“Tourists would rave over this scenery.”
-- Douglas Robertson, 1931, while visiting Ellesmere by ship
The store is open! You can now buy books, calendars, prints and the Sledding Equipment List with one-click shopping, via Paypal. Just go to the Store link at the top of this page. Jerry's latest book, Arctic Eden, based on his travels on Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Devon Islands, is now available. It recently won the William Mills Prize as the best polar book of the last two years.
The sledders found a cairn which they took for Sverdrup's end cairn, but their GPS coordinates and the photo reveal it to be the remains of the cairn built by Robert Peary in 1906, and which Graeme Magor and I looked over in 1997. The German explorer Hans Krueger also visited it in 1930, and left a message there before his disappearance. Krueger's note was found by glaciologist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith and Robert Christie in 1954.
It's exciting to find something and easy to jump to conclusions, but the mystery of Sverdrup's cairn remains.
When Graeme and I reached Lands Lokk back in 1997, the first thing we did was set up camp in explorer Otto Sverdrup's precise spot on the sea ice and duplicate his photo. I've shown it here before, but here it is again, along with the original.
This comparison neatly reveals how skis have shrunk but people have gotten taller in the last century. Graeme and I then spent the next day and a half scouring the ridge behind and other hills in the vicinity for Sverdrup's elusive cairn with its important note declaring sovereignty over the arctic islands for Norway.
We weren't the first to look for this cairn. Robert Peary also did so on his 1906 journey along the north coast. Geologist Ray Thorsteinsson, who visited several historical cairns in his long and impressive career, searched closely for it during a long dogsled journey in 1962. Unbeknown to us at the time, he also duplicated Sverdrup's famous photo.
Graeme and I were quite thorough, and though we found what might have been the rubble from one or two past cairns, they might also have been just a random small pile of rocks. We built up one a little and left our own note in it, in a film canister.
What happened to the original cairn, and Sverdrup's note? Another notable sovereignty message that Sverdrup left on northwestern Axel Heiberg Island has likewise vanished.
One theory of mine about the Lands Lokk cairn: Peary might have destroyed it to remove evidence of Sverdrup's accomplishments in that area. Never willing to share credit with anyone, it bugged Peary that Sverdrup, not he, discovered Axel Heiberg Island. In fact, in a transparent lie, Peary later insisted that he'd seen it a year before Sverdrup. Although there's no evidence that Peary found/removed Sverdrup's cairn, it's in keeping with his personality. However, he never reached the site of Sverdrup's other cairn on Axel Heiberg Island, and so can't be held responsible for its disappearance.
The four guys currently sledding on Ellesmere have recently reached Lands Lokk, where they duplicated our duplication of Ray Thorsteinsson's duplication of Sverdrup's camp photo. They're currently having their own whack at trying to find Sverdrup's original cairn and note. Although I doubt they'll succeed, they'll probably find our own message in its film canister.
The Ellesmere sledders have made their way from their second depot at the Eureka weather station to the beginning of Nansen Sound. Storms become more frequent now, as the high ice cap of Axel Heiberg Island begins to taper to low hills and lets bad weather from the west and northwest reach the Ellesmere side. These guys encountered their first big blow yesterday. The late geologist Ray Thorsteinsson once told me of dogsledding down Hare Fiord in knee-powder, getting almost nowhere. Meanwhile, Otto Fiord, just a few kilometres north, is so exposed to west winds that when he sledded that fiord, his dogs were running so quickly on the glare ice that he couldn't get off the sled to pee.
Very few have sledded Nansen Sound since the days of Otto Sverdrup, Frederick Cook and Donald MacMillan. The lost German explorer Hans Krueger passed this way in 1930; two years later, RCMP Corporal Henry Stallworthy retraced his route, looking for him. Thosteinsson sledded here in the 1950s, part of a magnificent scientific journey to Meighen Island, where he accidentally discovered one of Krueger's intriguing "all's well" cairn messages. Three or four parties have snowmobiled this way -- some Irish in 1981 and a couple of contemporary army sovereignty patrols hurrying too fast to really see anything. In the early 1980s, scientists were stationed in northern Nansen Sound studying, among other things, the plug of multiyear ice that, until recently, never melted and kept newer ice from drifting into lower Nansen and Eureka Sounds. These military scientists from DREP (Defence Research Establishment Pacific) built some cabins on a tiny speck they called Little Fjeldholmen Island. Some years ago, Graeme Magor and I manhauled there in seven days from Eureka and stayed in one of those cabins. Three have since been removed, but a single shelter remains.
