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Blue Fox Harbour

posted August 11, 2013

We started the Blue Fox Harbour trip by boat, hoping to get around Cape Kellet, but once beyond the shelter of the Sachs Harbour sandspit, the wind and waves increased and we could feel the “ocean” swell as well. So we turned back and once again climbed into the Ranger for another overland journey instead. There is no trail as most people go to Blue Fox in winter or by boat. So we had the same bouncy, crazy, boggy, winchy, twisty, hill-climbing trip we experienced on the previous trip north. After one major bog-down, we made it across the Kellet River and up onto the hills leading to the coast. John has an order for 25 sets of muskox horns for a carver in the south so we were on the lookout for dead “wildlife” as well as living.

And why are we interested in Blue Fox Harbour? In the days of the CAE there were no people living year-round on Banksland, so this place was not occupied or named. But the CAE men would have passed by this point many times on their way north and may have camped here and collected driftwood for burning. Also, this was where Fred Wolki spent many years. This is where he constructed a building with materials salvaged from the wreck of the Mary Sachs and brought here probably by dog team in winter. Fred was also a young member of the Canadian Arctic Expedition’s last ice trip in 1918 when Storkersen headed out from Cross Island, Alaska, to drift on the moving ice for several months. Fred was considered too young to join the “Drift Party,” but was part of their support team.

We made it to Blue Fox Harbour in decent time and found the place where we think Fred Wolki built his “workshop/house/warehouse” with materials from the Mary Sachs. There was no conclusive evidence though. Blue Fox was used extensively by people up to the 1950s, so there is a lot of fairly recent “stuff” on the ground. One unusual item was a broken gramophone record lying amongst the tin cans, fox bones and polar bear jaws.

On a low hill above the site we found Fred’s grave. One of two at the location, Fred’s grave has the original wooden marker, now weathered, and a relatively new marble headstone placed there by his family, which will last forever. An amazing coincidence: while we were visiting Fred’s grave, Bob Bernard and Paul were visting Pipsuk’s grave in Alaska. These two men were both working for the CAE at the same time in 1918!

Farther along the coast was another site with no house outline but several places where tents had been used. There we found many artifacts: live ammunition, parts of fox traps, stoves and lanterns, broken bottles and Coleman stove parts labled “Toronto.” On the beach below the site were some rusty objects, so I decided that this would be a good place to use the GoPro underwater camera that Henry’s of Ottawa had generously donated to our Expedition. I put on the full immersion suit (thanks John Green!) and pulled on my size 12 chest waders overtop and waded out into the sea. At the level where the water was just below my chest waders, I did not see anything, but closer in shore I was able to get some good video of objects on the sea floor; more bullets, large spikes and parts of a ship’s tank of some sort. Some say that the schooner Blue Fox sank here in the harbour, but I have not yet confirmed that. So these bits could be from her wreck.

On our way back to Sachs Harbour we saw the usual Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese, then ran into a single bull muskox who was torn between threatening us with his aggressive behaviours, normally shown to other males, and wanting to get away from this intruding, noisy, man machine. We nearly went for a swim in the Kellet River but managed to escape with just wet feet. We had two other bog downs, but with the help of Mack’s great experience with driving military vehicles in similarly crazy conditions, and John’s knowledge of the vehicle’s capabilities, we did get out and home safely.  The highlight of the return journey was spotting a pair of Arctic wolves. We had stopped to dig out a muskox skull partially buried in the river gravel, and heard a wolf howling in the distance. We watched them trot along the river flats heading west, too far away for photography, but wonderful to see wolves again!

Update on our Southern Party: Bob and Paul on the Bernard Explorer have been again visiting the little town of Kaktovik, Alaska, where they have been given honourary resident status. The people there are keenly interested in the CAE history and so pleased to know about Pipsuk. They have carefully looked after his grave without knowing who he was or the circumstances of his death. (He drowned in 1918 while tending fish nets for the CAE). They are heading back west now, in communications with other boats on the same route and will contact us again from Point Barrow. They have been photographing and video-ing sites where the CAE travelled, including Cape Bathurst and the Smoking Hills near the Horton River, their easternmost point achieved while trying to get through the ice.

David