Articles

WE’RE MISSING OUR FUTURE IN THE NORTH

A famous explorer says that by exploiting our rich northland we can match United States industrial wealth and support as many people. But first we have to get rid of our sissy attitude toward the Barren Ground — it's not all barren or too cold for comfort

VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON August 1 1951
Articles

WE’RE MISSING OUR FUTURE IN THE NORTH

A famous explorer says that by exploiting our rich northland we can match United States industrial wealth and support as many people. But first we have to get rid of our sissy attitude toward the Barren Ground — it's not all barren or too cold for comfort

VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON August 1 1951

WE’RE MISSING OUR FUTURE IN THE NORTH

Articles

A famous explorer says that by exploiting our rich northland we can match United States industrial wealth and support as many people. But first we have to get rid of our sissy attitude toward the Barren Ground — it's not all barren or too cold for comfort

VILHJALMUR STEFANSSON

CANADIANS PRIDE themselves on their pioneering spirit, yet of all the obstacles keeping Canada from becoming one of the world’s richest, greatest and most powerful nations the chief one is the lack of pioneering spirit.

Canada has great size, unthinkably rich resources, and one of the world’s few remaining frontiers. Furthermore, through the ages the centres of human progress have been moving northward. From all indications, Canada’s great undeveloped northland would rank large in the history of the future—if Canadians hadn’t turned into a race of stay-at-homes or southward migrants.

Americans have, too. When I was a hoy in North Dakota in the 1880s every youth dreamed of going beyond the frontier. Today nearly every boy in Dakota dreams of moving to Fargo and living a city life; once there, he longs for Minneapolis, which is much larger; and his ultimate goals are

Chicago and finally New York or Los Angeles. Colonization, the greatest adventure of the last few centuries, has lost out to steam heat, automatic gearshifts and television.

The northern two thirds of Canada—an area comparable in size to all of Europe—is inhabited by fewer than a hundred thousand people (one per Europe’s 5,000). True, large areas are unfertile and the climate is cooler than that of Italy (though, of course, nothing like the climate of the north as portrayed in fiction and the standard tales of heroism). But there are millions and millions of acres of excellent farmland, vast tracts of timber, tremendous oil fields and, I am certain, many great undiscovered deposits of valuable metals. This is a land men would have fought and died for a century, and even half a century, ago.

But what do we hear today? From Canada

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We're Missing Our Future In the North

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and from Alaska come the cautious warnings of government officials and settlers: don’t come north—there is a housing shortage here. And letters the Canadian Information Service gets from would-be pioneers read: “Where is the climate mildest? Are the roads good? Will I be near good stores and movies?”

When the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts and the French to Quebec several centuries ago there was a type of housing shortage—there were no houses at all. This doesn’t seem to have bothered them, for they fell to and built their own houses. They never thought of writing back to England and France to warn people about the housing shortage. And when the western United States and the Canadian prairies were settled there were no houses waiting for the people who poured west in wagons. (In fact there were no roads.)

The men who became rich through cattle ranching, wheat farming and fur trading didn’t wait for someone to establish facilities for them. They built cabins and huts for themselves. Oiled paper or parchment served as their windows the first few years. Wood fires or straw-burning stoves kept them warm and open trenches provided bathroom facilities. And ultimately they won a better life for themselves.

But you won’t win a better life by staying at home and waiting for someone else to get things ready for you. The greatest opportunities of our century are in northern Canada, but only for those who have the intellectual courage to go north and find them. (I say intellectual courage, for the perils of the northern frontier are mostly in the mind.)

People Prefer to Go South

If you are afraid to go into a wilderness where there are neither roads, houses, electric power nor other civilized benefits, northern Canada is not for you. If you think you can build your own house of timber (or sod in the northern prairie and tundra areas), if you can light your house with tallow candles for a few years, make your own windows of animal hide and clothes of animal skins, if you still have some of that vanished pioneer spirit, there may be a wonderful life and possibly a wealthy future for you beyond the frontier.

