Museum, University of Nebraska State


Date of this Version



Gunderson, Breckenridge, & Jarosz in Journal of Mammalogy (May 1955) 36(2) pp. 254-259. Copyright 1955 American Society of Mammalogists. Used by Permission.


The Back River drains the interior barrens of the Northwest Territories of Canada. According to Blanchet (1930) the river has its headwaters in a high plateau and flows through a sand plain basin (not in accord with conditions of our base camp). The country north of the Back River drainage is of low relief. The river takes a northerly direction for the last one-third of its course. To the east, between the river and Wager Bay, the country is known to be very rugged.

The first known exploration of the Back River, then called the Great Fish River, was by Sir George Back and his party, who left England in 1833 to search for Sir John Ross. Back's party wintered at Ft. Reliance. During the summer of 1834 they went down the Back River to its mouth and returned to Ft. Reliance where they again spent the winter, returning to England in 1835. In the appendix of Back's report (1836) there is a list of specimens collected and observed. The collecting was done by Mr. Richard King, surgeon to the expedition.

In 1855 Chief Factor James Anderson of the Hudson's Bay Company made a similar journey (Clarke, 1940a) hoping to find traces of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Both these exploring trips support Stefansson's statement (1929) that much arctic exploration has been a by-product of search parties.

So far as is known, Back and Anderson and their parties were the only white men who had visited in summer the area selected for the University of Minnesota- Wilkie Foundation expedition to the Back River. Members of the expedition were Dr. W. J. Breckenridge, Harvey L. Gunderson, John A. Jarosz, R. Spence Taylor, Robert J. Wilkie, James W. Wilkie and Dr. Lawrence Larson. The party was in the vicinity of Mount Meadowbank along the Back River from July 13 to August 6, 1953.

Our camp was located at an elevation of about 150 feet above sea level on a bay of the Back River at 66°10' N. latitude and 96°57' W. longitude, about 125 miles northwest of Baker Lake. The topography in the vicinity of camp was undulating with many high hills. The highest of these was Mount Meadowbank with an altitude of 570 feet. Some of the hills were composed of metamorphosed rock outcrops, others of rubble dumped by retreating glaciers, and eskers of many miles in length were not uncommon. The surface of the hills was covered with material ranging in size from gravel to desk-sized boulders, most often one or the other, rarely both.

Those valleys and depressions not filled with water, had carpets of sedge and moss-covered peaty tussocks. There were innumerable small lakes. Two factors cause poor drainage in the Barren Grounds. One is the presence of permafrost, the other is that the youth of the land has not yet allowed for the development of permanent stream and river valleys, with the exception of the large rivers. Arctic soils are generally acidic because of this poor drainage and poor aeration. Organic decay by bacterial action is extremely slow due to the low temperatures. Consequently, nitrogen and salts needed by plants are rather scarce.

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