The North Star of Herschel Island

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

North Star of Herschel Island

The North Star of Herschel Island

The two original owners of The North Star of Herschel Island, Carpenter and Wolkie, never knew anything about the need to register a ship ... they probably had never heard of such a thing. She was not registered when Sven Johansson, purchased her in 1967 from Fred Carpenter. The Registrar of Shipping had no knowledge of the existence of the vessel at all even though she had been operating in Canada since 1936 and the original duty had been paid to the RCMP at the time of purchase.

North Star of Herschel Island

The North Star of Herschel Island Being Unloaded From the Patterson

The schooners were loaded by crane in San Francisco and carried right to Herschel Island. There the unloading process would begin. The Patterson would shift her cargo so that the ship would begin to list to the side on which the schooners were being carried as deck cargo. The schooners were hoisted by special rigging attached to the mastheads. The vessels were shipped off–centre on the Patterson. First the ship had to be made to list so that the mastheads were directly over the vessel. This was so that it wouldn’t swing into the centre line as it was hoisted and could be shifted to the water side. Eventually as the Patterson continued to list dramatically the schooner would eventually be sitting over the water. The crew would then lower the schooner into the water. This was all done with the aid of a steam donkey engine on the deck but still required a great deal of work by the crew.

The North Star of Herschel Island was built in San Francisco California for the arctic fox trapping activity. Brought up in the Paterson in 1936 by Captain C.T. Pedersen after being ordered in 1935 by Jim Wolkie and Fred Carpenter. They told Captain Pedersen that they wanted a schooner and described the features that they wanted on it and the size and so on. They wanted the pilot house to be built on it unlike other boats which were usually delivered without any superstructure. This was the last voyage by Pedersen in the Paterson and The North Star of Herschel Island was the last of the large schooners to be delivered in that manner.

She was purchased from the brother and sister co–owners: Fred Carpenter, and Susie Sydney. Susie had married James Wolkie and then Peter Sydney, Peter. She died at Sachs Harbour a few years ago. She was originally ordered by two trappers Fred Carpenter and James Wolkie. She was built at the George W. Kneass Shipyard in San Francisco California in 1935. She was finished in the winter of 1936. The ship was loaded on the deck of the Patterson, a 600 ton trading vessel she was owned by C.T. Pederson. She was delivered to Wolkie and Carpenter in 1936. They paid $23,000 for her which was a considerable sum of money at the height of the depression. It was paid in bank drafts and cash. She was owned and operated by Fred Carpenter. He had a reputation as an extremely good navigator in the Western Arctic in spite of being unable to read and write. He had a partner named James Wolkie, James whose brother James was married to Fred’s sister, Susie Sydney. The vessel was used until 1960 or 1961.

North Star of Herschel Island

The North Star of Herschel Island

When the vessel was sold to Sven Johansson in 1967 the she was jointly she was owned by Susie Sydney, Susie and Fred Carpenter. Originally when the ship was built Captain Pedersen had to go to Atlas Engines in San Francisco to request that the North Star be installed with an Atlas 3 cylinder 35hp slow–turning make–and–break gasoline marine engine. They told him "we don’t make them any more." But Fred Carpenter had told him that that particular engine was they only one he trusted and would accept. "I want that engine. I know that engine. I don’t want any other engine." he had implored Pedersen at the time of ordering the previous year. By that time there were a few diesel engines around the Arctic but being very familiar with the Atlas gas engine Fred Carpenter had made up his mind. The Atlas representative said that they would assemble one from spare parts. In that way they assembled the very last engine of its type. She was used at Banks Island to travel between Aklavik and Sachs Harbour for trapping supply. Sven Johansson thinks he has some 16mm film footage by Fred Carpenter when she was launched one year at Sachs Harbour. She was about 45’ in length.

The Bankslanders, as they were called, would travel to Aklavik in the spring with the fur they had trapped during the fall and winter to sell or ship to the fur auction in Edmonton. They would load up with supplies and travel home. They first two winters they didn’t have the equipment to pull the ship out of the water at Sachs Harbour and she was frozen–in in thick ice. They were living in cabins and tents. They didn’t live in the boat because that was colder than the tent. They would trap all winter and repeat another cycle of trading in the spring. This went on until 1961 or 1962. One year the North Star of Herschel Island, under Fred Carpenter, found itself in a small harbour near Cape Bathurst with another boat. They were frozen–in for the winter.

