Maine & the Arctic: A Shared History

By Dr. Susan A. Kaplan, professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, and Dr. Genevieve LeMoine, an archaeologist and curator/registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine

The authors at the site of Arctic explorer Robert Peary’s 1908–09 shore camp on Floeberg Beach, Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Photo courtesy of the authors.)

In late August of this year, U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine traveled to Greenland to witness how climate change is impacting the region. While standing on the Greenland ice cap he made a brief video in which he claimed he was in Maine — 10,000 years ago. It was a joke of course, but with an essential grain of truth. A massive ice sheet once blanketed Maine and when it retreated, a tree-less tundra — not unlike environments in present-day Greenland — covered the state. To this day there are Arctic-adapted plants on mountaintops in Maine that are relics of that time.

The Senator’s point was that Maine is an Arctic state because of its many ties to the north. Indeed, Maine’s media is full of reports of exciting new, northern-focused ventures being undertaken by businesses, universities, and others as Maine prepares for a more global-oriented role in the Arctic. Iceland’s oldest shipping company, Eimskip, has moved its U.S. headquarters to Portland, Maine, a major working waterfront. The Port of Portland has been expanding and upgrading its facilities in response, in part, to a state initiative to increase trade and investment between Maine and northern North Atlantic markets. The newly established New England Ocean Cluster aims to serve as a business incubation and innovation center with North Atlantic commerce in mind. The University of Southern Maine has established an exchange program with Reykjavik University in Iceland. Businesses in Maine have begun exploring opportunities in Greenland, while our law firms are building their Arctic expertise in recognition of Maine’s strategic position relative to other North Atlantic countries and the potential for Maine to capitalize on the potential increase of ship traffic using the Northern Sea Route or Northwest Passage.

(Photo Credit: The Arctic Institute and The Portland Press Herald)

While these are all new activities and focused on Maine’s future in the Arctic, few people realize that our state’s cultural and economic ties to the region are actually ancient, going back at least 4,000 years when the ancestors of the Wabanaki people, comprised of the four Indian tribes of Maine: the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, carried on an amazing long-distance trade with their northern relatives in what is now Canada. A distinctive, sugary-grey stone known as Ramah chert was a major component of that trade.

Ramah chert was quarried from Ramah Bay on the rugged Torngat coast of Labrador in the Canadian Arctic — about 1000 miles north of today’s Maine — and carried south by traders. Early Mainers fashioned the stone into beautiful implements including knives, arrowheads, and lances. Found in archaeology sites throughout the state, Ramah chert artifacts are enduring reminders of links between Maine’s first people and our northern neighbors.

A Ramah chert artifact. (Photo Credit: The Maine State Museum)

Maine has modern historic ties to the Arctic as well, including a rich history of Maine institutions involved in education and research with an Arctic focus. Maine cod fishermen sailed “down the Labrador” throughout the 19th century and Maine scientists, students, and adventurers were not far behind.

In 1860 Paul Chadbourne began a long tradition of involving his students, attending Maine’s Bowdoin College (founded in 1794), in northern research by taking them on an expedition to study the natural history of Labrador. One of his students, Alpheus Spring Packard (Bowdoin College Class of 1861), returned to Labrador in 1864 with the artist William Bradford and went on to write a seminal book, Labrador Coast, which remains a classic.

In 1891 another Bowdoin professor, Leslie Lee, also led an expedition of young Bowdoin alumni and students to Labrador. Part of the group ventured into Labrador’s interior to measure the height of the legendary Grand Falls, but nearly perished on their trip back to the coast. Their hair-raising journey is recounted in Bowdoin Boys in Labrador written by Jonathan P. Cilley, an expedition member.