But perhaps you think the north is too grim and severe for a proper human existence. This is a fairly common idea; indeed, men at every period of history have thought the ultimate limit of the northward civilization had already been reached. The Egyptians didn’t see much future for Greece and the Romans thought Britain was good only for barbarians; even in 1763 the British and French, discussing peace terms at the end of one of their wars, juggled Canada against the island of Guadeloupe. The British finally accepted Canada.

We have the same shortsightedness today, largely because no one wants to take a chance or brave a few imagined hardships. It is commonly agreed that the Soviets are half a century behind us in many ways. But in one way this is a great advantage for them—for they still have the pioneering spirit of half a century ago. In the past few decades the shifting population in North America has drifted southwest in the United States toward southern California, and in

Canada toward southern B. C. But in the Soviet the movement is north and east toward the Arctic and away from Europe. Our continent has no city of fifty thousand more northerly than Edmonton (53 30 N.); but north of that latitude the Soviets have at least fifty cities of more than fifty thousand. Moscow is more than one hundred and fifty miles farther north than Edmonton and its winters are both longer and colder, yet it has a population of more than five million people who complain no more about their weather than Londoners or New Yorkers. Canada’s most northerly settlement, Aklavik, one hundred miles north of the Arctic circle, has a population of two hundred; in the Soviet Union, Norilsk, one hundred miles farther north, had a population of forty thousand ten years ago and is presumably much larger now.

Look at it another way. When I was commander of the Canadian Arctic expedition from 1913 to 1918 same of my men were carried westward in their boat by ice and forced to winter on uninhabited Wrangel Island, a ninetymile piece of land in the Chukolsk Sea, ninety miles north of the eastern Siberian coast. For most of them it was a terrible ordeal and only those few who had learned to adapt themselves to the Arctic fared well. The rest stayed in their tents, ate tinned foods and got weak. I knew from reports brought back to me, however, that there was plenty of game to be had and that a man who lived according to Eskimo techniques could feed, clothe and house himself comfortably on this supposedly terrible island. Furthermore it was in an excellent position to make weather reports to Canada and Alaska and had an immensely strategic location. The ownership of Wrangel Island was uncertain, at least four nations having some vague claim, but none a clear one and none caring very much.

I pleaded with the Canadian Government to back a small expedition to Wrangel and thus establish the British claim. My pleas came to nothing. Eventually in 1921 I helped outfit four white men and an Eskimo seamstress and sent them up to Wrangel, hoping to claim it for Canada and/or Britain until she was ready to claim it for herself. Unfortunately the four men did not adapt themselves to Arctic conditions and got panicky. They all perished—three apparently by misadventure, trying to get across the frozen sea to Siberia, and one from malnutritrition. The Eskimo woman, who remained on the island living in the well-worked-out native methods of survival, was quite healthy and normal when found later.

After two years a relief party of a dozen Alaskan Eskimos, with a white man in command, went up to continue the interrupted colonization. But by this time the Soviet Union had decided to end this “imperialist adventure,” and sent the gunboat Red October to Wrangel, removed and imprisoned the colonists and claimed that Wrangel had always been hers.

By 1926 a first band of Soviet colonists arrived and began to build houses and facilities for themselves. Wrangel was a pioneering adventure to them; they apparently did not regard it as a hardship. All did not go easily and smoothly, for no new project does. But slowly the community took hold and improved itself. Today Wrangel has a population somewhere in the hundreds; the last we knew they were all volunteers. They live in a handful of scattered communities, raise vegetables in hothouses, graze reindeer on the tundra, generate electric power through windmills and

earn their keep by trapping foxes and shooting polar bears. Wrangel sends weather information to the mainland by radio regularly; during the war this weather service was of great value to U. S. operations in Alaska and today it continues highly useful to Soviet shipping and flying.

In today’s military and political situation it seems almost unnecessary to point out again what a fantastically valuable asset Wrangel Island would have been to North America-—except for lack of a pioneering spirit on the part of the governments involved.

I do not say that Wrangel is a highly profitable piece of land or that it provides the rich and rewarding life.

