Nearest the North Pole
COMMANDER ROBERT E. PEARY, U.S.N., IN HARPER'S MONTHLY
Commander Peary’s own account of his unique voyage, which established a new record in Arctic exploration.
ON the 16th of July, 1905, the steamer Roosevelt, owned by the Peary Arctic Club, left. New York harbor for her northern voyage. This ship, built by the club (the contract signed and guaranteed by Mr. Jesup, president of the club, a year previously, before the subscriptions to the club were sufficient to pay for her), is the first American ship built for Arctic exploration. Constructed of American timber, in an American shipyard, upon plans which were the result of American experience, fitted with American machinery, and in command of an American, who hoped to attain the pole by what is known as the American route, the Roosevelt went north as a typical American entry in the great “International Race.”
Her course from the anchorage in the North River to Sandy Hook was noisy with the friendly greetings of every shore and passing whistle ; but at the Roosevelt’s masthead only a single flag, the Stars and Stripes, fluttered in the wind, embodying not only the American idea, but my own deep sense of responsibility, and the feeling that while it seemed as if such a ship, combined with years of experience and most fixed determination, must achieve success, yet those same long years of experience had taught the possibility of so many hostile contingencies, that now was no time for a holiday display of bunting. And here it may be said that, uniting the sail plan, sheer, and above-water model of our best Maine coasting schooners with the under-water model which my own years of experience in Arctic navigation, combined with the long years of constructive experience of her builder, Captain Charles B. Dix, (who put his whole heart and soul into the work), this was and is the strongest ship for Arctic work afloat to-day, and one that can force a passage through heavy ice which, I believe, no F
other ship could negotiate. In addition to this the Roosevelt possesses weatherlyr qualities in the open sea equal to the handiest of sailing vessels.
From New York we proceeded to Bar Harbor to take leave of Mr. Jesup, president of the club, and ,if anything were needed to strengthen my determination, it was Mr. Jesup’s firm handgrasp (the last as we got under way) and his final words—“Peary, I believe in you and the ship.” From Bar Harbor to Sydney, Cape Breton, where every available spate on board was filled with coal, thence northward through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Straits of Belle-Isle; then lying to for half an hour off Domino Run, on the/ Labrador coast, to send letters home; then up the North Atlantic, through Davis Strait and Baffin Bay to Cape York, twelve days from Sydney, the Roosevelt pushed her way. Here for the first time since the day that Mrs. Peary, smashinga block of ice against her iron-clad stem, had christened her the Roosevelt, the ship felt the shock of Arctic ice, and in the preliminary round showed that she would be equal to her work.
From my Eskimo friends at Cape York I obtained the present distribution of the entire tribe, and began immediately the round of the Eskimo settlements to pick up the tried and trusty men whom I had in mind to form my Eskimo contingent. Numbers of these were located in Melville Bay, and we drove eastward into the depths of this terror of the whaling captains as far as Meteorite Island, from which, eight years before, I had borne away the great Ahnighito Star Stone, the largest of all known siderites, Four Eskimo families were gathered in here; then we turned northward, visiting all Eskimo settlements,, even to the depths of Inglefield Gulf (in some cases depopulating entire villages), and finally vFen_ dezvousing at Etah, the most northern
Eskimo settlement, with the auxiliary ship Eric. Here our coal supply was replenished from the Eric, our machinery thoroughly overhauled, and all preparations made for our battle royal with the ice, which could be seen lying in wait for us a few miles off the harbor.
In the earliest hours of August 17, the Roosevelt swung out from the harbor of Etah and severed all communication with the civilized world. Below decks the ship was filled with coal until her plank-sheer was nearly to the water; on deck were over two hundred Eskimo dogs, and on the topgallant-forecastle and the tops of both forward and after deck-houses were over half a ''hundred Eskimos—men, women and children, and their belongings. The heavy packice surging down Smith Sound gave me an opportunity to see what good work the ship could do, even with boilerpower reduced one-half, as it was by the failure of the water-tube boilers. On the western side of the sound from Cape Sabine southward the ice was packed so densely as to be entirely impenetrable to any human effort. This made it impossible for me to establish a depot at Payer Harbor (my winter quarters in 1901 to 1902) which had been selected as the site of my sub-base, lying as it does at the head of certam summer navigation in Smith Sound and at the entrance to the prolific game region of Buchanan Bay.
Barred out of Payer Harbor, we forced our way to Victoria Head, the northeastern headland of Bache Peninsula, another desirable site for a subbase. Here a large cache of provisions, boats, coal, sails and spars for the construction of a house, etc., etc., was landed, the work consuming some ten hours. While this was in progress I went ashore with two or three Eskimos to a neighboring valley where I had hunted seven years previously, and secured three muskoxen. The arrival of this supply of fresh meat on board created a very agreeable impression upon every one, and especially upon the “tenderfoot” members of the expedition and crew.
