A 54-year-old message in a bottle left behind in the Canadian Arctic at first seemed to be quite mundane when it was found by two researchers in the remote area, nestled in a pile of rocks on Ward Hunt Island.
The missive inside, dated July 10, 1959, simply asked the finder to measure the distance from the pile of rocks to an ice shelf that was located nearby and send the figure back to either the writer of the note or to another researcher back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Names and addresses were provided to aid the finder in getting the data back to the right person.
However, what one of the finders of the note says gave him “goosebumps” was learning who the two researchers mentioned in the note were: Paul Walker and Albert Crary, both of whom are well-known figures in the world of polar research.
Paul Walker, the writer of the note, was, at the time that the note was written and placed in the small plastic sample bottle, a young scientist with a bright future ahead of him who had been on major expeditions to both poles, studying glaciers and exploring the frigid terrain. However, what makes this find so striking is the fact that his instructions, scribbled in pencil, may well have been some of the last words he ever wrote. Twenty-five-year-old Walker, who had only just graduated three years prior from Occidental College with a degree in geology, had a severe stroke not long after which left him unable to move. He had to be rescued from the frozen Arctic by a bush pilot; and, after he returned to his parent’s home in Pasadena, he never really recovered, dying on November 11, 1959.
Albert Crary, the colleague to whom the note was to be sent, is also quite well-known in the polar research field. In addition to completing a 1952 expedition to the North Pole, he led a 1961 expedition to the South Pole. The U.S. Arctic Program’s Science and Engineering Center at McMurdo Bay, Antarctica, is named in his honor.
Curious what they would learn, the researchers did take the requested measurement, learning that the ice sheet had in fact retreated by more than 200 feet.
Biologist Warwick F. Vincent, who is the director of the Center for Northern Studies at Laval University in Quebec City, says that it is quite notable that Walker chose to leave a note at the location that he did. In his day, it was unimaginable that the ice would melt. So, unknowingly, he was leaving modern-day scientists a way to gauge just how much the ice had retreated.
According to a historian who knew Walker, “I was just so pleased because it brought Paul back, in a way, and the work he had done. He had a brilliant career as a glaciologist and all of a sudden, to be cut short that way.”
As a very appropriate ending to the story, the researchers took a photo of the note, placing it and the bottle back where they found them, along with a note of their own asking anyone who finds their message in the future to take the same measurement from the pile of rocks to the ice shelf.
By Nancy Schimelpfening