I do say that here was land on which j Arctic explorers who had not learned the ways of the north had trouble surviving, and which was thought worthless, hut which has proved capable of providing an adequate, comfortable and healthful life to modern men. In comparison with Wrangel most of the lands of northern Canada are subtropical and lush. If Wrangel can support such a healthy little community, then the entire Mackenzie Basin should be teeming with settlers and lusty cities a Canadian parallel of the great Mississippi Valley.

Land Untouched by Plow

Canada’s oldest business, of course, is trapping and fur trading, and I suppost; most of those people who ever think of pioneering in the north first think of this. But this is a limited view. A trapper’s life has no great future for the new pioneer. It is old thinking. As for becoming an independent fur trader, competing with the Hudson’s Bay Company is a losing game for an individual.

But consider the possibility of truly adapting yourself to the north in the fur business. Instead of trapping (which, incidentally, is now closely regulated by the provincial governments to prevent serious depletion of animal reserves), why not go into fur ranching? One of the most expensive items in the upkeep of a fox or mink ranch is food for the animals. But an enterprising man could locate his ranch on a major lake or stream in northern Canada, catch his own fish all year round and feed his animals at practically no cost. You might have to live beyond the reach of so-called civilized comforts for a while—-but then so did a lot of the people whose names are now in history books.

Much easier to envisage, though financially less exciting, is the possibility of agriculture. In the days of great land hunger men trekked two thousand miles across the plains and the Rockies to get to the fertile valleys of Washington and Oregon. It is only a change in the human spirit—helped out by misconceptions about the climate of the north—that keeps men from trekking north to where vast rich lands lie, untouched by plow and j harrow.

Is northern Canada too far north for I farming? More than twenty years ago j the Canadian Department of Agriculture tried out test plots in northern Manitoba, at Cormorant Lake and j The Pas, and got good crops of spring j wheat, potatoes and garden vegetables, j Other tests have shown that good hay j crops and hardy vegetables can be ! grown as far north as Dawson in the Yukon (about 64°N> and Good Hope j on the Mackenzie, just south of the j Arctic Circle. Wheat has been sucj cessfully grown as far north as F’ort Vermilion (58°N.) and without hot! house methods has matured even at the j mouth of the Thunder River, fifty I miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Without going this far north you can bypass the great barren area of the Canadian shield and find huge areas of rich agricultural land almost untouched. The Hay River, which flows north into Great Slave Lake through northern Alberta, drains a huge fertile valley that would be excellent for wheat and mixed farming. For lack of a railroad connection it is largely fallow.

The Peace River valley in northern Alberta, also flowing into Great Slave Lake, has something like two and a half million acres of arable land waiting for settlers. In the Yukon there are another half million acres of good farmland (about one thousand acres are under cultivation so far, the rest being vacant), and northern British Columbia has almost a million acres more. Including far northerly valleys, which would be excellent for grazing though not for cereal farming, J. F. Booth, of the Federal Department of Agriculture, estimated a few years ago that in all Canada there are about twenty-five million acres of unused and accessible agricultural land.

In Quebec settlers can buy crown lands at thirty cents per acre. Manitoba will either sell farmland for a ten percent down payment or lease it at a dollar an acre for crop cultivation, or four cents an acre for grazing. B. C. sells crown lands at anywhere from one to five dollars per acre. Most of the lush Peace River Valley lands within B. C. are still available at these rates. All in all, an immense amount of rich farmland is available in northern Canada at rates found almost nowhere else in the world.

Summer Days Are Longer

You may object: without railroad

connections how can a farmer get his crops to any market? Why bother farming out in the middle of nowhere?

The men and women on the wagon trains of the last century didn’t see it that way. They had land hunger and a desire for farms of their own. And they had faith in the future. The railroad would come to them, they knew. In the meantime, he who waited for everything to be ready would end up with nothing. (The far north, incidentally, while waiting for railroads, is now getting irregular but fairly good transportation via river steamers, bush planes and tractor trains.)

