Across Alaska in 1907-08

Last fall I shared an article about the Arctic explorer Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, a joint commander, with the Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, of the 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that there was no land north of Alaska. In a dog sledge journey over the ice they took soundings and succeeded in determining the position of the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean, 65 miles offshore, where within two miles the sea dropped away from 164 feet in depth to more than 2,264 feet.

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Ejnar Mikkelsen

In October 1907, his work for the expedition completed, Ejnar Mikkelsen set out on a formidable journey home, which would take him west along the Arctic coast from Flaxman Island, where he left Leffingwell to continue doing scientific research and mapping. Mikkelsen’s trail led to Barrow, Nome, Fort Gibbon, Manley Hot Springs, Fairbanks, and then down the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail to Valdez, where he boarded a ship for home. The first part of his journey was made by dogsled, the second half riding in the horse-drawn sledges which travelled the winter trails.

Mikkelsen’s entire trip was detailed in his book Conquering the Arctic Ice, published in London in 1909 by William Heinemann. The trip from the Arctic coast to Valdez comprises the last four chapters of the book.

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Conquering the Arctic Ice

Selected excerpts from Chapter X: THE SLEDGE TRIP FROM FLAXMAN ISLAND TO ICY CAPE

Neither Mr. Leffingwell nor myself felt particularly cheerful, and in spite of his assurances I could not but feel that it was not quite right for me to leave him behind with but one man to assist him. But he insisted it was all right, that he would not dream of keeping me in the country for his sake, that he could not see what work worth doing I could do under the circumstances, and once more my doubts were dissipated. We spent a considerable time in looking at the map, and I think that I almost enjoyed the prospects of the long march. At any rate there promised to be excitement on the trip, and although the road might prove long and hard, I preferred that to a year of inactivity. A big dinner was prepared. Mr. Leffingwell brought out some cigars which his father had sent, and while smoking we listened to a concert of selections from the great masters of music, performed on the gramophone, the machine which had made so many long hours pass pleasantly by.

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Homeward bound

Crossing Harrison’s Bay: We kept on till after dark, hoping to reach the other side of the bay, but the night fell, we stumbled on and on, until at last we could not see to walk any further and had to camp on the ice, which was less than a foot thick. It was a very unpleasant sensation, the ice bent under us, and we knew that a pressure during the night might open up the ice underneath us. Every thing we had by way of long pieces of wood, our snow-shoes, skis, some of the tent poles, ice spears, etc., were placed on the ice to give a better support ; then we crawled into our sleeping bags, trying as best we could to keep the small flame of our stove burning.

It was still too early in the day for camping, the trail to Point Barrow was yet long, our sledges were emptier than I cared to think about, our dogs footsore and tired, and we had to move on against the increasing wind, which cut through our clothing, froze our wrists and faces, and made traveling hard. We kept on driving till after dark, as there was plenty of wood about, and we wanted to make as long marches as possible. Besides, it was so bitterly cold that the thought of having to pitch tent was far from tempting, and we consequently put it off as long as possible, till at last the darkness forced us to camp.

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Native houses at Pitt Point

At the settlement of Pitt Point: The natives were very kind to us. They unlashed our sledges, took everything into the houses and fed our dogs, while a pot of coffee and some seal meat was placed on the stove in almost every cabin of the village, and the mistress of each was waiting and eager to have us come to her house and eat the meal she had prepared. And then they began to ask us where we came from, what kind of a trip we had had, and where we were going. When I showed them my destination on a map they would not believe me ; it was much too far— ” Oh, no, white man plenty lie!”

Manley Hot Springs Hotel

From later in the book.

On Wednesday, November 20, I left the kind people at Wainwright and started alone for Icy Cape. At first all went well, but then I struck some rough ice and had an awful time. I had to go ahead to break the trail, and the sledge, being thus unguarded, capsized time after time, was run into a snowdrift, or brought up against a sharp piece of ice. Whenever any of these things happened, as they very often did, I had to go back to the sledge, right it, dig it out of the snow, or disentangle it from the ice, as the case might be. The dogs had now learned to follow my every movement, and when I had to attend to the sledge they at once rushed after me and got their traces badly tangled. In their endeavours to get out of their difficulty they would then bite them in two, and when the sledge was ready to move I had to disentangle the traces of my nine dogs, which were always in a hopeless state of confusion. Then I had to knot together the chewed traces, take the hauling straps over my shoulder, and start the sledge from ahead of the dogs. For two minutes all might go well; then again I would have a capsized sledge, and the same trouble would begin afresh.

At Icy Cape: A young man, Oojooaktok, wanted to go down the coast, and we soon agreed that he and I should travel together. He was a nice fellow, and I never had any reason to regret our association, as he was not only clever, but also helpful and willing. Oojooaktok knew what he was about when he came and asked for permission to travel with me, for a herd of reindeer were expected at Icy Cape, and some young men were wanted as apprentices. He reasoned that Mr. Evans, the assistant superintendent of the reindeer herds of Alaska, would thus have the opportunity of seeing him before any of the other young men who stayed at Icy Cape. He wanted to go with me until we reached the herds, then he would go back with them.

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Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen, can be read free online at the Internet Archive.

About Helen Hegener

Author and publisher, Northern Light Media.
This entry was posted in Alaska History, Book Reviews, Books, Explorers, News & Information and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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