Sylar and Commander Junius
Alaska North Slope, Summer 1951
Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren
25 Nov. 1975
This booklet on Arctic Alaska was written primarily for my
grandchildren to acquaint them with a little known part of
our great country and to entertain them with a few experiences
encountered while conducting surveys for charting the Alaska
coast. It was prepared with the help of my sister, Virginia
Sylar Templeman, who typed up my scribblings, and with the
advice and assistance of my good friend, Marion Curry Geoble.
Mother Nature has provided many wonders and phenomena for us
to marvel and admire, but seldom do we find such concentration
of these things as in Arctic Alaska. Here is an exciting frontier
at our very doorstep about which only a few American people
know. All too often the tales brought back by visitors, explorers,
and adventurers are embellished to the point where mere mention
of the name causes cold chills to play along one's spine. True,
it is a harsh land that takes its toll in human suffering of
the unwary, uninitiated, and even those who choose to live there.
But, all in all, it can be rewarding to those who accept it
for what it is. To watch healthy, laughing Eskimo children playing
outside during all seasons of the year makes one wonder if the
stories of hardship and tragedy we so often read about were
not brought on themselves by tellers of the tales.
My introduction to Arctic Alaska came in early February 1949
when I was given the opportunity to help chart the coastal waters
from Bering Strait to the Yukon border. This project had been
started in 1945 by the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey
under the direction of Captain Ralph W. Woodworth, and continued
to completion through 1947 to 1953 under Captain
Hubert A. Paton, Commander Robert A. Earle, and Captain
Max G. Ricketts. Up until this time Alaska's north coast
had never been investigated for ocean depths, dangers, currents,
ice free passages (in season), harbors, and other information
required for safe ship navigation and shelter. About the only
information available was what had been gathered by a few early
explorers seeking the elusive "Northwest Passage,"
and by whalers working the area around the turn of the century.
Only one comprehensive attempt to place the coast on the map
had ever been undertaken. This was done in 1907 through 1914
by Earnest deKoven Leffingwell who single-handedly, and at his
own expense, mapped the land forms and made geological studies
of an area between the Colville and Canning Rivers with minor
investigations along the length of the coast. Leffingwell's
work is legend and helped spur on the activities found there
For my part, I was to spend four working seasons (1949 through
1952) in Arctic Alaska accomplishing necessary work needed for
the compilation of charts that now exist. This involved geodetic
control surveys, the framework on which mapping is based. This
work was done during winter and early spring months while ground
travel was possible over the ice fields. The hydrographic and
topographic surveys required to complete mapping the unseen
ocean bottom, and the adjacent shoreline, were accomplished
during summer months after the ice had receded sufficiently
to allow boat travel.
AND WORKING CONDITIONS
Arctic days start about January 20th when the sun first peeks
over the southern horizon at noontime ending the long winter
night. By February 12th the hours of daylight have extended
to six, and by May 18th to twenty-four hours, thus entering
the two-month long "day of the midnight sun." The
continuous sunlight of this "day" lasts until about
July 28th when the sun starts dipping below the northern horizon
at midnight. From then on the days grow progressively shorter
until about November 24th when the sun completely disappears
in the south and the two-months long winter night again takes
over. For the most part this "night" is not as bad
as one is led to believe. Much of it is twilight which allows
outdoor activities, even hunting, under reasonable conditions.
Winter freezing generally starts about mid-September at which
time the coastal seawater temperature has dropped to 30 degrees,
or less, and any calm cold night will start formation of ice
between shore and the ever present ice floes hovering nearby.
Once the floes and shore are joined, the winter freeze is on
and the whole of the Arctic Ocean, and it's divisional seas,
become locked in one big ice sheet extending from shore to shore
across the top of the world. During the period of freeze the
ice grows to seven feet thickness. Inshore areas having water
depth of seven feet, or less, then become routes for heavy equipment
travel until thaw in the following Spring.
In regard to winter cold, the temperatures are not as severe
as will be found in the lower 48 States, although it is a continuing
thing that turns antifreeze solution into slush ice. According
to an official 1950 report, the coldest temperature ever recorded
at Herschel Island, a Canadian Mounty station located off the
mouth of the MacKenzie River, was fifty-four degrees below zero.
Most stories to the contrary are fabrication. When a breeze
is blowing on a very cold day the wind factor makes individual
judgement practically impossible without benefit of a thermometer.
Anything below zero can feel like "sixty below."
As for warm weather in the Arctic Region, the temperature can,
and does, approach the plus 100 degree mark in summertime. On
the Fourth of July 1949 it was plus 94 degrees at Tigvariak
Island. During the Arctic summer the seawater temperature rises
to the 40-50 degree range before reversing the trend.
One phenomenon characteristic of the Arctic is the ability of
dark or colored objects to absorb heat from the sun although
temperatures may be hovering near zero degrees. Believe it or
not, I have seen men perspiring while sitting at rest in the
open air with the temperature at four degrees above zero. They
had to remove their heavy outer clothing to cool off. This happened
near the mouth of the Colville River in 1952. Although the shaded
thermometer registered four degrees it would shoot up to over
ninety degrees when placed in direct sunshine. On another occasion
at the mouth of the Kuparuk River near Prudhoe Bay, I witnessed
my recorder, Harry Lantzy, seated in the protective hollow of
a snowbank for over two hours without benefit of his parka,
cap, or mittens while I was fighting off cold inside of our
observing tent not ten feet away. A thermometer in the tent
registered eight degrees above zero. On both of these occasions
the weather was clear and perfectly calm.
Outdoor working conditions in the Arctic are not so severe as
one is likely to imagine once the sun starts to shine and the
weather remains reasonably calm. In 1952 I was in charge of
a crew having the assignment of preparing a triangulation survey
network south along the Colville River from the coast to Umiat,
then to build signal towers along 95 miles of coast line with
thirty-five foot towers at five mile spacing and lesser signals
at one mile intervals in between. This crew left base camp at
Pitt Point on March 15th and returned two months later, on May
19th, with the project completed. During the period we worked
outdoors seven days a week, eight hours a day, and did not lose
a single day to bad weather. Average temperature for the period
was fourteen degrees above zero. However, I must confess, a
like crew working 300 miles to the eastward at the same time
were weatherbound for about ten days.
