|A Brief History Of North Star of Herschel Island
North Star of Herschel Island is a familiar sight in Victoria’s Inner Harbour and a source of great curiosity but few ship watchers know of the fascinating life she led in the North far from Victoria or the direct link she represents to the history and development of the Canadian Western Arctic.
The first major incursions by Europeans in the Western Arctic were the whalers. But Arctic whaling petered out quickly at the beginning of the 20th century with the conspicuous over-hunting of Bowhead whales in Alaskan and Canadian waters. By then, however, some whaling skippers were carrying trade goods in their steam powered vessels and doing a vigorous fur and ivory trading business as a sideline.
The first trading vessels to come into the Arctic were schooner-rigged. Since the Europeans kept referring to “schooners”, through Inuit eyes every vessel built of wood and large enough to have a deck was a schooner. Most of the later “schooners” were actually sloops, but they became known collectively as Arctic schooners or Eskimo trapping schooners.
From about 1910 to about 1960, nearly all transportation in the Western Arctic was done by private individuals in small vessels. Some years the waters are so choked with ice it is impossible to travel while other years there are large openings in the ice making long distance travel possible. Marine transportation was very important because it was the only way to bring in supplies to support people living in settlements year round.
Any industrious Arctic trapper needed his own transportation to travel from Herschel Island to the Arctic fox territory. Some of the prosperous trappers who owned their own boats did a little trading as well. There were 30 or 40 of these small Eskimo schooners and most had just one mast which could carry a steadying sail or in a pinch propel the vessel downwind.
In those days, the white pelts of the Arctic fox commanded high prices at the southern fur auctions and many Inuit were becoming wealthy. Trappers began acquiring cameras, sewing machines and many other wonders from the south - including boats of their own for which they could pay large sums.
These vessels were loaded with trapping gear and other supplies each spring when the trappers headed out to their camps. They usually had their entire family with them. The bigger vessels such as North Star might have three or four families aboard, sharing in the expense and the work of the voyage. The vessels would fan out from Herschel Island traveling eastward to Horton River, Cape Parry, Banks Island, Victoria Island, Coppermine, Bathurst Inlet, Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Pelly River and Spence Bay to set up their trap lines. These schooners were especially adapted to the Arctic. Most had double plankings with Irish ship’s felt in between the plankings. The outer planking was usually Australian greenheart. The wood is very tough and could “work” in ice and tolerate being frozen in during winters when their owners failed for some reason to haul the vessels out of the water.
The ship’s felt was important because single wood planking with caulking could not tolerate the freezing action in wintertime, even when the boat was hauled out. The freezing would force out the caulking and sometimes the vessel would sink on launching in the spring. This happened several times until the use of ship’s felt avoided the problem.
In winter, everyone ran dog teams over long distances, but it was too expensive to use dogs for transporting freight. The teams could not pull heavy loads. The only practical method for carrying heavy loads in the Arctic was by vessel and this during the short “summer” season when such travel was possible.
While many individuals made significant contributions to maritime life in the Arctic, Christian Theodore Pedersen was probably the single most important driving force in introducing Eskimo trapping schooners. An ex-whaling captain based in California, he established the CanAlaska Company to exploit the fur trade in the Arctic in competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Although Pedersen established some trading posts, his chief strategy was to encourage trappers to be mobile so they could travel to where the fur-bearing animals were, and still be able to bring the pelts to a convenient place for trading. Using a 600 ton former U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey ship, the Patterson, as a trading vessel, he made a round trip every year from San Francisco to the Beaufort Sea. Thus the Patterson became a floating trading post, which meant that no matter what ice or weather conditions existed, the ship could rendezvous with the trappers somewhere in the region. In Canada that was done at Herschel Island.
The vessels brought to the Arctic by Pedersen were all built in San Francisco at the George W. Kneass Shipyard. One or two were carried north as deck cargo on the Patterson each year. When a trapper had saved enough money, he would order a schooner from Pedersen who would arrange to have it built and delivered the following year. The schooners ranged from 35 feet to more than 50 feet in length.
In the early days Pedersen would also carry small boats (Nantucket-style) with oars and sail (no engine) to sell to the Inuit. Some of these were built in California but many were built in New England, transported by train to California and then shipped north in the Patterson. The Alaskan Inuit favoured these small boats and they bought them in large numbers. They were used for whaling to some extent but they became the common small craft for personal transportation before engines were introduced.
North Star - 53 feet at the waterline, 58 feet on deck was the largest private vessel in the Western Arctic. She was built specifically for the fox trapping trade. She was brought north by the Patterson in 1936 having been ordered the previous year by James Wolkie and Fred Carpenter. They specified that it be a schooner and described the features she should have. They paid $23,000.00 for her, a considerable sum at the height of The Depression.
The schooners destined for the Arctic were loaded by crane onto the deck of the Patterson in San Francisco and carried to Herschel Island. There the unloading process would begin.
