Stefansson Quest to Test a Theory

NYT, April. 7, 1914(p.3)

Text Box: The Friendly Arctic

Explorer, Backed by Canada, Set Out to Settle Controversy of Arctic Experts.




Start Across the Ice for the Unknown in Search of Land Made April 7, 1914.


To nearly every one the message from Vilhjalmur Stefansson will come as a voice from the dead, for only a very few held to the slender thread of hope that he would ever be heart from again. It is a year five months and ten days since the explorer and two of his companions left the ice of the north shore of Alaska and started into an unexplored region. Since then until yesterday no message had come from them.


The Canadian expedition which Stefansson headed, sailed into the Far North to explore and unknown territory ten times the size of New York State. They headed north to face one of the worst Winters for ice ever known in the Arctic. Notwithstanding, Stefansson would not hear of turning back. After the Karluk was caught in the ice he left the whaler with his party and sleds. and it was not until he met the Captain of the Polar Bear that he knew the Karluk was wrecked, and only twelve of the twenty-five men he left on board ever got back to civilization.


Under his own signature the explorer described the chief aim of the expedition to be the exploration of as large a portion as possible of over a million miles of unknown area lying north of Western Canada, north of Alaska, and north of Eastern Siberia. Speaking of the backing of the Canadian Government, he said that its intention to back the expedition showed it realized its possible importance.


“It may never bring a result translatable into dollars and cents, but will surely, if it has any success, add materially to our knowledge of the earth oven though it should not happen to discover any land,” Stefansson wrote. “And if new lands be discovered they (the Canadian Government) do not take it for granted that it will be forever valueless.


“In one sense the exploration is unique. It may be considered as a undertaking to test the validity of a theory. Dr. Nansen has argued vehemently, and to some men’s minds conclusively, that the unexplored portion of the Arctic Ocean is a deep basin practically, or more probably entirely devoid of land, Other students of the North, such as General A. W. Greely and Dr. R.H.Harris, feel equally convinced that there is land of considerable area lying undiscovered in the Polar Sea, and Admiral Peary, from an elevation of 2,000 feet near Cape Thomas Hubbard, has even seen land to the west. With the conservatism of a man of great experience, he says that he is not sure of the existence o any land upon which he has not actually put his foot, and is not, therefore, sure if what he saw was land and not at clout bank.”


Start of the Expedition.

These were the problems Stefansson intended to settle when on June 27, 1913, he and his party sailed from Teller, Alaska. The Karluk, a stout whaler, was commended by Captain Robert A. Bartlett, and beside Stefansson , these made up the scientific party: James Murray, Dr. AF. Mackay, Bjarne Mamen, Diamond Jenness, George A. Malloch, W.L. MacKinlay, Henri Beuchat, Goerge Wilkins, photographer, and Burt McConnell, Stefansson‘s Secretary. Eskimos and crew brought the total number on board up to thirty-one.


The general plan was to cruise northward as far as feasible and to establish Winter quarters upon any land that chanced to be discovered. The vessel was t head to the eastward, were no land discovered, and the Winter base was to be established as far north as possible along the western coasts of Banks or Prince Patrick Islands. From that vantage point it was intended to start the following Winter to explore toward the northwest, but possibly heading directly into the north.


Stefansson said it was largely a matter of luck, and with him it was. His plans as made were not carried out. The Karluk ran into four days of terrific gales while in Kotzebue Sound. The whaler weathered the storm, but there were hours when the seas broke over her bows and swept her decks.


On Aug. 1 she hot into loose ice close tin toward the Alaskan shore, and as it closed in she fought her way forward with ever-increasing difficulty. There came a time, however, when she was twenty miles south of Point Barrow, that she refused to budge, and for four days she stayed fast. It was then that the party realized that 1913 was the worst in history of Arctic exploration for ice.


When Stefansson saw that there was prormise of a long delay he walked four miles across the ice and twenty to Point Barrow. There he purchased equipment, which included sleds, dogs, and umiaks, the native skin boats. To the Karluk came unexpected release, A strong off-shore wind cleared the sea of ice, and Captain Bartlett was enabled to bring his command to Point Barrow. Under these conditions but little delay was experienced, or little difficulty encountered in stowing the supplies safely on board.


