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Frozen in Time: Exploration in Canada’s Arctic

Canada is a northern nation with a vast polar region that has held an important place in our imaginations for some time. The Arctic is a unique landscape, with terrain and phenomena that are found only in this distinct climate. Trees do not grow north of the Arctic Circle and the environment is like no other, producing bone chilling temperatures for a significant portion of the year. The Arctic is also witness to the polar night, a 24 hour state of darkness, and the midnight sun, the opposite phenomena.

The determination to explore the Arctic stemmed from a desire for expansion, discovery and research. Expeditions desperately wanted to chart new routes for trade and to claim sovereignty over newly discovered lands. Once land had been claimed, investigation turned to research and the study of the culture and practices of the local Inuit.

Nineteenth century Arctic exploration in Canada has a rich and tumultuous history that is filled with grand successes but also dismal failures. Victories came in the shape of momentous new discoveries, such as charting new islands and passages, but failures cost crews not only their dreams of discovery but often their lives. A variety of historic places designations remind us of this history of Canadian northern exploration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A century later Canadians can look back on these historic expeditions, fearless explorers, and the remains of early exploration sites and remember the triumphs and pitfalls of human encounters with Canada's far North.

Fort_CongerThe rich history of Arctic exploration is evident at Fort Conger (left), located on the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Fort Conger is comprised of three huts built in 1900 by Robert E. Peary to better enable his success in reaching the North Pole. However, the history of Fort Conger predates Peary's use. The site was a great asset to arctic expeditions and was first used in 1881 by British Captain George S. Nares, and, seven years later, by American Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. These missions both ended tragically due to poor shelter and lack of supplies. Peary's voyage almost experienced the same fate when his ship, the Windward, which he had planned to live in, did not arrive as expected at Fort Conger. Peary cunningly devised plans to build his own insulated shelter combining his knowledge of Arctic building techniques with western materials and leftover supplies from the Greely journey. While Peary's 1901-02 mission was not successful, he returned in 1909 and once again used Fort Conger as a base, this time reaching the North Pole. Over a century old, Peary's structures remain as a testament to this achievement.

Beechy islandThe Beechy Island National Historic Site of Canada (right) tells the story of an arctic expedition gone awry and the countless search attempts that followed. Sir John Franklin's 1845-46 voyage was the first to use Beechy Island as a wintering site in their pursuit of the northwest passage and during their exploration of the polar region. One of their objectives was to demystify the arctic by performing a variety of zoological, botanical, magnetic, and geological surveys, and by charting a reliable route from Europe to the Orient. This voyage was short lived, however, as their ships soon became icebound near King William Island. Franklin's expedition reached a tragic end: all of the crewmembers of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror died and very few traces of the expedition remained. With no word from the mission, concern mounted in England and many search parties followed. Although little was found of Franklin or his men, these early rescue efforts led to the mapping of a large part of the Canadian Arctic and the discovery of three northwest passages.

2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the 1913-1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition National Historic Event. The mission was of great significance in our nation's history because it was the first voyage to the western arctic to be funded by the federal government, and it was one of the biggest scientific arctic expeditions ever launched. Fraught with hardships for the crew and their vessels, the mission continued to push forward and in the end was deemed a great success. Vilhjálmur Stefánsson led the expedition in the hopes of obtaining new Arctic lands for Canada and beginning new scientific research. During the first year hopes of great discoveries were replaced by the need to learn how to survive in this harsh climate. The fate of the unlucky was often starvation and death: 12 crew members were lost in the first year.

It soon became clear that the survival of the crew would require the wisdom of the Inuit. Teams of dogs were taught to hunt and navigate the icy terrain, and knowledgeable Inuit lent their vast skills to the expedition as both hunters and crew members. Despite all of the roadblocks the Canadian Arctic Expedition only grew stronger, and this unwavering determination led to its great success. The scientists returned with thousands of animal, plant, fossil and mineral samples as well as artefacts from the Inuit culture that provided great opportunities for further research. Stefánsson himself discovered the remaining major arctic islands, another successful aspect of the mission.

Over starboard view, Franklin Expedition Ship, PArks Canada, 2014 jpgTo this day stories of exploration in the polar region continue to fascinate the world and to motivate further exploration. Until recently, the Erebus and Terror National Historic Site of Canada (left) commemorated the two ships that were lost during Franklin's failed attempt to cross the arctic in 1845. However in September 2014 Parks Canada's team located HMS Erebus, achieving a great, contemporary arctic discovery. Underwater archaeologists are at work exploring this fantastic find, and the search continues for HMS Terror.

Designations such as Fort Conger, Beechy Island, the 1913-1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson and Erebus and Terror National Historic Site of Canada help to tell the gripping story of Arctic exploration and discovery in Canada. Although not always a smooth ride, tragedy was often turned into triumph and disaster into success. Misfortune led to the discovery of three new northwest passages and adversity led to scientific breakthroughs.

These triumphs would not have been possible without the guidance of the Inuit who taught the explorers to survive in the harsh Arctic conditions, and who even offered to join the expeditions as hunters and crew members. This partnership between the Inuit and the European explorers facilitated the many successes achieved in northern exploration.

As a strong Northern country, Canada feels a unique pull towards Arctic exploration. There is great pride in this Northern landscape, in its cultural heritage, and in all the treasures that lie within it. Now a century after the Canadian Arctic Expedition, it is important to remember not only the accomplishments, but also the obstacles that led to Canada's contribution in mapping the Arctic.