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The Story Of The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913 - 1918
Food - Living off the Land or Out of the Can
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Living off the Land or Out of the Can?

What did the members of the CAE eat?

Mealtimes for the members of the CAE ran the gamut of the expected… and the distasteful.


Receipt signed by Stefansson, on letterhead of Russian fur and ivory trader:
"S.S. Belvedere, Mar 19. 1914. S.S. Belvedere agrees to pay C.A.Expedition, on demand or at Herschel I. 64 Sks Flour& 4 Cs, Milk. In exchange for 20 kegs salt beef used S.S. Belvedere, Certified correct by S.F. Cottle Master S.S. Belvedere, & V. Stefansson. Executive Head of the C.A. Expedition."
Source: Canadian Museum of Nature

Off the Land

"When I returned home Billy [Natkusiak] had a supper of wolf meat cooked for me. Wolf meat is fine eating and somewhat resembles chicken, but as usual the thoughts of taking some unaccustomed food was repugnant to me but never-the-less I enjoyed the supper, and any more wolf meat that we have will not go to waste if I am hungry" (Wilkins Diary, September 1914, northern Banks Island).

Out of the Can

"Have been doing a little writing today, and tired of being pestered by Pete for the menu I have made out a weekly one as follows: Sunday bacon, potatoes, carrots; Monday rice and peas; Tuesday tomatoes, string beans, sweet potatoes; Wednesday honey, cabbage; Thursday corn, mashed vegetables; Friday fish, rice, cabbage, sweet potatoes; Saturday beans, oysters, tomatoes. Every day we have some kind of dried or canned fruit and always doughnuts and preserves and butter on the side, so we are not actually starving, although we might easily die because of our food, for it is not extravagantly prepared. I can hardly blame Pete for it, for we have not enough coal to keep the stove going all day, so he has to do the best he can with two primus stoves"
(Wilkins Diary, December 1, 1915, Kellett Base).

Feeding on Fish

For the Southern Party, whose expectations of living on caribou meat were dashed when the caribou migration moved farther east along the coast, fish became a major local source of food. Anderson bought 300 pounds of dried salmon from Albert Bernhardt in Teller, Alaska, on the way north, but additional supplies of fish had to be gathered almost constantly.

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Qapqana drawing fish out of net, CAE schooners Alaska and North Star in distance, Shingle Point, Yukon. August 19, 1914. DJ 37133. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Dr. Anderson and John Cox buying fish at Shingle Point, Yukon, (west of Mackenzie River Delta). August 19, 1914. DJ 37140. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Fish-drying rack made with expedition boxes, with salmon-trout drying in sun, Bernard Harbour, Nunavut. July 20, 1915. RMA 38744. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Lake trout weighing about 35 lb caught in net at foot of Port Epworth, and Mingeouk (age about 5 yr), daughter of O'Neill's Tree River Inuk guide Mupfa, Port Epworth, Coronation Gulf, Nunavut. July 1, 1915. JJO 38554. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization


Off the Country

Although Stefansson promoted the idea of living off the country, his parties carried large amounts of food to supplement their hunting. Food supplies were a major part of the preparations of the Expedition and took up much room on the Expedition ships. For the men working from Expedition headquarters or major camps, only the variety of the food was a problem.

The men of the Northern Party were pleased to discover a cache left on Melville Island by Captain Bernier during a previous Canadian arctic survey:
"Oct 25, 1916. Have been occupied the last 3 days in repairing harnesses, making blankets for the dogs with thin fur, hauling ice and various other chores. Took a walk yesterday but saw nothing but fox and hare tracks. Storkerson Castill and Split arrived at 2 pm. today. They have been to Winter Harbor where they found a fine cache which was left by Capt. Bernier at the Arctic Expedition 1906-10. In the cache was a large variety of things which will as far as the years work is concerned will put us on easy street. There was sugar, milk, beans, peas, corn, butter, lanternes, axes, rope, sawes [?], and in fact everything one could wish for. The coal oil of which there is about 40 gal. is the best of all, with this we can with a little economy get along very well this winter and next spring" (Harold Noice Diary, 1915 - 1917, National Archives of Canada MG30 B16).

While the northern Party was out travelling on the sea ice, seals and polar bears provided the food for men and dogs. At Banks Island, and along the mainland coast, carcasses of bowhead whales killed the previous year (some by the schooner Polar Bear) provided abundant food for dogs and were a major attraction for polar bears and foxes.