Along the Alaska north coast it is a fixed rule for all heavy
equipment travel to cease for the season on or about May 10th.
At this time the snow and ice begins to melt and becomes rotten,
the rivers and streams begin to flow atop grounded ice in their
streambeds, cracks and potholes form in the sea ice, and ground
travel becomes hazardous. The snow melt starts from the ground
outward leaving a deceptive crust for the unwary traveler to
From the last of May to mid-July is a bad time for travel by
any means, even by dog sled. About the only way of getting around
is by bush plane, and even that stops about mid-June, except
in cases of emergency. There is not enough snow for skis, not
enough water for pontoons, and not enough open ground for wheels
except where a landing strip has been prepared beforehand. However,
in cases of emergency the indispensable bush pilot seems always
to find a way. I have witnessed one landing a ski equipped plane
in two feet of water covering a semi-frozen lagoon with submerged
ice still frozen to the bottom. I was surprised at the ease
with which the plane could take off from such a surface, although
the trick was in the landing.
One of the hazards of winter flying in the Arctic is low hanging
clouds. To enter, one invites icing down of wings and fuselage
which can easily cause a crash. Most pilots will go many miles
out of their way just to avoid passing through a small cloudbank.
By mid-May the first flow of fresh water from the mountains
has reached the coast and spreads out on top of the sea ice,
giving the impression the ice has disappeared. However, this
condition lasts only a few days while the water is seeking cracks
and leads through which to rejoin Mother Ocean and the phantom
ice reappears to await the coming of breakup in mid-July.
Midway between Point Barrow and Barter Island the summer breakup
of sea ice occurs on July 18th or 19th. At Barrow the timing
is a bit earlier and at Barter a bit later. This breakup comes
about when the seven-foot thick ice has melted enough to break
away from the inshore shallows. One day the ocean will appear
frozen in solid and on the next the ice will have moved out
to sea making way for small boat travel inshore of the ice floes.
During the four years of conducting hydrographic surveys in
these waters the timing never failed.
oddity often seen in the Arctic coastal region during winter
and spring months is a dense black cloud hanging over an open
lead in the sea ice, or a fresh flowing stream during early
May. The clouds are very low, extending from the surface upward
to about fifty feet, or less, and following along the open water
in the form of black curtains. They can be seen from a considerable
distance and serve as a warning that open water is ahead. Eskimo
hunters take advantage of these clouds to tell them where seals
and polar bear may be found, but to the traveler they mean detour.
Some of the phenomena occurring in the Arctic are almost beyond
belief by persons never having experienced them. One such phenomenon
is the "whiteout" or as the Eskimos say, "Heuvionik."
This occurs when complete cloud cover blots out the sun on an
otherwise perfectly clear day. At such times the snow, ice,
and sky take on the same hue with no shadows or coloring to
distinguish between them and visibility on the horizontal is
unlimited. The world becomes a great white void in which the
traveler loses all sense of direction, distance, and balance.
Only the inner senses keeps one upright when walking over an
uneven surface. It is said that on such days Admiral Peary,
the Arctic explorer, would wrap an American flag around his
body and proceed some distance ahead of his companions in order
to give them a point on the invisible horizon to refer to as
they stumbled along.
My first experience with a "whiteout" was early in
1949 while crossing frozen Mikkelson Bay in the company of
Lieutenants Harley Nygren and Eugene Richards. We were riding
in a "weasel" a small amphibious tractor, and our
objective was to investigate a group of barrier reefs located
some ten miles offshore. Our course was north across snow ridges
laid down by winter winds which likens the motion of the "weasel"
to a small boat heading into a choppy sea. As we approached
Newport Entrance, a passage cut through the reefs, the motor
of our vehicle started to labor, then went into a stall and
we started rolling backwards, finally coming to rest. To say
the least, this all came as a surprise since there was no visible
indication we were on anything except level sea ice. Harley
stepped out and proceeded ahead to see if we could identify
what we had come upon. As he went forward he rose up towards
the sky until he lost his footing and came sliding down to end
up near where Gene and I sat. As it proved out we had started
to mount an invisible iceberg standing some twenty or twenty-five
feet above the surrounding surface. Even after circling the
area, depending on motor speed to tell us whether or not we
were on the level, we were not able to make out the berg.
expanses of melted snow and ice during the spring
melt. Weasel checking sea ice landing strip at Oliktok
Point - If weasel didn't break ice, ski planes could
land. If weasels broke ice, they would float as they
by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren
While returning to camp the same day we noticed what appeared
to be a large dark object some four or five miles away in an
area where there was supposed to be none. Since it is essential
for Arctic travelers to take stock of all possible landmarks,
we stopped to discuss what it could be. Gene had carried out
reconnaissance in the vicinity where it appeared to be, but
could not remember anything of that size. Both Harley and I
had passed through the area, but could not recall having seen
it before. Not finding an answer we started ahead and had not
gone more than one-hundred feet when the object suddenly disappeared
beneath our vehicle. Investigation proved it to be a chunk of
oil covered snow about the size of a billiard ball that had
dropped from our "weasel" as we passed that way earlier
in the day.
On another occasion I was attempting to select a survey station
site at the mouth of the Kuparuk River when a "whiteout"
occurred. I had stopped to identify distant signal towers when
a movement appearing to be a mile or two away caught my eye.
As I watched for further movement I saw two rounded objects
that I took to be parka hoods of hunters crawling among ice
hummocks near the river mouth. They would bob up and then disappear.
Pointing my binoculars in that direction I waited to see what
was going on. Imagine my surprise when the objects again appeared
and I found myself looking into a pair of eyes just below them.
The "distant hunters" were nothing more than an Arctic
squirrel foraging for food about two-hundred feet away from
my position. I had been seeing just its ears over the tops of
small snow ridges.