First the Patterson was made to list by shifting her cargo so that her mastheads were directly over the vessel on the deck. Then the schooner would be hoisted off the deck by special rigging at the mastheads. Then the freighter was made to list even more steeply until the schooner could be swing out over the side and lowered into the water.
When North Star was being built, Captain Pedersen went to Atlas engines in San Francisco to order a three cylinder 35hp slow turning make-and-break gasoline marine engine. They told him they didn’t make them anymore. But Fred Carpenter had insisted on that particular engine: “I want that engine. I know that engine. I don’t want any other engine.”
At that time, 1935, there were a few diesel engines being used in the Arctic but being very familiar with the Atlas gasoline engine, Fred Carpenter had made up his mind. So the Atlas representative said they would assemble one from spare parts. In that way they produced the very last engine of its type. this engine was replaced in the 70’s and donated to an Arctic museum. North Star now has a GM 3/53 diesel engine.
August was the best month for boat travel in the Arctic, but boat owners had to make sure to return to Sachs Harbour before freeze-up. They would then pull the boat out of the water. This was a major operation.
The boats were always pulled out sideways, using a five ton manual winch and block and tackle. Positioning drift logs (which are all very smooth in the Arctic) to act as a ramp, they would attach cable to the bow and stern. The logs would be covered in the skins of freshly killed seals to act as lubrication under the keel. They would begin winching in the cables until the vessel began to slide up the ramp. They would “walk” the vessel up the ramp, pulling first on the bow cable, then on the stern cable, until the boat wiggled up to her winter resting place. The whole operation might take a couple of days.
North Star was purchased in 1967 by Sven Johansson from the brother and sister co-owners, Fred Carpenter and Susie Sydney. The vessel had been used for 25 years until 1960 or 61 to travel between Aklavik and Sachs Harbour for the annual trading run.
North Star had been up on the beach for five or six years by the time Johansson bought her. Fred Carpenter told him the government had started sending in a supply ship every year to support the Upper Air Weather Station. The people started getting their supplies that way too. There was also an airlift every two months, then every two weeks, so there was no need for a schooner. Carpenter said, “The boat is a big part of myself and my life, but I want to sell North Star to you because you will take her out on the ocean where she belongs. If I don’t sell her to you she will be on the beach, just like dead!”
The Atlas engine was still in beautiful shape when Johansson bought the vessel. It was only the deteriorated electrical system that prevented its further use. To start an engine with three cylinders and weighing close to two tons required a mighty push on a steel bar inserted in large holes in the flywheel. The holes were designed so that the bar would slip out as the wheel turned. The engine didn’t have spark plugs, using instead a series of contacts which would make and break according to the cycle of the engine.
The owner of the Omingmuk (another trapping schooner) gave a mast to Johansson who was then planning to re-rig North Star as a three masted square rigged ship. Johansson sent the mast to Vancouver where he picked it up in 1974 after bringing the ship down from Alaska. Johansson also got hold of what was left of the original mast of the Nanuk II, yet another schooner. The mast had been damaged earlier when the top broke off as she was being pulled out of the water. Johansson trimmed it and sent it to Vancouver. So North Star as now rigged, contains mementoes of at least two other famous ships. She is like a floating museum of Arctic marine heritage.
Johansson registered the ship in 1968, she not having been registered previously. Records are hazy concerning these trapping schooners as they weren’t properly reported to the RCMP authorities at Herschel Island or the owners just didn’t bother with registration requirements. The Registrar of Shipping had no knowledge of the existence of North Star even though she had been operating in Canada since 1936 and the original import duty had been paid to the RCMP at the time of purchase.
Sven refitted North Star and made charters in the Arctic for scientific research. In 1973 he sailed the ship to Victoria with his wife and daughter. The ship was taken north again for use in sail training with Inuit and as a survey ship in surveying the controversial British Columbia/Alaska 54 40 borderline. She was completely copper clad to keep out the toredo worm.
North Star was purchased by Sheila and Bruce Macdonald in 1996 who immediately moved aboard with their two daughters Maida and Isabel. Two years later the family was increased by two when two foster children joined the family. Bruce is the former Captain of the sail training vessel Pathfinder that is rigged as a brigantine. Previous commands include the brigantine TS Playfair and the 47 foot gaff rigged cutter, Trident 2. Bruce has also delivered and raced yachts in many parts of the world.
The Macdonald’s live aboard year round and spend their summers voyaging through the waters of the Pacific Northwest, seeking out remote anchorages and sometimes participating in wooden boat shows and tall ship festivals.
North Star of Herschel Island is the only trapping schooner still afloat from that era of Arctic history. The others are either gone or abandoned on the beach and mostly forgotten. She is still making a contribution 60 years later as a square rigged sailing ship, a tribute to her Inuit owners and to Sven Johansson who rescued her from destruction on the beach at Sachs Harbour on Banks Island and to her new owners, Sheila and Bruce Macdonald who continue to maintain and operate her.
(Material drawn from an article written by John MacFarlane and Sven Johansson and R. Bruce Macdonald).