ELLESMERE ISLAND

“Tourists would rave over this scenery.”
-- Douglas Robertson, 1931, while visiting Ellesmere by ship

 

December 4

Next month, on January 31, I make my debut as a talking head on a PBS documentary about the Greely expedition. It's part of The American Experience series. A unique aspect of the Greely disaster, where 19 of 25 men starved during the winter of 1883-4, is that the personalities of the 25 come through -- unlike the Franklin expedition, say, where Sir John seems to be the only one of the 129 whom we remember. During the Greely party's eight-month ordeal, some men became evil, some good, and redemption, stupidity, self-sacrifice, envy, hubris, irony and tragedy created a kind of arctic Greek myth. My sledding partner Bob Cochran first read about the Greely expedition as a boy and he likes to say, "It taught me everything I needed to know about life, except how to deal with the opposite sex."

December 1

Not long ago, I stumbled on an old clip that scientist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith did in 1961 with CBC Radio. I wrote about Geoffrey in The Horizontal Everest. He not only did Ellesmere's first glaciology work, he's also a superb amateur historian. He was also the first to climb Ellesmere's Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in Canada and the United States east of the Rockies. Geoffrey spent several field seasons up there in the 1950s and 1960s, flying in by plane but traveling by dogs. I'm amazed at how educated he was about historic sites, even on his first trips.

Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith

One year, I hiked a couple of days west of Alert, just to poke around. As usual, I carried historic maps and journals with me. British explorer George Nares based his ship, the Alert, nearby in 1875-6, so as I hiked, I made sure to visit every camp and depot marked on their trail map, below. I circled the entire shore of Lake Victoria, for example, and searched meticulously around the site of their October 8 camp, without finding anything. Sometimes seeing even a miserable, broken down empty box is payment enough for days of humping a heavy pack.

At Depot Point, I did find just such a box. Not much remained today, but on Geoffrey's first visit in 1953, the depot had been much more interesting. In 1920, a Dane named Godfred Hansen had traveled Ellesmere laying depots for a future expedition planned by Roald Amundsen, which in the end never took place. Hansen had taken much of the original Nares stuff, but left material of his own, including a bottle of rum. When Geoffrey, the first modern traveler along the north coast, visited the cache, he found the rum and pronounced it quite drinkable. He left a note of his own in one of Hansen's tins. Written in pencil (this was the sledding season, when ink freezes), the note was faint but legible. Since Geoffrey's note was not considered historic, I popped it in a Ziploc bag and took it home with me. I was happy at being just the fourth link in a chain started by Nares at that depot, and left a little note of my own in a sealed film canister.

November 8

An old Inuit friend, Seeglook Akeeagok of Grise Fiord, has just died in a boating accident. Seeglook had been the wildlife officer in Grise Fiord when I knew him; in recent years, he has held a senior position in wildlife management in Iqaluit.

According to CBC North, his boat hit a buoy. Two other men were ejected from the boat and survived, but Seeglook went through the windshield.

I once joined Seeglook, who was in the Rangers (a mostly Inuit army reserve), on a sovereignty patrol. He was endlessly curious, constantly detouring on his snowmobile to explore little irregularities in the terrain or assess animal tracks. Impressed by his traditional knowledge, I asked him, "You must be a elder?"

"I'm an elder-in-training," he replied with a twinkle in his eye.

Seeglook wandering off on an exploratory hike.

October 24

I don't consider myself a photojournalist, though I sometimes get called that, because I both write and take pictures. But a photojournalist is not a photographer who also uses words, or a writer who takes pictures; it's a photographer who tells stories with his images, usually about people. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist; Larry Towell is a photojournalist. And the Icelandic arctic photographer Ragnar Axelsson is a photojournalist.

I have to thank correspondent Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones for making me aware of Axelsson. I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't seen his work before. His Greenland images belong to the rare category of arctic photojournalism. In fact, I can't cite any other practitioner who is this good.

Photojournalists aren't adventurers. They don't spend a lot of time out by themselves on the land. But Axelsson seems to have hung around Greenlandic villages on many occasions and he came back with some lovely moments.