Snow ridges are something the Arctic traveler comes to depend
upon to give him direction. Along the whole of the Alaska north
coast these small ridges, only a few inches to a few feet high,
are laid down by prevailing winds blowing snow back and forth
across the plain at an angle of thirty-five degrees North of
East, or thirty-five degrees South of West and packing it into
ridges capable of supporting considerable weight. Very seldom
do winds blow in other directions for any length of time. The
ridges then become a compass under one's feet, telling which
way a person is heading. This is the much publicized "sixth
sense" enabling Eskimos to find their way in blinding blizzards.
My introduction into the use of snow ridges for obtaining direction
came early in 1949 while on a trail blazing mission between
Barter and Tigvariak Islands. Our small reconnaissance unit,
made up of Commander Don A. Jones, myself, and Fred Gordon our
Eskimo guide had stopped at Brownlow Point to visit and ask
directions of Clifford, head of one of the three Eskimo families
then living along the three-hundred miles of coast between Barrow
and Barter. As Clifford would explain directions to Fred, he
would place the edge of a hand across his free arm indicating
the angle at which the snow ridges were to be intersected in
order to reach Tigvariak. By following this simple direction
we were able to make a bee-line approach over a distance of
forty miles with no other reference required even though an
ice fog reduced visibility to a few hundred yards most of the
A good illustration as to the use of the "Eskimo Compass"
occurred in late winter of 1952 while working in the vicinity
of Saktuina Point near the entrance to Kogru Lagoon. Our party
had staked a site for measurement of a precise, three-mile long
baseline across the ice from Saktuina to the Eskimo Islands.
The only thing holding us up, or so we thought, was for the
temperature to rise to three degrees below zero, the minimum
limit of our special thermometers used to determine exact tape
temperature during the measuring process. The weather took a
turn for the better and the evening before measurement was to
begin an instrument inventory disclosed the thermometers missing,
making it necessary to run back to base camp at Pitt Point to
obtain them. No other thermometers would do. The round-trip
distance to and from Pitt was one-hundred forty miles by following
our established cat-train trail along the coast, or one half
the distance by straight line approach across the frozen tundra
and pond covered plain. Since our travel vehicle could average
only about six miles an hour it would take approximately twenty-four
hours by the known trail, or twelve hours by the untried straight
line route, before we could return. Weir Nigovana and I decided
on the beeline route even though the sun had set and darkness
would soon be upon us. We knew the relative positions of the
two camps so we were able to determine the angle at which to
cut the snow ridges for the run.
When starting out we had about an hour of twilight to visually
check our intersection with the snow ridges. But after darkness
set in all we had was the side to side roll of our vehicle to
tell whether or not we were on course. At the end of five hours
travel we paused to see if we could pick out a small light that
had been hoisted atop an antenna pole to help guide us into
the Pitt Base Camp. There it was, dead ahead at a distance proving
to be seven miles. It was easy enough then to run on into base
camp, pick up the instruments, and to follow our tracks back
to Saktuina. The seventy mile round-trip took eleven and one-half
hours and we had plenty of time to measure the baseline the
next day, ---with excellent results, I might add.
A sight to behold in Arctic Alaska is the Aurora Borealis, or
Northern Lights. Along all of the coast this phenomenon appears
in the sky almost overhead, or a little south of the zenith.
In general, the aurora shows as a greenish cloud, or curtain,
sometimes bright enough to blot out the stars. During times
of maximum magnetic storm activity it appears in all the colors
of the rainbow, but of a pale hue. I recall one such display
appearing over us while located at Flaxman Island in late August
1950. It was like a Fourth of July fireworks bursting overhead.
A small point of light would suddenly appear, splay out as fireworks
do, and then hang there shimmering in various colors. The display
was so sudden and spectacular, that I noted the time and date
and later checked them out at our Magnetic Observatory near
Fairbanks. Sure enough, magnetograms revealed a strong magnetic
storm striking around the earth at the time I had recorded the
beginning of the aurora. My timing was only two minutes off
as to when the initial peak occurred.
And then there is the Arctic sunset-sunrise cycle occurring
in early August when the sun has started dipping below the northern
horizon, only to rise again a short while later. This is a period
when cooling temperatures cause clouds to form over the Arctic
Ocean and continuous, lingering, sunset-sunrises that last for
hours on end may be witnessed.
Rainbows and mirages are two other phenomena especially entertaining
to the Arctic traveler. The "Rainbows" generally occur
during times of very light ice fog, which appears as a haze.
When at the extreme these vivid rainbows fill half of the sky
from the horizon to overhead. They are made up of a number of
bows having the full spectrum of colors. The first bow will
be set tight against the horizon. The second bow will reverse
color and grow wider, the third will again reverse color and
become wider, and so forth, until they reach to nearly overhead.
To witness one is like looking into a half dome. Also, at such
times the sun will have four elongated rays extending on the
horizontal and vertical, and reaching about an eighth of the
way across the sky, much the same as the Star of Bethlehem depicted
on Christmas cards.
Some mirages of the Arctic are almost beyond belief. They are
much more in the extreme than will be found in desert regions,
and occur more often. In the wintertime I have seen our camp,
located on the opposite side of an island and over fifteen miles
away, raised above the horizon and magnified to a point whereby
men and equipment could be seen moving about, all with the naked
eye. In summertime I have seen a magnified hydrographic survey
launch, known to be over ten miles away, raised to about ten
degrees above the horizon and proceeding on course in an upside-down
position. Not only were men visible on deck, but sound of their
voices could be dimly heard.
One type of mirage that always fascinated me was to observe
on a survey target some four or five miles distant, and find
it extended skyward to about forty-five degrees above the horizon.
Like the rainbow, the target would continue to reverse itself
every so often, and with ever greater magnification. On such
occasions I have centered the target in the crosshairs of my
instrument and followed it to its highest visible point without
recentering the object.