From Victoria Head nearly to Cape Fraser almost continuous open water
was encountered; then we were driven to cover in Maury Bay to escape the large fields of very heavy ice which were moving rapidly southward before a fresh northerly wind, crashing with savage fury against the iron bastion of Cape John Barrow, under which we lay. With the cessation of this wind we squeezed and hammered our way up to Scoresby Bay, and thence to Richardson Bay, working the shore lead and seizing every opportunity afforded by the changing tides. From here northward the aspect of the ice was so extremely unfavorable that I determined to test my belief, gained in my last four years of work in this region, that the Greenland side of Kennedy and Robeson channels offers, as a rule, more favorable opportunities for navigation than the Grinnell Land side.
Firm in my confidence in the capabilities of the Roosevelt, and against all the so-called canons of Arctic navigation in this region, the ship was headed eastward and driven into the thick of the channel-pack. The ice encountered was very large and heavy, and its southward drift inevitably swept us down. Still, we made fair progress eastward, and after a severe and protracted struggle, during which Bartlett and the mate remained continuously in the forerigging and I in the main-rigging, we broke out into loose ice off Cape Calhoun and swung directly northward. From here to Newman Bay our course lay close along the Greenland coast, and we encountered much open water, with only temporary barriers (noticeably at Franklin and Joe islands), which in each instance a few hours of hard and skilful battering were sufficient to overcome.
From Joe Island to Cape Lupton we steamed through completely ice-free water, in the teeth of a stiff northerly gale, across a swell which caused the Roosevelt to pitch perceptibly. West along the Grinnell Land coast the ice lay densely packed and without a break. Just beyond Cape Lupton, while smashing through a narrow tongue of ice, a sudden swirl of the current—which at times runs like a mill-race in this deep channel—swept the ice together in a
way that I can only liken to the sudden scurry of fallen leaves before an autumn breeze, pinched the ship between the big cakes, and smashing her against the ice-foot, ground her along its vertical face with a motion and noise like that of a railway car which has left the rails and is bumping along over the ties. Fortunately for us, she scraped into a shallow niche in the ice wall and was hastily secured with every available line.
The entire flurry lasted less than five minutes, but in that time the steering gear was almost disabled. The back of the rudder was twisted on the stock, the heavy iron head-bands and fittings broken, and the steel tiller-rods snapped.' Temporary repairs were effected, and as soon as the ice pressure relaxed, we steamed on round Cape Sumner and tied up to fast ice in Newman Bay, to await the opening of a lead across Robeson Channel to Cape Union or vicinity. During six days we remained in Newman Bay waiting for an opportunity to get across to the Grinnell Land shore, the northern ice gradually filling the bay and the channel, until no open water was to be seen from the top of Cape Sumner. At the end of this time, impatient of the delay, and encouraged by our success in crossing the channel at Cape Calhoun, fires were cleaned, machinery thoroughly inspected, and the Roosevelt driven out for another contest with the channel pack, in which, at the time, no pool or lane of water was visible.
Just off the point of Sumner a brief nip between two big blue floes, which the swflft current was swinging past the cape, set the ship vibrating like a violin string for a minute or so before she rose to the pressure. This was the beginning of a thirty-five hour struggle through ice almost continuously up to the Roosevelt’s rail, and frequently of such height that the boats hanging at the deck-house davits had to be swung inboard to clear the pinnacles. The battle was won by sheer brute insistance, for rarely was there slack enough between the floes to enable the Roosevelt to butt with any effectiveness. On the few occasions when this could be
done, the steel-clad bow rose on the ice at which we charged like a steeplechaser clearing^a fence. At the end of the thirty-five hours, we forged out into a small pool of water under the shelter of the northern cape of Wrangel Bay fifteen miles from Sumner. During our passage we had been swept up and down the channel by the changing tides.
In Wrangel Bay the heavy ice damaged the rudder again, but did not keep us from forcing our way to Lincoln Bay. Here we were delayed and three times forced ashore by the rapid and vicious movements of the ice. ’ Finally, escaping and gaining shelter in a shallow indentation just south of Cape Union, the last rush was made, and after several anxious episodes between the heavy floes which were crowding into the mouth of Robeson Channel on the flood-tide, we rounded Cape Rawson, and steaming at full speed, fairly hurled the Roosevelt into a shallow 1100k, in the face of the ice-foot under the point of Cape Sheridan, just as the polar pack, closed in compactly against the shore.