October 17

On April 30, 1882, Adolphus Greely became the first white man to see Lake Hazen: “...A sharp turn brought in sight a scene which we shall all remember to our dying day. Before us was an immense ice-bound lake. Its snowy covering reflected ‘diamond dust’ from the midnight sun, and at our feet was a broad pool of open blue water which fed the river. ..To the northward some eight or ten miles ... a partly snow-clad range of high hills ... appeared, behind and above which the hog-back, snow-clad summits of the United States mountains rose with their stern, unchanging splendour.”

I sometimes see Hazen described as the largest freshwater lake above Arctic Circle, or in the High Arctic, but both are incorrect: Lake Taymyr in northern Russia is vastly bigger. At 74 km long and about 11 km across, Lake Hazen is merely the world's largest lake above 80 degrees north.

September 22

Some things are best reported without comment:

"Canadian Musical Artist First to Perform at the North Pole to Help Raise Awareness of the Ecological Impact of the Melting Polar Ice Caps

Toronto, Ontario - Sept 21, 2010
*** For Immediate Release ***

Parvati, a Canadian musical artist and yoga instructor, is taking a courageous journey to the North Pole. Parvati’s mission is to bring awareness to the urgent ecological effect of melting polar ice caps.

Charged with purity of heart, clear intention, and the willingness to serve, Parvati will become the first artist to ever perform this far North. There she will offer her songs to help raise awareness of just how quickly the ice caps are disappearing and the powerful impact this is having on the entire planet.

Born in Montreal and now living in Toronto, Parvati is an internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter, performer and producer of electronic dance pop. Her music celebrates the gift of life and her debut album and multimedia show, Yoga in the Nightclub, has had people from Toronto to Berlin shaking to its catchy and uplifting rhythms. After a summer of increased signs of environmental distress, Parvati decided to postpone her Canadian tour to trek to the North Pole. She says she simply cannot turn away from the effects the climate change is having.

“I feel the global ecological crisis is a wake up call for us all, a call to awaken I AM consciousness, the magnificence of who we are,” says Parvati.”The planet reflects how we collectively treat ourselves, each other and our environment. A collective is only as strong as its individuals. If we want to change our environment, we need to transform ourselves.”
Parvati will be joined on the trip by Satish Sikha (www.ourearth-wewill.com), another environmental activist. In Resolute, Canada’s most remote city, Satish will unveil the world’s longest piece of woven silk. Each segment is signed by a celebrity, politician or international dignitary who shares their thoughts on climate change.

Parvati leaves Toronto on September 23, 2010 to meet with city council in Iqaluit and perform for school children in Nunavut. She will sing at the top of the world on September 26th.

The timing of Parvati’s trip is significant. Recent news reports that many ice shelves in Greenland and Canada have cracked. At the end of August, NASA reported an ice crack on Ward Hunt Island that is 40 metres deep and the size of Bermuda.

More information about Parvati’s trip is available at www.parvati.ca."

September 15

The saga of the High Arctic exiles of Resolute and Grise Fiord is in the news again, after a formal government apology and the unveiling of a monument in Resolute to those unwilling settlers. This is a complicated story, but we only hear one angle: about the nasty government that hijacked Inuit and transplanted them to the High Arctic for sovereignty motives. This interpetation plays to fashionable white guilt, but while it's true that wrongs were done, several of the people involved in the relocation had the best interests of the Inuit at heart.

