Exploration and UND: More than tradition

grand forks heraldBy: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald
Nov. 10, 2013

It’s probably a coincidence that UND’s moon rover project ended only a day after a symposium celebrating another feat of exploration.
On Tuesday, UND and the Canadian government honored Vilhjalmar Stefansson, an alumnus who was the last person to discover new land on Planet Earth.

Will Steger, this era’s most prominent Arctic explorer, was in Grand Forks for the event.

Of course, the moon rover project looked to the future. In fact, it will be replicated later this year, when students enter the lunar module to spend a month. Their first experience was 10 days long.

The Arctic symposium had a future emphasis, too. Timothy Pasch, professor in the UND communications program, talked about his work to create a digital network for residents of today’s Arctic. His presentation was called “Convergent New Media in Arviat: Enhancing the Human Dimension of Canada’s Northern Strategy.”

Arviat is a town in Nunavut, Canada’s Arctic province. As part of his presentation, Pasch made a connection with Jamie Bell, who works at Nunavut Arctic College. Bell described new media projects. He was in the room only “virtually” — but in the room nonetheless.
Steger, too, talked of the future, which he sees as full of challenges.

His website, willsteger.com, speaks of “the ongoing consequences of catastrophic global warming.” Much of what he achieved is impossible now. “I’ll be remembered more often as the last person to do these things, rather than the first,” he said.

Among Steger’s feats were dogsled journeys across the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada, and across Greenland and Antarctica. Perhaps most famously, he was the first person known to have reached the North Pole without being resupplied.

Today, he pointed out, it’s not possible to take a dogsled onto the Arctic Ocean.
Steger talked about Stefansson’s influence on his own career. Chiefly, he said, Stefansson introduced him to the idea of the Arctic “as a friend.” Stefansson’s first book was titled, “The Friendly Arctic,” and Stefansson expounded the idea that humans could live off the land in the Arctic — and proved it by spending five years north of the Arctic Circle, an unprecedented achievement in the early 20th Century — except, of course, for native people who lived in the Arctic.

His first trip there, in 1906, resulted in a sensational discovery: blond, fair-skinned and blue-eyed individuals among the native population in Canada’s North. Stefansson was careful in his description of these people, and he didn’t reach any immediate conclusions. Nevertheless, he speculated that these “Copper Eskimos” might have European forbearers, and his discovery caused an international sensation.

The idea has since been disproven. Genetic testing has found no trace of European ancestry among these people.

Last week’s symposium actually celebrated the second of Stefansson’s Arctic trips — the long one. He embarked in 1913, so the event was a centennial observance. He stayed five years, essentially missing World War I.
Stefansson’s local connection is a direct and storied one.

Although he was born in Canada, Stefansson came to North Dakota as an infant in arms. His parents were among the earliest Icelandic immigrants to the area, settling near Mountain, N.D. Stefansson grew up there and came to Grand Forks in 1898, when he was 18. Here, he enrolled in the preparatory department of the fledgling university. This would be called remediation today — a swear word in higher education circles these days.

But it didn’t take long for Stefansson to catch up, and he stayed at UND – intermittently at least — until 1901, when he left for Iowa, Harvard and eventually the Arctic.

Today, Stefansson is remembered on campus for his hijinks, which might (or might not) have included stealing the college president’s carriage and leaving it in front of a brothel.

Despite this checkered career, Stefansson’s legacy at UND is a powerful one. His achievements and his fame have inspired generations of students, some of them no doubt attracted by stories of his mischief. His loyalty to the university never wavered during his long life, and it helped to establish a tradition of giving among alums that culminated this year in an endowment of more than $300 million.

Too, his work and his example helped fuel the interest of succeeding generations in exploration around and beyond the earth. The moon rover project is evidence of that.

So, it’s fitting that the two events coincided, even though the lunar explorers were locked in their model lunar module and couldn’t attend the symposium.

View the article online here.

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