Retracing the western Arctic Canadian Arctic Expedition route
Text and Photos by David R. Gray
The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition is worth celebrating. It was a Canadian journey into the then mysterious Arctic, whose findings built southern Canada’s and the world’s foundation of Arctic knowledge.
A small group of us set out last summer to retrace part of the route of the CAE in the western Arctic, starting at Sachs Harbour, and then sailing up the west coast of Banks Island. There we planned to visit several CAE camps to film and document the remaining evidence of their story. Because of warming temperatures, this coast is no more accessible by boat, less protected by ice, and waves are ravaging the old CAE camps, swallowing artefacts and any remaining traces of their history.
However, having raised the dollars needed through generous supporters and donors by crowd-funding, we arrived at Sachs Harbour only to find that the ice still filled the straits and clung to the west coast, making our journey impossible. In fact, Bob Bernard, captain of our expedition sailboat, the Bernard Explorer, having sailed from southern Alaska could not meet us in Sachs Harbour because of ice blocking his traverse of the Northwest Passage.
Before I tell the story of our revised expedition, let me introduce the members of our expedition.
My own passion for the CAE began when I discovered unknown CAE records at the Canadian Museum of Nature in the 1970s and gradually grew as I travelled to the western Arctic and interviewed the descendants of Expedition members as part of my research for a virtual museum exhibit on the CAE. Having fully explored the relevant archives, it was now time to visit, and document for the first time, some of the actual sites used by the CAE.
Captain Bob Bernard of Alaska, great great nephew of Captain Peter Bernard of the CAE schooner, Mary Sachs, grew up hearing stories about the Expedition including the mystery of his great uncle’s disappearance on the north coast of Banks Island in 1917. His interest in searching for Peter’s remains, and the mailbags he was carrying at the time, were the catalyst for our summer expedition.
Paul Krecji, professor at the University of Alaska, joined as crew of Bob’s 40-foot sailboat. Paul’s research interests include the spread of musical traditions across the Arctic and the Arctic exploits of Joe Bernard, Captain Peter’s nephew.
Mitzi Dodd, great-great niece of Captain Peter Bernard, had never been to the Arctic, but had researched the Bernard family history, and was especially intrigued by their Arctic adventures.
Mack Macdonald, a good friend and experienced outdoorsman, joined our group as technical support and safety advisor.
In Sachs Harbour, Kyle Wolki and John Lucas Jr. joined our team. They accompanied us to our research site at Mary Sachs Creek, just six kilometres west of the town. The village of Sachs Harbour didn’t exist at the time of the CAE, but grew up near where the schooner Mary Sachs was abandoned.
Mitzi, Kyle, John, Mack and I spent a great deal of time at the old Expedition headquarters site, now simply known as “Mary Sachs.” There we established the locations of the old dwellings and remaining artefacts in preparation for the first detailed map of the site.
Later John Lucas Sr. and his wife Samantha came onboard as our guides and wildlife monitors. Like almost everyone in the village, their ancestors too were involved with the CAE. They were pleased that someone from the outside knew their background and was excited about their local history.
Samantha’s grandmother was Violet Mamayuak, who was part of the Expedition, and travelled on the schooner Polar Bear to Victoria Island. She married Henry Gonzales, who was the ship’s captain, and who seems to have been responsible for wrecking the Mary Sachs.
Roger Kuptana with his wife Jackie run the Polar Grizz Guesthouse where we stayed. They shared with me stories of his father, William, who was a member of the CAE as a young boy. He was either “traded” or adopted to William and Annie Seymour, who were on the CAE ship, Polar Bear.
We also visited Elders Lena Wolki (Kyle’s nanak or grandmother) and Edith Haogak, sisters, and daughters of Susie Tiktalik, who visited the Expedition camp with her parents in 1915 or 1916. She travelled all over the Island on foot with her family. Edith told us about some of the local people who worked for the CAE. It was especially interesting because I knew these same people from Expedition diaries.
We revisited the Mary Sachs site after a storm and the beach had changed a lot. We found a newly uncovered old engine head from the Mary Sachs almost buried in the sand below the mound where the ship’s wheelhouse had been placed in 1917.
At the same time, the southern part of our expedition, Captain Bob and Paul, were held up by ice just west of Point Barrow, Alaska, for a couple of days, but visited and photographed the remnants of the CAE house at Collinson Point, where the CAE overwintered in 1913.
