Leffingwell Camp, Flaxman Island

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Leffingwell Camp, Flaxman Island

by | Mar 20, 2021

Flaxman Island is an Arctic barrier island, about 7 miles (11 km) long, between the Beaufort Sea and Lion Bay, about 58 miles (94 km) east of Deadhorse and 58 miles (94 km) west of Kaktovik, Alaska. The island was named on August 6, 1826, by Sir John Franklin for John Flaxman, an English sculptor and draftsman. The Iñupiat name for the island is “Sidrak”, reported to mean “foxhole” by Ernest de Koven Leffingwell in 1912.

In 1906, the western Arctic was still not accurately mapped and speculation persisted about a large unknown landmass near the north pole. Ejnar Mikkelsen and Ernest Leffingwell decided to mount an expedition with the express purpose of discovering the new landmass. The Anglo-American Polar Expedition also included Dr. G.P.Howe as medical officer, the Danish zoologist Ejnar Ditlevsen, and Viiljalmur Steffansson as the expedition anthropologist. They procured the vessel Beatrice in Victoria, British Columbia. The ship was constructed in 1879 as a schooner of 66 tons and used as a fur seal poaching vessel, a pearl fisher, and as an opium smuggler in the Far East. They renamed the schooner Duchess of Bedford in honor of one of the expedition’s financial sponsors. On entering the Beaufort Sea, the vessel became locked in pack ice and was destroyed but the wood was salvaged and used to build a cabin on Flaxman Island where the expedition over-wintered. Stefansson was supposed to join the group at Herschel Island, but when the vessel was lost, he traveled south across the Mackenzie-Yukon portage and down the Bill River to Fort Yukon, Alaska. In 1907, the remaining party continued north traveling by dog sleds and routinely bored holes through the ice to measure depth soundings. They found that water increased in depth the farther north they traveled which conclusively proved that there was no landmass in the north polar region. The soundings also established the presence of a continental shelf that extended 65 miles (105 km) offshore.

Mikkelsen left the expedition in 1907 but Leffingwell remained on the Arctic coast for another year. The expedition was evacuated in 1908 by Captain George B. Leavitt on the whaler Narwhal. Leffingwell subsequently named Leavitt Island and Narwhal Island on the Arctic coast of Alaska. Leffingwell returned to the camp in subsequent years and created the first accurate map of this section of the Alaskan coastline. He was the first to scientifically describe permafrost. He accurately identified the oil potential of the area, including assessing that it was not, in his day, technologically or economically feasible to develop it. The remains of the Leffingwell Camp constructed from the remains of the Duchess of Bedford are still on Flaxman Island and are now a National Historic Landmark. Read more here and here. Explore more of Flaxman Island here:

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