Kadleroshlik Mound, a "pingo" (mound) standing well
above the surrounding plain and located some fifteen miles inland
from the coast, takes its name from a continuous mirage seen
from Tigvariak Island. Refraction raises a part of its image
over it's top, making it appear as though a cloud is always
hovering there. In the Eskimo language the word "kadleroshlik"
means "cloud on top."
Precipitation in the Arctic amounts to only four or five inches
a year and nearly always falls in the form of snow, or ice fog.
Only three times, in the four years spent on the coast, did
I see it rain. My Eskimo friends were really fascinated by this
phenomenon, especially the thunder and lightning that accompanied
Arctic snow is not as found in the lower forty-eight States.
Each individual snowflake is a perfectly formed ice crystal
with it's points formed in multiples of three, very thin and
light. They range in size from as big as a thumbnail to as small
as a pinhead. The snow is very much like dust but does not cling
to one's garments. Any slight breeze will carry it away, even
after it has fallen. It is this snow that is wind-driven back
and forth across the Arctic wastes to form snow ridges and drifts.
Most blizzards plaguing the Arctic winter are not made up of
new falling snow, but by old snow that is picked up and carried
along by hurricane force winds. Snowflakes laid down in one
area may finally end up many tens of miles away from its original
I recall an incident occurring at Prudhoe Bay illustrating how
easily the snow will move. We had a snow flurry that laid down
a light fluff throughout the area. After the snowing stopped
our crew headed across the ice to Reindeer Island, reported
to be some ten miles offshore, to erect a signal tower for obtaining
the island's exact position from shoreside survey stations.
Upon arriving at the approximate location we could find nothing
to identify it. After half a day of searching we still had not
found it and decided to return to camp. About half way back
a slight breeze sprang up and the snow began to move. On seeing
the snow ridges being swept clear I decided to give it another
try and sent the others on home. When I again approached the
island's approximate location, there it was, fully exposed.
The slight breeze had been enough to blow off the new snow covering.
The ironic part of this episode was we had stopped earlier near
the very center of the island but none of us, including two
Eskimos, had been able to identify it as land.
It should be explained that most barrier reefs, or islands,
along the North coast are made up of pea-gravel pushed up by
floating ice and stand only a few feet above sea level. In most
cases they are free of vegetation and are only a bit higher
than the snow ridges, and not nearly as high as pressure ridges
formed to the seaward.
Pressure ridges are something of a phenomenon in themselves.
They are made up of large chunks of ice being forced to pile
up along the edges of grounded ice, or open leads, by pressure
from the floating Arctic ice cap. These ridges are to be found
paralleling the whole of the coast and give indication where
grounded ice may be found. When using heavy equipment to haul
along the coast in wintertime, it is always advisable to keep
the vehicles on grounded ice to avoid breaking through. The
pressure ridges give indication where 'cat-trails' may be made.
THE ARCTIC PLAIN
The Arctic plain is triangular in shape, extending about six
hundred miles along the north base of the Brooks Range of mountains,
from Bering Strait on the west to Demarcation Point at the Yukon
border on the east, and is about one hundred miles at it's widest
point south of Point Barrow. For the most part it is a flat,
monotonous area traversed by a number of major streams and covered
with thousands of small ponds, plus a few large, shallow lakes
such as Lake Teshikpuk located about fifteen miles inland from
Drew Point. The flatness of the plain can be visualized when
it is explained that indications of old shoreline can be found
fifty miles inland from Point Barrow. As a point of interest,
the Eskimos avoid Lake Teshikpuk because it is believed a huge
monster abides there and will devour anyone venturing upon the
waters when ice free.
A curiosity of the Arctic plain is to see oil bubbling from
the ground in subzero weather. A place this can be witnessed
is at Simpson Seep near Smith Bay. Another is on the banks of
the Kuparuk River near Prudhoe Bay. While camped at MacIntyre
Point at the entrance of Prudhoe Bay, in 1949, we had to travel
many miles to find clean ice to melt for domestic use because
the frozen ponds and streams in the immediate vicinity were
contaminated with seeping oil.
One feature of the plain is the "pingut," a natural
mound made up of mud and pea-gravel and standing fifteen feet
to over three hundred fifty feet above the surrounding surface.
Most of these mounds are to be found east of the Colville River.
Their origin is still in question, but it is believed they may
have been formed by hydrostatic pressure from powerful springs
forcing the gravel mixture to the surface. Kadleroshlik Mound
near Tigvariak stands three hundred feet high and is the tallest
to be found along the coast.
Another feature is a depression, or crater, in the vicinity
of Foggy Island Bay that is identical in shape with pictured
craters of the Moon. It is about a mile in diameter, has gently
upward sloping approaches to the outer rim and steep slopes
toward the center. Inside is a large flat bed with a steep sided
cone standing at the very center. I had identified the cone
on an aerial photograph and decided it would make a fine survey
station site for our coastal triangulation network, offering
good intervisibility with other stations in the area. Billy
Patkotak and I visited the cone during a period of ice fog and
placed a temporary signal at its summit. The next day we tried
to pick out the signal from other stations but were unable to
see it. As it proved out, the rim was higher than the cone and
the station had to be moved. I still wonder if the "crater"
may not have been the result of a meteor impact. Bottom profiles
of the ocean floor off Flaxman Island, located thirty-five miles
to the eastward, developed a similar feature of about the same
size and shape. Could there have been two meteor impacts in
the same vicinity with one striking in the ocean? I probably
will never know.
The whole of the Arctic plain north of the Brooks Range is underlain
with ice lenses and permafrost, or permanently frozen ground.
It is only necessary to dig down eighteen inches, or two feet,
to find it during summertime. The Eskimos take advantage of
this feature to provide cold storage for their food supplies
by digging ice cellars. The cellars are usually ten or fifteen
feet deep and hollowed out to form a room at the bottom. Timbers
are laid over the "roof" and tundra restored for insulation.
A small covered opening is left for entrance by ladder. Once
the cellar has been sealed off the inside temperature drops
to twenty-three degrees and remains so throughout all seasons
of the year. It becomes a perfect cold storage room with nothing
to go wrong----except possibly the sealing off of the entrance
by an ice column formed by water dripping down the entrance
hole during spring and summer months.
