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For more pictures of the Arctic Field Party 1949 - 1951 visit the NOAA Photo Library - NOAA At the Ends of the Earth Album

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banner - reminiscences of four years in arctic alaska

By Roy M. Sylar

Roy Sylar and Commander Junius Jarman, C&GS
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 today.

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.


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 break through.

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.

An 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.

Increasing 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 were amphibious.
Photo 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 way.

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 the storms.

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 fall.

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 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.

Commander Robert Earle at Flaxman Island Standing at Leffingwell Survey marker from early 1900's
Photo 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 depth.

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 scale.

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 following Fall.

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.

The 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 us.

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 of them.

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 operations.

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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