Exploration is dead—long live exploration!

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In his well-known, much-loved song “Northwest Passage,” the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers testified to the enduring fascination of exploration. While travelling west over the prairies, the song’s modern protagonist recalls the storied journeys of early European explorers over the same spaces. He proclaims himself heir to their tradition of travel; he is the “tardiest explorer / driving hard across the plain.” This notion of tardiness well captures the way in which the language and imagery of exploration lingers throughout the twenty-first-century world.

The Explorers’ Club of New York, once host to Cook, Peary, and Amundsen, now touts contemporary “explorers” and “expeditions” on Twitter (@ExplorersClub). Certain exploratory acts also retain rhetorical power, as several Russians realized when they “claimed” the North Pole at its seabed in 2007 by planting their country’s flag upon that “virgin” territory. Meanwhile, the Canadian government pursued another act of exploration: the mapping of Canada’s portion of the Arctic submarine continental shelf. This activity recalls the most uniquely modern facet to exploration—its equation with the ever-widening industrial search for lucrative minerals and fossil fuels buried in the earth’s crust and demanded for human consumption.

How and why does exploration continue to resonate in a supposedly post-exploratory age? This conundrum was as pertinent one hundred years ago, when the heroic age of exploration was thought to be drawing to a close, as it is today. It also lies at the heart of my doctoral dissertation, which examines the culture of northern Canadian exploration in the first half of the twentieth century. I focus on the writings and actions of four self-defined explorers: the mining engineer George Douglas (1875-1963), the surveyor Guy Blanchet (1884-1966), the ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), and the photographer and filmmaker Richard Finnie (1906-1987).

Arguing against the notion that northern exploration was unilaterally replaced by professional scientific fieldwork in this period, I demonstrate that these men developed and performed specifically exploratory identities throughout their lives. They adhered to an older, natural historical style of exploratory praxis, characterized by their wide networks of correspondence and their location of authority within their private libraries and archives. Exploration thus produced different kinds of knowledge about the North than that stemming from overtly scientific fieldwork. Far from being a nostalgic, anti-modern activity, as it is often figured, exploration also enabled these men to wrestle with and resolve specifically modern concerns about the role and agency of the individual in an increasingly homogeneous and mass-produced society. Discursive ideas of modernity in southern North America significantly influenced these men’s experiences in the North and shaped their representations of the northern environment.

Exploration was key to the early twentieth-century “opening” of the Canadian North, in which northern landscapes were made legible to southern government and industry and became entangled in related networks of power and capital. Yet a deep and heartfelt ambivalence about the region’s modernization pierces that era’s enthusiastic narratives of progress and development. Many who worked and lived there—northerners and southerners, natives and non-natives alike—remained attached to older configurations of labour and material engagement with the land. That same dissonance still inflects current debates about local and regional development in the North. Exploration, after all, was never only about imperial knowledge and control. It was predicated also on serendipitous travel through unknown landscapes, through spaces of endless imaginative speculation and pleasure too vast to know or control. Exploration enthralls us still because it inspires us, through contact with the new and unforeseen, to imagine different and better ways of being ourselves and living in the world with each other. We seem to need this optimistic desire for the betterment of human affairs as much in this century as ever.

For exposition on the title’s phrase, see Felix Driver, “Modern explorers,” in New Spaces of Exploration: Geographies of Discovery in the Twentieth Century, eds. Simon Naylor and James R. Ryan (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 241-9.

Feature image: Photo by author.
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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.

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