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Leffingwell’s contributions rescued from obscurity in ‘On the Arctic Frontier’

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: October 6, 2018
  • Published October 6, 2018

On the Arctic Frontier: Ernest Leffingwell's Polar Explorations and Legacy

Janet R. Collins, Washington State University Press, 2017, 306 pages, $27.95

Ernest Leffingwell's name is unknown to most Alaskans, but not for lack of contributions on his part. Early in the twentieth century he traveled to Alaska's North Slope region several times, where he was the first to map the shoreline from Barrow to the Yukon border, as well as parts of the inland coastal region where the Prudhoe Bay oil operations and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge now lie.

A studious and determined man, he spent nine summers and six winters on Alaska's Arctic coast, wrote a scientific book about his findings, and then, despite rubbing shoulders with Arctic legends Roald Amundsen and Vilhjalmar Stefansson, retreated south and quietly lived out the remainder of his long life without making any serious effort at drawing attention to himself.

“On the Arctic Frontier” (courtesy Washington State University press)

Janet R. Collins seeks to rescue Leffingwell from obscurity in her recent account of his northern years, "On the Arctic Frontier." A retired map librarian from Western Washington University who has spent considerable time herself in the northernmost reaches of Alaska, she's a natural fit for a book paying tribute to a man who left a significant mark on the 49th State.

Leffingwell was a student at the University of Chicago in 1897 when he attended a lecture by the Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen's tales enraptured Leffingwell and determined his course. He subsequently joined the 1901 Baldwin Ziegler Expedition, an effort at conquering the North Pole from Russia's northern coast. Suffering from poor and indecisive leadership, the team never made it past the Franz Josef Land archipelago, but Leffingwell was hooked.

In 1906 he co-led the Anglo-American Polar Expedition. Unlike his previous journey, this one was focused on science, not glory. Among the objectives was to determine if there were islands lying off the northern coast of Alaska, and where the continental shelf lay.

The team spent four months traveling from the West Coast to the Beaufort Sea, where they set up camp on Flaxman Island, near the mouth of the Canning River. There they built shelters that would became Leffingwell's base for most of the next eight years.

After the depths of winter passed, the men headed out onto the sea ice in March of 1907. Collins' account of this, drawn from several sources, is fascinating and at times harrowing. More than once over what turned into a two month long odyssey, the men's lives were endangered and there were some close scrapes with disaster. But they persevered, located the continental shelf, and all returned alive. Once back from the ice, Leffingwell struck out to pursue his real interest, discovering the geology of geography of the North Slope.

Here the books begins to falter, likely due to the limited sources available to Collins. The most extensive records of this and his subsequent trips are Leffingwell's journals, and he was quite spartan in his language, something readers discover from the excerpts Collins includes. With little else to go on, she's left to provide a daily account of where Leffingwell went and what he saw, temperatures, weather conditions, who he interacted with, perhaps what he ate, and not much more. It's interesting from the standpoint of learning how people survived and traveled the Arctic a century ago, but becomes something of a forced after awhile. There simply isn't enough in the historical record to bring the story to life, and so it becomes more academic than literary.

Leffingwell was a careful observer and eager to learn. He quickly recognized the knowledge of the Inupiat residents and would travel with them, engage in trade, and socialize with those living nearby. He doesn't appear to have suffered at all from the racism commonly directed toward Native peoples at that point in Alaska's history, and the success of his work owes much to this.

Leffingwell remained on Flaxman Island through 1908, traveled south to get additional funding from his father, and was back the following summer. This time he stayed until 1912 before making another brief return to the Lower Forty-Eight. Back again in 1913, he intended to stay only for the summer, but unusually severe sea ice conditions necessitated one final winter. This time he was mostly alone, and the solitude took a psychological toll on him, as was noted by members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition who he spent Christmas with. Here, where Collins has more sources to draw on, the story again acquires much needed details to flesh it out and make it more than the logbook it too often feels like.

Collins has included a number of historic photographs — along with some of her own–as well as several maps that do help liven this book. Images from the 1907 sea ice expedition are quite dramatic, and winter camping pictures along the Hulahula River the following year give a feel for what it must have been like. Contemporary photographs reveal a warmer Arctic than Leffingwell encountered.

After Leffingwell left in 1914, he never went north again. He wrote a scientific account of his findings but refused to seek the fame other Arctic explorers of the time basked in. And so he faded from history. Collins seeks to restore him to his proper place, writing in her introduction,

"Leffingwell defined and mapped the coastline of northeastern Alaska, mapped the geography and geology of a significant part of the Arctic Refuge, reported the oil seepage at Cape Simpson in U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 109, and named the formation that underlies the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. He is also credited with pioneering work on ground ice, also known as permafrost."

All that and more, while proving himself quite adept at thriving in one of the world's most hostile climates.

Leffingwell deserves to be remembered, and this book details his accomplishments. What we don't get is a strong sense of the man himself. He was too guarded in his own writings. We get the details of his explorations here, but the man himself remains an enigma.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.