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Stefansson, famed UND alumnus and polar explorer, is topic of campus event

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a UND alumnus who lead the first Canadian government expedition to the western Arctic, is the subject of a conference Tuesday at the university.

Stefansson Vilhjalmur in a parka
Stefansson Vilhjalmur in a parka. Submitted photo.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a UND alumnus who lead the first Canadian government expedition to the western Arctic, is the subject of a conference Tuesday at the university.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, a significant event in the country's history and the largest scientific arctic expedition mounted at the time, according to UND. The CAE discovered many islands and artifacts and established long-lasting relationships with native communities in the north.

Stefansson, who is of Icelandic descent, was born in Arnes, Man., and raised in Mountain, N.D., attending UND from 1897 to 1902.

He, the expedition he lead and its legacy will be discussed from 1 to 4 p.m. during the free event at the Center of Innovation. Participants will examine the connections among science, people and sustainability in the Canadian Arctic, according to the university.

Speakers will include Will Steger, a Minnesota native renowned for leading some of the biggest dogsled expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, and Jamshed Merchant, Canada's consul general in Minneapolis.


A reception and movie screening of the film "Arctic Dreamer: The Lonely Quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson," will follow.

The event will also be streamed online.

Total immersion

During the five years of the CAE, its members covered thousands of miles of territory then unknown to Europeans and discovered five of the last six unknown Canadian Arctic islands, according to the university.

They also collected thousands of animal, plant and rock specimens, Inuit artifacts and produced more than 4,000 photographs and 9,000 feet of film. Seventeen men died during the expedition.

Stefansson was among the first to conduct a "total immersion" style of research by working and living with Inuits. Following their example of living off the land, hunting seals and caribou for food, allowed him to continue exploring despite limited supplies.

His relationship with Inuits caused him to worry that they would be crushed by civilization, and he sought to protect their way of life even as he encouraged economic and strategic uses of the Arctic, according to the university.

Full of pranks


Before Stefansson gained famed, however, he was kicked out of UND.

The university said he was known for his spirited and mischievous pranks.

Stefansson is credited with releasing a pig on stage during the university's convocation, rolling a keg of beer across campus to win a bet when North Dakota was a dry state and hitching a ride to campus in the university president's horse carriage, forcing the president to walk, according to a 1938 book published by the state's historical society.

Once, he parked the carriage in front of a "local house of ill-repute." This led to his dismissal from UND in 1902, which caused "such uproar that he was escorted to the train depot by well-wishers," according to the university. He eventually graduated from the University of Iowa.

By 1930, all had been forgiven and UND gave him an honorary law degree, at the time, only the third such degree given by the school, the university said.

Stefansson, who continued to explore the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic and published numerous books on his observations, died in 1962.

If you go:

What: Conference on the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913


Where: UND's Center for Innovation, 4200 James Ray Drive, Grand Forks

When: 1 to 4 p.m. A reception follows at 4 p.m. with a move screening at 5 p.m.

On the Web: To watch the conference live online go to conted.breeze.und.nodak.edu/cae100. Participate via Twitter by following @CanCGMPLS and tweeting messages with the hashtag #CAE100.

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