Here's the passage of mine from The Horizontal Everest that tries to give a balanced overview of these events:

Ten years earlier, when I had just begun to explore the island by sled, sleepy Grise Fiord was in a crisis. Residents spoke of abandoning the village and moving back to their original homes on Baffin Island and northern Quebec. There was also talk of compensation for being shanghaied to Grise Fiord. Some were sincerely upset; others looked on it as a way to earn some fast money from the qallunnats down south who seemed to have a growing guilt complex about the deeds of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. At least, that is how one old man in Grise Fiord explained it to me.
In 1993, the High Arctic exiles became a national scandal, and eventually the Canadian government gave a few million dollars in compensation. Some families from Grise Fiord tried to resettle back in their ancestral land, but almost all of them returned within a couple of years.
Forty years earlier, there had been no Grise Fiord, no Resolute. In one of its spasms of flag-planting, Canada had recently established (with U.S. collaboration) several arctic weather stations, and had re-activated two RCMP posts, including Craig Harbour. But the High Arctic had no villages. Police, scientific, military and civilian presence were the four cornerstones of occupation. By this time, Canada had won the battle for sovereignty but the U.S. periodically continued to test its resolve. Greenlanders also did what they had done for centuries, cross to the Ellesmere side for its virgin hunting, much as Lapp reindeer herders still roam untrammeled across northern Scandinavia.
In the late 1940s, starvation had dogged several Inuit communities northwest of Hudson Bay. The deeply human photographs of Richard Harington and the outraged prose of Farley Mowat had shamed the country, and politicians must have been eager to avoid a repetition. Some of the Inuit at Port Harrison in northern Quebec seemed in an equally precarious position. In a move designed to kill two birds with one stone, the RCMP took several families from Port Harrison and dropped them off at Resolute and Grise Fiord. To help these subarctic people adapt to the Far North, they also brought a few families from Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, where conditions were similar.
All the families were supposedly volunteers, although how voluntary is open to question. In 1953, few Inuit would have had the chutzpah to resist even the gentlest prodding from a white authority figure. The architects of the relocation had a history of concern and respect for the Inuit but they failed to realize how traumatic splitting up families and tearing people from their traditional land would be. A promise to return any discontented settlers also seems not to have been honored.
The establishment of Grise Fiord and Resolute was paternalistic, but that was the era. If every child of his time had to face a trial by contemporary standards, our grandfathers would all be criminals. The real question is whether the move was an attempt to plant “human flagpoles” in the High Arctic, or whether it was mainly “for their own good”, with sovereignty as a lesser motive. Like the Cook-Peary controversy, that debate will never go away, and there are two sides to it.
In 1953, [geologist] Ray Thorsteinsson was on the beach at Resolute when the migrants got off the ship. “They were a tattered-looking bunch,” he recalls, “except for the Pond Inlet people, who looked like prehistoric Eskimos, in caribou skins and with good dog teams. Sovereignty didn’t play a part. They weren’t shanghaied at all. I’d learned the Eskimo language well, and they were happy to be here.”
Nevertheless, the first winter was hard, especially for the Port Harrison people in Grise Fiord. In their homeland, the winter sun shone six hours a day; here, it was dark from October till February. In Inuktitut, Resolute became known as the Place Where Tomorrow Never Comes, and Grise Fiord was The Place that Never Melts – not the most endearing terms. They were promised great hunting, but then they were told, in essence, “By the way, see those big hairy things over there? They’re called muskoxen, and you can only shoot one of them a year. You can hunt caribou, but to be honest, there aren’t too many of them.” Caribou hunters and fishermen thus found themselves totally dependent on marine mammals. Many adjusted, but others never could. A week before he died of a heart attack, the leader of the Port Harrison people climbed the hill behind Grise Fiord and looked across Jones Sound, trying to see a way home.

August 18

Some months ago I mentioned the arctic art of the late Maurice Haycock. Artists have rendered the High Arctic since the days of William Bradford, but I've never seen anyone else with such wide coverage. Traveling mainly with scientists, Haycock painted everywhere from Melville Island to northern Ellesmere. Sometimes it seems as if the legs of his easel and my tripod were in almost the same spot, such as the view of Fort Conger below.

The artist's daughter, Kathy Haycock, administers his site. She is an artist herself, and though she doesn't specialize in the Arctic, she has painted it. The look of some of her canvasses resembles her father's. So it was a real treat for me when she asked if she could use one of my images as a model for a painting. The scene shows an aerial of the landscape near Strand Fiord Pass on Axel Heiberg Island.

