequently from our camp, we had a good idea where it was and headed down toward it. It was touching to visit the monument with a plaque lovingly created by George Wardwell, the Roosevelt’s chief engineer. It is also the only historic site in the vicinity with modern marker identifying it as a historic site not to be disturbed.

It was a long and gratifying day, but the 12 or more kilometers and long climbs have taken their toll. We got in another good day’s work today, mapping sites and recording the variety of objects left behind in 1909.

Greetings from Cape Sheridan!

Genny and Susan have reached Cape Sheridan, after several flights, but there’s a problem – due to fog and bad weather, they were forced to land on the opposite side of the river from Robert Peary’s camp, where most of the archaeological sites are!

Play this audio clip to hear Susan describe their journey North, and give her impressions of the harsh, beautiful environment.

2017 – sadly the audio file for this entry has been lost. The following is a transcript:


Greetings from Cape Sheridan

When we last communicated we were in Resolute, on the eve of our flight north.

On Sunday morning we loaded our gear onto a Twin Otter, and experienced the most amazing flight up the west coast of Ellesmere Island with it’s deeply cut fiords. We could see Axel Heiberg island on the left, a dramatic landscape with glaciers spilling out everywhere.

After a three hour flight, we needed to refuel and landed at Tanquary fiord, where Parks Canada has the warden station for Ellesmere’s national park. There we learned that we could not continue on due to fog at Alert, Canada’s northernmost military base and the weather station nearest to our destination. We were forced to spend the night at Tanquary where Parks Canada staff welcomed us and provided us shelter. It is an absolutely beautiful but austere setting with remarkably warm and sunny weather much of the summer.

The next morning, the weather report indicated that conditions at Alert were better, but there were fog banks in the area. The pilot decided to fly over anyways to have a look. We were in for another spectacular flight across Ellesmere with great views of Lake Hazen.

He flew over Cape Sheridan, with fog moving in and out from the ice choked sea. we had tantalizing glimpses of Floeberg Beach, Ross Marvin’s memorial and various other historic markers. For the next hour the pilot dodged the fog, circled around, attempted numerous landings, which he had to abort, and finally selected a short river terrace as a landing strip.

We joyfully stepped foot on land, only to realize that, thanks to the fog, this only possible landing site was on the north side of the Sheridan River, while most of the sites we need to visit are on the south side. There was nothing we could do at that point, so we set up camp and began following Peary’s motto “find a away or make one” to get ourselves onto the other side of this swift, deep and icy river.

We’ll update you on our progress in the next post.


Resolute, the Battle Harbour of 2011

We arrived in Resolute last evening after a long day flying from Ottawa via Iqaluit and Arctic Bay. Our team is now complete, with the addition of Samson Simeone, an experienced guide, hunter, and carver here in Resolute. Weather permitting we will leave first thing tomorrow morning.

In Resolute we were welcomed by the very helpful staff of the Polar Continental Shelf Program. Today they fed us, lent us a vehicle, helped us with our gear, and have come up with a plan to fly us to northern Ellesmere Island on their way to Eureka to pick up another crew. This will get us into the field a day early and save both crews a lot of money – a win all around. It is hard to say enough good things about the dedicated people here – from the excellent cooks who provide three hot meals a day, to the logistics staff who upgraded some of our gear and were generous with time and advice.

The well-stocked warehouse at PCSP

One of Peary’s last stops before heading into the far north was Battle Harbour, Labrador.This was his last opportunity to send messages south, just like this is our last chance to use the internet and conventional means of communication with the outside world. It was also one of his last chances to acquire food and gear. At Hawkes Harbour, a little further north, he picked up whale meat for the dogs. Still further north he stopped to pick up dozens of pairs of kamiks (waterproof sealskin boots), which Bob Bartlett’s father William had purchased for them from women near his fishing station at Turnavik.

