Project Leffingwell Expedition

Ernest de Koven LeffingwellDuring the winters of 2006-2008, Joe and his team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes conducted a series of unprecedented, multi-month solo expeditions in Alaska's arctic Brooks Range and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Pulling three sleds in tandem with two tons of supplies, Joe and the team mushed entirely without resupply for up to five months at a time without seeing another human being.

The expedition was a tribute to the "forgotten explorer," Ernest de Koven Leffingwell (1876-1971). Leffingwell was a member of the Anglo-American-polar Expedition (1906-1908) which established that there was no land North of Alaska. Leffingwell is credited for mapping much of the Arctic coast and the Brooks Range, which is now part of ANWR, between 1906 and 1914.

Leffingwell, along with the other members of the expedition, became stranded on the Arctic Ocean coastline. Their ship, the Duchess of Bedford, became ice-locked and unseaworthy, so the men used the wood from the ship to build a cabin. For the next eight years, Leffingwell stayed there to conduct his mapping project. He traveled by dog team to cover ground in the winter and used a small boat to follow the coastline during the summer months.

Traveling with Leffingwell's journals as a guide, Joe covered much of the same country, camped in many of the same localities, and experienced some of the same weather and ground conditions that Leffingwell had a century before.

On the third year of the expedition, Joe found Leffingwell's cabin during a whiteout blizzard. He camped nearby with the team and waited for the weather to clear so he could snap some photos of what Leffingwell's cabin looks like today. Below is a photo of the cabin from 1906, and one from 2008.

Leffingwell's cabin in 1906 Leffingwell's cabin in 2008

It had been three long winters exploring the "trails" of the great and forgotten Arctic explorer Ernest de Koven Leffingwell.

Armed with his personal journals and maps I followed Leffingwell's route up the same mountains he climbed, camped in the same willow patches he did, and once, I had broken through thin ice where he had 100 years prior. But I never ever thought I'd find his cabin that he built in 1907 from shipwrecked timber.

This expedition was specifically conducted to commemorate a very humble and hardworking man, Ernest de Koven Leffingwell 1876-1971.

Leffingwell dedicated eight years of his life and personal finances to the exploration and mapping of Alaska's Arctic. My goal for the expedition was to highlight Leffingwell's historical achievements and because, frankly, I'm partial to "underdogs".

Leffingwell's expedition was downplayed while other Arctic "explorers" at the time were glorified. In truth, Leffingwell accomplished more in eight years of Arctic exploration than most explorers did during their entire careers. In Leffingwell's own words he considered himself "the forgotten explorer".

I consider Leffingwell the silent worker and the definition of a cheerful warrior. I know firsthand what's involved in Arctic exploration, especially multi-month and multi-year expeditions.

I believe there are a few reasons why Leffingwell was "forgotten". First he never became seriously injured or suffered severe frostbite. Have you noticed how when a person makes a mistake, or is unprepared and freezes a piece of their butt off, or fingers, or toes, that they suddenly become heroes? Without suffering, the news media doesn't have a story.

Secondly, he unapologetically wrote the facts without drama, opinions and theories. Basically, he was not an entertainer.

Thirdly, during that time there were other Arctic explorations going on including the north and south poles that captured the world attention. And certainly, there were probably sediments of jealousy toward Leffingwell from other explorers since he so "easily" accomplished what he had.

What were Leffingwell's secrets? He simply followed and adhered to the Inupiat customs regarding his apparel and traveling methods. And he worked his butt-off

I'm happy to say since I conducted the Leffingwell expedition many people are beginning to discover his amazing accomplishments. In fact, I noticed recently there has been a biography written about him.

The Leffingwell expedition had taken four winters to complete. The first winter I had spent 5 months of winter alone with my dogs in training.

 During which time I never saw another human being. The second winter, I again went 5 months without seeing another person while following Leffingwell's maps throughout the Brooks Range.

The following two winters were multi-month expeditions as well. Finally at the end of the final year, Animal planet filmed my arrival to Barter Island or Kaktovik.

Someday I will write about the expedition. But for now, I will continue to conduct expeditions with my Alaskan malamutes. I will also share what I have discovered about this majestic breed. And I will share as many stories as I can with you.

I believe if i can inspire just one of you, similarly to how I have been inspired, then I feel the sacrifices I have made for nearly 40 years have been worth it.

Please follow this link to Leffingwell's USGS Professional Paper 109 to see the product of his pioneering efforts in Alaska geology.