Long Journey Over Ice

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, Banks Island, Sept. 16, 1915(p.2)

Text Box: The Friendly Arctic

Stefansson’s Detailed Account of His Experiences in Search of Land.


[Stefansson in the subjoined narrative gives a detailed account of the experiences of himself and his companions. He gives a prefatory explanation of the purposes of the Canadian expedition, tells how he took up the task of the ill-fated Karluk, and give a complete journal of his travels over the ice.]



Copyright, 1915, by The New York Times Co.

(Also copyrighted in Canada)

Special to The New York Times.


BANKS ISLAND, Feb. 8, (via Nome, Alaska, Sept. 16.) – The central plan and main purpose of the Canadian Arctic Expedition is the exploration of the hitherto untraversed area lying north of the American Continent and west of the known American arctic archipelago. The direct attack on this unknown area was assigned to the largest of the expedition’s three ships-the Karluk. The schooner Alaska was to undertake the subsidiary investigation of the Coronation Gulf region, and the schooner Sachs was to act as tender to whichever of the other vessels needed her most, and to do oceanographic work. Meantime, when in September 1914, the Karluk, best of the ice craft, was buried out of the field of endeavor and had to be struck from the list of available resources of the expedition, the problem arose of how the main purpose could be accomplished with the resource left.


I at once decided to use the Sachs in place of the Karluk, so far as compatible, first landing sufficient freight in the Coronation Gulf region to make the success of the Alaska there assured so far as supplies were concerned.


Later I developed the plan of purchasing the small trading schooner Norths Star of four-foot draught to risk and, if need be, lose her in an attempt to thread the shoal waters of the west coast of Banks Island, to establish a base on Prince Patrick Island. If possible, the first task in the program of the Karluk had been so sail north approximately along the meridian forming the boundary between Canada and Alaska until unsurmountable obstructions should be found in the form of either ice or new land; turning then east to Banks Island or Prince Patrick Island and establishing a base for sled exploration.


Took Up Karluk’s Task.


I now determined to attempt the Karluk’s task by sled. If, as had been commonly believed, the drift in the ice north of Alaska proved to be to the west, we would go by sled as far north as it seemed safe, and then return to our starting point or some other place on the main land, going later north during the Summer along Banks Island with the North Star and Sachs, but if we should find the drift in the ice either negligible or else  toe the north or east, we would not return to the mainland but would proceed, if no new land were discovered, to Banks Island or Prince Patrick Island.



To cover that event I gave definite instructions for the North Star to follow as soon as she could to Norway Island, at which port her commander was to decide if he did not find us whether she should winter there or proceed to Prince Patrick Island. Because of her twin propellers the Sachs is not so well adapted to ice-filled waters as the North Star, and for that reason I directed that after she got through with her freighting for the Alaska she should proceed to Banks Island to winter, preferably near Cape ……..city block or less. Others were a mile or two across, but all were three to six feet thick, so traveling over them was not particularly dangerous. By April 9 we were fifty miles from land, but we had made little northing, for the currents had carried us parallel to the land (which here runs well south of east) ad distance of nearly seventy miles.


As we needed dogs badly ashore, for the scientific work being done there, and as two of our sleds were too fragile for the rough ice and kept continually breaking, I now decided to send three of the men back. Accordingly on the evening of April 7 Crawford, Johansen, and McConnell, with two teams, started for shore, which I have since learned they reached without serious trouble on April 17.


The ice party not consisted of Andreasen, Storker Storkersen, and myself, with a 208-pound sail and 1,326-pounds load, consisting of food for men and dogs for about forty days, permanent equipment and 360 cartridges for two rifles.


Met Violent Gale


Two days after the support party left we had the most violent gale of the journey. Instead of separating into cakes with water lanes between the ice, this ice pressed up into huge ridges, buckling so that portions of our trail were made on ice a mile in the camp in the evening and were only 300 yards in the morning. A pressure ridge twenty feet high had formed twenty feet away from our tent, made of blocks so large that had one of them happened to topple over on the tent it would have ended the chapter. Early in the evening we tried to stand watch, but the mand outside the tent could not keep his eyes open for the flying snow nor could he shout loud enough to be heard by the others inside the tent, although the noise of ice pressing into ridges can be heard miles away. We did not his night hear anything but the flapping of the tent and the whistle of the wind.


We were never in particular danger. After getting beyond sixty miles from shore we never had strong winds. The day after this gale the cold weather came at last, and we had ideal traveling for the remainder of April, with light breezes and clear skied, and temperature ranging about 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The water lanes, which had in warm weather been impassable for boats, now became smooth boulevards, and instead of two miles a day we now frequently made over twenty. That we would probably meet a continual ice drift to the east had seemed likely when the support party started for shore, and I had accordingly sent with them letters emphasizing the probability of our not returning to the mainland and repeating the instructions for the North Star to follow us to Northwest Banks Island.


