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The Story Of The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913 - 1918
Canada's little Arctic Navy: The Ships of the Expedition
Karluk | Alaska | Mary Sachs | Polar Bear | North Star | Challenge | Gladiator | Umiak and launches
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The schooner Alaska was the only one of the six ships purchased for the expedition that served from start to finish. The story of her four years with the expedition is outlined in the expedition reports but comes to life in the daily journals of Dr. R.M. Anderson, leader of the Southern Party, who directed her Canadian career, her captains Nahmens and Sweeney, and her engineer Blue.

The Alaska was a 47-ton, 57.5-foot wooden auxiliary schooner with a 50-horsepower gasoline engine. It was built in Seattle in 1912 for the Bering Sea trade and to carry the United States mail to Kotzebue Sound. She and a new sister ship, the Arctic, were originally owned by Ira Rank, an American businessman working out of Nome and Seattle. The selling price was $8,000, which was to include all her deck gear and tools.


The CAE schooner Alaska, broadside view. Source: David Gray


The CAE schooner Alaska, bow view. Source: David Gray.

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The CAE schooner Alaska loading, as seen from above its bow, Nome, Alaska. July 1913. JRC 39474. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization


Letterhead of U.S. Mercantile Company, Nome, Alaska (former owners of the vessel Alaska). Source: Canadian Museum of Nature

As a new "Canadian Government Ship" C.G.S. Alaska left Nome on July 19 and arrived at Teller, Alaska five days later with her engine in bad shape. The departure of the Karluk and the expedition's other auxiliary schooner, the Mary Sachs, was delayed so the Karluk's engineer could assist in dismantling and overhauling Alaska's engine. A propeller change also required that Alaska be unloaded and hauled up, causing a further delay. Alaska finally got away on August 11, but plagued by engine trouble, made little headway under sail. "August 14. Captain [Nahmens] threatened... that unless engines could be made to work... he would head ship into Kotzebue Sound and throw up the job". Fortunately for the Expedition, the problem – salt water in the starboard fuel tank – was solved and "after that the engine ran smoothly" (R.M. Anderson Diary August 1913).

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Dr. R.M. Anderson on watch as CAE schooner Alaska approaches floe ice; man in bow (Johansen?) checking water depths, northern Alaska. August 19? 1913. JJO 38387. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Nine vessels attempting to reach Herschel Island in 1913 were stopped by the severe ice conditions off the Alaskan north coast. Alaska and Mary Sachs got as far as Collinson Point on the north coast of Alaska, near the Alaska-Yukon boundary, where Alaska was caught in heavy slush ice and frozen in for the winter by mid-September.

It was not until early July, 1914 that Alaska was again floating free in the harbour. Following more repairs to the propeller, Alaska left Collinson Point on July 25, and reached Herschel Island, Yukon on August 5, just ahead of Mary Sachs. These Expedition vessels were the first to come into Canadian waters in the western Arctic flying the Canadian flag. Alaska sailed east from Herschel Island in mid-August and reached Bernard Harbour, where the headquarters of the CAE was established, two weeks later.

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View from shore of cargo being loaded onto Alaska, with seven men, two rowboats, canoe, boxes, Collinson Point, northern Alaska. July 23? 1914. RMA 39193. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Alaska at Herschel Island (Mary Sachs behind it on left), Yukon Territory. August 10? 1914. GHW 51432. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Propeller Repair

After unloading the cargo of Alaska it was necessary once again to haul her up on the beach, this time to repair a broken propeller. "Mr. Blue [engineer] nearly froze doing it as propeller was under water, and he had to work in about three feet of water and stoop down until his chin was submerged. Worked all forenoon trying to get Alaska out of the mud in which she had settled and stuck fast" (R.M. Anderson Diary, September 1914).

Alaska headed west again on September 6, to collect driftwood and coal from a cache at the Baillie Islands. Anderson decided to take Alaska on to Herschel Island to pick up more fuel and other supplies. Alaska reached Herschel Island, loaded the cargo, and arrived back at Baillie Islands in mid-September, in the midst of the worst storm of the season. Precious hours were spent digging out fuel drums and coal sacks that had been buried by the sand washed up by waves and the storm tide.

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Deck of CGS Alaska, seen from the masthead, during the crossing of Mackenzie Bay, west side of Mackenzie Delta, Yukon Territory. September 14, 1914. RMA 38737. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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CAE fuel drums left on the beach by Captain Louis Lane, CAE schooner Mary Sachs anchored offshore, Baillie Islands, N.W.T. August 18, 1914. GHW 50841. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

In trying to turn around in the narrow anchorage, the bow of the Alaska ran lightly aground in the mud. With the falling of the westerly wind, the storm tide fell rapidly and attempts to kedge her off were unsuccessful. The Alaska was soon settled hard aground. The whole cargo had to be unloaded and the schooner finally floated free four days later. But it was too late. With increasing darkness and new ice forming, Anderson put the ship into winter quarters behind the end of the Cape Bathurst sandspit. Captain Daniel Sweeney, who had joined as master the previous winter, engineer Daniel Blue, and Mike Siberia their assistant, stayed with Alaska as ship-keepers for the winter. Anderson returned to Bernard Harbour by dog sled.

