In the first International Polar Year (1882-1883) the British Royal Society had a meteorological and magnetic station at Fort Rae, a Hudson’s Bay Company post. Only four men were sent, a relatively small IPY contribution compared with other countries. In the first IPY, crews were sent to remote stations where they would stay for the entire year, recording information about the north daily, or even hourly. The same crew would staff the observation stations for the whole IPY.

The British men travelled with clothing and provisions from the Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse in Winnipeg, and having smartly relied upon the HBC for direction in these areas. The supplies were packaged into 90 pound boxes designed to be carried easily over portages – travel into the north in 1882 was an adventuresome undertaking. This trip probably involved steamships, oxcarts, York boats, and canoes . The party reached Fort Rae on August 30, 1882. An empty storage shed was converted by the expedition crew into a magnetic observatory and the instruments were set up. Surprisingly, the instruments were in reasonable shape after riding in oxcarts and being submerged into the Great Slave Lake in a gale en route to the station.

The expedition members worked long hours to record climate, magnetic, and aurora observations and measurements, but occasionally they were thwarted by the conditions of the north – an animal, probably a wolverine, caused some damage to equipment. The thermometers in the ground were wrapped in fur so that when they were pulled up to be read, they didn’t quickly adjust to the air temperature. The wolverine pulled up the fur and broke the thermometers! The crew had to replace the thermometers, and having learned their lesson, wrapped them in cotton cloth instead of fur.

As the crew recorded measurements over the winter from their scientific instruments, they also recorded some information provided by the Aboriginal visitors and trappers at the trading post – for example, one group indicated that the winter of 1882-83 was a comparatively warm one, and there were areas nearby with no snow as late as mid-January 1883. We have few observations from trading post staff or native trappers about the work conducted by the crew, but their behaviour must have seemed odd. For example, on clear nights, they recorded the colour, brightness, and behaviour of the northern lights every hour!

Barr, William. 1985. The expeditions of the first International Polar Year, 1882-83. Calgary, Alta. : Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary.

International council of scientific unions, special committee for the international geophysical year.

1959. “The Histories of the International Polar Years and the Inception and Development of the International Geophysical Year”, Annals of the international geophysical year. London : Pergamon Press.
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