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Not just home to ice and snow, this gigantic and often-ignored part of Canada has long been a theatre of human drama, deep and rich culture, and international politics. We’re putting faces to the names of these incredible islands.

A haven in hell

Madness and terror in the far north

Welcome to Fort Conger. Built as a weather station for the First International Polar Year in 1881 by American Adolphus Greely, the base certainly left a lasting impression on its first guests. When supply ships were unable to reach them there for two years, Greely and his men set off south for Cape Sabine, where they expected to find food caches along the way. Instead, they would starve for a winter. Greely’s decision to leave Fort Conger would nearly inspire a mutiny. At Cape Sabine, there would be cannibalism and an execution. One man had his feet amputated without even knowing it. When Greely’s crew was finally rescued, the footless man was found with a spoon attached to his stumped arm, which is how he fed himself. And Greely had withered away beyond recognition. Only seven of the 26 men would survive. 

Eighteen years later, Robert Peary used Fort Conger as a base for his first attempt at the North Pole. He arrived after a madcap 19-day trek foolishly undertaken in late-December because only this would give him a chance to push further north that spring. The trip came with a price—eight of Peary’s toes. (For the rest of his days, he’d walk around on stumpy feet with only his baby toes.) Upon arriving at Fort Conger, Peary saw Greely’s biscuits and tea strewn about. He found the 18-year-old coffee drinkable.

Peary would return to Fort Conger on subsequent polar expeditions, eventually tearing down the large Greely structure and erecting smaller buildings that were easier to heat.

Today, the humble shelters are federal heritage buildings preserved by Parks Canada. – HM


Compasses point North of Canada

Tracing a moving target over a century

The North magnetic pole (the spot in the northern hemisphere where the Earth’s magnetic field lines enter the planet) has been on the move of late. First pinpointed in 1831 on the Boothia Peninsula by James Clark Ross, it’s been steadily drifting north over the last century, from the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island in 1948, over Bathurst Island to Ellef Ringnes Island in the 1990s. It’s been speeding up ever since and is now nearing the eastern hemisphere on the Arctic Ocean. Scientists believe that melting ice, and changes in the flow of water around the world, have changed the way mass is distributed on the planet, altering Earth’s axis and causing the magnetic pole to drift northward. – HM


High Arctic bounty


Drilling for oil or mining underground riches north of the 75th parallel might seem fantastical, but it’s been done.

The Polaris lead and zinc mine, for one, was open 20 years on Little Cornwallis Island, a 25-minute Twin Otter flight north of Resolute, until it closed when ore reserves were depleted in 2002. The mine was only able to ship out its yearly stockpile of ore during short ice-free windows of six to 10 weeks each year.

Northwest from there, oil was discovered on Cameron Island in 1974 and  a decade later Panarctic Oils had the Bent Horn oil field up and running. Two tanker loads each summer brought a total of 2.6 million barrels of oil to southern refineries from 1985 until Bent Horn closed in 1996 due to low oil prices and uncertainty over its remaining reserves. Some unrefined oil even powered the nearby Polaris mine’s generators.

True, the logistics involved with developing mineral resource projects in the High Arctic often means the economics don’t make sense. (For Polaris, massive buildings, pre-fabricated in Quebec, were shipped
up by barge and deposited on land.)

But there is potential this far north. The Sverdrup Basin has, according to some recent estimates, 8 billion barrels of oil and 49 trillion cubic metres of natural gas potentially. And while they may never be mined as Canada and other nations work to phase out coal completely, Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands are home to possibly tens of billions of tonnes of thermal coal. – HM

While you're here, why not meet the East and the West?