Graeme and I traveled fast but the endless daylight gave plenty of time for photography. Along with the nearby northwestern corner of Axel Heiberg Island, Nansen Sound remains the wildest place I've ever seen, and one of my favorite places. It has a different feel -- more open, rougher. It's the last whiff of land before the endless rubble of the Arctic Ocean.
Fjeldholmen Island from Little Fjeldholmen Island.
There are only three sizeable tidewater glaciers on western Ellesmere: the d'Iberville, the Antoinette and the Otto Glaciers, so these icebergs in Nansen Sound came from one of those -- probably the nearby Otto Glacier. Judging from the shadows, this photo was taken at midnight, when the sun is due north.
Nansen Sound, looking toward the Black Cliffs (Svartevaeg) of Axel Heiberg Island.
A few more words about the Okse Bay cabin from April 6: We dubbed it Ice Station Zebra, after the Cold War thriller by Alistair MacLean. Years ago, I went on a MacLean bender, reading all his books in a few days. Ice Station Zebra was later made into a movie, so was one of his best-known novels.
In it, MacLean kept mentioning what he called "ice spicules". I don't think the author ever visited the Arctic, but he'd heard of this phenomenon somewhere and used it for local color in a couple of books: In the early arctic spring, crystals of ice often fall out of a clear, cold sky or hang in the atmosphere, creating haze and sun dogs. (The small photo on the top left of this web page's banner shows a sun dog.)
MacLean seems to have been an old-fashioned drinker and frequently had his characters pouring themselves glasses of scotch to break up long sections of dialogue.
We had no scotch at our Ice Station Zebra, though we could have had it on the rocks pretty easily. For my partner Bob and I, the cabin was a respite from the rigors of the trail. Bob recalls spending the day "eating, sleeping and reading Ariosto."
I've been casually following the progress of an Ellesmere sledding expedition. It's partly in the footsteps of Otto Sverdrup, and the Norwegian member of the four-man group did his Master's thesis on the great Norwegian explorer. I know their route well; I've done 95% of it, and their presence at familiar spots brings back memories.
Currently they're at a cabin -- actually a trailer on tractor treads -- owned by the Hunters and Trappers Association in Grise Fiord. Known in Grise as the Okse Bay cabin, because of its closeness to a small bay of that name, it lies near the southeastern limit of Norwegian Bay. It has an oil stove, a table and chairs, some cots and is a cozy abode in polar bear country. This group has dogs as bear alarms, but for the dogless traveler, it's sometimes a relief to sleep without having to be subconsciously primed for a sudden awakening as a bear investigates your tent and must be shooed away. This happens a lot on that part of Ellesmere.
Nowadays the cabin is often used by white polar bear hunters and their Inuit guides. When I was first there in 1988, its storeroom included about 1,000 rolls of toilet paper, 97 bars of soap and 200 books of matches. "Someone added two zeroes to everything they needed," my partner wisecracked. Those supplies have not been replenished in the intervening years, and when I was last there a few years ago, the storeroom was no longer poised to supply all Nunavut with toilet paper.
According to their expedition map, the group escapes the worst of bear country by cutting across land at Eids Fiord into Baumann Fiord. Historically, that was done not by Sverdrup but by two RCMP officers on sovereignty patrols in 1926 and 1928. One found the crossing "good going"; the other, "heavy hauling". Snow conditions vary unpredictably and are the single most important factor in sled travel.
The "cabin" near Okse Bay.
On March 19, the Eureka Weather Station on west-central Ellesmere set a temperature record for that date of -14.8 C (+5F). Down south, that doesn't sound exactly balmy for almost the first day of spring, but for Eureka, it is: That part of the island has beautiful late spring and summer weather, dry and lots of sun, but it's also a frost hollow with the coldest temperatures of the three monitoring stations on the island.
Alex Stubbing, manager of Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere, sent this photo of the erosion at Depot A that I spoke of below, showing how some of the Greely artifacts are now almost in the intertidal area. Stubbing and his partners retrieved the material and put it safely back on the bank.
Recent photo of Depot A near Fort Conger courtesy of Parks Canada. Compare this with the 1998 Depot A photo below.
