Polar Research Today:

Restoring history for Inuit explorers: 
Ittukusuk and Aapilak Islands

By Kenn Harper

Taken by Ted Heckathorn in 1998.

These two small islands off the east coast of Ellsemere Island were discovered by Dr. Cook in 1909 and named after his two fellow Inuit explorers. The name of a Canadian official replaced them in the early 1920s. The leading Inuit historian calls for their restoration. This aerial photograph shows the two small islands that Fredrick Cook named as the Ittukusuk and Aapilak Islands. 

In the spring of 1909 Frederick Cook and his two Inuit companions, Ittukusuk and Aapilak, struggled along the coast of Ellesmere Island, heading in a general north-easterly direction towards Greenland. They had spent the winter in a cave on northern Devon Island on their return from the North Pole the previous spring. 

Near the Ellesmere coast, the party discovered two small, high islands at 76° 13’ 00" North latitude, 79° 51’00" West longitude. Cook describes that part of the journey thus: 

“At the end of eight days of forced marches we reached Cape Tennyson. The disadvantage of manpower, when compared to dog motive force, was clearly shown in this effort. The ice was free of pressure troubles and the weather was endurable. Still, with the best of luck, we had averaged only about seven miles daily. With dogs, the entire run would have been made easily in two days. 

“As we neared the land two small islands were discovered. Both were about one thousand feet high, with precipitous sea walls, and were on a line about two miles east of Cape Tennyson. The most easterly was about one and a half miles long, east to west, with a cross-section, north to south, of about three-quarters of a mile. About half a mile to the west of this was a much smaller island. There was no visible vegetation, and no life was seen, although hare and fox tracks were crossed on the ice. 

Cook decided to permanently memorialize his two traveling companions by naming the islands after them. Like almost all explorers, his rendering of Inuktitut names was idiosyncratic. In his own words, he tells us that “I decided to call the larger island E-tuk-i-shook, and the smaller Ah-we-lah.” 

Those words were published in 1911. Forty years later, in his posthumously-published Return from the Pole, only one line was changed. Cook wrote that he had decided to call the larger island Etuq and the smaller Wela. These abbreviations were his nicknames for the two young men with whom he traveled. In today’s modern orthography, the names should be spelled Ittukusuk and Aapilak. Unfortunately, the two names, in either their full or abbreviated versions, never made it onto the official map of Canada. 

Records are sparse, but the two islands were officially named the Stewart Islands, after the Honourable Charles Stewart and his wife Lady Jane Stewart. Strangely enough, official records do not show one island as named for Charles Stewart and the other for his wife, but rather both islands being collectively named the Stewart Islands after both of them. 

Probably the islands were named during an official Canadian government expedition to the High Arctic in1922 under the command of John Davidson Craig aboard the vessel Arctic, under the captaincy of Joseph-Elzear Bernier. The naming probably occurred when the vessel went north from Pond Inlet to establish the RCMP post at nearby Craig Harbour. Charles Stewart had been appointed federal Minister of the Interior and Mines the previous year. 

Neither Charles Stewart nor his wife ever visited the Canadian Arctic so they never set eyes on the two islands named or them. Ittukusuk and Aapilak did, in the spring of 1909.

In light of this, and in view of the need to commemorate Inuit participation in Arctic exploration, it is high time that the names Ittukusuk (for the larger island) and Aapilak (for the smaller) officially replace the designation Stewart Islands. 

I expect my friends, Jeff Peyton in Pangnirtung and Jennie Peyton of Yellowknife, may be disappointed by this suggestion. The Stewarts were their great-grandparents. 

But Ittukusuk and Aapilak deserve their islands. 

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest.  Kenn Harper is an historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? kennharper@hotmail.com.

Copyright 2008 - The Frederick A. Cook Society