A message in a bottle, buried 54 years ago under a rock cairn in a remote Arctic valley on Canada’s northernmost island, could well be the last written words from a promising young glaciologist and explorer from Pasadena.
The words from Paul T. Walker, penciled on July 10, 1959, were a simple request to measure the distance to a nearby ice shelf on Ward Hunt Island, and report them back to his laboratory at Ohio State University, or to his colleague, Albert Crary, in Cambridge, Mass.
But Walker, a 1956 Occidental College geology graduate, never returned to that Columbus, Ohio, laboratory. A massive stroke weeks later left him paralyzed. After a harrowing rescue by a bush pilot, Walker returned to his parents’ home in Pasadena, where he languished, paralyzed, until he died on Nov. 11, 1959. He was only 25 but had already been part of major expeditions near both poles.
Crary, who reached the North Pole in 1952, went on to an impressive career and led a mission to the South Pole in 1961. The U.S. Arctic Program's Science and Engineering Center at McMurdo Bay, Antarctica, is named for him.
“I recognized the two names instantly,” said biologist Warwick F. Vincent, director of the Center for Northern Studies at Laval University in Quebec City, who revealed the find last week at a conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Walker is a famous name in our parts up there because the highest point on Ward Hunt Island is called Walker Hill," Vincent said. "And we’ve been camping next to Walker Hill now for over 10 years.
“Albert Crary – that actually gave me goose bumps to read that name on the sheet of paper. And there we were, holding a piece of paper with his name on it. He’s a very famous character in north polar science and south polar science.”
Jim Lotz, a historian in Halifax, knew Walker well. “He was a buddy of mine,” Lotz said by telephone. “We were on the ice shelf in 1959 together, and he had a stroke. He was on a field party and I was on the edge of the ice shelf, in a trailer.”
Vincent and his colleague, Denis Sarrazin, landed at the remote valley last summer on a whim, having taken a detour en route back to their base camp from a remote fjord. They thought the small valley looked suitable for collecting microbes.
While Vincent collected samples, Sarrazin wandered away and found the cairn near the face of the ice sheet. When the two disassembled the cairn, they found a small, 250-milliliter plastic sample bottle with a piece of torn notebook paper tightly rolled inside, Vincent said.
“To Whom it May Concern: This and a similar cairn 21.3 feet to the west were set on July 10, 1959. The distance from this cairn to the glacier edge about four feet from the rock floor is 168.3 feet.
"Anyone venturing this way is requested to remeasure this distance and send the information to: Paul T. Walker, Department of Geology, The Ohio State University, Columbus 10, Ohio, USA and Mr. Albert P. Crary, Air Force Cambridge Research Center, 11 Leon St., Boston 15, Mass. USA. Thank you very much.”
Walker signed his name.
“We were reading some of his last words,” Vincent said. “He didn’t know at that stage whether the glacier was advancing or retreating. But he wanted a reference point that would allow future researchers in the area to provide him with important data.”
The two remeasured the distance -- with GPS equipment and by pacing it off -- and found the ice sheet has retreated more than 200 feet, Vincent said.
Without modern equipment, the journey to that valley, where average temperatures hover at about zero degrees Fahrenheit, would have been arduous in the late 1950s, Vincent said.
“Ward Hunt Island already is the middle of nowhere. This is nowhere from nowhere,” Vincent said. “It’s an incredibly hidden valley, well off any kind of beaten track that anyone would pass across. And this is the reason that this cairn and its treasure have been lost for 54 years.”
For his part, Lotz said he was shocked to find out about the message from his friend, originally reported Dec. 12 in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
"I was just so pleased because it brought Paul back, in a way, and the work he had done," Lotz said. "Because he had a brilliant career as a glaciologist and all of a sudden, to be cut short that way.”