Eight Months Adrift in the Arctic

The Story of a Remarkable Exploration


Eight Months Adrift in the Arctic

The Story of a Remarkable Exploration


Eight Months Adrift in the Arctic

The Story of a Remarkable Exploration


Note.—An important part of the work of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, which ended in 1918, was a trip on the ocean ice across Beaufort Sea. Mr. Stefansson had intended to undertake this himself, but serious illness made it necessary for him to return to civilization and so the party started out in the spring of 1918 under the leadership of his lieutenant, Storker T. Storkersen. The trip lasted eight months—eight months adrift on ice floes in the Arctic! Mr. Storkersen is telling the story of this remarkable adventure exclusively for MACLEAN’S. It will be continued in next issue.

WHEN in 1914 I was with Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the first trip across the Beaufort Sea from Martin Point, Alaska, to Banks Island, it was a matter of considerable annoyance to me while we were living off the country to have to haul heavily meat-laden sleds through the soft snow in the spring. I could never see any necessity after our food was in hi» Arctic costume. gone to have more than one or two days’ rations on our sleds, because it appeared to me evident that whenever we needed meat and we stopped to look for it, it could always be obtained.

While Mr. Stefansson and I had the same ideas on the subject, our other companion continued pessimistic. When he saw a seal he thought we had better get it because no one knew what might happen or when we would see another. So Mr. Stefansson killed it and a good many besides, in order to please him. This resulted in a great amount of useless hard work, as in the latter part of the spring, when warm weather came, the snow was soft and the runners of the heavily laden sled would sink through, and as we had no toboggan bottom on our sled, the benches would scrape along the surface of the snowdrifts, acting as brakes, which would always stop the dogs unless we helped them, and a good many times our help was not sufficient to keep it going. At times it would take us several hours to travel a quarter of a mile. This could all have been avoided if our comrade had been of the same attitude of mind as Stefansson and I.

Work would have been considerably less, as the sled would have been lighter, and naturally our speed of travelling would have been greater than it actually was.

This skeptical attitude of the men towards Mr. Stefansson's idea and plans to live off the country on his exploring trips caused us a good many inconveniences, especially in the fitting out of our exploring trips. The men never were willing to leave camp and start to live off the country right away. They always wanted to see as much food on the sleds as we could pos-

sibly take with us. If we could have retained the same men during the whole expedition, the later sled trips might have been different in equipment and outfit, and I am sure the result would have been greater, but, as we were continually breaking in new men, we had to start out from our headquarters with the same kind of food that previous Arctic explorers had carried, and rely upon teaching our men our method of living off the country gradually till our food supplies gave out, when we would have to live altogether on a meat diet. Always when the men returned from the trips they w'ere enthusiastic about the life they had lived and the meat diet. They liked the kind of meat and they said they had never felt better in their lives. But, after staying around the headquarters and eating the food obtainable there, they invariably reverted to their old fashion of living and, when the next trip was to be undertaken, they were unwilling to change, and to please them the same outfitting had to be gone through again.

Preparing for our Spring Work

WHAT had been the rule for previous years was also to be the rule the winter of 1917 and 1918, while fitting out for the spring work of the latter year. A couple of our men were willing enough to start out living on a meat diet right away, but the majority, including, of course, the newest men that were engaged the summer of 1917, said that the meat diet might be all right, and, while they had no objection to living on meat when the time came, they preferred to see as much food taken along as possible. Although we knew it to be a waste of energy to haul sleds loaded with rations, we had to do it in order to make our men feel safe and to satisfy their individual food prejudices, which depended on the variety of food they had been used to eating—the less variety, the greater the prejudice against trying other

Our preparations for the spring work of 1918, I can say, commenced on November 25, 1917, when, while in camp at Herschel Island, and after we had found that we could buy the needed supplies from the trading companies in the country, I received instructions from the Commander to proceed to Barter Island and superintend the making of the equipment needed for the fifth ice journey we intended to make in the spring of 1918.

But, owing to stormy weather, it was not before the morning of November 27th that I was able to start west, taking with me one team of seven dogs, hauling a load of seven hundred pounds of needed supplies. After being delayed by considerable stormy weather and stopping over here and there in order to buy supplies from Eskimos and white men, it was not until the 9th of December that I reached our headquarters at Barter Island.

