TRAVEL AND DESCRIPTION

The Lure of the North Pole

COMMANDER R. E. PEARY IN PALL MALL October 1 1906
TRAVEL AND DESCRIPTION

The Lure of the North Pole

COMMANDER R. E. PEARY IN PALL MALL October 1 1906

The Lure of the North Pole

BY COMMANDER R. E. PEARY IN PALL MALL

As Commander Peary points out the curiosity of most people aboot the North Pole corceros its If with the cold, the darkness, the silence and the hunger, and many questions are asked on these points. Few people, however, realize just what the North Pole really is and what is the m tive that leads men to risk their lives in vain attempts to reach it.

BEFORE attempting to give an idea of the charm, the attraction, of the North Pole and Arctic exploration, let me try to answer the question—What is the North Pole? And in doing so, I imagine that I shall give some information that will be new, even to the oldest and best-informed of my readers.

The North Pole is the precise centre of the Northern Hemisphere, the hemisphere of land, of population, of civilization. It is the point where the axis of the earth cuts its surface. It is the spot where there is no longitude, no time, no north, no east, no west—only south ; the place where every wind that blows is a south wind. It is the place where there is but one night and one day in every year—where two steps only separate astronomical noon from astronomical midnight. The spot from which all the heavenly bodies appear to move in horizontal courses, and a star just visible above the horizon never sets, but circles for ever, just grazing the horizon.

More than this, the North Pole is

the last great geographical prize which the world has to offer to adventurous man : the prize for which the best men oí the strongest, most enlightened, most adventurous nations of the earth have been struggling unsuccessfully for nearly four centuries: the trophy which the grandest nation of them all would be proud to win.

Next after this definition of the Pole, perhaps it is well to take up very briefly the four things which, it may be said, go to form the conception of the Arctic regions in the minds of the greater number of people. These four things are the cold, the darkness, the silence, and hunger. The first questions almost invariably asked me by strangers are in regard to these four things, and the questions are usually in the order given

In the far North,, when winter settles down in earnest, the very air seems frozen, and is filled with tiny little frost crystals ; tempered steel and seasoned oak and hickory become brittle, soft iron becomes hard as steel, molasses and lard are cut with a hatchet, petroleum turns white and

grows thick like ice-cream, and one’s breath turns instantly to ice. Yet my readers should understand that the cold alone is not the greatest hardship of the Arctic regions, nor is it a thing which alone should interfere with Arctic work. Heat and cold, as we know, are relative ; and the climate of New England may seem as unendurable and as great a terror to a native of the tropics as does the winter cold of the Arctic regions to the native of New England.

And my readers should also understand that a well, sound man, woman, or child, if properly fed and properly clothed, can live and endure the severest cold of the Arctic regions just as comfortably as we live and endure the cold of our Northern winters here at home. It is only when the cold joins forces with an Arctic blizzard, the drifting snow and the wind, the winter demons' of the North, that all attempts to wTork or travel must be given up, and men and animals are compelled to burrow in their snow shelters until the storm is over.

The darkness of the Arctic regions is another thing which is very generally misunderstood. The “Great Night” of the Pole is at once the grandest, the sternest, and perhaps the most trying of all natural phenomena on the Globe. It is something which, when once experienced, is never to be forgotten. How many can really form a true idea of this, even when I say that the night is weeks and months in length ?

Try to imagine, if possible, what it would be for each of the inhabitants of Great Britain, if every year the sun set early in October, not to rise again until the last of February. This is about the average night of the Arctic regions ; though, as I have al-

ready said, at the Pole itself this night is six months long—from September 21st to March 21st. This “Great Night” is what often drives men crazy in the north. This is the great, the unescapable drawback to Arctic work. Six months’ long, irritating, crushing weight of darkness.

But do not think, as do many, that the entire year is a period of greater or less darkness in the Arctic regions. Just as the winter is a period of intense and almost unendurable darkness, so the summer is a time of continuous, brilliant, and at times blinding sunlight.

The silence has been a favorite theme with more than one Arctic traveller and writer—the unbearable silence of the Arctic regions. In my own experience I have not found this silence. If one’s camp or winter head-quarters is near the sea, the rising and falling of the great sheet of ice under the influence of the tides results in the ■ continuous cracking, creaking and groaning of the ice, which never entirely ceases ; and if the camp is in the interior, the chances are that during the greater portion of the time the wind and drifting snow keep up an incessant hiss and rustle.

This is in the winter time. In the brief summer, the cries and whirring wings of countless sea-birds, the sound of the numerous Arctic brooks, the lapping of the waves against the ice and rocks, keep the air alive with an incessant murmur.

Yet there are at times brief periods of utter silence, and when these occur the silence, to me, is not repellent, but fascinating, in its qualities of absoluteness and purity.

Hunger and starvation have played an important part in many Arctic expeditions ; yet it should be remember-

ed that they have played an equally prominent part in expeditions in what are considered more favored regions. Carelessness or mismanagement, or inexperience, or carefully considered taking of chances, may make them a serious menace anywhere in the world. In regard to hunger, as in regard to darkness, how many of my readers know what real hunger is, or can form any true idea of it ? I do not mean the hunger of the man who has slowly starved to death inactive, till he is semi-conscious, and life is but the faintest spark. Such hunger I have never known.