Such a cellar was left on Flaxman Island prior to occupation
by Earnest deK. Leffingwell in 1912. When our hydrographic survey
party occupied the island in 1950 we found the cellar completely
sealed off as described. Making another entrance we found an
eider duck and skinned polar bear head in a perfect state of
preservation, some thirty-eight years after Leffingwell was
there. We made use of the cellar during our stay, but left the
duck and bear head for whoever might follow.
Permafrost has a tendency to force objects buried in it back
to the surface, especially if a small part of the object is
left exposed above ground. Any break in the tundra insulation
invites meltage of the permafrost below during days of continuous
summer sunshine. The water thus formed becomes expanding ice
during the next freeze and the "break" is opened wider
for the next thaw. As the break continues to open, the buried
object acts as an ever greater conductor of heat to its very
bottom, and the thaw and freeze act as a jack to raise it bit
by bit until it is finally forced to the surface. A good example
of this process at work involved an astronomic station mark
set by Leffingwell in 1909. The mark was a ten gallon barrel
filled with concrete and buried with its top flush with the
surface of the ground. When the mark was recovered in 1949,
or forty years later, all but two inches of it was above ground.
The next year it had been completely ejected and tipped over
on its side. The permafrost had taken forty-one years to lift
this one-hundred pound chunk of concrete two and one-half feet
and cast it aside- a lift of approximately three-fourths of
an inch a year.
Robert Earle at Flaxman Island Standing at Leffingwell
Survey marker from early 1900's
by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren
Because of the ability of permafrost to eject buried objects,
the Eskimo people inter their dead above ground. From Point
Barrow it is necessary to move inland about fifty miles to find
a place with sufficient drainage to lower the permafrost so
a grave will retain a coffin buried at the standard six foot
The tundra atop Flaxman Island is laid down over an ice lens
of about fifteen feet thickness, which accounts for most of
the island elevation above sealevel. At the northeast corner
the lens is fully exposed to the elements. During 1950 a big
storm blew in at time of open water, and waves battering the
shore melted a portion of the lens so that seventeen meters
(nineteen yards) of the island corner was lost to the sea. Many
of these ice lenses are holdovers from long past ice ages, having
been covered with a layer of soil or volcanic ash in which tundra
took root to establish insulation. Disturbance of the tundra
creates a bog that cannot repair itself for many years to come,
if ever again.
The main feature of the Arctic plain is the thousands upon thousands
of small shallow ponds making up most of the landscape. Due
to the flatness of the plain there is little or no drainage
and water in the ponds has no place to go, except to evaporate
and then to be replenished by the next winter snows. Borders
of the ponds are polygon in shape, much like cracks found in
dried mud around a waterhole, except, of course, on a much larger
Formation of the ponds is something else to consider. As small
cracks open in the ground they are filled with water which freezes
and the expanding ice causes the crack to grow wider, longer,
and deeper. As they grow they join other cracks thus forming
the border of the pond. The soil raised by the expanding ice
form dikes, or levees, that eventually lift high enough to capture
water and the pond is formed. Ice in the cracks become "ice
wedges", some of which extend hundreds of feet into the
ground and are very old. We have found both vertical and horizontal
movement of survey station markers set too close to "ice
wedges," indicating their continuing active growth.
One curiosity of the Arctic is the ability of almost any material
to withstand deterioration under extreme weather conditions
over long periods of time. Wood or iron, left high and dry,
is practically indestructible. On Cross Island stands a cross
made of an upended drift log about fifteen feet long, with the
side of a Scotch whiskey carton nailed with square wrought iron
nails as the cross-piece. The cross is braced at the bottom
by three small logs stuck in the ground and wedged into notches
cut in the upright. One of the braces has the date "1893"
and a set of initials carved in it. The old fashioned lettering
stamped into the wood of the crosspiece is still legible, giving
the name and address of the Scotch distiller who first furnished
the carton. Evidence and legend indicate the cross had stood
there for over sixty years, by 1949, and yet there is no sign
of deterioration. In another case, three iron nails buried eighteen
inches below the surface of the ground to mark a survey station
set by Earnest Leffingwell in 1912 were recovered in 1949 in
excellent condition. The station was on top of Shaviovik Mound
where there was sufficient drainage to keep summer moisture
away from the nails. About the only harm to the nails was turning
black from being buried so long.
As a whole, the Eskimo people are among the most ingenious I
have ever met. They are honest, happy, independent, intelligent,
and make excellent workers. It is necessary to show them how
to do a job only once and they do it repeatedly, with no further
instruction, no matter how strange to them. They are excellent
mechanics and possess an uncanny sense for repair of motors
and equipment. I recall an incident which illustrates this contention.
Captain Ralph Woodworth and Weir Nigovana were riding in a snow
jeep about fifteen miles from camp when one of the jeep's forward
skis speared a snow bank and broke in two making the jeep inoperative.
Taking one look at the damage, the Captain started on the long
walk home; but not Weir. He had not given up hope of repair.
Woodworth had not gone far when he heard three shots from the
vicinity of the snow jeep and returned to see what was taking
place. There was Weir mounting a half ski in place of the whole.
He had marked off where attachment holes would need to be drilled
in the two-inch thick laminated wood, and using his rifle had
shot in new holes. Within a few minutes the half ski was mounted
and they were again on their way.
The "igloo," or dwelling, of the Alaska Eskimo is
not a structure made of snow blocks as so often depicted, but
is a very snug cabin made of wood and covered with sod for insulation.
Skylights are generally installed instead of windows because
the Arctic winds will keep them free of drifting snow during
wintertime. A low tunnel-like vestibule, set perpendicular to
prevailing winds, serves as the entrance and is used for storing
items not requiring warm storage. The main room is usually quite
small with a low ceiling to conserve heat, and is snug enough
so body heat from a few persons will keep it warm even in subzero
weather. A snow hut is sometimes used for temporary shelter
when a hunter is caught away from home during a winter storm,
but under favorable conditions the modern Eskimo will more often
than not use a tent. In summertime the Eskimos generally move
into tents located on coastal sand spits where slight breezes
will minimize the attack of the voracious mosquitoes prevalent
in the Arctic regions.