It was now 7 a.m. of September 5, and as I jumped over the rail upon the ice-foot, on my way to the summit of the nearest hill to reconnoitre the ice northward towards Cape Joseph Henry, few can realize my feeling of release from the ever-present fears and anxieties which had been my companions during the upward voyage. I felt now that the risks and chances of the northern voyage were past. My ship might be lost by being forced ashore, as our present position was an extremely exposed one, and the shore northward from here offered absolutely no shelter, but we were not likely to lose provisions and equipment, and, possessing these, the remainder of my programme could be carried out even should the ship get no farther north or never leturn south. Twenty-four hours later two hunting parties of three Eskimos each with supplies for ten days, were sent out, one to scour the country to the southeast, the other to the southwest; and a day or two later another party was sent to reconnoitre Porter Bay under Cape Joseph Henry, some
twenty-seven miles to the north, which I had in view for our winter quarters, having been impressed by the advantages of the bay during my sledge journey of 1902.
In the following days no opportunities offered to get farther north, and on the evening of September 16, with the turn of the flood-tide, a large floe pivoted around Cape Sheridan, crushing everything before it, until at last it held the ship mercilessly between its own blue sicle and the unyielding face of the ice-foot. Its slow, resistless motion was frightful, yet fascinating; •thousands of tons of smaller ice which the big floe drove before it the Roosevelt had easily and gracefully turned under her sloping bilges, but the edge of the big floe rose to the plank-sheer, and ,a few yards back from its edge was an old pressure ridge which rose higher than the bridge deck.
For an instant, which seemed an age, the pressure was terrific; the Roosevelt’s ribs and interior bracing cracked like the discharge of musketry. The main deck amidships bulged, up several inches, the main-rigging hung slack, and the masts and rigging shook as in a violent gale; then with a mighty7 tremor and a sound which reminded me of an athlete intaking his breath for a supreme effort, the ship jumped upward. The big floe snapped against the edge of the ice-foot forward and aft and under us, crumpling,up its edge and driving it inshore some yards, then came to rest, and the commotion was transferred to the outer edge of the floe, which crumbled away with a dull roar as other floes smashed against it and tore off great pieces in their onward rush— leaving us stranded but safe. This incident, of course, put an end to all thoughts of farther advance, and to provide against the contingency of a still more serious pressure rendering the ship untenable, all supplies and equipment, together with a considerably quantity of coal, were landed, officers and crew and Eskimos, including the women and children, working almost without interruption for the next thirty-six hours.
After this the principal energies of
the party were devoted to the hunt, which my previous acquaintance with this region rendered satisfactory beyond my expectations. A very considerable number of Arctic hare were obtained along the coast from Cape Rawson to the western side of Black Cliffs Bay, but after a time these were nearly cleaned out by my Eskimos. Muskoxen were to be our chief mainstay, and while my confidence that we should find numbers of these animals within a comparatively short distance of the ship was justified by events, I still recognized that our main source of suppi}7 must be the drainage basin of Lake Hazen, the northern portion of which, covering the southern slopes of the United States Range, had not been drawn upon by me while at Fort Conger between 1899 and 1902. This region was tapped with great success by parties traveling directly overland to Lake Hazen, and by the first of November some 250 musk-oxen had been secured. The unexpected discovery in this region of considerable numbers of the new species of the Arctic reindeer, five skins of which I had brought home in 1902 from Buchanan Bay region, lent special inteiest to our hunting expeditions. The first specimens of this magnificent snow-white animal were from a fine herd of eleven surprised in a valley close by Cape Joseph Henry. Seven of the herd were obtained, including the wide-antlered buck leader. These beautiful animals, in their winter dress almost as white as the snow7 which they traverse, were found scattered over the entire region from Cape Hecla to Lake Hazen, and later westward along the Nol th Grant Land coast, over 50 specimens in all being secured.
On October 12, from the summit of Black Cape, I saw the sun set for the last time, down the misty ice-filled lane of Robeson Channel. Soon after this, with almost the suddenness of lighting from a clear sky, I faced the possibility of the complete crippling of the expedition by the extermination of my large pack of dogs. Some eighty of these indispensable animals died before
the cause was traceable to poisoning from the whale-meat which I had taken for dog-food. This meat, to the amount of seveial tons, was thrown away, and I found myself confronted, at the beginning of the long Arctic night, with the proposition of subsisting my dogs and most of my Eskimos upon the country. Without my previous familiarity with the region, this would have been an impossibility; even as it was, it possessed elements of uncertainty ; but with the satisfactory start already made in obtaining musk-oxen in September and October, and knowing that these animals could be killed by those who knew how, even in the depths of the great Arctic night, I believed there was something more than a fighting chance for success; and in three days one hundred and two dogs, together with twenty adult Eskimos, men and women and six children, went into the field in addition to those already out, leaving the ship almost deserted. From this time until the 7th of February, the dogs and the greater portion of the Eskimos remained in the Lake Hazen region, a portion of the men coming to the ship during the full moon of each month with sledge-loads of meat, and returning with tea, sugar, oil, and biscuit.