Upon arrival there I immediately set to work to have the making of the outfit and equipment started. For the short time that I had at my disposal I had a great amount of work to do, and every available man had to be put to work and kept at it steadily. New sleds had to be built of the sled material we had succeeded in buying; rations for men and dogs had to be put up and packed properly; outfits of clothing for about twenty-five men had to be made; arms and ammunition had to be overhauled and packed; hunting implements, tents and camping gear, canvas boat covers and boat frames had to be made; and as we had at headquarters only a small amount of supplies for the spring work and needed for the maintenance of the expedition’s complement at Barter Island, a great amount of supplies, which could only be had from the Hudson’s Bay Company stores at Herschel Island or from H. Liebes & Company’s trading past at Demarkation Point, we had a great amount of freighting yet to do. So, after giving orders to Captain Hadley as to the making and putting up of the previously mentioned equipment, I again set out for Herschel Island to buy additional supplies and have them and the already bought supplies freighted west, taking with rae all available sleds, men and dogs, and hiring additional men and teams wherever I could on the way.

Arriving at the Island December 29th, and receiving no news of Mr. Stefansson, who had late in December gone eastward and up the Mackenzie River to buy additional dogs and dog food, I bought my supplies, collected the supplies already bought by the Commander, and started on my return to Barter Island, December 31st.

On arriving there January 4th, I found that during my absence the work of preparing the equipment for the exploring work had progressed very well under the direction of Captain Hadley, and it now looked as though we could easily leave headquarters for Cross Island, the starting point we had chosen for the ice journey, at the time we had first planned—February 1st, 1918.

Stefansson Taken 111

FIVE days later, on January 19th, when the preparations were nearly completed, an Indian messenger arrived from the east, bringing for me a letter from Mr. Stefansson acquainting me with the fact that he had been taken ill at the Mackenzie and now was in bed at Herschel Island, to which place he requested me to come immediately.

So, leaving the remaining work again in the care of Captain Hadley, I started for Herschel Island, where I arrived on January 24th, finding the Commander in bed and suffering from the latter stages of typhoid fever, from which disease, by the account of himself and others, he was getting better, but he was still a pretty sick man. Immediately on my arrival he was very anxious to talk about the affairs of the Expedition, and commenced asking how the work of preparing our equipment was progressing and discussing our plans for the proposed work, which had previously been to start north from Crass Island, at north latitude 70 degrees, 28 min., west longitude 148 degrees, with all our available force of men, sleds and dogs, and proceed north to north latitude 75 degrees or 76 degrees, thence to proceed in a great circle course west towards Wrangel Island or Siberia. This, I now was told, was not the thing for us to do, as the Commander had received reliable information while up the Mackenzie that the Norwegian explorer, Captain Amundsen, and the American

Captain Bartlett, each on their separate expeditions, intended with their ships to go in the ice somewhere to the north or west of Point Barrow and try.to drift with the current across the Pole.

This meant that they would practically explore the territory through which we intended to go to Wrangel Island, and, as our object on the Canadian Arctic Expedition was to acquire as much scientific information as possible and not to compete with other ■explorers but to work in conjunction with them, Mr. Stefansson now told me he had decided that the best possible thing for us to do would be to go north from the 'before-mentioned starting point, proceed north to latitude 77 or 78, thence in a great circle course east toward Prince Patrick Island, thence south across that island, crossing McClure Strait to the Bay of Mercy, thence overland to ■Cape Kellett, where we would arrive early in the summer and in time to meet the whaling ships, with which we could return to civilization.

In addition to the first plan he had another which he preferred and would follow if men could be had that were willing to go with him. Starting from Cross Island he planned to go north two hundred or three hundred miles off shore to north latitude 74 degrees or 75 degrees, and from there send all unnecessary men and dogs to shore, the advance party to camp out on the ice and drift with it in order to take observations and soundings, at the same time obtaining data for determining the currents in that part of the ocean, besides securing data on meteorology, zoology and marine biology. As the discovery of new land was very possible while drifting, he was especially enthusiastic about this plan. The only drawback to it was chat he thought we possibly might not get men willing to go on a trip of that kind. It was rather unique and had never been undertaken by previous explorers, and so might be considered dangerous. But there was then and still is no lack of territory to explore in the Arctic Ocean, the ways and means being many and could be attended to later on.

So the thing to do first was to get the Commander in shape to travel as soon as possible, with which in mind,

I set about nursing him as well as I could, being assisted and advised by every white person there, who all thought they knew something about doctoring. And it spoke well for Mr. Stefansson’s 'constitution when on the morning of February 5th he had so improved that he thought it time to send me west to headquarters to attend to the final preparations and have everything ready against his arrival there, which would be in the near future, as he thought he would be able to leave Herschel for Barter Island in three or four days at the most.

