100 Years of Arctic Fieldwork

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition—the Canadian government’s first effort to survey, map and establish a sovereign foothold in the 40% of Canada that occurs above the tree line. Two survey parties, a northern mapping team lead by Arctic adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and a southern science team lead by Rudolph Anderson (a future Head of Biology here at the museum), steamed out of Victoria, BC, in June 1913.

Sixteen men pose as a group.

The very well dressed Canadian Arctic Expedition science team in 1913 in Nome, Alaska, USA, prior to their departure for the western Canadian Arctic. Image: © Canadian Museum of Civilization

Anderson’s southern party arrived at their destination in the Mackenzie District that autumn, and spent the next three years (that means three cold Arctic winters) conducting research into the Arctic landscape, its flora and fauna, and the Inuit and Inuvialuit people living there.

A man stands at the back of a dogsled while another stands in the background near the dogs.

Canadian Arctic Expedition biologists, such as Frits Johansen (pictured here), used dogsleds to travel during the winters they spent up north. Image: © Library and Archives Canada

Stefansson’s northern group quickly met with trouble. While en route to their mustering point at Herschel Island, Yukon, their vessel, the Karluk, became trapped in the advancing winter ice. After it drifted towards Russia for four months, Stefansson disembarked the boat, informing the captain he would hunt to supplement their dwindling food supplies. While he was away, the Karluk sank, and during the ordeal that followed, 11 crew members died before the rescue could come.

The circumstances surrounding the sinking remain controversial to this day, but the southern party continued autonomously, and Stefansson carried on, mapping the western Canadian Arctic until 1918.

An annotated illustration of a flowering plant specimen.

Prior to photography, and even today, sketching a plant before pressing it preserves the look of the plant in the field and captures petal and leaf colour, which fade on old specimens. This sketch by Frits Johansen, done in the field during the Canadian Arctic Expedition, shows how a 100-year-old specimen in our collection looked when freshly picked. Image: Frits Johansen © Canadian Museum of Nature

A century later, we look back on the expedition with pride in its accomplishments and solemnly remember its tragedies and stories of heroism. Of course, it’s easy to be introspective when looking over some of the actual plant and animal specimens they collected: in 1956, the Canadian Museum of Nature retained many of the CAE scientists and their collections when the museum was formed out of the body that funded the CAE—the Geological Survey of Canada.

Nowadays, the museum still organizes Arctic expeditions, and I have had the great privilege of embarking on a few of them, but they’ve yet to ask me to go for three years! And, while the Arctic is still relatively remote, with trips to the field sometimes involving several days’ worth of flying and helicoptering into camp, think of how it must have felt to the men traveling to the western Arctic in four small boats!

The comparisons don’t end there, and I thought that, in honour of the CAE’s centennial, it would be fun to see how Arctic fieldwork differs in the age of Gore-Tex from the early 20th century.

Four people unload gear from a helicopter.

Nowadays, helicopters provide much of the transportation to museum biologists in the field, such as this team on Victoria Island, NWT, in 2010. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

As I am often thinking with my stomach, I thought first of one of any trip’s primary considerations: the food. I have blogged before about the dehydrated and very tasty meals that we bring North nowadays. In 1913, canned provisions, and lots of them, were brought along by ship, and fishing and hunting brought very welcome fresh food to the expedition’s dinner tables. Interestingly, on expedition manifests I noticed that the CAE brought a large chocolate ration—this certainly hasn’t changed in modern times.

Six people sit on the ground, posed for a group photo, their tents and a hill in the background.

Canadian Museum of Nature botanists and our local wildlife monitor, Gary Okheena, on Victoria Island, NWT, in 2010. No three-piece suits here! Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

In 1913, Inuit and Inuvialuit guides and employees to the expedition were vital to the success of the expedition, providing food, expedition services and enough anthropological data to fill three books. We are proud to continue this tradition of local engagement, and have gotten to know some interesting people on our trips. Memorably, Gary Okheena, a young man from Ulukhaktok, accompanied us for a week during our trip to Victoria Island, NWT, in 2010. Possessing an offbeat sense of humor, he was always up for a long walk with us botanists, and always willing to share a good story, or some delicious dried fish.

Ultimately, the reason we go is the same: we seek understanding and knowledge. While some things have advanced (GPS navigation, airplanes, digital cameras, lightweight tents, etc.), some things have remained exactly the same (plant presses, field notes and journals, the mosquitoes, isolation and the inspirational vastness of the tundra). As long as there are new discoveries to be made, we will still mount expeditions, building strong on our century-old tradition of Arctic exploration.

Anemone parviflora in bloom.

With the advent of digital photography and large-capacity memory cards, we now document a large portion of our collections using cameras in the field. Using a macro lens, we can zoom in on structures that are difficult to draw, and the colours stay true to life—so there’s no longer any need to bring pencil crayons into the field! Image: Jeffery Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Want to know more about the CAE? Northern People, Northern Knowledge: The Story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913–1918 was developed in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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