With the boat delayed, we planned to head north with John, Samantha, and John Jr. in their 18-foot aluminum outboards. Samantha was appointed the official “Expedition Seamstress” — the same role as her grandmother on the CAE! We left on a clear and calm day, but encountered the same problems that the Mary Sachs ran into 99 years ago in exactly the same place. We got as far as the end of the Cape Kellet sandspit. There the ice had pushed right into the beach and extended out as far as we could see. We landed, climbed the bluffs to look at the distant ice situation, and then reluctantly agreed that there was no chance of getting through at the shoreline or by circling way out to sea.
The crew of the Mary Sachs also climbed the bluffs back in 1914, hoping to find a way through the ice, and then retreated back to establish their camp at Mary Sachs Creek. So we did the same. It was a rewarding day of historical research. We focused on the beach area where we had found the third engine head, and found a part of the same engine, and a cast-iron wood-stove door.
When the Northern CAE Party under George Wilkins had established their camp at Mary Sachs Creek in September 1914, they wanted to head north up the west coast of Banks Island to look for Stefansson and his two companions who crossed the Beaufort Sea ice from Alaska. Wilkins tried to get around Cape Kellet with the Mary Sachs and could not. They tried with a smaller boat and could not, so Peter Bernard devised a wheeled “dog cart” from a dog sled and off they went. Our story is similar. We couldn’t get around the same Cape with smaller boats so we decided to make the journey overland, but by ATVs.
We travelled north on the high ground inland rather than the coast because of the myriad of rivers, streams, gullies and “swamps” nearer the coast. We saw lots of wildlife: hundreds of Snow Geese; several pairs of Sandhill Cranes; a brownish version of the Whooping Crane whose calls are wonderfully wild and carry great distances; two curious Peary caribou bulls; lots of Snowy Owls hanging around the moulting Snow Geese; a herd of muskoxen, too concerned about the courtship of the herd bull to pay much heed to us; a lone wolf on the horizon; and an Arctic fox that hightailed it as soon as we appeared over the horizon.
We had a fast drive down the sandy banks of the Sea Otter River to our first destination at Sea Otter Harbour. As we arrived and set up camp, the fog rolled in from the sea. I was able to investigate a small old campsite close by, where old tin cans, bones of seal, fox and polar bear were numerous. The Canadian Arctic Expedition passed this way many times preparing the way for Stefansson’s quest for new northern lands.
And then it was on to Meek Point and Terror Island, both named by Captain McClure during the search for Sir John Franklin. Terror Island, named for Franklin’s ship, was used by the CAE as a site for caching supplies on their way north in 1917. Storkersen, Stefansson’s able assistant and travelling companion, had established his “Half-Way Station” here in the winter of 1914-1915.
We did a quick survey of the historic camping site at North Star Harbour before going to a small cabin for a late meal. We drove north up to the high ground where we could overlook Storkerson Bay, named by Stefansson. From there we could see Terror Island shining in the sun and encircled by ice, and Storkerson Bay completely ice-choked. I spotted a pile of rocks that looked man-made, realizing that this pile could have been one of the meat caches made by men of the CAE.
While we were on our northern exploration, Bob and Paul on the Bernard Explorer were photographing sites where the CAE travelled on the mainland, including Cape Bathurst and the Smoking Hills near the Horton River.
After our return from the north, we visited Blue Fox Harbour, not occupied or named at the time of the CAE. The Expedition men would have passed this point many times on their way north and may have camped here. This was where Fred Wolki constructed a building with materials salvaged from the wreck of the Mary Sachs. Fred was a young member of the CAE’s last ice trip in 1918 when Storkersen headed out from Alaska to drift on the moving ice for several months. We found the place where we think Fred built his “house.” Up to the 1950s people used Blue Fox extensively, so there is a lot of fairly recent “stuff ” on the ground. One unusual item was a broken gramophone record, lying amongst the tin cans, fox bones and polar bear jaws.
On a low hill above the site we found Fred’s grave with the original wooden marker and a relatively new marble headstone placed there by his family. We discovered later that while we were visiting Fred’s grave, Bob and Paul were visiting Pipsuk’s grave in Alaska. He was the last member of the CAE to die, drowned while tending a fish net in 1918. He and Fred were both working for the CAE at the same time in 1918.
Back in Sachs Harbour and on our last day, a polar bear showed up on the beach right below town. It was escorted into the sea and encouraged to leave town. I could still see the bear from the hotel window when I called my 94-year-old mother to wish her a Happy Birthday. She was the major contributor to our 2013 Canadian Arctic Expedition and is still excited to be an Arctic Expedition sponsor. She asked if we would return to continue the journey. I said we just might.
David Gray is an independent researcher, writer, and filmmaker, specializing in Arctic subjects, including Arctic parks, mammals, and history, especially the story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918.