The easterly drift did really continue, and although we traveled each day from 10 to 30 degrees west of true north, out instrumental observations showed that we were vbarely keeping a true north course. By April 27 we were near the intersection of the seventy-third parallel and the one hundred and fortieth meridian. During the preceding fortnight we had crossed scores of miles of thin ice formed over what had been open water in the March gales. The daylight was now continuous throughout the twenty-four hours and the sun was becoming more aggressive. It would be but a week or two till all this thin ice would become uncrossable. With the strong currents to the west which prevail on the Alaska coast in Spring it would have been unwise under circumstances to try to return the 240 miles or go south to land. Neither was there any knowledge to be gained by retracing the route we had just come over.


Our work lay to the north, and safety lay there also, for then we should be traveling away from Summers. Besides we had already arranged for going to Banks Island for the information to be gained on the way there, and after landing, also to try for deer meat for dog feed on next year’s sled trips, for nearly all our pemmican had gone with the Karluk. Accordingly on April 27 I finally decided definitely not to attempt to return to Alaska, but to proceed to Banks Island or Prince Patrick Island, according to circumstances. Because of the rapid approach of Summer we eventually header for Cape Alfred, on the northwest corner of Banks Island. Our kerosene gave our on May 5. For then days after that we melted a little ice morning and evening for drinking water with the five pounds of lard we had along for reoiling our boat tarpaulin. For the latter part of these ten days we…..of seals and of bears for a wick, as it were, for blubber will not burn by itself in the manner of kerosene. During these forty-three days we killed bears and about forty seals and accumulated a stock of food against possible future needs.


This we, of course, had to abandon when opportunity came for the advance. When we got within about 100 miles of the west coast of Banks Island we began to meet frequent easterly winds, and consequently drifted away from our goal. On May 24, a little north of the seventy-fourth parallel, forty-five miles from Banks Island, an easterly gale commenced. This wind varied in direction between southeast and northeast for twelve days and in force from a light breeze to a moderate gale. Immediately in front of us was a lead that varied on different days in width from half a mile to perhaps eight miles. As this lead was covered with whitecaps at periods of light wind or was covered with young ice, either of which conditions prevented cruising by raft in the direction we wanted to go, we began to fear we should have to spend the Summer on the ice, which I feel sure we could have done safely through, perhaps, not very comfortably.


Thick Floes of Ice.


 The ice itself was in floes, many of them over a hundred feet in thickness, so that there was no reason to fear their melting away. They were doubtless a decade or more old already. anticipating a Summer on the ice we here accumulated some two tons of meat and blubber and four bear skins.


Bears Invade the Camp.


Bears used to come right into camp undisturbed by the barking of dogs or shuting of men, which sounds they may have classed with the crying of gulls, the only noise of the sort owith which they were familiar.


During this period we drifted some sixty miles further away from Banks Island, which was less than would have been expected from the force of the wind. This drift was the more tantalizing for the fact that when we were first stopped at this lead we got our first bottom sounding at 736 meters. In three days we were out of soundings again. During the trip up, miles from the mainland, near meridian 140 west, the first bottom sounding west of Banks Island was about five miles north of the 74th parallel. It was nineteen days before this lead stopped near meridian 128. Seven days after we were fully able to ferry across it and resume our travel east. We then again got into soundings, this time at 638 meters, a little south of the previous soundings. From this on we took soundings every two or three miles, till we reached land-fast ice, and often at shorter intervals. These soundings seem to indicate that the sea bottom rises in at least three terraces toward Banks Island. In some parts the bottom seems either hilly or cut by channels.


Carried by the Ice.


In June we encountered a strong drift to the south, and, in spite of fair progress, favored by westerly and southwesterly winds that held the broken pieces of ice tightly pressed against each other and against Banks Island, we made in fact a nearly southeast course, although we traveled northeast. We had therefore to give up the attempt to land on the very northwest corner of Banks Island, the logical goal of a such a journey as ours, and it was on northerly land some thirty miles south of Cape Alfred that we landed on the evening of June 26, ninety-six days out from Martin Point, Alaska.


The distance actually traveled was probably not much over 700 miles, and the route plotted on the chart measures even less than that, but the difficulties of the journey are to be measured not by the distance, but by the warmth of the weather and the force and direction of the winds and currents. Going north a month earlier, and our fortune in other respects similar to what was actually the case, a journey of twice the mileage would have had no more difficulty and been much safer and more comfortable.