To illustrate just how well the "igloos" are built,
I recall entering the Brownlow Point dwelling of Clifford in
1949 when the temperature was at forty-one degrees below zero.
Five people lived there at the time but they had not bothered
with heating the place. A wood chip fire was lit in an improvised
stove made of a five gallon oil tin, to heat water for tea.
When the water was brought to a boil the fire was allowed to
die out. We found the temperature of the room quite comfortable
during our short stay.
Although the Eskimos of Alaska's north coast use wood for construction
of their dwellings, for heating, and other purposes, only those
people having traveled to the south of the Brooks Range ever
saw a growing tree. A hardy low-growing willow and alder bush
are to be found north of the mountains, but these are generally
some distance inland and cannot be considered as trees. I recall
trying to explain a redwood forest to a sixty year old native.
He was able to grasp the size of the trees and the density of
the forests, but almost stumped me when he asked if the trees
bore fruit. It took quite a bit of doing to explain seeds of
the giant redwoods. Driftwood is plentiful along the coast and
this is the supply used by the natives.
Practically all human habitation north and east of Bering Strait
is along the coastline. In the past there have been Indians
living inland, but to my knowledge none are there today. The
Itkillik River is named for Indians who once lived on its banks.
"Itkillik" is the Eskimo name for the Indian.
A tragedy of the Eskimos is their susceptibility to whiteman
diseases. Even the common cold can be fatal. Earlier in the
century an epidemic of dyptheria almost wiped out the community
of Wainwright. During my stay of four years in the Arctic, ten
children from families of the thirty or so natives working for
us died from measles, whooping cough, and other children diseases.
When they contract an illness they seem to give up without a
fight, old and young alike. All illnesses are lumped together
as one and called "the sickness."
Eskimo children are indulged until they approach maturity. This
is probably because of the high mortality rate. I never heard
of a child being punished for doing wrong. During the long summer
"day" they can be found playing regardless of the
hour. It is nothing to find a baseball game in progress at two
o'clock in the "morning," with each taking turns at
all positions regardless of age. Innings may last for hours
when it comes the turn of a three year old as pitcher.
One happening which demonstrates the hardiness and independence
of these people, and worthy of the telling, involves the families
of Fred Gordon and Vincent Nagiak of Barter Island. In April
of 1949 Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Nagiak decided to join their husbands
at our base camp on Tigvariak Island located ninety miles west
of Barter. They bundled up their many children, hitched up a
sled with the four dogs they had between them, and started on
the long trip along the frozen coastline. About two-hundred
pounds of mail for our camp had accumulated at Barter and this
was loaded aboard, as well as the necessary camp gear and supplies
to sustain them on the trip. The outside temperature was hovering
around ten degrees above zero and a storm came up while they
were en route causing delay on the trail.
It took over a week to make the trip. They had to abandon part
of their supplies because of the overload caused by the mail.
Due to shortness of rations Mrs. Nagiak was obliged to hunt
down a seal to feed the dogs and families so they would have
strength enough to pull the load. Besides, Mrs. Gordon became
ill and had to ride part of the way. On top of all this Mrs.
Nagiak was carrying a month old baby inside her parka that her
husband had never seen.
We had not had communication with Barter for some time and the
first we knew of their plans was when they were sighted about
four miles away from our camp as they crossed the ice on Mikkelson
Bay. Fred's four year old daughter was in the lead, with other
children strung out behind. The older children were in harness
helping the dogs pull the loaded sled on which Mrs. Gordon was
riding because of her illness. As they drew close enough to
be recognized Fred would go to the door of our warm hut, shade
his eyes against the glare from the snow, then return and call
off the position of the party members. At no time did any of
our Eskimo men venture forth to offer help to the weary travelers.
When the party finally arrived all of the men went out and shook
hands, then most returned to the warmth of our hut. Vincent
and Billy Patkotak, a cousin of Mrs. Gordon, did help erect
tents and obtain food for the party, but that was about all
of the assistance offered. As it proved out, the families came
through without ill effects. They camped close by for the rest
of the working season and did not return to Barter until the
I had an accumulation of bulk mail and magazines that made the
trip, and every time I read a page I would think of the hardship
endured by those families in bringing it to me. I cannot visualize
the people of our modern-day society undertaking such a journey,
or making such sacrifice, given the same conditions and opportunity.
Eskimo, being a meat eater, does not necessarily store supplies
against the coming winter, but hunts for his meat all the year.
When they have a supply they eat on it until it is gone before
attempting to get more. In other words, it is either 'feast
or famine' with them. However, when they have food they will
share it with any visitor so long as the visitor remains at
their place. It is against the rule to carry food away.
Animals abound on the Arctic plain, even in wintertime. During
the summer months the waterfowl seem unlimited, but start to
disappear with the coming of fall. In late winter and early
spring a person can see more game in a week of travel than will
be sighted during six months in the lower States.
The principal animals and fowl abiding in the Arctic during
wintertime are ptarmigan and the snowy owl of the bird kingdom,
caribou, wolves, Arctic fox, red fox, wolverines, lemmings,
an occasional moose (inland), polar bear, seal, Arctic squirrels,
Dall sheep and grizzly bear in the Brooks Range, an occasional
pack of coyotes, and sometimes an Arctic hare. Whales of various
species are taken in the Spring as leads in the ice pack start
to open up, but these are generally limited to the Chukchi Sea
above Bering Strait, the Beluga or white whale, and Narwhal
range the length of the coast. Walrus are found in the Chukchi
Sea but seldom do they venture east of Point Barrow.
Speaking of animals brings up an experience of Julian "Red"
Flint and myself in the Colville River area where we watched
three wolves cut a caribou from a herd and bring it down.