The winter was the direct antithesis of that experienced by the Alert in this region. Temperatures were comparatively high, and every few days we had violent winds from the south—sometimes in the shape of squalls of a few hours’ duration, sometimes continuing as furious gales for two or three days. At these times leads from a hundred yards to two or three miles in width invariably formed, extending from Capí Rawson to Cape Joseph Henry, and doubtless farther, in both directions. The ice was in more or less active motion practically all the time.
On Christmas night the ice suddenly broke completely away from the shore, from Cape Rawson to beyond Cape Sheridan, and disappeared in the inky
darkness, leaving the starboard side of the Roosevelt exposed and unprotected. Simultaneously a violent southerly gale began, which thieatened to tear the ship from her moorings, though the port anchor and cable and every steel and manila cable on board were made fast to the ice-foot. The swell heaving around Cape Rawson from the mild sea in Robeson Channel rocked the Roosevelt pronouncedly.
The next three weeks was a period of constant anxiety, the ice-pack surging back and forth along the shore on each tide, and liable to crash in upon us at any time. Every one slept in liis clothes, ail lanterns and portable lights were kept filled and trimmed, ready for immediate use, and provision was made for the instant extinguishment of all fires. On February 7, Marvin came in with the last of the field parties, and on rounding up my dogs I found that 1 had one hundred and twenty left, justenough for twenty teams of six dogs each. A few days later Captain Bartlett, with Dr. Wolf, fireman Clark, and assistant-steward Percy, with twenty Eskimos and sledges, went to Hecla with advance loads of supplies and to reconnoitre the ice to the northward. Bartlett’s report, although disagreeable, was not unexpected. From the summit of Hecla, 1,600 feet above the sea-level, he observed leads (or open lanes) of water extending as far north as could be seen with a powerful telescope, while leads and pools were numerous to the northeast. From February 19 to the 23rd the entire northern party left for Cape Hecla in four successive divisions. Captain Bartlett going with the first division, and I with the last.
When I left the Roosevelt there was a lead of open water extending from Cape Joseph Henry past Capes Sheridan and Rawson. The northern part of Robeson Channel was open. There was open water along the Greenland coast as far as the Black Horn Cliffs, and apparently to Cape Bryant, with numerous
pools and leads in the sweep from Cape Henry to Cape Bryant. Two days were spent at Cape Heel a resting the dogs, overhauling the harnesses, traces sledges, clothing, and all other equipment, readjusting teams and loads where necessary.
Then on the 28th of February the first party drew out for the northern journey, following a route via Point Moss, about twenty miles west of Iiecla, which I had selected for our departure from the land, as likely to carry us clear of the leads extending north from Plecia. From Plecia, as from the ship, the party drew out in divisions on successive days, in order to prevent the confusion incident to large parties, and to economize the time and labor of building snow houses, one snow igdoo at each camp sufficing for the entire party, each division occupying it one night.
My plan of campaign contemplated dividing the route, for a distance of 250 to 300 miles north of the land, into sections of about fifty miles, each section to be in charge of a member of the party, with two or three Eskimos and their teams and sledges, who, after reaching their section should continue to traverse it back and forth, continually advancing supplies, and in this way forming, as it were, a post-road, which I hoped would give me a final base or point of departure for the last stage of the journey in a latitude as high or higher than Abruzzi’s “farthest.” The frequent traversing of each section under this arrangement would result in keeping the trail intact, even in spite of considerable movement of the ice. The order of march contemplated a pioneer party, with picked dogs and' very lightly loaded sledges, to select the best route through the rough ice, and break a trail which the heavily loaded sledges of the main party could follow.
When the northern end of the first section was reached, the sledges assigned to this section would transfer their loads to the other sledges, depositing
any surplus in a cache, then return to Point Moss, reload, and go out again to the end of the section, and continue to repeat this operation. At the end of the second section the sledges of this section would return to the northern end of the first section, and taking over there the loads brought out by the sledges of the first section, again turn, northward. This arrangement, with myself in the rear, where I could be in touch with everything going on ahead of me and meet any contingencies arising, presented, I felt positive, the most effective arrangement possible, and one susceptible of pronounced and speedy modification in the event of unexpected conditions. Such organization of parties is the ideal one wherever there is a fixed surface upon which to travel, and wTould, had not the delay at the big lead and the closely following six days’ gale occurred at just the most unfortunate psychological moment, have been susceptible of such adjustment as would have enabled me, in spite of the abnoimally open season last year, to reach the pole.
