To the Strange “Buttons”

The Story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934

Our tents were pitched on a small area of high level ground near a brook of pure water fed by the melting snow on the hills beyond. Fortunately for our comfort the wind-swept islands were free of mosquitoes and black flies, which ordinarily make life in the far north an intolerable existence.

There are no trees, not even tiny shrubs, that could be used as fuel; hence we had to depend on two Primus oil stoves for our cooking. Later, however, we found pieces of driftwood, probably from Ungava or Hudson Bay, which had been carried by the tides and thrown high on the rocks by the storms. Every bit of this wood we could find was collected and used as fuel during the chill days that followed.

Lanterns and flash lights were not needed in that northern latitude, since the sun stays above the horizon except for a short time each day, and when it sets, a bright glow remains in the sky. We were therefore able to carry on our work at any time during the twenty-four hours. I asked Bobbie how he knew without any timepiece when it was time to eat or sleep. He explained that he ate when he was hungry and went to bed when he was tired. We also found it best to follow this simple and sensible routine.

The first evening a beautiful arctic fox came to within fifty yards of our camp. Evidently its curiosity had been aroused by the sight of our tents, which were certainly new to its experience, and it had come from its hillside lair to investigate. The moment we stirred, however, the fox wheeled about and galloped over the snow on the hillside until it reached a barren, rocky ledge far above us. At this safe vantage point it paused, rested on its haunches, and gazed at us intently. We were as interested in the fox as it was in us. It was delightful to know we were all fellow-creatures, a part of the biology of the islands.

When we bade good-bye to the men on the “Bowdoin” no one could predict when they would return for us, as conditions in that region are most uncertain.

We found no lemming or other rodents, the usual food of the foxes, but the many masses of feathers along the shore and among the rocks of the hills gave evidence that the fox and his fellows fared well on this their island kingdom. Everywhere we could see signs of this kind, which tell a grim story of the struggle for existence in the Arctic.

On high, inaccessible cliffs of Lawson Island we found the breeding places of the glaucous gulls, large pure-white birds which nest only in the far north. The fulmars were also present in great numbers in the channels and inlets about the islands, but if these birds nest in that region, their breeding places are yet to be found.

Mr. Robert Wait, assistant in zoology, busied himself in the collecting of invertebrates, and made many interesting discoveries concerning the occurrence and distribution of these organisms. He found the little ponds and tidal pools teeming with life. There is great opportunity for further work in this neglected field of Arctic biology.

On the second day, the party on the Buttons nearly met with disaster. A Primus stove exploded, spurting burning oil on the canvas of the supply and cook tent, which immediately burst into flames. The level-headedness and quick action of two of the men in pulling the burning tent away from the camp site prevented the destruction of our entire equipment housed in this and four other tents.

Bobbie killed five seals, three of which he succeeded in bringing to camp. The seal steaks broiled on a driftwood fire were excellent, and the livers proved a rare delicacy. Even if the “Bowdoin” were to be long delayed in coming for us, we were assured that we would be well supplied with food. Bobbie, armed with his rifle and spear, often sat for hours on the rocks in front of our camp. A picture of patience as he awaited his chance to kill. All Eskimos seem to have a lust for killing; they have no conception of conservation. To them every bird, every seal, exists merely for them to kill. They have neither feeling nor mercy for their victims.

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