The Antarctic Explorer from the Northwoods

Mar 3, 2021

Credit The National Archives and Records Administration

People interested in polar geography may know about the Eklund Islands in King George the Sixth Sound southwest of the Antarctic Peninsula.  What might be less commonly known is that the Eklund Islands in Antarctica are named for a Northwoods native.  

The southernmost continent of Antarctica is cold, inhospitable, and not the sort of place that most Northwoods residents think about when looking for adventure.  But for one Northwoods native, the chance to live and work in Antarctica was a dream come true.

Carl Robert Eklund was born to Swedish immigrants in Tomahawk in January 1909.  He grew up in the Northwoods and during his high school years was a standout football player for Tomahawk High School.  Like many young people from the area, Eklund loved the outdoors, was an ardent camper, and was active in scouting.  He was a member of Troop 1 at Tomahawk from 1922 to 1925, after which he served as an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 21. He was active every summer as athletic director at Camp Sam-O-Set near Harrison.

After high school, Eklund went to Minnesota where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Carleton College in 1932.  For the next few years, he worked as a CCC foreman in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.  He then went west to Oregon State College where he earned a master’s degree in fish and game management in 1938.

In 1939, as the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, or Admiral Richard Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition, was forming, Eklund was one of 125 men selected for the mission and one of 59 selected to winter over.  He was hired as an assistant biologist and was tasked with the study of birds and animals living in the Antarctic.  He was also put in charge of the dog sled teams, even though Eklund admitted to knowing little at the time about sled dogs.

Eklund along with others of the expedition departed Boston in November 1939.  They steamed through the Panama Canal and on to New Zealand where they met up with Byrd and his ship.  From there they traveled to the Little America base located on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf.  After establishing their base camp, Eklund was sent to Valparaiso, Chile, for supplies, but was soon back for the duration.

In late 1940 and early 1941, Eklund accomplished a feat of endurance that still stands as one of the longest sledge journeys in Antarctic history.  The Southern Sledge Party, led by Finn Ronne, was to map the Antarctic coast.  Traveling by dog sled, Ronne and Eklund traveled 1264 statute miles in 84 days.  It was on this trek that they spotted and named the Eklund Islands.  Before Eklund left for Antarctica, Governor Julius Heil gave him a Wisconsin State Flag.  At the southernmost part of their journey, Eklund planted Wisconsin’s flag and left it flying alongside the U.S. flag.

The expedition returned in 1941.  Eklund served in the Arctic Section of the Army Air Force during World War II and was part of the Antarctica expedition of the 1956-1958 geophysical year.  In 1961, Eklund was given a key to the city of Tomahawk as the community’s honored son.  He expressed his desire to return to Antarctica, but it never happened.  Eklund died of a heart attack in 1962.