On my second march from the land the movement of the ice wTas so pronounced that I was compelled to hurriedly assemble my sledges upon an old floe and wait until the commotion ceased. Further on the doctor’s party was delayed by open water and obliged to camp. Beyond this the captain s party was delayed for a day by an open lead, and other leads necessitated de^ toui s before they could be crossed. This and the extreme roughness of the ice, a very considerable portion of the trail having to be cut out with pickaxes, made our progress slow.
Our first glimpse of the sun was obtained March 6.
Some eighty miles from land the character of the going greatly improved, and 1 began to hope that we were through the shattered ice near the land and on the less rugged surface of the
central polar area. Leads, however, were more frequent and wider.
At 84 deg. 38 min. north latitude I came upon Captain Bartlett, Henson, and Clark, with their parties, stalled by a broad lead extending east and west as far as could be seen. A careful reconnaissance showed no immediate prospect of crossing, and I sent Captain Bartlett and Clark, with their sledges, back to bring up more supplies, remaining with my own party and Henson ’s to get across the lead at the first opportunity. At this time the parties of Marvin, Dr. Wolf and Ryan were bound outward from the land on their second trip.
The lead slowly widened, keeping an impassable strip of water constantly epen. After a delay of six days the lead (now about two miles wide) was crossed on young ice, which bent beneath our weight and necessitated halfloads on the sledge. Henson’s party proceeded north immediately, while I îemained a day longer to establish a cache on the north side of the lead, and leave instructions for the supporting parties, which I hoped would arrive in two or three days. When I started north from the lead the weather was so thick it was almost impossible to follow Henson’s trail, and a westerly wind was blowing, which set the ice groaning.
At the end of three marches I overtook Henson at 85 deg. 12 min. north latitude, camped in a dense fog. My own igloo was hardly completed before it began to blow heavily. The ice quickly responded to the wind pressure. Henson’s igloo, built too near the edge of the floe, was destroyed. The gale, accompanied by snow, increased in violence, and continued without interruption for six days. At its close my observations showed that we had been driven some seventy miles to the eastward.
Henson’s party was immediately started northward, and two Eskimos with empty sledges were sent back on the
trail to meet any supporting parties that might possibly have crossed the lead before the stoim, or, if none had done so, to bring up the cache at the lead. These men returned inside of 24 hours, saying they had been able to get less than half the distance back to the cache, when they had encountered open water and completely shattered ice extending as far as they could see from the highest pinnacles. It was evident that I could no longer count in the slightest degree upon my ‘ supporting parties, and that whatever was done must be done by a dash.
At Storm Camp we abandoned everything not absolutely necessary, and I bent every energy to setting a record pace.
The first march of ten hours, myself in the lead with the compass, sometimes on a dog-trot, the sledges following in Indian file with drivers running beside or behind, placed us thirty miles to the good—my Eskimos said forty. Four hours out on the second march I overtook Henson in his third camp, beside1 a lead which w7as closed. When I arrived. he hitched up and followed behind my hurrying paît}7. I had with me now seven men and six teams, with less than half a load for each.
As we advanced, the character of the ice improved, the floes becoming much larger and pressure ridges infrequent, but the cracks and narrow leads increased, and were nearly all active. These cracks were uniformly at right angles to our course, and the ice on the northern shore was moving more rapidly eastward than that on the southern.
As dogs gave out, unable to keep the pace, they were fed to the others. April 20 we came into a region of open leads, trending nearly north and south, and the ice motion became more pronounced. Hurrying on between these leads, a forced march was made. Then we slept a few hours, and starting again soon after midnight, pushed on till noon of the 21st.
My observation then gave 87 deg. G min. So far as history records, this is the nearest approach to the north pole ever made by human beings.
I thanked God with as good g: ace as possible for what I had been able to accomplish, though it was but an empty bauble compared with the splendid jewel for which I was straining my life out. But, looking at the skeleton forms of my remaining dogs and the nearly empty sledges, and bearing in mind the
drifting ice and the unknown quantity of the big lead between us and the nearest land, I felt that I had cut the margin as narrow as could be reasonably expected.
My flags were flung from the summit of the highest pinnacle near us, and a hundred feet or so beyond this I left a bottle containing a brief record and a piece of the silk flag which six years before I had carried around the northern end of Greenland.