Ever determined, Peary waves the US flag at PCSP in Resolute

Peary, for whom excellent preparation was paramount, would have found the PCSP base here very interesting and would have approved of our upcoming journey by plane to Cape Sheridan. When Peary was there, he had no way to communicate with the outside world. We will be talking twice daily with PCSP over radios, and will have a satellite phone for emergencies. We will not have access to the internet, but thanks to the sat phone we will be able to call and leave electronic voice mail messages, which the museum’s intern, Hillary Hooke, will be posting to this blog, so stay tuned.

Buzzing insects

We have often been asked whether we have purchased head nets and lots of insect repellent for our northern venture. The stories of travelers devoured by black flies in particular seem to have impressed lots of people. And I have to admit that in my case, the questions about insects take on an additional meaning. Family, friends, and colleagues have noticed insects, of the plastic kind, in their homes and offices after I have paid them a visit. What can I say, I love bugging people.

In places like Labrador, where there are trees and bushes, blackflies thrive and find shelter. We do not expect to encounter them at Cape Sheridan, which will have little vegetation. Nor can either Genny or I recall reading any journal entries in which Peary’s men commented about insect problems. We know we will be found by mosquitoes, that is inevitable, but hope that we pick a campsite with enough of a breeze to discourage swarms. We are resigned to the fact that the mosquitoes we encounter will be big and hungry, a fact of life for all warm blooded mammals that venture north.

I write this from Ottawa, where Fred, Genny, and I had dinner together and are preparing for our flight to Resolute. Peary stayed in the hotel room. Security screenings, traffic noise, and the heat got to him.


Northern mosquito approaches caribou!

a fairly complete arctic library

Arctic explorers learned early that education and entertainment were important ways to keep people engaged on long expeditions. David and Deirdre Stam have written about the role of books on Polar exploration in “Books on Ice,” which I highly recommend. By all accounts, Peary had the Roosevelt stocked with reading materials of all kinds. In his cabin there was, “a fairly complete arctic library – absolutely complete in regard to all the later voyages.” There were also novels and magazines of all kinds. George Borup reports in his book A Tenderfoot with Peary that once at sea, he, MacMillan and Dr. Goodsell were hard at work

sorting the hundreds of  magazines which were down in the lazarette and were filling every available space. There were fairly complete files of all the principal ones back to January, 1907, and as some one has said, “If the serial stories weren’t good, the cereal advertisements were,” and so for that matter were the open-work yarns in the ladies’ journals.”

In fact, the Roosevelt had an excess of reading material, if that is possible. Shortly before the vessel’s departure a newspaper article had suggested that donations of reading material would be welcome, and according to MacMillan, they came in droves.  Eventually duplicates were identified and when possible, extra copies given away to people living in remote spots along the Labrador coast. In their journals no expedition member complains of a shortage of reading materials.

Since ours is a much shorter trip, we will not be bringing years of magazine back-issues, but we will have plenty of reading material. Thanks to technological advances, we will even have a small arctic library, stored digitally on various devices, so we can easily dip into Peary’s own accounts of activites at Cape Sheridan, for example, or read George Borup’s more youthful perspective on the expedition. None of us has made the complete transiton to ebooks, however, so there will also be traditional books, which still have advantages in a field camp. They don’t rely on power, for one thing,and since we will be recharging batteries with solar panels, a stretch of bad weather may mean rationing power, with priority going to data collection (cameras and gps) rather than entertainment. Just as important, paper books are easier to share too, so if the same bad weather keeps us tent bound, we don’t have to worry about finishing the books we brought, as long as our reading tastes overlap (and I have to say, I have read some pretty bad stuff, when all else fails!)

On another topic, we all begin traveling tomorrow, so as to be in Ottawa bright and early for our fligh to Resolute. When Peary and his team left New York in 1908, the city was in the midst of a heat wave. Likewise tomorrow’s heat is forecast to break records, at least in some parts of Canada. A good time to be going north!