August 10

It was cool to hear about the discovery of M'Clure's ship, the Investigator, though to me the Central Arctic is a lot less interesting than the eastern High Arctic. It's true that Banks Island, where the Investigator turned up, has lots of muskoxen, and the Thomsen is the northernmost paddle-able river. (Some years ago, a wacky canoe party "paddled" the Ruggles River on northern Ellesmere, but that was more gimmick than real paddling. The Ruggles is only a few kilometres long, and they were dragging their canoe over ice for most of those kilometres.) But in general, the Central Arctic is flattish, gravelly, and has crappy weather and little wildlife. Not exactly ideal for either a photographer or a writer, unless you buy into the Franklin mythos. Certainly, finding the Erebus and Terror would be a significant prize, like turning up Mallory's body on Everest. Unlike the Investigator, however, Franklin's two ships drifted unpredictably before they were crushed in the ice and sank. Tracking them down is harder.

But there is another sunken explorer's vessel out there that is easy pickings: the Proteus. This was the ship that dropped Adolphus Greely and his men at Fort Conger on northern Ellesmere Island in 1881, and which tried to pick them up in 1883. It was caught in the notorious pack ice of Kane Basin, crushed and sank to the bottom. Where it went down is well known. It's in 1,200 feet of water at roughly 78 52' x 74 25', about 15 kilometres north of Pim Island, where most of Greely's men later starved to death. It's the northernmost shipwreck in North America.

Years ago, I wondered if it might be the northernmost shipwreck in the world -- it's a little further north than Hall's Polaris, and there's no other known wreck in that region. However, whaling vessels did come to grief in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which reaches a little further north than Kane Basin. So the Proteus only scoops the North American record.

The Proteus, trapped in the ice.

June 30

Below, my piece on Axel Heiberg Island that appeared in the last issue of Above & Beyond magazine.

May 10

Fabulous, the number of historical explorers' books that are available online as free pdfs. Reading these volumes used to require spending days in the rare book rooms of university libraries, or -- for vital volumes, like Sverdrup's New Land -- coughing up several hundred dollars to buy the ugliest, cheapest, most flea-bitten ex-library copy I could find.

Now most of those rare books can be downloaded easily from places like archive.org. Once the iPad reaches its second or third generation and has ironed out its kinks, I'll carry my entire library on an expedition, at least in late spring and summer. No more humping 8 lbs of photocopies of the journals and documents and photos relevant to the route.

May 3

On this day in 1914, Fitzhugh Green shot and killed his Greenland Inuit guide Peeawahto, near Cape Thomas Hubbard on northern Axel Heiberg. I describe this incident in The Horizontal Everest. Green was a member of Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land Expedition. Among other things, their goal was to investigate the land that Peary allegedly saw in 1906 off Cape Colgate, on northern Ellesmere.

Green was a good old boy who panicked in a storm, thought Peeawahto was abandoning him, and shot him. Everyone, including MacMillan, was appalled, but Green seemed to have been spared any ability to feel embarrassment or regret. He later made of career of sucking up to his social betters, and wrote gushing biographies of, among others, Robert Peary and Admiral Byrd.

His son and namesake later wrote a biography of George H. W. Bush, which was described by one reviewer as "a rambling, embarrassing piece of hagiography written by a sometime ad-man...and lifelong acquaintance of the Bushes."

April 15

If you happen to be flying First Air in May or June, check out my cover story on Axel Heiberg Island in Above & Beyond, the airline's inflight magazine.

March 20

This little video that Alexandra & I shot on Floeberg Beach, at the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, shows why arctic hares are such great critters to photograph. Even the adults love to play, and they have all these strange customs -- forming herds, ricocheting (running on their hind legs), boxing with each other...

 

March 16

Spent four hours yesterday yakking on camera for a PBS special on the Greely expedition. It'll air in 2011 on the American Experience.