With things shipshape the party sailed away to make Prince Patrick Land, as had originally been planned. They had journeyed but two days eastward when more ice was encountered. Again the valiant 247-ton barkentine, with her steam auxiliary power, bucked the increasing ice floes. For two days she kept this up with a show of headway, and then the ice closed in and the Karluk was fast again. Caught in the great ice pack the Karluk drifted up and down the north coast of Alaska until Sept. 10, 1913. Then she stopped drifting, and in intense cold, surrounded with close-packed, ridged ice, she stayed motionless for then days.


The vessel was fast about eighteen miles off the mouth of the Colville River. The explorer and Captain Bartlett decided that the failure of the craft to drift showed that she was frozen in for the Winter, and so Stefansson decided to take a party ashore. Fresh meat was running out, and he wanted to get caribou. A hunting trip he figured would not take him m more than thirty miles from the vessel. He took Jennis, Wilkins, McConnell and two Eskimos. They carried with them two sleds, dog teams and provisions to last two weeks.


The party did not succeed in making shore. The hunters reached Amluliktok, or Duck Island, a narrow spit of sand thrown up by the movement of heavy pack ice. This is about 100 yards wide, a mile long and about four miles from the mainland. At the end of two days the explorer decided to send Mc Connell back for two more hunters. That night a gale came up and for four days it blew continuously and all the ice was blown away, and there was nothing on every side but the open sea.


For seven days the party lived on Duck Island, an at the end of that time the ice had formed sufficiently to allow them to get ashore. As the gale had been from the northeast,  Stefansson concluded that the Karluk had drifted to Point Barrow. For that point the men set out, and in nine days they walked 145 miles over the ice. At the Point disappointment awaited hem. the Karluk, caught in the gale and the drifting ice, had not brought up there. She had drifted clean past, and, as it afterward proved, to her doom. Stefansson however, predicted this, for he thought the chances were very slight against her being caught in the ice before, Spring. She had been seen to go past, natives said, a week before the shore party came in sight.


300-Mile Journey Across the Ice.

At Point Barrow Stefansson decided to take his men to Collinson Point, some 300 miles further east, which he heard the party of Dr. Anderson, that had gone north in the gasoline schooners Mary Sachs and Alaska, had reached in safety. The men left on their 300-mile journey across the ice on Nov. 8, 1913. Stefansson then believed that the Karluk could not be depended upon to come back for them.


It took until Dec. 15 to get to Collinson Point. In January Stefansson made the journey to Clarence Bay, where he purchased the gasoline schooner North Star, and also outfits and provisions. The party then journeyed from Collinson Point to Martin´s Point. When they reached the latter place Stefansson halted an sent McConnell back to Barrow Point for the mail.


On March 27, 1914, Stefansson decided to set out into the unexplored north, in search of any land within 150 or 200 miles. It was the day after the party started that McConnell returned to find Martin´s Point deserted. He started after them and overtook the explorers next day. The party consisted of eight men and four dog teams. Stefansson´s intention was to go north over the ice and to carry freight as far as possible.


From March 23 and until April 7 McConnell and his companions were with Stefansson . On the latter date Stefansson decided that the sleds were in too bad shape for a long journey and so he sent all back except Ole Anderson and Storker Storkersen, who are traders and trappers, personal friends of Stefansson and men of experience in the north. He had with him also two dog teams.


“I will continue north in search of land, and if at the end of fifteen days´ traveling I have not sighted any, then I will turn back,” he said to McConnell.


The latter records that this was in 70:26:4 north latitude and 140:30:7 west longitude.


When the three men set out they had with them six of the best dogs of the nineteen they had brought from Martin´s Point. They had also one sled, on which they packed 900 pounds of provisions, or enough to last them sixty days and the dogs fifty days. They were also equipped with two rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition.


