Centennial of Canadian Arctic Expedition spawns return voyage
Historian hopes to find artifacts, sailor’s bones
OTTAWA — An ill-timed journey during the First World War, a rocky relationship between the two leaders, the sinking of the Karluk and 11 deaths are what most historians associate with the Canadian Arctic Expedition.
But, despite those drawbacks, the 1913-1918 expedition — the most comprehensive Canadian-led Arctic research project of the day — was an extraordinary success in other ways, says researcher and filmmaker David Gray, and it deserves to be recognized and celebrated.
Which is why Gray and a handful of researchers and crew members — including Bob Bernard, the great-great nephew of Peter Bernard, captain of the expedition schooner Mary Sachs — are heading north again on the expedition’s 100th anniversary, to visit, map and film CAE sites which have never before been documented.
“Of all the sites they went to, only one has an official number denoting a historic place but there’s no data,” Gray told a recent gathering of Arctic and history enthusiasts at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collections facility in Gatineau June 11. “This summer, we plan to document these places.”
And not just because of the anniversary.
Cruise ship patrons who stop on the western Arctic islands where the CAE went can easily pocket precious artifacts and what they don’t take are being buried in sand or drawn into the sea by coastal erosion due to increasingly ice-free summers. It’s crucial to go now, Gray says.
The CAE was lead by two strong-willed but contrasting men: anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a popular adventurer, writer and public speaker, and Dr. Rudolph Anderson, a zoologist who disliked the limelight, preferring to concentrate on facts and data in the obscurity of his office.
Pioneering anthropologist Diamond Jenness was also a member of the team. He, along with his colleagues, painstakingly recorded details of the Copper Inuit they met, filling notebooks with family histories, Inuit place names, songs, myths, belief systems, language, tool use and other cultural and historical details which had never been recorded before.
Inuit were integral to the success of the CAE, Gray said, helping scientists hunt, fish, make tools and sleds, care for the dogs, draw maps of the area, and overwinter safely. They also generously shared their stories and knowledge with curious researchers.
Stefansson led the northern party. Its members explored the Beaufort Sea, Banks Island, Melville Island and other islands further north that had not been mapped. Anderson stuck to the Arctic mainland, exploring areas around Kugluktuk, Coronation Gulf and Bathurst Inlet.
They returned with a bounty of information on Arctic plants and animals, on the geography and geology of the area and on the Copper Inuit themselves.
But it was 1918 and most people were preoccupied with the end of World War I.
Scientific discoveries trickled out to the public during the following decades but most people had forgotten about the CAE by then.
Gray said he hopes to raise the profile of the historic trip by going back this summer, but with limited funds, he is only able to retrace a small portion of the voyage.
The team plans to gather at Sachs Harbour in July and head first to the CAE headquarters at Mary Sachs Creek, which is accessible by road.
Then, aboard a 46-foot motor-sailboat captained by Bob Bernard, the team will sail along the west coast of Banks Island stopping in at several locations along the way to look for artifacts and remnants of tent and sod house foundations. This has only become possible in recent years due to melting sea ice around Banks Island.
Gray, a zoologist, one-time museum scientist, and now an Ottawa-based researcher and filmmaker, is hoping to gather footage of the journey for a documentary he is making about the CAE, which will include footage shot during the original expedition 100 years ago.
He plans to focus on the scientific and geographical exploration as well as the Inuit men and women who ensured the expedition was a success.
It’s a shot in the dark but, if weather and time permit, Gray also plans to look for the remains of Peter Bernard who, in the winter of 1916, set out on foot on the northwest tip of Banks Island with bags of mail in an attempt to reach Stefansson’s northern party. He was never seen again.
Gray’s fundraising efforts are named in Bernard’s honour — The White North Has Thy Bones— a poem Lord Tennyson wrote for the memorial of another colonial explorer, Sir John Franklin.
With no government funding and only $5,000 raised from private donors and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Gray is soliciting donations. He needs a minimum of $20,000 and is hoping to raise it through the crowd-fundraising site Indiegogo.
He admits the trip’s goals are ambitious and vulnerable to weather, ice, money and human limitations, but he’s been planning this trip for years. It’s now or never.
“It’s possible but it’s not definite,” he said. “Will I be able to go back next year? Maybe not. If all we do is get to Sachs Harbour and visit the Mary Sachs site and document that, I would consider that success.”