Researcher’s Intuition Says Clerk Island Will Be My Last Mapped Mirage of the Arctic

Clerk Island Placed on the Map

A couple of weeks ago, I added Sannikov Land to my Crocker Land and Other Mapped Mirages of the Arctic page. That inspired me to research Clerk Island, too. I found a map marking the spot where a trustworthy explorer had seen it, just as I had with Sannikov Land, President’s Land, Kennan Land, Crocker Land, and Bradley Land. (I’m still looking for a map that includes Plover Land.) The common thread here, though, is: none of these spotted, named, and mapped patches of earth were actually there. It’s typically assumed that they were merely mirages. Now, my chronological list shows that such Arctic apparitions appeared roughly every twenty years throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s.

Clerk Island was first observed by John Richardson on August 1, 1826. A physician and naturalist, Richardson was part of an effort to chart the northern coast of Canada and Alaska while also learning what wonders were there. This was the second expedition led by John Franklin, a name that might have a familiar ring. He was the same captain whose third Arctic voyage about twenty years later would end with 129 crew members perishing, even though they were on two different ships. It remains one of the greatest tragedies and mysteries of Arctic exploration.

But we’re concerned with Franklin’s earlier expedition. While the captain led one contingent westward, Richardson led another eastward. He explains that — after observing a river that he named for John Croker, Secretary of the Admiralty — he noticed “a high island, lying ten or twelve miles from the shore, which received the appellation of Sir George Clerk’s Island.” At the time, George Clerk was serving as a Lord of the Admiralty. Richardson’s geographical discovery would, over time, be shortened to “Clerk Island.”

I added a red star to help locate Sir George Clerk’s Island on the above section of a map published in 1828. With the help of Internet maps about two centuries later, we can still find Cape Parry and Darnley Bay. To the southeast lie Cape Lyon and the mouth of the Roscoe River. Farther on run both the Buchanan and Croker Rivers. All these landmarks remain with the same names, suggesting the 1828 map was impressively accurate!

Clerk Island Erased from the Map

But then why doesn’t Clerk Island, northeast of the Croker River outlet, not also appear on Internet maps? Well, subsequent explorers were unable to confirm its existence. For instance, Richard Collison reports that he couldn’t verify it when he was exploring the region onboard the H.M.S. Enterprise in 1853:

The weather continuing very hazy gave us only occasional glimpses of land, and we ran past Clerks Island without being able to distinguish it.

Can we blame the haze for that? Maybe so, but while traversing the same region in 1905, Roald Admunsen sent a cablegram saying: “We passed near Clerk Island without seeing it.” Unfortunately, he provides no indication of visibility.

Vilhjalmur Stefannson (1879-1962)

More non-sightings came in 1910 and again in 1911, both by Vilhjalmur Stefannson, who admits to being particularly driven to settle the issue. He reports that he was searching by land — the way Richardson had seen Clerk Island — and the weather during his second attempt was very different from what Collison had experienced decades earlier. Yet the result was the same:

The weather on this portion of our eastward journey had fortunately been clear, and although the mountains of Victorian Island itself, sixty miles away, were clearly visible, there was no sign of Clerk Island.

Stefansson goes on to say that he continued the hunt onboard a ship called the Teddy Bear. Still nothing. Even after that, the ship’s captain “cruised backward and forward over the site without discovering even a sign of a shoal or sandbank.” What, then, had Richardson seen all those years earlier, seen with enough certainty to name it for a Lord of the Admiralty?

It might be a pretty easily solved puzzle. In Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-18, published in 1924, Kenneth G. Chipman and John R. Cox reflect what probably had become the prevailing thinking by then:

The weight of evidence seems to be that the island is non-existent and should be omitted from maps. Richardson mentions ice in the vicinity when he saw and named the island[,] and it is quite probable that he saw dirty ice and mistook it for an island--a mistake easily made.

And Yet Whalers Have Good Eyes

Stefansson would very likely have agreed with the dirty ice theory. Probably. Maybe. I suspect one of the reasons he worked so hard to settle the issue was because of something he had heard from reliable sources. Stefansson writes:

 I have spoken with American whalemen who say they have seen the island. Captain S.F. Cottle of the steam whaler Belvedere is sure not only that he has seen it but that it is in the location where the chart puts it.

Okay, that’s interesting! About the same happened with Sannikov Land. First reported by Yakov Sannikov around 1805, the land that later bore his name was then not found in the 1820s — and then re-found in 1886! Eventually, it was decided that Sannikov Land was no land at all, but it kept appearing on maps until at least 1922.

I don’t know quite what to do with this. But I do have a strong hunch that Clerk Island will be the last entry on my Crocker Land and Other Mapped Mirages page. My research hasn’t given me any more leads to additional examples.

That said, those spectral stretches of rock and rubble in the icy north have proven themselves to be terribly sneaky.

— Tim

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