You may object: aren’t the summers short and the temperatures low? But the fact is that the longer days and more constant light of the northern summers make up for these things. Ottawa has 4,424 hours of sunshine per year and an average summer temperature of sixty-seven degrees. The Hay Valley, one thousand miles more northerly, has an average summer temperature of only fifty-five degrees but has 4,462 hours of sunshine per year. Temperatures drop lower than in southern Canada, but they rise as high, and sometimes higher, in the summer. I have sweltered at ninety in the shade many times—north of the Arctic Circle.

If farming is not to your taste, perhaps you should think of the great future Canada has, or can have, through its mineral resources. The mineral wealth of Canada is little known as yet, but everyone has heard of the copper-zinc mines at Flin Flon in Manitoba, now producing more than five thousand tons of ore a day. Gold mining is well established in the Yellowknife district north of Great Slave Lake, while on the eastern side of Great Bear Lake deposits of radium found in 1930 were large enough to topple the world price of that commodity. Throughout the north of Canada there are geological indications of copper, zinc, gold, silver and tin deposits; but seventy percent of the areas geologically favorable to the occurrence of these metals has never even been mapped, much less carefully prospected.

Obtaining a license for prospecting on vacant crown lands is simple in most provinces. Some of them actually help you to an amazing extent. Under the Saskatchewan Prospectors’ Assistance Plan of 1948, for instance, wouldbe prospectors are screened by the government. When accepted they are flown free of charge into the desired area. The government lends them tents, canoes and maps. Every thirty days a plane will fly in and pick up samples of their findings for assay, up to a limit of twelve free assays. If they find anything good they may stake out a claim of four hundred and fifty acres per man and start operations.

Maybe you wouldn’t care for prospecting. Too uncertain, too heart breaking. Well, hundreds of thousands of square miles of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta unsuitable for farming and prospecting are covered with many kinds of timber. Black spruce, jackpine, balsam fir, poplar and birch are abundant. Enterprising lumbermen seriously overcut the finest stands until provincial governments began to control the industry; but even so there are still immense opportunities both in lumber and paper pulp in tinnorth.

Vast areas have been untouched because of the lack of road facilities. But it is my view that the pioneer, the man of vision and courage, would find ways to solve such a problem. Many people enjoy books or movies that tell of the tremendous marches early western cattlemen had to make to get their stock to market: a thousand miles over open country with several thousand head of cattle. But we are loath to try similar adventures ourselves, even though the stakes are high. Yet men with that kind of courage would find ways to bring Canada’s great timber reserves into production, and make fortunes at it.

But Canada’s greatest natural resource may well prove to be oil, that be-all and do-all of modern life. Since 1920 I have been one of many who have told Canadians that, instead of passively watching the development of oil fields in the Near East, Canada ought to be pressing for development

of her own vast resources. If there should be a war it would be far safer to have producing fields in Canada than far across the ocean near Soviet borders.

The world’s petroleum is found in sediments deposited at the bottom of former seas many millions of years ago. Running upstream from the mouth of the Mackenzie southeast through Canada, and then generally southward in a wide swath across Canada and the U. S. to the Gulf of Mexico, is the zone geologically favorable for oil discoveries. Canada, sixteenth on the list of the world’s oil producers, has most of its producing wells in southern Alberta, the largest near Edmonton. But north of the 60th parallel and largely untouched are half a million square miles of Canadian land geologically favorable to oil deposits. Add to this the Canadian oil potential south of the 60th parallel, where eighteen hundred wells are now in operation —already supplying a third of Canada’s oil and oil products consumption —and you get the picture of a tremendous future.

From Edmonton a pipeline now carries oil clear to Superior, Wis., from where it goes to refineries. One common explanation why the more northerly oil-potential areas have not been explored is the difficulty of getting the oil out. But the far northern fields could either make connections with Edmonton or send their product down the Mackenzie, then via a pipeline over the low divide to Eagle, Alaska, and down the Yukon Valley by ship, or by a pipeline paralleling the Alaskan Railway, to Anchorage.

