From Nature to Aviation and Everything in Between: North Dakota and the Arctic

By Mike Jacobs, retired editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Dakota

Dr. Timothy Pasch, University of North Dakota, far right, with students in Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Pasch)

In the popular imagination, North Dakota may be the most Arctic of the states, even though its northern border is more than 27 degrees of latitude south of the Arctic Circle. Much of North Dakota’s landscape was formed by glaciers, and its hummocks (ice field ridges) and potholes resemble the Arctic.

(L) The Alaskan Arctic (Photo credit: State Department); (R) Pothole complex in North Dakota. (Photo credit: Shin Koyama, North Dakota State Game and Fish Department, 1963)
Excerpt from Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s “The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions.”

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great Arctic explorer and ethnologist, knew both the Arctic and the prairie. Although he was born Canadian, he grew up in North Dakota herding cattle on the glacial plain west of the Red River Valley. In his book, “The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions,” he said that Banks Island, located in the Inuvik Region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, reminded him of home.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1915. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

Stefansson spent much of his young adulthood wandering through the Arctic, discovering new land, fathering children and fashioning elaborate and fantastic theories about diet and the origin of peoples. He wrote 24 books, among them “The Friendly Arctic” and “My Life with the Eskimo.” Later in life, he developed an interest in aviation, and imagined and promoted the “Great Circle Route.”

Another North Dakotan was an important figure in Arctic aviation. Carl Ben Eielson, born at Hatton, N.D., to Norwegian immigrant parents, joined the aviation division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the First World War. Back in North Dakota, he helped in his father’s store, graduated from the University of North Dakota (UND) and founded the state’s first aero club.

Carl Ben Eielson, 1928. (Photo credit: German Federal Archive)

In 1921, he enrolled at Georgetown University Law School, took a job as a policeman at the Capitol, and met Daniel Sutherland, Alaska’s delegate to Congress. Sutherland persuaded him to go north to teach in Alaska. It didn’t take Eielson long to take to the air, where he accomplished a number of firsts. Among these was carrying the mail by air. In four hours, he covered the distance from Fairbanks to McGrath, Alaska, which took three weeks with a dog sled.

With Hubert Wilkins, Eielson flew from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen, Norway, in April 1928. The distance was 2,200 miles (3,550 kilometers). The trip took 20 hours. It was the first aerial crossing of the Arctic Ocean. Later the pair joined an Antarctic expedition and became the first to fly in both of the Earth’s Polar Regions.

Eielson Air Force Base shines under the Aurora Borealis in March 2015. The base is named after North Dakotan Carl Ben Eielson. The base is home to RED FLAG-Alaska, a series of Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for U.S. forces. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force — Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel)

Eielson died in the Arctic, when he and his mechanic, Earl Borland, attempted to rescue passengers from the trading ship Nanuk trapped in the ice at North Cape (now Mys Schmidta) in Siberia. An Air Force Base in Alaska and the visitor center at Denali National Park are named for him, as is a school at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

The U.S. flag flies over the Eielson Visitor Center at Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska. According to the National Park Service, “Since 1934, some kind of visitor facility has existed along Eielson Bluffs. The first facility was a tent camp called Camp Eielson, and named after pioneer Alaskan aviator Carl Ben Eielson.” (Photo credit: National Park Service — Ken Conger)

Namesakes of other Arctic explorers abound in North Dakota. Franklin’s gulls nest in large colonies in the state, and the birds are familiar to every farmer. They swarm behind tillage equipment harvesting grubs from the overturned soil. In the state’s cities, flocks of these gulls gather in the fall to snap insects from the air, pushed up by heat rising from the pavement of urban parking lots.

All three of these commons North Dakkota species Franklin’s Gull, Franklin’s Ground Squirrel, and Richardson’s Ground Squirrel) take their names from Arctic explorers. (Photo credit L to R: Rian Castillo; Alberto Cea; Chuck Szmurlo)

The gull is named for Sir John A. Franklin, who was lost in the Arctic in 1847. Franklin’s ground squirrel, denizen of rock piles and brush patches in much of North Dakota, is also named for Franklin.

Another ground squirrel is named for Sir John Richardson, the naturalist on Franklin’s expedition to the Coppermine River and on an overland expedition. He missed Franklin’s ill-fated second naval expedition, however, but he was a member of a search party sent to look for him. Richardson’s ground squirrel is the “flicker tail,” so ubiquitous that North Dakota was for decades known as “The Flicker Tail State.”

Another Arctic namesake, the Tundra swan, is a North Dakota species, too. Tundra swans migrate diagonally across the continent, from the Middle Atlantic States to coastal Alaska. Their route passes over North Dakota, and the swan passage is an important marker of the seasons, both spring and fall.

The same is true of snow geese, and UND biologist Dr. Susan Felege has undertaken research on snow goose numbers on the coast of Hudson Bay. Her work involves an early application of unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — to wildlife research.

These Arctic namesakes are familiar to North Dakotans, and so are some souvenirs from the Ice Age. The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck displays bones of wooly mammoths and a complete skeleton of a mastodon.

Data from North Dakota Dept. of Mineral Resources, graph by Plazak, Wikimedia

North Dakota and today’s Arctic share another fossil heritage, oil. North Dakota recently passed Alaska to rank second among the states in petroleum production. During the Alaska oil boom, young North Dakotans went north. Some stayed. Others still regularly commute between home in North Dakota and jobs on the North Slopes. In the Bakken Boom, Alaska license plates began showing up in North Dakota’s oil country. Now, both states feel the impact of lower oil prices on local economics and state budgets.

There are digital connections between North Dakota and the Arctic, too. At UND, Dr. Timothy Pasch, Chair of the Communication Program, works in Arviat in the Kivalig Region of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic. He describes his research interests this way: “Focus on crowd-sourcing and digitally disseminating traditional knowledge related to identity and communication in the Circumpolar Arctic.”

Journalist and professor Mark Trahant at work. (Photo credit: Jackie Lorentz, UND)

In 2015, the university launched a program to train indigenous journalists in Canada and the United States. Led by Mark Trahant, the Indigenous News Network will use correspondents in native communities to report online. Colleges in the Arctic have been contacted; a story from Churchill, Manitoba, is expected in an early issue. Trahant has a longstanding interest in the Arctic. He taught at the University of Alaska, participated in symposium organized by the Arctic Council, and has reported on the crucial role indigenous peoples play in the Arctic Council through the six Permanent Participants.

The popular imagination is wrong to place North Dakota in the Arctic, but the state has close connections to the Arctic in heritage, landscape and resources, and the bonds are growing stronger.

About the Author:

(Photo credit: Grand Forks Herald)

Mike Jacobs started as editor of the Grand Forks Herald in 1984, and in 2004 became both editor and publisher. He is retired currently but continues to wrote a regular column for the paper that focuses on North Dakota politics and, as an avid birder, its avian life. He grew up milking cows near Stanley and graduated from the University of North Dakota. His career in newspapers includes stops in Dickinson, Mandan, and Fargo, ND. The Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after the Red River flood of 1997. Jacobs was named editor of the year and won the American Society of News Editors distinguished writing award for his flood-related editorials.


Next week’s featured U.S. state: KENTUCKY