One of the best aspects of Ellesmere Island -- and the one that makes reading all those dull books and papers of the explorers worthwhile -- is how little rots up there, so the garbage of those 19th and early 20th century travelers remains. With some research, you can track down their camps. Since so few people have walked the island, the junk on the ground tends to be undisturbed, so you can often reconstruct the events of a century ago: There's the splinters from the box of meat the polar bear broke into during Sverdrup's expedition; there's the shell from the bullet that Bay fired to scare the bear away, etc. It's great sport. Call it forensic adventure.
The Greely expedition of 1881-84 is particularly rich for this sort of exercise. Apart from the published books, like Greely's Three Years of Arctic Service, he and many of his men kept journals. Those journals are available in various locations. Greely's is at the Library of Congress. George Rice's journal is kept at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Apart from being one of the heroes of the Greely expedition's tragic winter at Camp Clay, Rice's journal has been transcribed by one of the librarians, so you don't have to puzzle through hundreds of pages of his florid handwriting.
The journals, books and various official papers give clues to the objects on the ground. Recently, for example, Parks Canada wardens found these anemometer cups near Fort Conger. Attached to a gauge, the cups spin in a breeze and measure wind speed. Rice's journal records that on January 16, 1882, storm winds of 65 mph broke the anemometer spindle and sent the cups cartwheeling away. Greely never found them again, but this is where they ended up.
Photo courtesy of Alex Stubbing/Parks Canada
Likewise, the Greely expedition established two little-known depots north of Fort Conger, to support their exploratory sled journeys. While a small number of tourists routinely visit Fort Conger, almost no one spends more than a couple of hours there, so few eyes have seen Depot A and Depot B since the 1800s. When I first visited Depot A, I found a pickax, wooden tent poles and several other items. The site lies just above the high tide line; so close that in recent years, erosion from winter storms has claimed part of the cache, according to Alex Stubbing of Parks Canada.
Depot A: rusted cans, tent poles and -- a little further on -- remnant bits of coal for heating.
Stubbing recently found Depot B, a day's hike to the north. Like Depot A, it lies beside the currents and multiyear ice of Nares Strait. The ice here can be so rough, wrote George Rice, that “it conveyed more the impression of a stormy sea lashed into fury and frozen instantly into immobility. I have never seen rocks on land so disposed as to make so uneven a surface as the rubble ice over which we traveled.”
Barrel hoops at Depot B: Photo courtesy of Alex Stubbing/Parks Canada
The land beside Strathcona Fiord. Beavers and...camels??
The Noah's Ark of interesting Ellesmere paleoanimals got a new member today. A widely reported news story reports that 3.5 million years ago, camels roamed the Strathcona Fiord area of Ellesmere Island. They join beavers, alligators, horses, rhinos, dinosaurs, "fishapods" and very large rabbits as ancient High Arctic residents. Many of them were found on the southwestern part of the island, where a mining company wants to extract coal reserves. Another reason to continue to deny them: who knows how much remarkable bygone fauna that region will yield in future?
Below, a couple of other celebrated finds: a wintry view of Bird Fiord, the location of Tiktaalik, and paleobiologist Richard Harington at work on his beaver site above the same Strathcona Fiord.
Camels in their natural habitat today: definitely not Ellesmere.
Every couple of years I list some of the unusual search terms that lead readers to this website. Recently, there was a very odd one from, of all places, Santa Fe: "Has anyone ever swam from Greenland to Ellesmere Island?" Maybe it was someone at Outside magazine: that's where they're based, and it's a question they might explore.
Before I started traveling the Arctic, I spent two summers swimming open-water marathons, from 8 km to 25 km. I was never on a swim team, but trained seriously, 10km/day, intervals, distance, sprints, the works. My race pace was 4 kph, decent but nothing special. Elite swimmers did 5 kph. The pros can maintain that for seven hours. I still swim several times a week, but puddle along at a 29- or 30-minute mile.
I've been colder in the water than I've ever been in the Arctic. So I can say as both a swimmer and an Ellesmere traveler that no one has ever swam across that stretch of water. The minimum distance between Ellesmere and Greenland is 20km, and that is far north, near Alert. Around the more accessible mid-part of Ellesmere, the distance is 50km. In ice water. Even Lynne Cox, who swam off Antarctica and in the Bering Sea, covered only one mile, and these were remarkable feats of cold-water endurance. As an aside, the most astonishing cold-water swim I've know was done by a woman in England who swam 10 miles in 39F (4C) water in Lake Windermere, during one of the biannual races there.