Blossoms in the Arctic

Besides the normal kind of oil-well operation Canada undoubtedly has a bright future in the world’s greatest single deposit of oil reserves -the famous Athabaska “tar sands.” Near McMurray, at the railroad two hundred miles north of Edmonton, the Research Council of Alberta and the Federal Department of Mines started experiments about 1925 on the problem of mining and extracting oil from the tar-colored black sand of this region —so richly soaked in oil that it can be squeezed out with your bare hands. The problem is to recover enough oil from each ton of sand to make the thing economically feasible. Geologists have said that the Athabaska deposits include a staggering eight thousand square miles of territory, and that the probable total quantity of recoverable oil in the sand is somewhere between 100 and 250 billion barrels —more than has been used by the whole world since the beginning of the petroleum industry.

After a generation of experiments and business failures in the tar-sand area oilmen now know how to extract more than ninety percent of the oil by a hot-water flotation process. There still are some problems, such as how to mine the sand economically in winter, when it becomes hard and rocklike; but S. M. Blaire, a petroleum engineer with the Alberta Government, said a few months ago that if a pipeline were run from the tar-sand area to Edmonton the oil now produceable at Bitumount from tar sand could be sold at competitive prices on the Great Lakes. Whether the tar sands will become the world’s greatest oil source in the next generation, or whether instead new finds and coal cracking will win out,

I cannot say. But if there is a war I think we shall all wish that the oil industry and the federal and provincial governments had not been so cautious and slow-moving about the tar sands.

But technical problems are not the

major obstacles in the way of Canada’s -greatness. It is man’s own prejudices. The belief in difficulties that do not exist is the most powerful force in keeping Canada a relatively small nation in the world’s affairs.

All my life I have met people who are convinced that the farther north you go the colder it gets. When I was exploring on floating polar ice with three companions during my third expedition I reached eighty degrees of north latitude and found the temperatures not as cold as certain midwestern U. S. winters of my youth. The factors that determine temperature are numerous (altitude and nearness to ocean currents are two of the most important), and distance from the equator is not always the main one.

People also believe that the Arctic is a “frozen waste,” deeply covered with permanent snow. As a man who has often sunk ankle-deep in mud five hundred miles north of the Arctic circle, I can deny this. And far north of the circle I have seen meadows of lovely blossoms in the Arctic summer. The snow in winter, far from lying in a deep blanket over the land, seldom is more than a few inches deep, except in occasional drifts.

But surely, you will say, there can be no life in the remote Arctic, out beyond the reaches of land? Well, with two companions 1 traveled across the Beaufort Sea on floating ice for three months during the winter and spring of 1914, frying to find some trace of the rumored lands or continent of the polar sea. We purposely traveled light and carried food for only about half our trip, although we knew that when the food ran out we would be hundreds of miles from land and cut off from a direct return by opening leads of water. Nevertheless, from the time our food ran out we lived—and lived well —by shooting and eating seals and bears, which were kind enough to provide us also with oil for fuel and clothes for our bodies. The bears, incidentally, lived on seals; the seals lived on shrimplike Crustacea in the water. My continued existence out in the polar sea adequately proved my theory: that life abounds throughout

the Arctic, which is dennitely neither barren nor lifeless.

When a Soviet polar expedition flew to the Pole in 1937 and landed there it found abundant evidence of many kinds of animal and plant life. The first morning, in fact, the men were awakened by a bird perched upon the tent.

The main point is this: If men

choose to believe that the north is lifeless and cruel, they will believe so, no matter what. There are Arctic problems, both imaginary and the real. But the imaginary are the more real, for man finds it easier to change the face of nature than to change his own ñnd.

Witness the fact that vast tracts of tue Northwest Territories are called “Barren Ground.” Those words upon a map automatically cause dread in the reader’s mind and every Canadian schoolboy knows the so-called Barren Ground is unfit for life. Certainly no one would ever want to think of settling there, or trying to develop that land.

But, far from being barren, the nearly limitless northern plains between Hudson Bay and the mouth of the Mackenzie are covered with a healthy growth of vegetation. It would remind most Canadians strongly of the rolling prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta (although cereals will not ripen here). During the winter these plains are covered by a few inches of light snow. As grazing grounds they are magnificent — providing you do not

bring your southern ideas with you and try to graze cattle.

