Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Polar Regions

The North Pole Controversy

Solving the mystery of the North Pole is like trying to solve a murder. Lacking witnesses, we rely heavily upon circumstantial evidence. We cannot trust Peary or Cook’s accounts since they had strong motives for bending the truth. We cannot trust the accounts of the men who accompanied them because none of them were capable of calculating their geographical position using sextants or other equipment.

Peary’s Party, supposedly at the North Pole

We cannot rely upon the evidence that Cook or Peary brought back (photos of the North Pole and of the sun above the horizon) since these photos could be made from other locations besides the North Pole. Nor can we rely upon them identifying unique features of the North Pole itself, since the pack ice covering the North Pole is constantly drifting, carrying any flags, cairns, or messages with it. The best evidence of reaching the North Pole would have come from ocean soundings (lines used to measure the depth of the
sea floor). But Cook did not carry the equipment to make these soundings (claiming it was too heavy). Peary’s measurements ended at 1500 ft when he claimed that his line
ran out, making them useless.

Peary party, making soundings on 7 April and running out of line at 1500 fathoms

Without clear proof, we are left with indirect evidence which leaves doubts about the claims of both explorers. The journals of both men show significant gaps and discrepancies. Cook did not appear to have much knowledge of the sextant which would have been essential in determining the location of the North Pole. His “proof of discovery” given to the University of Copenhagen did not include sextant calculations. When he included sextant information in his book, they were in error. Cook claimed to travel fifteen miles a day over the pack ice, a speed that exceeded previous expeditions over the polar sea (Fridjof Nansen, for example, averaged four miles a day). Peary, who was fifty-two years old and had lost most of his toes to frostbite, claimed to travel twenty-six miles a day for the last five days of his journey.

We will probably never know for sure if either man ever made it to the North Pole. One thing is certain though: their greatest legacy is not geographical discovery, but the controversy that they left behind. That we still talk about this issue, argue over its merits, and still try to figure it out, tells us more about ourselves, than the small spot they claimed to discover at the top of the world.


Profile: Frederick Cook

Maligned hero or con-man? A century after Frederick Cook returned from the Arctic claiming to be first at the North Pole, tempers still flare over his rightful place in history. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be featuring Cook in a series of posts. Some of these will feature work I’ve already done about the North Pole controversy in The Coldest Crucible. But some of it is me thinking out loud, preparation for the talk I’ll be giving about him next week at the North By Degree conference in Philadelphia.

Where to begin? In 1907, Cook traveled sailed north into the Arctic with big game hunter John Bradley. He returned in 1909 with a story for the presses. According to Cook, he crossed Ellesmere Land in 1908, and sledged up the coast of Axel Heiberg Land. From there, he claimed that he crossed the Polar Sea with two Inuit men, Etukishuk and Ahwelah, reaching the North Pole on 22 April 1908. This was first-page news in the U.S. and Europe. But the story would get even better. Rival explorer Robert Peary returned from the Arctic in the fall of 1909 also claiming to have reached the North Pole. When he learned about Cook’s claim, he told the press that the public had been handed a “gold brick.”

So began the “North Pole Controversy,” a debate that, much like the Democratic nomination process, never seems to end. Tomorrow’s post: The North Pole Controversy.

Lessons from the Last Frontier

A century ago, the North Pole remained one of the last unknown regions of the planet, a place that burned in the hearts of dozens of explorers. Walter Wellman’s heart burned brighter than most. In the 1890s he led two ill-fated expeditions in the Arctic, where ice crushed his ships, killed his dogs, and fractured his leg so badly it turned gangrenous. These disasters capped a series of tragic American expeditions to the Arctic, two of which resulted in the deaths of 37 men.

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