Of course, you could wear a drysuit on a Greenland-Ellesmere swim, and then sure, it's possible. But kayaking that span would be much more interesting. Although it's very likely that Inuit hunters were blown between the two islands in the past, and crossing on the sea ice to hunt in Muskox Land (Ellesmere) was a yearly spring ritual for Greenlanders, Jon Turk is the only kayaker I know who's paddled that route deliberately. He did the 50km across Kane Basin. The distance is not vast, but even in summer you risk running into impenetrable pack ice. More sobering, that stretch of water can be, as a scientist once described it to me, "glassy calm or terrifying." You can start out in glassy calm, but no guarantees what it will be like when you're four hours out. That's what distinguishes a crossing of the second stormiest sea on earth from a basic expedition day paddle.
Kane Basin, in glassy calm mode. Swimming not recommended.
January 26, 2013
In 2009, I wrote a series of entries on this page about my favorite Ellesmere reference material. Below, I've combined this list into a single entry.
You'll notice I don't call these "best books". These are simply useful volumes for the traveler. Reading them tends to be a fairly painful experience.
Of course, I'd hope that others might want to include The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden on their lists, but here I'll cover, in no particular order, some of the ones that have helped me.
Shores of the Polar Sea, Edward Moss
The only lovely historical Ellesmere book, not for its writing but for its watercolors and illustrations. Moss was assistant surgeon on George Nares's expedition of 1875-6, and was the first artist to render Ellesmere on canvas. I've done my best to duplicate photographically the scenes from a few of his watercolors. Shores of the Polar Sea is also the most expensive book on the area, and one of the few I don't have. I have, however, photographed each page of the book, so I can still refer to it.
Geographical Discovery and Exploration in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Andrew Taylor
With a zingy title like that, and brought out 45 years ago by that publishing hotbed, the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, your eyes can be forgiven for glazing over. But if I wanted a portable overview of Ellesmere Island (and High Arctic) history, this is the one to get. It lists dozens of explorers and summarizes the routes they covered. Maps are included for all the major figures. It's very hard to figure out on your own exactly what routes these guys followed, but Taylor has done most of that legwork. This book also gave me my first glimpse of little-known but fascinating figures like Robert Stein, Johan Alfred Bjorling, Joseph Bernier and Hans Krueger.
Its detailed scholarly bibliography opens the door to lots of other obscure writings on that area, although in the true spirit of this modest little masterpiece, most of the papers cited won't exactly keep you up nights. eg. "Collembola from the Crocker Land Expedition".
Narrative of a Voyage to the Polar Sea, volumes 1 and 2, George Nares
New Land, volumes 1 and 2, Otto Sverdrup
Three Years of Arctic Service, volumes 1 and 2, Adolphus Greely
A serious Ellesmereophile unfortunately can't avoid these plodding dual-volumed tomes by the island's three most important explorers. Of these, I've read Sverdrup the most often, because he covered much more ground than the other two, and his area of exploration tends to be more accessible. Greely and Nares spent much of their time from Fort Conger north -- the most remote part of the island -- whereas the entire coast of Axel Heiberg, the west and south coasts of Ellesmere and the area around Alexandra Fiord fall within Sverdrup's domain.
Why read these original volumes anyway? Because if you're a traveler curious about history and want to track down their camps to connect with these explorers in some ethereal way, their books are your starting point. Often you can figure out exactly where they were by scrutinizing their descriptions. Their books are treasure maps, not literature. Note that the treasure lies in finding, not in disturbing those old camps.
Greely's book is a bit of an exception because of the tragedy at Camp Clay. It was such a horrific and eventful eight months that even the dullest prose in the world can't entirely muffle the drama. For the general reader, Len Guttridge's Ghosts of Cape Sabine is far more interesting than Greely's original tale. However, modern retellings can't tantalize a traveler in the way that the originals do.
Journals and Proceedings of the Arctic Expedition, 1875-6
Report on the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land, Adolphus Greely
Tracking explorers' routes to improve the travel experience has three levels, depending on degree of obsession. The Nares, Sverdrup and Greely titles above are Level One. They were, for their era, mass-market products: helpful but often vague. The Nares and Greely Proceedings, above, go one step further, to Level Two.
These are not books, in the Amazon.com sense of the word. They were government publications put out afterward as an official record of what the expeditions accomplished and more to the point, as an analysis of the screw-ups. Sverdrup's expedition has technical volumes too, but they are mainly wearisome inventories of fossils, fauna, flora, rocks, etc. Comparatively little went wrong with his Second Fram expedition -- only two deaths, one pneumonia, one suicide -- so no excuses were necessary.
