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For the love of history!

For the love of history!

The rationale for saving storied Northern documents from the historical scrap heap
By Herb Mathisen
Dec 19
2017

Up Here magazine is moving offices in the new year and, with that, comes the monumental task of organizing clutter and culling the vast Arctic archive amassed by co-publishers Marion LaVigne and Ronne Heming over their 40-plus years of Northern entrepreneuring. On a table near the doorway, there's been a steady slow-growing stack of freebies available to any and all takers. These include tourism posters promoting trips to regions that don't exist anymore, decades-old guide books for recently expanded highways, and technical documents for long-defunct mega-projects. Every so often, I find myself drifting over to examine these itemsthese small, token, seemingly insignificant pieces of Arctic historyand I have to confess that I'm starting to collect a small archive myself. These documents are so hard to part with because there are stories in everything.

Case in point: When Ronne told managing editor Elaine Anselmi to put word out via social media that we were looking to find a friendly home for our trove of ARCTIC Journals dating back to 1950, I darted over to the dusty periodicals and chained myself to them like a logging protester. Okay, I didn't do that, but I did lug them into my office to peruse them and make sure we weren't making a huge mistake. I spent the next hour or so flipping through them with glee. There are permafrost and caribou and ice sheet studies that are 40, 50 and 60 years old. There are firsthand stories from early Arctic explorers. There are updates on place-names, dispatches on the founding of communities and the development of language standards.

And there are relatable little gems like this, from a professor Hessler, an aurora photographer in Alaska in 1959:

"There is very close correlation between earth-current disturbances and auroral displays. I have an alarm in my bedroom actuated by the earth-current recorder and before retiring set up the camera and lay out warm clothing; all I lack is a fireman's pole for a rapid exit into the arctic night. Usually the most photogenic displays correspond to an auroral break-up, which may last only 3 or 4 minutes and unfortunately the signal system does not anticipate the phenomenon."

The cover of the March 1959 issue of ARCTIC Journal, taken by aurora lover professor Hessler from the University of Alaska.

There were aurora freaks back in the 50s!

Going through the journals gave me a tangible connection to history. There's a piece from a colleague of Robert Peary, the single-minded North Pole obsessive, about caribou hunting with him at the turn of the 19th Century. In the September 1951 issue, there's an obituary for Lincoln Ellsworth, who died in May of that year. Ellsworth was a famous aviator who attempted to fly to the North Pole from Svalbard, Norway with Roald Amundsen in 1925 and barely made it back after their "flying boats" made a hard landing on sea ice and crews spent three weeks hacking away at the ice to clear a runway. Two years later, Ellsworth flew over the North Pole in the dirigible Norge with Amundsen. A fond eulogy accompanies the obituary, penned by Ellsworth's friend and colleague Sir Hubert Wilkins, another legend of early aviation famous for being on the first land-aircraft to touch down on drift ice in 1927. Wilkins was still alive when the thing I held in my hand was published and sent out to the world.

There are more contemporary histories too. Like a study on squatters in Whitehorse from 1965. Or another about the use of the snowmobile by trappers on Banks Island in the late-60s and whether it was more or less cost-effective than dog team. (The study found the snowmachine to be a bigger economic burden on trappers initially, but provided them with more leisure time as they did not have to tend to a team of dogs. But there was also this: "The snowmobile is only one of many forces that will change the social system at Sachs Harbour. The encroachment of government administration and private resource development, both of which accelerated greatly in the summer of 1970, will be of far more profound consequence than the snowmobile.")

And there was a 1975 study of lake waters around Yellowknife (pop: 9,800), to see if the city should find another location for its lagoon, located at the time at Niven Lake, with outfall into Back Bay. The study suggested that very thing. (Today, an up-scale suburb of the NWT capital has sprung up around its former lagoon.)

It was also disheartening to be reminded how persistent and long-standing some fights for autonomy and self-determination have been. From the March 1978 issue, a study called "The Harp-seal Controversy and the Inuit Economy" by George Wenzel concludes: "This economy, which up to present has been remarkably resilient in the face of the activities of fur traders and exploration for oil and gasand, at times, government misunderstandingmight prove less able to withstand undiscriminating public protest."

And this, from more than 50 years ago, in September 1967. "The Polar Bear: A Matter for International Concern."

From the September 1967 issue of ARCTIC Journal.