While Lee’s students were having misadventures in Labrador, another Mainer, Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (Bowdoin Class of 1877), was in far northern Greenland at what would be the beginning of his long quest to be the first person to reach the North Pole and claim it for the United States. He lived and worked with the Inughuit of northwestern Greenland for about eight years over the next two decades, exploring the northernmost part of Greenland and Ellesmere Island (a Canadian island close to Greenland), following what was known as “the American route” to the North Pole. Once he reached the North Pole, Peary’s thoughts quickly turned to Maine and his beloved summer home on Eagle Island, which is a short sail from Portland, Maine and now a State Park and National Historic Landmark open to visitors.

Arctic explorer Robert Peary’s ship the SS Roosevelt in the ice at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Canada, 1908–09. (Photo credit: Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan, courtesy of The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.)

For his last two expeditions in 1905–06 and 1908–09 Peary sailed north in the SS Roosevelt, an innovative steamship he designed for Arctic work and had built at the McKay and Dix Shipyard on Verona Island, which is across the river from Bucksport, Maine. The ship was later towed to the Portland Company in Portland, Maine, where the boilers and rigging were installed.

The Roosevelt’s chief engineer was George Wardwell, a Bucksport man who executed extraordinary repairs of the ship during both its voyages north. The vessel performed as per her design, pushing, crashing, and twisting through heavy ice in Nares Strait and overwintering at Cape Sheridan, just south of modern day Alert, Nunavut, where she served as a base of operations for Peary’s North Pole expeditions.

The schooner Bowdoin in winter quarters, with snow houses protecting the hatches, at Qamarfit (Refuge Harbor), Greenland, in 1923–24. (Photo credit: Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan, courtesy of The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.)

Donald B. MacMillan (Bowdoin Class of 1898) joined Peary’s 1908–09 expedition and the fifteen months he spent in the Arctic changed his life. Abandoning his career as a preparatory school teacher, he embarked on 26 more expeditions to the Arctic, most aboard his schooner Bowdoin. On these trips he pioneered the use of motion picture films, radio communication, and airplanes in the eastern Arctic.

A Loening amphibian airplane at Etah, Greenland on the MacMillan-Byrd expedition, 1924. (Photo credit: Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan, courtesy of The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.)

Right up to his last trip in 1954, MacMillan took scientists and students to a part of the world he loved, setting some on their own careers as Arctic researchers and mariners. Back home, MacMillan lectured widely, educating American audiences about the wonders of the Arctic and the people who live there. He also established lasting ties with people across the Canadian Arctic, including in Labrador and Baffin Island, and Northwest Greenland. MacMillan’s schooner Bowdoin, soon to celebrate its centennial, was built at the Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine in 1920–21. The Bowdoin is the official vessel of the state of Maine, a National Historic Landmark, and a key vessel in the Maine Maritime Academy’s training program. Like the Roosevelt, the Bowdoin was designed for Arctic work and while MacMillan had his share of misadventures during his travels, the schooner performed flawlessly. Since the Bowdoin became part of the Maine Maritime Academy’s fleet, a new generation of Mainers has been introduced to Arctic navigation as cadets have sailed the vessel to the Arctic numerous times. They also are being trained in ice navigation using state of the art ship simulators, part of a U.S. Coast Guard-sponsored initiative.

An Arctic iceberg on the coast of Labrador in northern Canada, which falls along the path of future shipping routes from Maine to the Arctic. (Photo credit: Susan Kaplan, August 2016.)

Maine’s Arctic-focused research tradition has remained strong and researchers continue to go north in ever-growing numbers, studying everything from archaeology and geology to oceanography. People throughout the world turn to The Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine when they have questions about the earth’s changing climate and its complex relationship to the environment, and to Bigelow Laboratory for Oceans Research, where researchers are developing solutions to vexing problems in northern seas. The work of scientists and social scientists at these and other institutions scattered throughout the state continues to contribute to the world’s growing understanding of both the environmental and human dimensions of this fascinating, complex, and fragile region.

Bowdoin College student Lara Bluhm standing by the signpost at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, in June 2016. (Photo credit: Genevieve LeMoine.)