Both the Greely & Nares Proceedings are of interest mainly for the detailed sledging journals. Before a trip, I reread them line by line with a topo map at hand, marking locations recognizable by their descriptions. Usually I also carry dozens of pages of photocopies, because then I can read the journals in situ and better recognize the hills or bays described.
The Greely Proceedings aren't hard to obtain, but the Nares volume vies with Moss's Shores of the Polar Sea for the most expensive Ellesmere book -- $3,000 is a typical price, last I heard -- and is much harder to find. One sometimes comes up for auction at Christie's. But arctic travelers have patience, and figuring out how to photocopy a 500-page library book that can't be taken out of the rare book room is part of the game.
Ellesmere Island Coastal Archaeological Sites, Norman Brice
Before I get back to more mainstream stuff, I wanted to give a sample of Level Three obsession for tracking explorers' routes. Level One is the explorers' popular books; Level Two, the more technical publications that usually include their unabridged sledging journals. Level Three is going to the trouble to dig up the original handwritten journals themselves, or unpublished manuscripts available only in a single archive, such as the Library of Congress, the Scott Polar Research Institute, the Norsk Polar Institute, or as in the above unpublished manuscript, the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College.
In 1975, Norman Brice, a Maryland banker whose hobby was archaeology, dogsledded from Qaanaaq to Grise Fiord, with the help of Inughuit guides. En route, he inventoried, described and sketched every archaeological site he found on the east coast of Ellesmere. He missed a few, such as the one at Wade Point that Greely's men briefly used, but in general he was remarkably thorough. I brought my photocopy of his 68-page typewritten manuscript when Bob Cochran and I skied that coast ourselves in 2007.
There is actually a Level Four, which many scholars employ. That's finding original manuscripts or journals which no one else has uncovered, usually by connecting with one of the explorers' descendants. While researching at Dartmouth College, for example, I found a copy of George Rice's journal from the Greely expedition, which no one but the librarian who painstakingly typed out Rice's hard-to-read ms seemed to have spent time with. It gave me some insight into Rice's character, which I included in The Horizontal Everest. In general, though, Level Four material is more useful for advancing the historical record than for travelers.
The Last Kings of Thule, Jean Malaurie
Northwest Greenland, Richard Vaughan
The settled part of northwest Greenland lies just 50 kilometers across Kane Basin from Ellesmere Island. Explorers used places like Etah and Annoatok as a base, built cairns on Littleton Island, hunted at Neqe. Relics from their shipwrecks still lie on Greenland shores. To further my Ellesmere education, I've wanted for years to spend a couple of months one summer exploring the stretch of coastline from Qaanaaq to Cape Inglefield. Apart from the Level Two and Three stuff, these are the two books I'd take with me.
The Last Kings of Thule is the classic account of a French academic's time with the Polar Inuit in the early 1950s, with a coda about his return in 1972. You gotta love a guy who prefaces his modern section with a quote from Rimbaud's Illuminations. ("What sorceress will rise against the white sunset?") The author spent a lot of time on the land with the people, gathered their stories and tried to understand their society in a way that no one had before. The book's title hints at its elegiac flavor.
Northwest Greenland is more prosaic but deeply researched and full of historical tidbits that are hard to find anywhere else. Because it's fairly detailed, admittedly it's for those who want to read at the decimal-point level rather than a round-to-the-nearest integer, Arctic Grail-type history.
Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, Robert Bryce
Bryce wasn't the first to conclude what is now obvious: that neither Frederick Cook nor Robert Peary made it to the North Pole. Cook's claims have been dismissed since shortly after Peary's henchmen launched a cutthroat (but accurate) discreditation process in 1909. But Peary's claim, vigorously guarded by the National Geographic Society, has been safe until the chinks in his story began to resurface about 40 years ago. In 1973, Dennis Rawlins wrote an excoriating book concluding that neither made it. In the late 1980s, Wally Herbert managed to raise doubts about Peary within the pages of National Geographic itself. But Cook and Peary stands as the definitive study of that whole North Pole hustle. It's really an exhaustive biography of Frederick Cook, but its 1,133 pages contain plenty of scholarship about Peary too.
My Ellesmere bookcase contains more about the North Pole, unfortunately, than any other subject -- about 30 books. But Bryce's is the most useful.