During my ten winters in the Arctic I spent time in parts of the Barren Ground, and saw unbelievably large herd» of caribou (I estimated one herd at anywhere up to a million). Since I hunted these animals, and personally skinned and dressed the meat, I can say from experience that they were healthy, fat, and in every way adequately sustained —by the so-called Barren Ground. Their flesh was delicious similar to the best beefsteak; and their skins at certain times of year were sound, supple and excellent for clothing. Although I could not milk them the milk of reindeer (the domestic cousin of the caribou) is richer in butterfat content than any but the finest dairy milk.

The Dull OvibOvS Tastes Good

In Alaska 1,280 reindeer were brought from Siberia between 1891 and 1902. Herded and tended by native Eskimo and imported Laplanders they multiplied to 750,000 head by the late 1920s. Then, unfortunately, pressure by cattlemen and sheepmen in the United States closed the U. S. market to them. Today only about half that number exist in Alaska.

In 1929, 3,400 reindeer were purchased by the Canadian Government from a Nome firm and were driven 1,800 miles to the east side of the Mackenzie delta. (The trek took five years and of the 2,370 that finally arrived only one fifth were original animals, the rest having been conconceived, born and raised en route.) The Government corral at Kittigazuit has raised them since then and found the animals tractable, easy to tend and very much at home on the “barren” tundra. The herd doubled in size within five years, not counting the animals regularly slaughtered for food for the herders and for sale.

In 1916-17 with fifteen companions I spent a year on uninhabited Melville Island, north of the 75th parallel. We had come by sledge without provisions (as was my policy) and lived by hunting. Our chief source of food was the shaggy, sheeplike, hulking ovibos, often miscalled musk-ox. (It neither has musk about it, nor is it an ox.) The long-haired, huge, dull-witted ovibos is perfectly designed to live in the far north. The meat is excellent, the hair makes a wool finer than cashmere and does not shrink when dyed or washed.

The ovibos, unfortunately, was cleared out of most of the mainland of Canada by early hunters, and now only a few thousand exist. They are to be found in the very most northerly

islands, in Greenland, in zoos, in Alaska (where there is one small experimental herd), and in Canada on a game preserve between Baker Lake and Bear Lake. It would take a man of real enterprise to become an ovibos rancher on a large scale, and I am not sure it could actually be accomplished by a private person. But that it would be a magnificent way of using much of the otherwise forbidding northern land, I am certain.

As far as reindeer are concerned the U. S. Department of Agriculture estimated some years ago that Alaska could permanently support about four million head without overgrazing. Since Canada has about ten times as much permanent grazing land, I consider that it could support a reindeer industry of forty million head, which in terms of pounds of meat is equivalent to about eighty million sheep. The musk-ox, whose feeding habits are even better suited to the north than the reindeer, could do far better: I estimate that

Canada’s north could maintain a hundred million musk-ox, which is the equivalent of four hundred million sheep. What such a vast industry would do for Canada, and what such supplies of food might do to assist in other developments of the north such as mining and oil, I leave to your imagination.

Gold Mine in the Backyard

On the basis of all these things, what will Canada’s actual future be? I hesitate to say, for fear of looking like a fool some day in the future. In the past people have made forecasts about the future of lands to the north. They have invariably been low, ridiculously low, in their estimates of the potential of the colder countries. Tacitus, the Roman historian, said no civilized man would ever live north of the Alps, but quite a few people seem to live in Paris and London by choice these days. In spite of my forty-five years of enthusiastic preaching about the north I might make a similar mistake. I might underestimate things almost as badly; on the other hand, the anti-pioneering mood of these times might make me a fool in the other direction.

Let me put it this way then: I am positive, on the basis of all the evidence, that Canada could be industrially as mighty as the United States, and could support at least as many people as the U. S. now has. It is only a question of getting the right point of view toward the north. Unlimited opportunity is waiting for Canadians in their own back yard. They have only to change their minds and go after it. if