August 4, 2000

Fort Conger: old tales of futility and desperation

Fort Conger, now within Quttinirpaaq National Park, still stands as a lasting monument to explorers who failed to learn Inuit methods of Arctic survival.

Nunatsiaq News

FORT CONGER, Ellesmere Island — On a sunny day, as icebergs float lazily in the bay and heat rises in waves from the warming earth, it’s hard to imagine just how far north this place really is, or that anyone ever knew any hardship here.

Fort Conger, located at 81 degrees latitude on the northeastern coast of Ellesmere Island, is now a national historic site lying within the boundaries of Quttinirpaaq National Park.

It’s an isolated spot, across the strait from Greenland, and accessible only to hikers or chartered aircraft.

But more than one hundred years ago, this remote location on Discovery Bay was an important staging point for polar explorers.

The sailing boat Discovery, which wintered over here in 1875, is long gone but wooden plaques commemorating two sailors who died over that winter remain, as do small wooden structures and other remnants from later explorers’ visits.

According to Lyle Dick, a historian with the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, these relics tell a "fascinating story of hubris, disaster and eventual adaptation to winter shelter, and survival in one of the world’s more severe climates."

Learning from Inuit

They also reveal the "progression from ignorance to wisdom" made by explorers as they finally realized that they needed to adopt Inuit settlement patterns, architectural principles, and ingenuity in order to survive.

While this year, more than 20 scientific parties are conducting research around the High Arctic islands, Fort Conger was the site of the first major scientific expedition to the northern polar region.

Here, in 1881, A.W. Greeley and 24 men were dropped off to spend a winter working on research projects. But after two full years passed, with no resupply ships calling, the expedition members ended up abandoning their scientific collections to head towards a more accessible point.

On Pim Island, they founded what Dick has called "a dismal starvation camp." At Camp Clay Greeley’s men built a makeshift lodge out of a whale boat that was cold and wet.

"Our sleeping bags and clothing were already frozen to the ground and their interiors were thawed only by the heat of our bodies, and froze solidly on quitting them. The roof and the walls speedily gathered frost, ice, as did every other article in our wretched hut," wrote Greely about Camp Clay life in November.

Cannibalism and violence erupted, and only six out the original group of 25, including Greely, survived. In the end, defeated by cold and hunger, the expedition’s amibitious projects, which had included an magnetic observatory and a vegetable garden, amounted to nothing.

Right from the very start, his expedition’s main problem was the simple challege of keeping warm. Greely’s Fort Conger was a long rectangular building, 18 metres by five metres, and three meters high.

Named after a US senator who had supported the expedition, the ungainly building was constructed in European fashion with long, vertical wooden boards covered with tar paper, and divided into three rooms.

The size of its exposed surfaces made it cold, and very hard to heat. In Sept. 1881, Greely noted five tons of coal had been burned for heat. During the first winter, the building was only banked with two metres of snow.

Fort Conger unfit

Explorer Robert Peary, who came upon the building a few years later, said in his 1917 book called "Secrets of Polar Travel" that Fort Conger was "grotesque in its utter unfitness and unsuitableness for polar winter quarters."

Peary eventually tore it down and built several smaller buildings, three of which still stand. These combined elements that Inuit used in building igloos and turf or stone houses. The buildings’ small size, clustering and interconnectness all reflected what Peary had seen in Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic.

Peary, for example, used tunnels to join the dwellings, as well as packed snow and sod for insulation.

The new smaller structures were relatively easy to heat, although they were more separate — and perhaps less liveable during the long, dark season — than the more communal dwellings Inuit favoured. Peary, nonetheless, used Fort Conger as a base from 1901 on, until he finally reached — or came close to — the North Pole in 1909.

Much of what Peary and Greely left behind can still be seen in a good state of preservation. There are the wooden dwellings, as well as the mounds of tin cans, bedsteads, Greely’s garden circled by barrel hoops, broken ceramic pipes, and shards of coloured glass.

Some visitors still question why this site isn’t cleaned up. "How long does junk have to stay around until it becomes historic, anyway," they ask.

Historic junk

But researchers use this junk to see how the explorers and their Inuit companions lived.

"Even the rusting piles of tin cans are valuable artifacts to the dedicated researcher," says a Parks Canada sheet on Fort Conger. "It is crucial, therefore, that this information not be disturbed. Please take only pictures, and leave only footprints."

Unfortunately, there are just a couple of small markers at Discovery Bay to tell about Fort Conger, and no detailed guide available at the site to explain about its importance or what visitors are seeing, although this information is available though Parks Canada offices.

So, even on one of summer’s finest days, Fort Conger, alone and unprotected, seems a bit fragile, a reminder that there are still limitations on what can and can’t be done in the High Arctic.