Red and I were on a reconnaissance mission and had driven to
the top of a pingo (mound) selected as a survey station site,
when we noticed a milling herd of caribou about a mile away.
Pointing our binoculars in their direction we saw a wolf circling
the herd while two companions rested some distance away. As
the circling wolf would tire one of it's companions would take
up the chase and the tired one would join the other at the resting
place. This kept up for fifteen or twenty minutes, each taking
it's turn at the circling maneuver, until the herd was sufficiently
aroused. The big wolf leader then dove straight into the herd
causing it to scatter. Most of the caribou ran off together,
but one separated from the rest to come directly to within about
one-tenth of a mile of our position. Once the herd had scattered
the big wolf rejoined its companions at the resting place and
lay down. We thought they had given up the hunt, but how wrong
we were. They knew their victim and how it would react. They
were in no hurry.
After resting about five minutes the wolves started in our direction
at a slow pace, often stopping for short periods of rest. When
they had approached to within three-hundred yards of the lone
caribou it stood up to watch them, and they stopped again. Finally
the caribou grew restless and started to move about. When this
occurred the big wolf took off in a dead run straight in the
caribou's direction. As the wolf drew near the caribou would
stand on its hind legs and spin like a dancer, but did not leave
the spot. The wolf went in for the kill without breaking stride.
On the first pass he hamstrung the caribou, then whirled to
attack the throat, from which he tore a chunk the size of a
small football in one mighty bite, and the kill was made. While
this was going on the other two wolves remained calmly sitting
at their last resting place.
Red and I got underway just as the big wolf attacked and arrived
at the scene only a couple of minutes later. The wolf was reluctant
to leave his kill and stood over it with his bloody lips pulled
back in a snarl, allowing us to approach within about thirty
yards before he started giving ground. I had a revolver with
me and took three shots at him as he drew back, but in my excitement
I missed and he trotted off to join his companions who were
still awaiting the outcome of the hunt.
Red took pictures of the kill while I stood watching the wolves.
Since I had proved such a poor shot at close range it was decided
to go on with our work rather than trying to chase them down.
Besides, from previous experience we knew they could outrun
Upon returning to camp at the end of the day we told Weir Nigovana
of our experience and gave him permission to go to the scene
armed with a rifle where he succeeded in killing the big wolf
which had eaten its fill and could not run far. This animal
stood as high as my belt buckle and weighed approximately one-hundred
thirty-five pounds. Its feet left a print as large as my hand
with the first two knuckles of the fingers turned in. After
giving it a thorough examination I was glad it had decided to
back off rather than to attack when disturbed at its kill. Even
in death it was a formidable looking animal.
Arctic wolves do not kill indiscriminately, as sometimes do
coyotes, but attack only one animal at a time and finish off
the carcass before hunting down another. When among the caribou
herds the wolves travel singly, in pairs, or in groups of three
or four if they have cubs. Their coloring range from white to
dark grey. In the vicinity of the Colville River, in 1952, there
were many thousands of caribou spread over the plain and every
mile or so could be found a family of wolves attending a kill.
This did not seem to bother the caribou as they continued to
graze nearby. However, the wolves were always alert to the approach
of man and would move off whenever we came within one-half mile
The wolf is a difficult animal to hunt due to its intelligence
and wariness. However, it is curious and that is its downfall
as far as the Eskimo is concerned. When hunting wolves the Eskimo
will try to approach from downwind with an obstruction in between.
When within about one-half mile of his quarry he will expose
a part of his figure to get the attention of the wolf, then
drop down and move off at right-angles to a point where he can
remain hidden while awaiting the coming of the wolf. For its
part, the wolf will circle to get the man upwind and a better
view. If all goes well the two will meet at close range and
the Eskimo can get in his shot.
The polar bear is the most dangerous animal to hunt. While being
stalked the bear also becomes the hunter, and a person must
always be on the lookout for an attack from along the back trail.
In former days, before introduction of the rifle, the Eskimo
used this characteristic of the bear to his advantage. After
letting a bear know of his presence he would remain hidden while
the bear stalked him. If, and when, the bear did attack, he
would stand behind a spear fixed solidly on the ice and let
the bear impale itself upon the spear as it rushed him. In wintertime
the female bear goes into semi-hibernation where the young are
born. However, the male bear does not hibernate and roams the
ice all winter long in search of food.
This brings up the story of a polar bear that visited one of
our camps at Beechey Point in 1951. We had a hydrographic crew
staying in a warehouse located there, with an ice cellar located
alongside. One day when the cook went to get meat from the cellar
he came upon a bear trying to enter ahead of him. The frightened
cook ran back into the house spreading alarm while the bear
took off across the tundra. Nearly everyone in camp grabbed
cameras and started chasing the bear, that is, all except Ray
Aguviluk who had presence of mind enough to take up his rifle
and managed to kill the bear before any of the camera-hounds
could be attacked. This bear had raided an unattended Shoran
camp the day before and completely destroyed one of the tents
with everything in it. We later had a feast of polar bear meat,
but I cannot say I greatly enjoyed it. In the food chain, the
bear eats seal and the seal eats fish. When you eat the bear
about all you get is the taste of greasy fish, third hand.
In 1949 we had a thirty foot signal tower torn down by a rampaging
bear with a track measuring 10 X 14 inches. The tower collapsed
when the bear caved in one of its legs fourteen feet above the
ground. I continue to 'thank my lucky stars' that I never came
face to face with that animal.
Caribou sometimes appear along the coast in great numbers. In
the summer of 1949 we witnessed a five mile stretch of coastline
solidly packed with an estimated twenty or thirty thousand animals
trying to get into the water to obtain relief from flies and
mosquitos plaguing them. The caribou stood five to ten deep
as they awaited their turn at the water. They would appear as
a waterfall as they trooped over the low bank into the sea.
It is quite a sight to see caribou running across level sea
ice. They are pacers and their bodies seem to float with no
apparent motion as they travel along. About the only movement
appears to be their feet and legs.