What I do mean is the hunger which a man feels who has for weeks been working to his limit, in the biting air of the Arctic regions, on half-rations or less, till he is only a gaunt machine of bones and sinews ; the hunger of a man whose heart and lungs and muscles are working overtime, whose stomach is thin as a sheet of paper, but whose blood is still red and hot, and every drop of it calling for meat. That is the hunger which leads a man to jump on bear or musk-ox that he has just killed,

• lift the skin with his knife, and fill up on the delicious, raw, warm meat, without waiting for the useless luxuries of fire or salt. The hunger which, when a dog dies in harness, makes a man stand off the other dogs, till he himself has eaten.

Yet, while these Arctic regions, with their cold, their darkness, their privations, labor and starvation, are shudderingly repellent to the invalid, the aged and the timid, to the man or boy of health and ruddy blood they have possessed from time immemorial the strongest fascination of any portion of the globe. No other field appeals so strongly and universally to brain and blood as these daz-

zling, dangerous, mysterious areas. The mystery, the novelty, the challenge, the bigness and the cleanness of it all stirs to its utmost the man blood in us.

What lends charm to our youthful excursions more than the novelty of penetrating to new places ? The travel instinct, the Wanderlust as the Germans call it, is innate in nearly all animals ; man is no exception. It is the call of the old free, wild life, when the world was young and men were only animals.

First and foremost among the spells of the Arctic is the nature call. Though her ribs are gaunt and protruding with the cold and starvation of centuries, nowhere else does one get so close to the great heart of Mother Earth as up there in that dead white borderland between this world and interstellar space which we , call the x\rctic regions. There is to be found the realization of the fable of Antaeus, that mighty son of Poseidon, to whom every contact with earth gave new strength and vigor. Nowhere else is the air so pure, nowhere else the sunlight so brilliant or the darkness so opaque, nowhere else the storms so furious. There is to be found the iceberg, the glacier, the eternal ice, and the savage mountains. There is the walrus, the narwhal, the musk-ox, the polar bear and the white wolf, there the Eskimo and his dogs. There is the “great day” and the “great night,” with Polars in the very centre overhead.

Then there is the feeling of ownership, the right of possession which the man earns who lifts a new land or a new sea out of the darkness of the unknown, and fixes it for ever upon the chart?—the feeling that the savage splendid scene before him is, his because he has earned it by work

of brain and body, won it by sheer force of clear head and clean muscle.

How can I make you understand this better than by asking you to conceive a picture I have in my mind of a pile of stones, two men, a flag, and four dogs. Give your imagination play for a moment and try to realize that, though the flag is gone and three of the dogs are dead, the pile of stones is still standing there, shrouded for six months in the gloom of the “great night,” standing in blinding sunlight throughout the “great day” of the Arctic regions, battered by storms and scoured by driving snow, the most northerly of all permanent records of man’s wanderings. And this pile of stones means that for nearly a thousand years Norseman and Dane, Briton, German and American, have crept painfully northward along the shores of the great Arctic island-continent of Greenland, until at last, in the closing year of the nineteenth century, the Stars and Stripes wrested its savage northern headland out of the mist and gloom of the Polar night.

And there is more than this in the picture. There, on that most northern land, the most northerly known fixed point on the face of the earth, never trodden before perhaps by human foot, were gathered the representatives of three great races— myself the Caucasian, Henson the Ethiopian, Anghmaloktok the Mongolian. Then there are the dogs, four of them, members of my own team— the “Old Guard” as I called them.

I could talk to you by the hour of these splendid creatures who have made Arctic work, possible. How can I bring home to you what they are ? Descendants of the Arctic wolf, they are wolves themselves when the sight or hot scent of bear or musk-ox

starts the blood lust flaming in their eyes. At other times they are companions, assistants, affectionate slaves, giving their lives to turn aside from their master the murderous rush of infuriated polar bear or musk-ox bull, or working for his sake till they drop dead in their harness without a sound ; and when, in the bitter darkness of the “great night,” starvation grips a village in its bony grasp, they yield their lives to feed their master’s children.

But I am wandering from what I had in mind—to call the roll of these four of the “Old Guard.” Panikpahperdu died of the Eskimo dog disease at Etah ; Muktaksoah was tossed and killed by an infuriated muskox bull west of Discovery Harbour ; Ingeropahpu, fleetest of all my dogs, had the life cuffed out of him by a wounded polar bear at the head of Sawyer’s Bay. Thalarktoksoah, the gray king, leader of my own team in all my Arctic journeys during the past four years—with me on the long sledge journey around the northern end of Greenland—with me on the journey out upon the polar pack to 84 degrees 17 min. N. Lat., was the best and faithfulest and most affectionate of all my dogs. Once his back was nearly torn off by the claws of a polar bear, later two holes were punched in his chest by the horns of a big musk-ox ; yet he survived these accidents, was later victor in many a hard-fought struggle with both bear and musk-ox, and finally was brought home by me, together with his queen, and both are now in the Bronx Zbological Park in New York, sure of full rations and no hard work for the rest of their natural lives.

Do you wonder that, when I think of the glittering prize still waiting

to be won up there beyond the barrier of ice and coid and darkness, I often have a feeling of contempt for all the petty surroundings of our civilized life, and long to be up there

again with my faithful dogs and loaded sled before me, working my way across the Polar pack towards that on which for sixteen years I have set my heart ?