Banks Island has not been visited by white men, although whalers sight it often, since McClure abandoned his ship here in 1854. At that time musk oxen were abundant, but we have seen none, and they may be extinct. They are much more scarce than near Collinson Point, where our schooners wintered last year, or on any part of the mainland known to me between the Colville and the copper mine. The Eskimo inhabitants of the west coast seem to have seen a few transients only, and that between fifty and a hundred years ago, probably. Caribou are rare between Bank’s Land and King William Island. For a time we had to kill all the caribou we saw, but later we shot only old bucks, for they gave the most and the fattest meat. Our cartridges had to be husbanded.



Disappointed in North Star.


As I had directed the North Star to come to Norway Island to look for us we spent the Summer in the vic…..ying meat, fat, and skins against …..ming Winter. We killed in all ……bou, over thirty … bucks. Besides keeping us … six dogs this gave us many valuable skins and a ton of dried meat and 500 pounds of suet, which gave us ample dog food for the ice exploration work in February.


Toward the latter part of Summer ice conditions of the west coast of Banks Island were excellent for a shallow draught vessel. The heavy ice was aground from a mile to twenty miles off shire in fifteen to twenty fathoms of water. Inside the barrier warm streams from the land thawed the ice along shore and there was a clear lane along the beach ample for the passage of the North Star. The coast is an enbayed one. There are few five-mile stretches without a harbor suitable for a vessel of four-foot draught. It was for just such conditions that I had bought the North Star, and the existence of these conditions justified us in expecting the schooner to arrive any day after the 20th of August. When, however, the 1st of September arrived with continued fair weather and open shore water, we all agreed that something was wrong somewhere. Accordingly we covered our dried meat caché safely with stones and proceeded south along the coast with pack dogs.


At Cape Kellett we found the Mary Sachs in Winter quarters, although the sea was absolutely clear of ice.


There had been some ice about Cape Kellett when she arrived there late in August. Beaching and hauling the schooner up here was due partly to her having lost one of her propellers and to the presence of ice, but also and perhaps to several mistaken ideas. They seem to have thought that if we were on Banks Island we would be at Cape Kellett anxiously and probably hungrily watching for a sail on the horizon, and when they found no sign of us they concluded we were dead-this in spite of the fact that the appointed rendezvous was a hundred miles further north. Men of the Sachs are most of them new to the arctic and had been thoroughly discouraged by this time. The amusing opinion apparently was uniformly held by most of the whalers and others at Herschel Island last Summer that we were all dead because we failed to come back from a journey from which I had said we would probably not try to come back.


The Sachs thought that Summer was over with August, whereas September is commonly enough a good month for navigation up here, and was so in this Summer.


It was also thought that the west coast of Banks Island was precipitous, devoid of harbors and driftwood, all reason for not going further north was clearly that feeling that we were certainly dead. The North Star, I learned, had made no effort to come to Banks Island, as I had directed. The Karluk had been crushed near Wrangell Island, but her men had reached that island in safety, and would be picked up by one of the American revenue cutters.




It was too late, I thought, for relaunching the Sachs, so I turned my attention at once to securing fresh meat for men and dogs forthwith. Six bears and sixty caribou were secured by the end of November, which was more meat than we needed, although we had nothing else for our twenty dogs.


I thought at first of going to the supposed base in Alaska on Dolphin and Union Straits by sled to send our dispatches and to arrange for getting the North Star next year, to establish the base we now need so badly on Prince Patrick Island.


Later I concluded that it would take the united efforts of all of you to prepare adequate resources for the ice exploration of the coming Spring and that you would be foolish to sacrifice present opportunities to a future prospect. During the absence of the sun the Eskimo Nakusiak and myself made a fourhundred-mile round trip to the southeast of Banks Island and Victoria Island to search for the Eskimos who usually winter there, but for some reason they seemed to be elsewhere this year. We hoped to secure dogs from them for the ice work, but that hope failed when three of our twenty dogs also died. Many of the others are old and small, so that we now have only two possible teams against the four with which we commenced to journey over the ice. We star  out this year, however, on Feb. 9 instead of March 22, which should more than make up for the fewness of dogs.


On account of having already explored the sea north beyond parallel seventy-four and because we fear the southward drift which we encountered near the Banks Island coast last Spring, we shall first go about 350 miles, if conditions permit, to Land´s End, on Prince Patrick Island, by way of Cape McClure and McClure Straits, and from there we plan to strike northwest. We hope to be back in Banks Island by June 15, or in a little over 120 days, if conditions are favorable. It is not unlikely that we shall, after reaching a point furthest northwest o Land´s End, by a route north of Prince Patrick Island and then south across Melville Island and Melville Sound, if no misfortune overtake us, continue the work of sea exploration by sled in the Spring of 1916.