Split-the-Wind

Split-the-Wind

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Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1915

The Canadian Arctic Expedition, organized in July, 1913 under the leadership of explorer and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was designed to be the most comprehensive scientific study of the Arctic ever attempted, comprised of a multi-pronged approach to researching and documenting the most northerly reaches of the North American continent. Stefansson organized and directed the expedition to explore the regions west of Parry Archipelago for the Government of Canada. Three ships, the Karluk, the Mary Sachs, and the Alaska were employed. All three expedition ships were frozen into the ice before they could reach their initial destination of Herschel Island, and the flagship of the expedition, the Karluk, was eventually crushed by the ice. Eleven members of the expedition were lost before the remaining members were rescued by the Revenue Cutter Bear.

Scientists of many disciplines, and from several countries, had answered the call and joined the expedition, and while many of them lost their lives, most returned almost four years later with thousands of artifacts, specimens, photos, film and sound recordings; scientific data and valuable knowledge which has been used in Arctic science and research ever since.

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Photograph of the expedition ship Karluk fast in the ice, about 15 miles west of Manning Point, Alaska, August 1913.An umiak hangs in slings below the bowsprit.

The Canadian Museum of History features an excellent online exhibit detailing the Canadian Arctic Expedition, noting:

“Much of the story of this first major Canadian scientific expedition to the Arctic is yet untold. Though fourteen volumes of scientific data were published, and books have been written on the most tragic or adventuresome parts of the Expedition, much of the fascinating story has remained buried in Expedition diaries until now. Through this virtual exhibition you can explore first-hand the rugged lands and meet the people of the Canadian Arctic.”

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Natkusiak, Emiu and Karsten Andersen in front of a long expedition sled, Borden Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, May, 1916.

One of the most compelling books to come out of the Canadian Arctic Expedition was written by Harold Noice, who joined as a sailor and crew member on the schooner Polar Bearwhen she left Seattle in March 1915. Noice maintained a detailed diary during his time with Stefansson’s exploration party, and was with the intrepid explorer during the discovery of new lands in 1916 and 1917.

In 1924 Harold Noice published an account of his adventures with the Canadian Arctic Expedition, titled With Stefansson in the Arctic. In his book, Noice told of an Inupiat guide for Vilhjalmer Stefannsson’s expeditions named Emiu, who was also known as “Split-the-Wind” due to his fondness for fast dogteams.

Originally from Cape Nome, and formerly a cabin boy on the schooner Polar Bear, Emiu took part in all of the ‘New Land’ sled trips in the Arctic islands between 1916 and 1918. Emiu had, according to Noice, spent two years in Seattle and most of the rest of his life in Nome, Alaska.

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Emui (Split-the-Wind) with one of his dogs, on M’Clure Strait, south of Melville Island, N.W.T. April 10, 1916.

“Split was a game little fellow, like a compact bundle of fine steel wires. He had a habit of pulling his belt tight which made him look even more gaunt than he was, and at camp-time he used to delight in talking about the fine beefsteaks we would order when we finally got back to civilization.”

“Split told us… how on such a date he had trained the team of racing dogs that won the All Alaska Sweepstakes in so many hours, ‘Twenty-three minutes and eighty-nine seconds flat!’” A search of the All Alaska Sweepstakes race results for the early years of the race does not show a team finishing within that specific time configuration, and the available finishes do not include a time for 24 minutes and 29 seconds, which is what the adjusted time would be.

Split was one of several former members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition who succumbed to the influenza epidemic of 1918. According to Noice “Little Split died of influenza a few days after he reached Nome.”

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Dog sleds of the Stefannson-Anderson Canadian-Arctic Expedition, built in Nome, Alaska, 1913.

For the most part, Split-the-Wind has all but disappeared from the annals of history; references to the speedy little musher are difficult to find, and photos of him are rare. Unfortunately this was not an unusual development in early Alaska, when photographers needed to be selective about how they utilized photographic equipment and materials which were difficult to move and to use in the extreme northern weather conditions.

A passing mention of Split-the-Wind is found at the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance site,  as one of an elite group of Alaskan mushers: “An assortment of travelers used the Trail. The majority were prospectors, trappers, or Natives who traveled—often without dogs or with one or two to help pull a sledload of supplies—to isolated cabins. A surprising number walked along the Trail. The hero of the Trail, however, was the dogsled team and driver.

“These noteworthies earned nicknames befitting the men who raced along the Trail carrying fresh eggs or oranges, mail or express, or shipments of gold—Frank Tondreau, known from Belfast to Point Barrow as the Malemute Kid; the famous racer John “Iron Man” Johnson and his indefatigable Siberians; Captain Ulysses Grant Norton, the tireless Trojan of the trails; the Eskimo, Split-the-Wind; and the wandering Japanese, Jujira Wada. All were welcomed in the camps and became often interviewed celebrities.”

There’s another brief mention of this remarkable musher in the bookAmerica’s Forgotten Pandemic: the Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby, who is Professor Emeritus in American Studies, History and Geography at the University of Texas at Austin. Crosby explains that between August, 1918 and March, 1919 the Spanish influenza spread worldwide, claiming between 50 and 130 million lives, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. In a strange twist, nearly half of those affected by the disease were healthy young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, and as the pandemic spread through the Eskimo communities around Nome it had devastating results.

Of the intrepid Emiu, Crosby writes: “One Eskimo who died was a twenty-five-year-old named Split-the-Wind, known as the greatest musher that Alaska had ever produced. He had survived incredible hardships while guiding Vilhjalmer Stefannsson, the great explorer, in the deep Arctic, eating snowshoe lacings when there was nothing better; but now he was dead of Spanish influenza, along with 750 other Eskimos of the Seward Peninsula.”   ~•~

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About Helen Hegener

I write nonfiction books about Alaskan history, and my titles currently include Alaska & The Klondike, The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923, Alaskan Roadhouses, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail, The Matanuska Colony Barns, and many others. You can contact me via email at helenhegener@gmail.com
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