This Week in History


"...It was not distances that meant anything to us."

For the week of Monday April 3, 2000

On April 4, 1922, the North Party of the Fifth Thule Expedition left Iglulik to explore the north of Baffin Island, marking the first exploration of the area by Europeans on dog sled.

An iceberg on Bylot Island, Nunavut

An iceberg on Bylot Island, Nunavut
© Parks Canada / W. Lynch / 1996

Knud Rasmussen, born in Greenland in 1879, became interested early on in geography and ethnology (the study of cultures). Although he grew up speaking Inuktitut, he wanted to meet the "traditional" Inuit of the North American Arctic. He dreamed of an expedition to meet all the different groups around the Arctic Circle. After 12 years of fundraising, and several shorter trips, the Fifth Thule Expedition left Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 1921 with a crew of 15.

After a disastrous beginning with a shipwreck in Greenland, a delay caused by influenza in Godthab (Nuuk), and the death of several Inuit crew, the expedition finally left Greenland on September 7. Twelve days later, they reached Danskeon, or "Danish Island," where they built a shelter and prepared for the long journey ahead. The following year, the party divided into two. The South Party went to study the "Caribou" Inuit and the North Party, after exploring Chesterfield Inlet and parts of North Baffinland, proceeded to Iglulik. However, due to shortages of equipment and sled dogs, Therkel Matthiasen, the archaeological expert, had to walk up the Melville Peninsula, earning him the nickname Tiki, "the Arriver," from locals. At Iglulik, the North Party again divided into two. Freuchen and Qatalik, a local, went west through the Fury and Hecla Strait as far as the west of Agu Bay. Matthiassen and his three Inuit guides travelled up to Admiralty Inlet to the Dark Valley near Eqalulik. On May 15, the teams reunited and returned to Danish Island.

Dogsled at Sirmilik National Park
© Parks Canada / W. Lynch / 1996
The expedition studied the ecology, archaelogy and ethnology of the Arctic. The importance of their research is still felt today and the anthropological names they gave the different Inuit groups they encountered are still used. The expedition eventually traversed the Northwest Passage to Russia in September 1924. Of most interest to Rasmussen were the people he met, many of whose songs and stories he transcribed for the first time. Rasmussen declared, "Twenty thousand miles? How immaterial! For it was not distances that meant anything to us."

For its importance in helping to understand the cultures of the North, the Fifth Thule Expedition has been designated of National Historic Significance and is commemorated by a plaque at Danish Island, Nunavut.

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