When an Eskimo hunts caribou on the open plain he does not give
chase to the running animals, but moves off at right-angles
to their course. As he goes along the caribou will turn with
him and he again circles away from them. By continuing this
maneuver the caribou will travel on an inward spiral, drawing
ever closer as they run and finally getting close enough for
the Eskimo to get in a shot. Abe Simmons of Point Barrow taught
me this trick in order for me to get a closer look at the animals
in their wild state.
Not only is the caribou a main staple in the Eskimo diet, but
its hide serves as a primary source for clothing and bedding.
Sinew from along its backbone makes a fine thread for sewing.
Mukaluks of caribou hide, with seal skin soles, and worn with
fawnskin socks, is the warmest, lightest, footgear to be found.
Individual hairs of the caribou are hollow and form perfect
insulation against the rigors of Arctic weather.
Although wolverines are to be found on the Arctic plain in considerable
numbers I was never able to sight one. I have followed their
tracks fresh enough to have loose snow falling into them, but
the wily animals always seemed to elude me. Frost will not stick
to wolverine fur and this is why it is prized by Eskimo men
as trimming for their parka hoods. Women prefer the longer,
more spectacular, wolf mane as trim for their parkas.
Arctic white foxes are the scavengers of the North. Although
much of their diet is made up of ptarmigan, lemmings and Arctic
squirrels, they generally feed on scraps of carcasses left by
polar bears and wolves. Most Arctic foxes are to be found along
the coast. They live in burrows dug into the ground and their
presence can be detected by blowing one's breath into the entrance
hole. If the fox is home it will answer in a like manner.
An item of interest is the great profusion of wild flowers growing
on the Arctic plain during summertime. When in bloom the plain
reminds one of the central valleys of California when the lupin
and poppies are in full bloom. The Arctic flowers can be gathered
by the armful over a small area which may yield as many as a
dozen different species all growing close together. Many of
the flowers are similar to those found in the more southern
latitudes. The continuous twenty-four hours of sunshine in summer
forces quick, heavy growth. The flowering takes place at a much
later date than in the lower forty-eight states, reaching their
maximum bloom in late July.
Ocean tides along the North Coast amount to less than three-fourths
foot. The mean difference between high and low tide at Point
Barrow is only two-tenths of a foot. However, when a strong
onshore breeze is blowing the water can, and often does, rise
to two and one-half feet above normal. On such occasions the
floating ice pack will move inshore. An offshore breeze will
take the ice pack out to sea and cause the water to drop below
normal. Our base camps at Pitt and Oliktok Points were located
on the open coast and it was often necessary to pull our launches
and boats ashore to protect them from ice damage when an onshore
wind would spring up.
It is quite an experience to get caught offshore in the ice
pack when working the coast. This happened once when my hydrographic
launch crew was working in the vicinity of Camden Bay and started
the long run back to our temporary camp on Flaxman Island. A
strong onshore breeze came up and started bringing in the ice
as we cleared the Canning River delta. As we approached Brownlow
Point we found the ice had reached shore to cut us off. By dragging
our keel along shore we were able to progress about half a mile
before it was necessary to put men on the ice with boathooks
to open a passage. After working in this manner for a couple
of hours we were able to approach a low spot in Brownlow Spit
that had become covered with the rising water. By backing and
filling with the launch we were finally able to plow our way
across the spit to safety. This experience taught us to always
be on the lookout for onshore breezes, and gave us the knowledge
about the resulting high water which later stood us 'in good
stead' on a number of occasions.
One experience that sticks in my mind was the rescue of two
geologists, George Gyrc and Mr. Kohler of the U.S. Geological
Survey, who had become stranded near the mouth of the Canning
River. They had lost contact with their sponsors through failure
of their radio and there was much concern as to their safety.
The U.S. Air-Sea Rescue Group had been called in to locate the
men and since we were camped nearby we were asked to pick them
up. As we prepared to comply a severe storm blew in to hamper
On the first day of attempt to rescue we were confined to the
west bank of the Canning because of ice floes, rough seas, and
fog which prevented us from passing around the River delta.
While a number of men remained aboard our anchored launch to
fend off ice, Johnny Walker, Bert Okokik and I went ashore and
searched the west bank for thirteen hours. As it later proved
out, we had approached within about one mile from where the
geologists were camped before giving up search for the day.
However, during our wanderings we found the main stream of the
river could be easily navigated if we could find a way across
the delta area which was made up of hundreds of shallow, intersecting,
dead-end channels that seemed to lead nowhere in particular.
The weather cleared the next day, except for a light fog, giving
us the opportunity for another try. When we again anchored our
launch off the mouth of the Canning the Air-Sea Rescue sent
another airplane to help guide us through the channel maze with
our dory. They would indicate which channel to follow by flying
along its course, and show where turns were to be made by flashing
their individual winglights. Due to the shallowness of the channels
and bars we were forced to wade and tow the dory much of the
time which slowed our progress considerably. Upon reaching the
main channel we encountered no more difficulty and had easy
going to where the geologists were camped.
The Air-Sea Rescue men won my respect that day. They continued
to fly over us until visual contact was made with the stranded
men. It was an all-day operation and we later learned they had
only ten minutes of fuel left in their gas tanks when they finally
reached the air strip at Umiat upon seeing us through.
After picking up the geologists and their gear, our trip back
to the launch and camp was uneventful. An onshore breeze had
come up causing the water to rise over the delta area and we
were able to make it back out without the help of the airplane.
Although the ice pack had started to move in by the time we
arrived at the launch, we managed to clear Brownlow Point before
it could close in.
When we arrived at camp on Flaxman Island we had a feast on
the remaining supplies of the geologists. They were better supplied
with a variety of foodstuffs than were we. The next day we transported
them to Tigvariak base camp for pickup. This thirty mile trip
was made in fog and ice, which the rescued men did not much
appreciate. They let it be known they preferred remaining ashore,
even if it meant being rescued on occasion....
This ended our working season for the year and to tell the truth,
we all were glad it was over. The winter freeze and darkness
would soon be upon us and work was suspended until the next
February when we would return to continue with our exacting
project of charting the coast.
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