The happenings of that last day on the ice before Stefansson disappeared to be gone nearly a year and a half are described in a diary kept by McConnell. Breakfast on that April 7 he records as “delicious,” and consisted of seal liver, bacon, with chocolate and biscuits. He added: “We are limiting ourselves to one biscuit per meal recently, in order that the ice party may have a good supply.”


Continuing, the diary says:

“Johansen took a sounding after breakfast and found 180 fathoms. He wanted Stefansson to send a party south under Storkensen and another north under himself, but the chief was afraid of getting separated from his men again, I think, as he would not send them away from the camp. There was lots of time to have done this in, and every one was willing to go.


Sounding on Continental Shelf.

“This is a very interesting spot, this Continental shelf, and I would like to see the professor get a full series of soundings before he goes ashore, as he has not been able to secure much scientific data to offset what he characterizes as the hardships of the trip. Going abruptly form 30 and 35 to 70, 140, and even 180 fathoms is enough to make even an ordinary man sit up and take notice.


“There was very little to do, as we were all waiting for Stefansson to finish writing, Strokensen took an observation – 70 degrees 20 minutes 4 seconds north latitude; 140 degrees 30 minutes 7 seconds west longitude – so we will probably land on Canadian soil, if a southeast wind does not carry us west.***

We are taking two and one-half bundles of fish, and some oatmeal and lard for the dogs and plenty of everything except pemmican for ourselves. They are taking all but twelve pounds of the pemmican, as their fuel will not last long. Ours will probably last ten days, and we ought to be ashore by that time.


“Crawford, who took Captain Bernard´s place after he was injured, is to have charge of the returning party. Johansen is to have twenty hours at his disposal for scientific research, and at the same time we are to travel as rapidly as  possible due south, so as to reach shore before a southeast or southwest wind comes along and blows us out to sea, as it did off Martin´s Point.


“Stefansson called us all into the tent at one time or another for general and specific instructions. Just before starting he called in Crawford, Johansen, and me at one time and read the written instructions that Crawford is to be governed by.


“I then reminded him of something he had forgotten to write to Dr. Anderson about, and the start was delayed another half hour. We finally started at 4:35. Stefansson accompanied us a little way and then returned to camp, as his sled was about ready. Johansen was to take soundings every half a mile or so while on the edge of the shelf, but he did not attempt to do so. We went south about half a mile and stopped at the lead there, and Johansen prepared to take his first sounding. He only has about 145 fathoms of line, and I do not see how he is going to reach bottom.


“When we stopped Crawford went to the edge of the ice to test its strength, and lost his ice spear in the lead. He then went to look for a trail over a pressure ridge while Johansen made his preparations.


“After he had gone the handle of the spear appeared about six inches above the water and I immediately tied a dog chain to twenty fathoms of sounding line and tried to lasso this valuable piece of road-cutting machinery. After I had made half a dozen tests and had got the range, about forty feet, the dogs suddenly took a notion to start, and off they went before either of us could stop them. I dropped the line and ran to stop them, and it sank, so Johansen now has only 125 fathoms. He could not reach bottom with this, so we proceeded.


“Stefansson started at 5 P.M. I watched them through the glasses. The last I saw of Stefansson was when he topped a pressure ridge. He did not look behind or wave his hand, nor did his companions as they passed from view.”


McConnell returned to civilization with those of Stefansson´s party and those belonging to Dr. Anderson´s party joined him at Collinson Point. Afterward McConnell went to Clarence Bay and took an inventory of articles on the North Star. Stefansson had intended this vessel to go to Banks Land, there to await his coming. Instead of going there, however, Dr. Anderson dispatched the Mary Sachs.


The loss of the Karluk is a separate chapter. The vessel was broken up b the ice and sank. The men got ashore near Wrangel Island. The party separated and eight started for the island. When the reminder finally got there the eight had disappeared and their fate is uncertain to this  day. Captain Bartlett and fifteen men got to the island in February. Two men died in camp and the remainder were finally rescued by Captain Olaf Swenson of the schooner Wing and Wing.