During that winter, unable to get home they trapped fox and marten until breakup in the spring. The harbour is now marked on the charts as North Star Harbour. If they could they would pull the boat out of the water. This was usually a major operation of seamanship and engineering. Using block and tackle and a 5 ton manual winch on the running end it could be accomplished. The vessels were always pulled out sideways. The tidal range is only about twelve inches so the effects of tides is negligible for such a launching operation. Using drift logs (which are all very smooth in the North) as a ramp they would attach cables at the bow and stern. The logs would have freshly killed seal skins over them so that the blubber would act as a natural lubrication under the keel. With a deadman ashore holding the winch they would commence pulling in the cables (through triple–purchase blocks) until the vessel began to slide up the ramp. They would "walk" the vessel up the ramp ... pulling first on the bow cable, then on the stern cable.. until the vessel literally wiggled up to its resting place. If the job was very difficult they would use double triple-purchase blocks for greater mechanical advantage.

Those seamen certainly had to have a fundamental understanding of some principles of physics! In late summer, in the first week of September the freeze–up has arrived. August was the best month for travel and they would try to depart by the end of July. Around the last week in August, they would return from Herschel Island to Sachs Harbour. The whole operation of the pullout would take a couple of days. Those inuit and white trappers who owned these vessels were very efficient at all of their tasks. If they couldn’t manage to pull the vessels out they were, of course, frozen–in. The North Star of Herschel Island was frozen–in three or four winters. It may have been because the beach was the wrong configuration or perhaps they waited too long or there wasn’t any driftwood to use as a ramp. Also the owners didn’t own the proper equipment for the first two winters they owned her. One winter she was frozen-in at what is now called North Star Harbour at Cape Bathurst. They used her from 1936 to about 1961 or 1962.

Then she was pulled up on the beach at Sachs Harbour where she was based throughout her life. In the beginning she travelled between Aklavik and Sachs Harbour after Herschel Island was shut down in 1936 when Pedersen sold out to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Aklavik and Fort MacPherson became the important administrative places then. Sven Johansson has a picture of her, pulled up on the beach, taken in 1960 or 1961 with the bow facing east. When Johansson bought her in 1967 the bow was facing west. So she had been in the water at least one more time. Fred Carpenter told him that at that time the government started sending in a supply ship every year to support the Upper Air Weather Station. The people got their suppplies then too. There was also an airlift every two months, then every two weeks ... so the need for a trading schooner vanished.

At that time the electrical system of the engine gave up too. That Atlas engine was still in the boat when Sven Johansson bought it. But it wasn’t operable. It was beautiful shape and only the electrical system prevented it’s further use in the ship. It weighed close to two tons. It had a large flywheel and three large cylinders. It took up about one quarter of the inside of the ship. It would have been started with a steel bar inserted in holes in the flywheel to turn it over. The hole was designed so that the bar would slip out as the wheel turned to save the engineer from potential injury. The engine did’nt have spark plugs, using instead a series of contacts which would make and break according to the cycle of the engine.

The owner of the Omingmuk (another trading schooner) donated the mast to Johansson for use on the The North Star as he was then planning to rig The North Star with three masts in a ship–rig. Johansson sent the mast down to Vancouver so that it was in Vancouver in 1974 when he arrived after bringing the ship down from Alaska. Johansson had also gotten hold of what was left of the original mast of the Nanuk II (yet another schooner). She had been damaged one year when they pulled her out of the water after Johnny Norberg had skippered the boat. The top broke off. Johansson trimmed it off and sent it on to Vancouver too. Now on the North Star of Herschel Island, as it is presently rigged, the foremast is the original mast of the Omingmuk. The mainmast is the original mast of the North Star. And the lower mizzen mast is the original mast of the Nanuk II. The topmast was made out of a tree by Johansson. Johansson when he bought the North Star of Herschel Island in 1967.

She was probably registered in 1968 ... she had never been registered previously. She was on the beach at Sachs Harbour until August 1968 when Sven Johansson took her down to Inuvik. In 1969 Sven Johansson had her surveyed for registration in the Canada List of Shipping. He swore out a statement signed by Wolki and witnessed by the RCMP. On the bill of sale though it indicates that Sven Johansson was the owner in 1967! Pedersen probably purchased it from the builder and sold it again to the customers taking his profit in the middle. Luckily on the bill of sale it is stated that they had paid import duty.. otherwise if they hadn’t Sven Johansson would have had to pay it when he bought her. There is no American number carved in the main beam. Sven Johansson carved the Canadian number himself and could find no trace of her ever having had a register previously carved anywhere in the main beam. She was legally brought to Canada, the duty paid, but never registered at the time of import.

Johansson loved his ship – and used her as a focus for attention to all things marine. For years she was a favourite sight anchored in Victoria Harbour. Every couple of years he would sail her to a small island to careen her hull, make repairs and scrape off the accumulating marine growth. She is now lovingly owned and operated by Sheila and Bruce MacDonald. North Star is the home of her present owners and is no longer a commercial ship but is now a private vessel. She is not available for charter. They have a very nice website which is worth visiting that shows the history of the vessel.

For an account of the last careening of the North Star of Herschel Island see the recent article Careening The North Star of Herschel Island.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) The North Star of Herschel Island. 2002.


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