Preserving Specimens That Bear Witness to Canada’s History

As a museum curator, I often browse through collection rooms to inspect the hundreds of thousands of vertebrate specimens they contain. In so doing, I sometimes happen upon some specimens that bear witness to major historical events.

The large number of specimens that particularly caught my eye this summer were collected one hundred years ago, during the famous Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1918. This expedition represents a crucial historical event in the building of Canada. The museum boasts very valuable scientific specimens. Those I have singled out here, however, call to mind some of the highlights—some happy, others tragic—of the expedition.

Three bird specimens in a drawer.

Rudolph Martin Anderson took advantage of a few stopovers in American ports to collect natural history specimens. He collected a Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle) at the centre of the image, on August 1, 1913, in Teller, Alaska. This specimen was his very first of the expedition. It bears catalogue number CMNAV 7776. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The members of the expedition left Victoria, British Columbia, on June 17, 1913, and sailed to the Arctic on a brigantine. After a stop in Nome, Alaska, U.S.A., where they finalized their equipment, they departed on their respective missions on July 19 and 20, 2013.

The explorers were divided into two parties. The Northern Party, led by ethnologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, chief executive of the expedition, intended to explore the Beaufort Sea and adjacent lands on the north continent. The Southern Party, led by Rudolph Martin Anderson, a zoologist hired as a mammalogist by the museum, was in charge of conducting multidisciplinary scientific work in the northwest part of the continent, on Canadian land.

An annotated, colour illustration of a flowering plant specimen.

Fritz Johansen, biologist and member of the Southern Party, sketched this plant collected at Collinson Point, Alaska, in the summer of 1914. Catalogue: CMNAC HL2-59-3. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Though the teams were very keen at the start, extreme ice conditions quickly forced them to temper their enthusiasm. The Southern Party was obliged to stay one full year in Alaska, with only a few infrequent forays into Canadian land.

This hardly discouraged the scientists. They decided they would survey the depths of the seas and the surface of the Earth and collect their first natural history specimens. It was only in the summer of 1914 that work in the Canadian Arctic got underway. In the end, the expedition collected a good part of its samples on American soil.

The Northern Party’s voyage suffered a tragic incident. Its ship, the Karluk, sank on January 11, 1914, off the Russian coast, after being crushed by ice. During the shipwreck, almost all the scientists on the team perished while trying to reach land. Officials in Ottawa made it known that they now counted on the Southern Party to work harder and save the expedition. But Stefansson did not want to hear of it. He endeavoured to rebuild the Northern Party and pursue the work as it had been set out from the very start.

The men continued to work with Stefansson, and those he had just recruited boldly pitched in to collect many natural history specimens, despite their limited knowledge in this area.

Two bird specimens in a drawer.

Captain Pierre or Peter Bernard, member of the Northern Party, collected these two King Eiders, (Somateria spectabilis), at Cape Kellet, Banks Island, on July 6 and 16, 1915. He collected many other specimens on this island, where he unfortunately perished some time later. Catalogue: CMNAV 10099 and CMNAV 13000. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

John Hadley was the only member of the Karluk crew to join up with the expedition again after the shipwreck. He became second officer on board the Polar Bear and collected a great many bird and mammal specimens. He found his very first specimen, a Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus; CMNAV 12922), at Armstrong Point, Victoria Island, on November 2, 1915—in other words, almost immediately after joining up with the Northern Party.

George Wilkins, the expedition’s photographer, collected new birds and mammals practically every day during the three autumn months of 1914, while still accompanying the Northern Party near Cape Kellett, on Banks Island.

Stefansson himself collected only a few rare specimens. Among the most noteworthy are the two eggs seen below, which were collected on an island he had just discovered.

Two eggs on a table by a handwritten note and a collection tag.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson collected these two eggs belonging to an Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) on June 18, 1916, on a newly discovered island, later named Meighen Island. The original handwritten tag, signed by his hand, obviously does not mention any place names, but simply notes approximate geographical coordinates. Catalogue: CMNAV E1608. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Southern Party was very active in several areas: ethnology, geology, topography, botany and zoology. In July 1916—three years after their mission departure—all its members were back home. They assembled an impressive number of cultural artefacts and natural history specimens. Several of these are of a very high scientific value. We can thank Fritz Johansen for an impressive number of land and aquatic plant and animal specimens. These were used to write most of the scientific reports published at the end of the expedition.

A wolf skull with collection tags attached.

This specimen (catalogue: CMNMA 2792) is the holotype used by R.M. Anderson to describe the new wolf subspecies Canis lupus mackenzii. It was collected on May 14, 1916, in Coronation Gulf, by Kaitok, one of the many local Inuit helpers. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Northern Party, in turn, put an end to its mission in July 1918. Stefansson succeeded in his wager of holding out for five consecutive years in the Arctic. The expedition achieved its initial political, geographical and scientific objectives. It truly made Canadian history.

Hundreds of thousands of specimens collected during this expedition are preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature. They remind us that brave men risked their lives for science and the building of Canada.

Six jars containing fish preserved in alcohol.

These jars contain Ninespine Sticklebacks (Pungitius pungitius) preserved in alcohol. They were brought to the lab by museum vertebrate collection staff for routine maintenance. These fish were collected by Fritz Johansen from 1914 to 1916, near Bernard Harbour. Photo: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Translated from French.

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