While my dogs were being hitched up in preparation for my departure he came out to see me off and bid me Godspeed and good-bye till we should meet at the beginning of the ice journey. This kindness and consideration cost him very dear, as the exposure that he subjected himself to then, I afterwards learned, caused him a very serious relapse, from which he barely escaped with his life, and which prevented him absolutely from taking part in that spring’s exploratory work, making it absolutely necessary for him to return to civilization for medical aid. It was not until eighteen months later that I again met him while in Banff.

I Take Charge of the Trip

WHAT had happened to the Commander I did not know before February 13, when in camp at Demarkation Point our dog driver, the Eskimo Emieu (Split-the-Wind) arrived from Herschel Island with letters from Mr. Stefansson which he, being unable to write, had dictated to one of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police constables there, telling me about what had happened to him and that it was impossible for him on that account to proceed with the work himself, and so putting me in charge of the entire Expedition’s exploratory work, giving me a free hand in everything and asking me to do the best I possibly could. This change of affairs surprised me somewhat at first, but the necessity of getting the earliest possible start on the ice journey made that surprise short-lived. I immediately commenced to get ready for my departure to headquarters at Barter Island, where I arrived February 19th. Five days later I had the greatest part of the supplies on the road from Barter.to Cross Island, and on February 28th I left headquarters with the last two sleds, teams and men for our point of departure, where, owing

to stormy weather, I did not arrive before March 11.

On my arrival at Cross Island I immediately acquainted the men with the state of affairs and the change of command, and outlined the plans which the Commander had spoken to me about at Herschel Island, explaining to them that the plan of drifting for one year on the ice in the Arctic Ocean would be by far the most valuable scientifically, but although they admitted the great scientific value, there was none of the men that was willing to undertake a trip of that kind. They all without exception professed to a desire to return to civilization as soon as they possibly could, saying that they had been in the Arctic long enough, that-they thought they had done what could be expected of them, and as they were willing to undertake the trip with me north to latitude 77 or 78, thence to Prince Patrick Island and to Cape Kellett on Banks Island, they thought that the expedition and the Government could not help but be satisfied with the scientific results of the expedition in general, and at the same time they would be able to return to civilization the following summer, which was what they desired most. So, not being able to get men for the drifting trip, I had to be satisfied with making the trip to

Prince Patrick and Banks Islands. During the following three days I put everything in order and had adequate equipment for that trip loaded on my sleds in readiness for our departure.

We Start Out on the Ice

ON the morning of March 15th, 1918,1 started northward out on the ice with twelve men, fifty-six dogs, and eight sleds, with about eight thousand pounds of provisions and equipment of all kinds, which I deemed necessary for that kind of work. We camped that night thirteen miles off shore on moving sea ice, having immediately upon entering on it noticed its fairly rapid westward drift before the easterly wind.

Ten days later, on March 25th, we were about sixty mile3 from land, having passed through the dangerous rough ice belt which always exists between the main pack and shore; not, however, without having as usual sustained considerable damage to our equipment and sleds, one of which had broken completely and had to be abandoned. When travelling through this belt snow had been scarce, so for this reason, and also for the reason that I wanted to utilize the daylight as much as possible, I had used tents to sleep in at night, but as soon as we came on to the old ice pack, where we could again afford to be comfortable, and where good snow could be found, we commenced to live in snowhouse3, as we preferred them to the tents, which should be used in an emergency only during the winter in the Arctic.

Travelling mostly over old ice, the going getting better the farther we got from shore, we proceeded till the night of April 3rd, when we were about one hundred and five miles north of Cross Island and at north latitude 72 degrees, west longitude 147 degrees. On the following day I sent the first support party, consisting of our chief engineer, Herman Kilian, in command of two man, two sleds and nineteen dogs, on their return to Barter Island. The equipment they took naturally was the poorest we had, as the sleds were light. Early the following morning they bade U3 good-bye. Taking with them my reports to the Commander, they started for home, while a few minutes later, with my remaining party of nine men, thirty-six dogs, with five sleds, proceeded northward.