February 12

Finally joining the 21st century, only a few years late, I've uploaded an Ellesmere video to YouTube and put it on this site. A weatherman from Eureka filmed me beginning a two-month solo trek, trudging over Eureka Sound with a sled weighing about 310 pounds. What a pig of a load! With that weight, even Eureka Sound's usually marvellous snow couldn't make the going easy. There is a qualitative difference between a sled that weighs 280 pounds and one that weighs over 290 pounds.

In the background 10 kilometers away loom the peaks of Axel Heiberg Island, hazy in the spring sunshine.

Alexandra and I haven't done much video, and what we've done is quite amateur. Years ago, I made a commitment not to do video seriously, because combining writing, photography and hard travel is difficult enough, and I didn't want to spread myself any thinner. But video is a powerful medium, and even casual stuff adds flavor. Anyway, consider this an experiment.

February 4

More Google search phrases from readers who've found their way to this site and were surely disappointed:

1. Can you drive from Grise Fiord to Alert Ellesmere Island?

By snowmobile, yes. Inuit Rangers and military did it during a recent sovereignty patrol. In a Toyota Prius, 'fraid not.

2. What guy was cool when he explored the arctic in 1909?

Peary was on Ellesmere in 1909, but he was uncool.

3. How did Tim Burton get his arctic self?

What?!? Pop references are not my forte. I did like Batman and Beetlejuice, though.

4. Best goggles for arctic travel

The best goggles for arctic travel are no goggles at all. It's not very windy up on Ellesmere, and I brought goggles without using them for so many years that I rarely bother to bring them any more. Labrador is another story.

5. Rain gear for outdoor reporters weather channel

It rains little in the High Arctic, but don't let the polar desert reputation fool you: It does rain in summer, and rain jackets are necessary on backpack trips. Any old one will do. This is Jerry Kobalenko reporting from Ellesmere Island.

January 16

So far, industry has had little impact on the High Arctic. Sure, lots of mining companies have poked around, and you occasionally find garbage left over from camps in the 1970s, when the first oil crisis had geologists from Panarctic and others poking around. But the cost of mining the stuff and transporting it south made no economic sense, so Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg continued untouched.

That may be changing. A news story here reports that Weststar Resources of British Columbia is applying for a permit to mine coal on Ellesmere's Strathcona Fiord and the Fosheim Peninsula near Eureka. The Fosheim Peninsula is one of the best wildlife spots in the High Arctic, if not the best. It abounds in hares, muskoxen and arctic wolves. Planes often have to buzz the airstrip at Eureka to chase the muskoxen away before landing. Meanwhile, Strathcona Fiord has yielded important fossils, including Richard Harington's 4-million-year-old paleobeaver.

The presence of coal is well-known on Ellesmere. The Nares expedition discovered the first deposit in 1875 in Lady Franklin Bay, near what Adolphus Greely later called Fort Conger. The ready presence of fuel is why both Greely and Nares based themselves there. Strathcona Fiord has such obvious deposits that the explorer Sverdrup called a nearby fiord Stenkul, meaning Coal in Norwegian.

Now and then, I run into one of those old-time Panarctic geologists from the 1970s. Some of them speak of their time on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg as the glory days of their lives. For some of us, the islands have that appeal.

Garbage from a 1970s mining camp on Axel Heiberg.

Strathcona Fiord area.

Richard Harington at work on his Paleobeaver site near Strathcona Fiord.

January 3, 2010

The Nunavut Planning Commission sounds like a site for policy wonks, but it includes a series of great maps showing the concentration of arctic wildlife and archaeology sites. The red cross-hatching below, for example, shows polar bear concentrations in the lower half of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands. It certainly jives with my experience: you don't get many bears north of Eureka, and sure enough, the green polar bear range coloration ends just north of Slidre Fiord. Bears are traditionally also rare along the west coast of Axel Heiberg, except for the southernmost part.

As for the denning areas/hotspots, I've traveled all of them extensively, and that's pretty well where you find the most bears. Of course, polar bears are such great wanderers that individuals can turn up anywhere, even outside the green range.

The site's at http://www.nunavut.ca/en/map?zoom=0&lat=69.59292&lon=-86.95845&layers=BTFTTFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFTFFTTT

 

 

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