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Explorer Maps Unknown Lands

For the week of Monday February 16, 1998

On February 20, 1915, Vilhjalmur Stefansson headed north from his winter base camp on Banks Island in the western Arctic, searching for unknown land further north. Although he found no new lands on this trip he improved the coastal charts and crossed the Banks Island interior, reporting on much of what is now Aulavik National Park. The following year, starting from the same place, Stefansson earned life-long fame by locating the last unknown major land masses in the Canadian High Arctic.

Aulavik National Park

Aulavik National Park
© Parks Canada

By this time Vilhjalmur (pronounced "Veel-yowl-mur") Stefansson was already a noted Arctic traveller and ethnologist. In 1913, he began his longest voyage when he led the Canadian Arctic Expedition, sent by the federal government to do a variety of geographical and scientific work.

Only half the expedition had landed when Stefansson's ship, the Karluk drifted away and was crushed in the ice. Stefansson was not on the Karluk when her drift began, and his own small party continued on foot with sledges. In September 1914, Stefansson reached Banks Island where he received fresh supplies for his February journey northward. His journeys in 1915 and 1916-17 were both successful, and he stayed in the North until 1918.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Vilhjalmur Stefansson
© Library and Archives Canada / C-86406

Stefansson had a high regard for the Inuvialuit, the Aboriginal people in the area, and believed that skilled Arctic travellers could live off the land, as the Inuvialuit did. In many books – including The Friendly Arctic – Stefansson shared his love of the Arctic and his approaches to survival. Though fascinated by traditional ways, he also predicted the advent of oil pipelines, mineral exploration and military bases in the North. He spent his later life writing and lecturing on the North and advising governments and businesses on Arctic development.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson died in 1962. He is commemorated by a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque at Arnes, Manitoba, where he was born. In 1992 the Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the Inuvialuit agreed to establish Aulavik National Park on Banks Island. This park represents and protects a part of the Western Arctic Lowlands ecosystem.

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