As days went by the old ice floe3 continually increased in size, and over them we found travelling good with a little road-cutting here and there through ridge3 bordering the floes. In the forenoon of April 8th we came to an old ice floe which it took us three hours to cross, its diameter being about seven mile3. Upon our arrival at the northern edge of this floe we were stopped by an open lead, across which in places it was impossible to see the ice to the north. To cross it by sled boat was impossible on account of the young ice and the width of the lead. Following along a lead to find a place where both sides would meet had sometimes in the past been a successful method of getting over a lead, and I intended to try this once more, but, when from an ice hummock about fifteen or twenty feet above sea level the lead could be seen disappearing to the east and to the west wide open, there was nothing for it but to build our house near by and wait till the lead should close.

ON the night following our arrival at the lead th® easterly wind which had continued blowing, steadily since our departure from shore increased in force, and shortly was blowing a gale from that direction, with, of course, the accompanying thick drifting snow which made it hard for anyone to be outside. So during the time spent in camp there no hunting was done except a few hours on the first day after our arrival at the lead, when seals seemed to be numerous and we shot and retrieved three. With that strong wind blowing it was not long before considerable pressure was felt from the shaking and vibration of the ice and at the edge of the lead considerable crushing could be seen when I walked over there. It was evident that the floe on which we were camped was raRidly drifting to the northwest before the wind.

When I was with Captain Mikkelsen and Leffingwell on their ice trip in 1907 we had, on returning towards shore, experienced a rapid westward drift with easterly winds. and when with Stefansson in 1914 from Martin Point north to latitude 74 degrees and east to Banks Island we had, during April and May, had easterly winds before which the ice drifted rapidly to the west away from our destination and in doing so opened very wide leads which delayed our progress considerably, having to wait as long as ten days at one lead before it closed sufficiently to enable us to cross in our sled boat. Since then we had learned about the westward drift, and the deplorable end of our flagship, the Karluk; all this data pointed to and made us practically certain of the existence of a permanent westerly current in the Beaufort Sea between the parallels of north latitude 70 deg. and 74 deg.

When leaving shore on this, our fifth ice trip, I had immediately noticed the westward drift, and so had, when travelling, till April 8th, always headed one or two points to the east of the north course I wanted to travel in, so as to counteract the westward drift. Where with Mikkelsen and Leffingwell we had succeeded in making the trip easily, and again with Mr. Stefansson in 1914 we arrived at Banks Island safely, the trip I had now undertaken for the Canadian Arctic Expedition was a little out of the ordinary and greatly exceeded any of the previous trips we had undertaken as to distance to travel; so much so, that, when I found that we were stuck at that wide lead in a strong easterly gale during which we were drifting rapidly towards the west, I commenced to think that the

chances of our ever being able to reach our destination and make the intended trip that spring seemed almost nil. I consequently commenced to cast about for other things to do instead.

I Call for Volunteers

T WANTED to follow the Commander’s advice and drift for one year with the ice, and so determined to make a strong bid for the support of my men to do that work. I explained to them all the previously written facts and why we possibly would not be able to make the trip we had agreed to make and that the drifting was the most valuable thing that we could do for the Expedition under the circumstances; I explained that all the other work we could possibly do that year would be of small account and hardly worth while compared with drifting and should not be undertaken unless they refused to stay with me and drift and do their duty by the Expedition. Following this talk I called for volunteers to stay with me and drift for one year in the Arctic Ocean, offering the wages the Commander had set for that work.

I am glad to say that when things were put up to them and it meant failure or success, the following five of my men came to the front and offered their services voluntarily: Second Officer August Masik, Seaman Adelbert Gumaer, Seaman E. Lome Knight, Seaman Martin Kilian, and the boy, Fred Volki. The remaining members

of my party refused point blank. But five men were more than I needed, as I intended to have only five men in the advance party, including myself, and so had to send the boy Volki home with the returning support party.

As my plans had been changed, it was, of course, necessary and to our best interests to have the second support party sent back to shore as soon as possible, with which object in view we were anxiously awaiting the end of the southeasterly storm, which was slow in coming. It was not before April 14th that it moderated sufficiently to enable us to get a set of observations, which, when calculated, put our position at north latitude 73 deg. 3 min. and west longitude 148 deg. 32 min., which was about a hundred and ninety miles north of the Colville River delta. As soon as observations had been taken I set about having the equipment of the support party made ready, and at night they started south and for home, the party consisting of five men in the command of Chief Officer Aarnout Castel, with twenty dogs and one firstclass sled carrying our personal letters and my last report to the Commander.

So our last communication with civilization was severed and my party of five men, with sixteen dogs, continued to drift, having, besides our equipment, exactly one hundred and one days’ full rations for men and dogs.

To be Continued