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Northern People, Northern Knowledge - 
The Story Of The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913 - 1918
The People of the CAE: Leaders, Scientists, Captains And Crews, Local Assistants
Northern Party | Southern Party | The Karluk
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Northern Party

Vilhjalmur Stefansson ("the Commander")


Stefansson and Bartlett on the bridge of HMCS Karluk

Born in Arnes, Manitoba in 1879, Stefansson was the son of Icelandic immigrants who moved to North Dakota, USA, the year after his birth. He first experienced the Arctic in 1906 when he travelled to Alaska to join the Anglo-American Polar Expedition as Ethnologist. Stefansson spent four years in the western Arctic with R. M. Anderson during the 1908-1912 Stefansson-Anderson Expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and the Geological Survey of Canada. It was during this expedition that he developed a relationship with Pannigabluk, with whom he had a son, Alex, born in 1910. His book on this expedition, My Life with the Eskimos (1913) was published just as his second major expedition was beginning.

The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918 was due to the inspiration of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Initially, Stefansson planned to continue the anthropological work he had begun in the western Arctic during the earlier Stefansson-Anderson Expedition. When he decided to include the exploration for unknown lands in the Beaufort Sea, he presented his plans to Ottawa for support. Aware of the sovereignty issues raised by the potential discovery of new islands in the Canadian Arctic, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden arranged to fund the Expedition as a Canadian enterprise. Stefansson declined to accept a government salary; instead he chose to live from the proceeds of selling magazine articles and books.

Stefansson was not a successful leader of the new large and complicated expedition. He was much more successful as an Arctic traveller than as a scientist. Once his objectives focused on new lands, he contributed little to the scientific objectives of the Expedition. Hundreds of the specimens and artifacts collected under his name arrived in Ottawa without information on where or when they were collected. Controversies over Stefansson's ideas on supplies, techniques of living in the Arctic, and use of expedition ships and equipment dogged the Expedition before it left Victoria, and continued to cause problems through to the end. Stefansson clashed with many of the scientists and crew of the Expedition, but all recognized his ability to travel and hunt over the ocean ice.

CMC CD96-649-030

V. Stefansson, "The Commander", with binoculars, gun, and sunglasses. Possibly on Meighen Island, Nunavut. June ? 1916. VS 50689. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

CMC CD96-651-017

V. Stefansson hauling a seal to ice-trip camp north of Martin Point, northern Alaska. March 25, 1914. GHW 50776. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

CMC CD95-953-007

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Canadian Arctic Expedition leader, Collinson Point, northern Alaska. March 16, 1914. FJ 42170. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

After the CAE
Stefansson suffered a near fatal bout of typhoid fever and pneumonia in 1918 at the end of his time as leader of the Expedition. After recovery in a Yukon hospital, he returned to the United States, where his career as author and lecturer began. He never returned to the Arctic. His book, The Friendly Arctic, stirred up much controversy among the Southern Party scientists. In it he accused them of disloyalty and disobedience. Their collective indignant responses in 1921 and 1922 to his published charge created ill feeling toward him, which has lingered in Canada to this day. Criticism about the tragic Wrangel Island Expedition, which he organized in 1921, added to it. His failure to prepare an account of the activities and scientific findings of his Northern Party has left a gap in the CAE Report Series. Volume 1, the Narrative of the Expedition, and Volume 2, Birds and Mammals, were never written, partly due to strained relations between Stefansson and Anderson, the expedition leaders. Stefansson died in 1962 in New Hampshire.

Stefansson was honoured by polar and exploration societies worldwide and received many honours during his life. He was featured on a U.S. stamp in 1986. In Canada, eight geographic features have been named in his honour: two lakes, two creeks, a mountain, a township in Ontario, a large island on the northeast side of Victoria Island, and the northernmost point of land he discovered on Meighen Island.


First Day Cover of 1986 U.S. stamp honouring Stefansson as an Arctic explorer. Source: David Gray


Cover (dust jacket) of The Friendly Arctic. Source: Canadian Museum of Nature