As they have been since 1860, Maine students are important participants in this work, whether analyzing ice cores to understand past environments, measuring how much methane is released by thawing northern lakes, investigating indigenous groups’ use of resources, or considering the complexities of designing sustainable development projects. In addition to learning their craft, students involved in Arctic projects experience the wonders of this amazing part of the world first hand, taking part in a long tradition of conducting cutting-edge work in the north. Regardless of what career they choose, familiarity with the Arctic will be an asset.

So Mainers are going to the Arctic, but what of the Arctic coming to Maine? Thanks to our long history of working in the north, Maine has deep ties to northern communities, some reaching back over 150 years. And these ties still resonate today. You may be surprised to know that every school child in Qaanaaq in northern Greenland can pronounce “Bowdoin” (it’s bow-dun, by the way) thanks to nearby Bowdoin Fjord, named by Peary. And many of their grandparents have fond memories of Donald MacMillan and his schooner Bowdoin, too. The same is true in Inuit communities of Labrador. We know this because we have continued to visit and work with these communities and have had the opportunity to experience first hand the strong sense of a shared history.

Balika and Magssanguaq Jensen and Navarana K’avigak making a dog harness in the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum gallery in June 2001. (Photo credit: Genevieve LeMoine, The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum collection).

Over the years Bowdoin College and other Maine organizations have hosted many visitors from across the Arctic, for many different reasons. People have journeyed from Alaska, Greenland, Labrador, Nunavut, and Iceland to Maine to study Arctic collections housed at The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, and to take part in workshops on marine mammal management, indigenous rights, and shipping. Some come to attend colleges and camps, while others perform, talk about and exhibit their art, lecture about their life’s work, or explore business partnerships. Often they express an appreciation for Maine’s natural beauty (even if it does have too many trees obscuring the view) and, more importantly, for the warmth and hospitality of the people here, so much like the hospitality we have experienced in Arctic communities.

Navarana K’avigak teaches a Bowdoin College student the basics of Inuit drumming in 2008. (Photo credit: Susan Kaplan, The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum collection).
…it is important to remember the deep historic and personal ties with the Arctic that many Mainers have developed over hundreds of years. Maine is not in the Arctic, but in many ways it is part of the Arctic.

When Senator King first linked Maine to the Arctic, it was new business opportunities that drew most attention. But as the historic meeting of the Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials in Portland approaches it is important to remember the deep historic and personal ties with the Arctic that many Mainers have developed over hundreds of years. Maine is not in the Arctic, but in many ways it is part of the Arctic.

About the Authors: Dr. Susan A. Kaplan is a professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College. She completed terms as Bowdoin’s Acting Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. She is an Arctic anthropologist and archaeologist who studies prehistoric and historic Inuit responses to environmental change and contact with the West, the history of Arctic exploration, and material culture. She works primarily in northern Labrador, Canada, though projects have taken her to Alaska, Ellesmere Island, and Newfoundland as well. She was the editor of the circumpolar journal Arctic Anthropology for 11 years and is the author and editor of numerous research and exhibition publications. In addition to research, teaching, and overseeing museum operations, she organizes international and national symposia and develops outreach programs for the general public and northern communities. At Bowdoin she teaches courses having to do with archaeology, contemporary Arctic issues, cultures’ responses to environmental changes, and human-animal relationships. You can contact her at skaplan@bowdoin.edu.

Dr. Genevieve LeMoine is an archaeologist and curator/registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She began working in the north as a University of Calgary graduate student in 1986, excavating Paleoeskimo sites on north Devon Island. Since then she has worked at sites in the Mackenzie Delta, NWT, Little Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, Inglefield Land, northwestern Greenland, and northern Ellesmere Island, Nunavut; the last three as a principle investigator. Her research interests include skeletal technology, experimental archaeology, and women in prehistory. Her research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. She has published the results of her research in a variety of academic journals and edited volumes and has curated exhibits on subjects ranging from climate change to Canadian Inuit art. She has lived in Maine since 1995. You can contact her at glemoine@bowdoin.edu.

Other blogs by the authors include Cape Sheridan and Crockerland.

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