  • Video:
    Stefansson dragging a seal
  • Video:
    McConnell and Storkerson skinning a seal on the ice
  • Video:
    Hunters returning to camp with Arctic hares
  • Video:
    An Inuk filling a sealskin poke with blubber.

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Storkerson and McConnell skinning a seal at the ice-trip camp, north of Martin Point, northern Alaska. March 25, 1914. GHW 50780. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Whale carcass stranded on the beach, Baillie Islands, N.W.T. August 18, 1914. GHW 50840. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Caching Food

While travelling, the advance teams made caches of supplies for those who followed. This diary note on a cache left on southern Melville Island is typical:

"Cache at Cape James Ross. Made by Storkerson, Thompson, Anderson, Illun, Picalo and myself. The cache is about 1 mi. W of the Tip of the Cape. It is in a hole chopped in the ice on the landward side of a high pressure ridge. The English Flag was lashed to an ice spear which was driven in the ice beside the cache.


130 lbs


Blanket Pants





D[ee]r. [pants]





Snow Pants


M[an]. Pemm.



Snow Shirt


D[og]. Pemm.



Fur Mitt





Wool Socks


Milk Dry



Wool Socks, Light


Condensed Milk 14 cans   Fur Socks 3
Butter 6   Fur stockings 1
Tobacco 4   Moose H Mitt 2pr
Pea Soup 5   Horse Hide 1pr
Alcohol 4 gal   Gloves 1pr
Distilate 20   Wool Mitts 2pr
Kerosene 30   Wool Duffles 7pr
Tea Tablets? 2300   Cod line 2 coils
Matches 3 cans   Ogruk line 2 coils






Harold Noice Diary, 1917 (National Archives of Canada, MG 30 B16)

Raiders of the Cache

Caches of prepared and packaged food were relatively safe from prowling wolves or polar bears. However, when fresh meat such as caribou or muskox carcasses were cached in winter, they were usually vulnerable to these predators:
"January 8th. Started out again and crossed the gulf to the other side were Storkersen had a meat cache. Dist 17 m weather good. On our arrival there, we found the cache robed by wolfs not a splinter of meat left. As I have always maintained depending on meat caches this time of year where day and night is alike and a man has got no tjans [chance] to get game if the cache faisl [fails] is fools work and poor managment and should not exist in an expedition like this. We will have to cache our loads here, and go home for dog feed" (Karsten Andersen Diary, January 1917).

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Large cache of caribou meat from one day's hunt, skis to the side, at temporary camp north of Cape Kellett, Banks Island, N.W.T. October 11, 1914. GHW 50877. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

For those travelling by dog sled in winter, the presence or absence of game was critical. When supplies began to run out and hunting was not successful, even an old garbage heap could be a potential and welcome source of food. At times men on the Northern Party were reduced to eating rotting meat from long-dead muskoxen.

"On trail 2 P.M. reached the Cape Grassy camp at 12:00 midnight. found the camp deserted. Note left here by Alignak stating that they left here the 16th. They had no meat and very little fat. they left us one gal coal oil and we found a little tea which they evidently had overlooked. We had about 1 lbs of flour left. Billy went out and found an old ox head along with the pound of flour gave us supper and a little for breakfast. Fed the dogs some old booth [boot] soles and some scraps of skin. They had nothing but soles and scraps of skin since April 24th. When we leave here we will have to depend on the country for game if we get something tomorrow we might save all our dogs. Two of which are completely played out. "Tansie" one of Seymores old dogs had to be led in he could not stand up in harness. Weather. Overcast with strong breeze from SW. Clear at midnight" (Castel Diary, April 28, 1917, Melville Island).

"Started out on an empty stomack. Billy and Storkersen went overland hunting. Castel, Ikuma and I sluged on the sleeds. Janser droped on the trail was unable to stand up any more. I put him on the sleed trying to save him as he is our old leader. We got to the snowhouse in the bay late at night all in. Storkersen and Billy was there ahead of us, they had no luck hunting. We started diging for some muskoxen carcus left here last fall, we dug all night and finaly had the luck to strike one towards morning under an 8 foot snowbank, the wolfs had eat one side, but there was still enough left for a feed for us and the dogs. It was very roten but we did not wait, went down on hand and knees and dug in with our knives to fill our stomack, when we finaly had enough we feed the poor dogs they had almost forgoten what a feed was. It come too late for Janser, he died soon after" (Karsten Andersen Diary, April 30, 1917, Melville Island).