The year 1915 began with the building of a snow-house around the Alaska's stern to keep the men warm while they dug down through the ice to the propeller. Blue hoped to remove the propeller and cut it down to a more appropriate size for the Alaska. However, the hole filled with water and the project was abandoned.

Following a long struggle with scurvy, Daniel Blue, chief engineer of the Alaska, died of pneumonia on 2 May 1915 after an illness of ten days.

Alaska came up out of her winter bed in the ice on 15 May and preparations began for her summer trip. Mike and Jacobsen began the long, frustrating job of getting Alaska's engine running. Twenty-three days later, Jacobsen was "paid off" with $5.00 cash, 4 sacks of flour, 1 lb. of tobacco, 2 lb. of soap and the late Mr. Blue's caribou skin shirt. But the engine was still not running. Eventually it was decided that the gasoline brought in last year was at fault and that they would have to sail to Herschel Island.

The ice left the shore on 10 July and Alaska had her first grounding of 1915 as she tried to go out of the harbour. She worked her way through the ice for three days, spent eight hours hung up on a reef, and finally reached Herschel Island. At Herschel, the engineer of the Gladiator began work on Alaska's engine. Three days and $50.00 later, it was finally in running order. When the long-awaited expedition cargo arrived on the Ruby on 21 August, the crew worked until midnight to get Alaska loaded and they put to sea at 2 a.m. On board were a new engineer, Mr. J.E. Hoff, Mike's wife Cis and children, three other Inuit, and Corporal W.V. Bruce of the RNWMP, who was to investigate the disappearance of two priests thought to have been killed by Inuit. Alaska arrived at Bernard Harbour on 5 September and was soon frozen in.

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Alaska in winter quarters, viewed in sunlight from near its stern, Bernard Harbour, Nunavut. February 28, 1916. RMA 38757. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization


The next summer, after several days of cutting and blasting of ice, Alaska floated free on 23 June 1916. Sporting a bright new coat of paint and carrying more than a full load, Alaska left Bernard Harbour on 13 July, and arrived at Herschel Island at the end of August. With a more managable load and fewer people, she was soon on her way to Nome.

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Blasting ice from around CGS Alaska, umiak and six men on ice, one on the vessel, Bernard Harbour, Nunavut. June 24, 1916. GHW 51609. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Loading the Alaska (view from shore); a dory takes fuel drums to the ship before it sails west to Nome. 1916. GHW 51269. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Alaska leaving Bernard Harbour, looking northward from shore, with house and pole used for wind-measuring device. GHW 51279. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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View of mast and deck of Alaska, with Dr. Anderson and Cox among the group of seven men on deck, maybe also Ikey Bolt. Deck loaded, with several dogs, en route west to Herschel Island, Amundsen Gulf, N.W.T. July 1916. GHW 51668. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Men on deck of Alaska; from left: an Inuk, Dr. Anderson (hands on hips), Cox, Hudson's Bay Company man?, Jenness? in white parka, O'Neill?, Johansen? and two RNWMP, Herschel Island, Yukon Territory. August 4, 1916. GHW 51371. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

More Troubles

The Alaska encountered heavy ice practically all the way west from the international boundary to Point Barrow, Alaska. After passing the Point, Alaska suddenly ran into trouble. "Ship leaking suddenly worse than usual, and engine room flooded. Pump not working well. Engine finally stopped. Engineer became discouraged and claimed he could do nothing to start up again, but after quite a bit of dragging around the limber-chains pulled through, and we then pumped the water down a little. Engineer then started engine again, and we reached Point Hope." (R.M. Anderson Diary, August 1916).

Continuing across the outside of Kotzebue Sound, they passed into the Bering Sea at the beginning of a heavy gale, on the evening of 11 August. "Crept along the coast in a terrific gale blowing straight down from the precipitous cliffs. It was about all we could do to hold up to it. Sometimes we would fall off a little and start to drift across the Bering sea, but ultimately headed the ship's nose into a little bight [bay]...and dropped both anchors" (R.M. Anderson Diary, August 1916). As the gale continued, they were forced to anchor for some time under the cliffs at Tin City and again behind Sledge Island, near Nome.

Alaska finally reached Nome again in mid-August 1916. There Alaska was hauled up on the beach, in good shape except for the engine and the leakage around the stuffing-box. The extensive collections made by the party in geology, ethnology, biology, and photography, and the records of the Southern Party, were thus landed safely at Nome. Alaska had her troubles with shallow waters, a balky engine, and the Arctic ice, but she successfully completed her mission as a flagship of the Southern Party of the Canadian Arctic Expedition.


CGS Alaska in Winter 1914; original watercolour by David Gray, 1987. Source: Canadian Museum of Nature

Alaska was put up for sale at Nome at a price of $5,000, but there were no takers. In May 1919 a buyer was finally found and Alaska was sold to L. Seidenverg, through the Alaska Lighterage and Commercial Company, for $3,150. Under new ownership, she resumed her work along the Alaskan coast.