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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

PEARY REACHES THE NORTH POLE, 1909

[530] THE 6th April 1909 is a marked day in the annals of exploration, for on that day Peary succeeded in reaching the North Pole, which for centuries had defied the efforts of man; on that day he attained the goal for which the greatest nations of the world had struggled for over four hundred years. Indeed, he had spent twenty-three years of his own life labouring toward this end.

He was mainly inspired by reading Nordenskiöld's Exploration of Greenland, when a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In 1886 he got leave to join an expedition to Greenland, and returned with the Arctic fever in his veins and a scheme for crossing that continent as far north as possible. This after many hardships he accomplished, being the first explorer to discover that Greenland was an island. Peary was now stamped as a successful Arctic explorer. The idea of reaching the North Pole began to take shape, and in order to raise funds the enthusiastic explorer delivered no less than one hundred and sixty-eight lectures in ninety-six days. With the proceeds he chartered the Falcon  and left the shores of Philadelphia in June 1893 for Greenland. His wife, who accompanied him before, accompanied him again, and with sledges and dogs on board they made their way up the western coast of Greenland. Arrived at Melville Bay, Peary built a little hut; here a little daughter was born who was soon "bundled in soft warm [531] Arctic furs and wrapped in the Stars and Stripes." No European child had ever been born so far north as this; the Eskimos travelled from long distances to satisfy themselves she was not made of snow, and for the first six months of her life the baby lived in continuous lamplight.

But we cannot follow Peary through his many Polar expeditions; his toes had been frozen off in one, his leg broken in another, but he was enthusiastic enough when all preparations were complete for the last and greatest expedition of all.

The Roosevelt, named after the President of the United States, had carried him safely to the north of Greenland in his last expedition, so she was again chosen, and in July 1908, Peary hoisted the Stars and Stripes and steamed from New York.

"As the ship backed out into the river, a cheer went up from the thousands who had gathered on the piers to see us off. It was an interesting coincidence that the day on which we started for the coldest spot on earth was about the hottest which New York had known for years. As we steamed up the river, the din grew louder and louder; we passed President Roosevelt's naval yacht, the Mayflower, and her small gun roared out a parting salute—surely no ship ever started for the ends of the earth with more heart-stirring farewells."

President Roosevelt had himself inspected the ship and shaken hands with each member of the expedition.

"I believe in you, Peary," he had said, "and I believe in your success, if it is within the possibility of man." So the little Roosevelt steamed away; on 26th July the Arctic Circle was crossed by Peary for the twentieth time, and on 1st August, Cape York, the most northerly home of human beings in the world, was reached. This was the dividing line between the civilised world on [532] one hand and the Arctic world on the other. Picking up several Eskimo families and about two hundred and fifty dogs, they steamed on northwards.

"Imagine," says Peary—"imagine about three hundred and fifty miles of almost solid ice, ice of all shapes and sizes, mountainous ice, flat ice, ragged and tortured ice; then imagine a little black ship, solid, sturdy, compact, strong, and resistant, and on this little ship are sixty-nine human beings, who have gone out into the crazy, ice-tortured channel between Baffin Bay and the Polar sea—gone out to prove the reality of a dream in the pursuit of which men have frozen and starved and died."

The usual course was taken, across Smith's Sound and past the desolate wind-swept rocks of Cape Sabine, where, in 1884, Greely's ill-fated party slowly starved to death, only seven surviving out of twenty-four.

Fog and ice now beset the ship, and on 5th September they were compelled to seek winter quarters, for which they chose Cape Sheridan, where Peary had wintered before in 1905. Here they unloaded the Roosevelt, and two hundred and forty-six Eskimo dogs were at once let loose to run about in the snow. A little village soon grew up, and the Eskimos, both men and women, went hunting as of yore. Peary had decided to start as before from Cape Columbia, some ninety miles away, the most northerly point of Grant Land, for his dash to the Pole.

On 12th October the sun disappeared and they entered cheerfully into the "Great Dark."

"Imagine us in our winter home," says Peary, "four hundred and fifty miles from the North Pole, the ship held tight in her icy berth one hundred and fifty yards from the shore, ship and the surrounding world covered with snow, the wind creaking in the rigging, whistling and shrieking around the corners of the deck houses, the temperature ranging from zero to sixty below, the ice- [533] pack in the channel outside us groaning and complaining with the movement of the tides."

Christmas passed with its usual festivities. There were races for the Eskimos, one for the children, one for the men, and one for the Eskimo mothers, who carried babies in their fur hoods. These last, looking like "animated walruses," took their race at a walking pace.

At last, on 15th February 1909, the first sledge-party left the ship for Cape Columbia, and a week later Peary himself left the Roosevelt  with the last loads. The party assembled at Cape Columbia for the great journey north, which consisted of seven men of Peary's party, fifty-nine Eskimos, one hundred and forty dogs, and twenty-eight sledges. Each sledge was complete in itself; each had its cooking utensils, its four men, its dogs and provisions for fifty or sixty days. The weather was "clear, calm, and cold."

On 1st March the cavalcade started off from Cape Columbia in a freezing east wind, and soon men and dogs became invisible amid drifting snow. Day by day they went forward, undaunted by the difficulties and hardships of the way, now sending back small parties to the depot at Cape Columbia, now dispatching to the home camp some reluctant explorer with a frostbitten heel or foot, now delayed by open water, but on, on, till they had broken all records, passed all tracks even of the Polar bear, passed the 87th parallel into the region of perpetual daylight for half the year. It was here, apparently within reach of his goal, that Peary had to turn back three years before for want of food.

Thus they marched for a month; party after party had been sent back, till the last supporting party had gone and Peary was left with his black servant, Henson, and four Eskimos. He had five sledges, forty picked dogs, and supplies for forty days when he started off alone to [534] dash the last hundred and thirty-three miles to the Pole itself. Every event in the next week is of thrilling interest. After a few hours of sleep the little party started off shortly after midnight on 2nd April 1909. Peary was leading.


[Illustration]

PEARY'S FLAG FLYING AT THE NORTH POLE, APRIL 1909.

"I felt the keenest exhilaration as I climbed over the ridge and breasted the keen air sweeping over the mighty ice, pure and straight from the Pole itself."

They might yet be stopped by open water from reaching the goal. On they went, twenty-five miles in ten hours, then a little sleep, and so on again, then a few hours' rest and another twenty miles till they had reached latitude 89 degrees.

Still breathlessly they hurried forward, till on the 5th they were but thirty-five miles from the Pole.

"The sky overhead was a colourless pall, gradually deepening to almost black at the horizon, and the ice was a ghastly and chalky white."

On 6th April the Pole was reached.

"The Pole at last!" writes Peary in his diary. "The prize of three centuries! My dream and goal for twenty years. Mine at last! I cannot bring myself to realise it. It all seems so simple and commonplace."

Flags were at once hoisted on ice lances, and the successful explorer watched them proudly waving in the bright Arctic sunlight at the Pole. Through all his perilous expeditions to the Arctic regions, Peary had worn a silken flag, worked by his wife, wrapped round his body. He now flew it on this historic spot, "which knows no North, nor West, nor East." Not a vestige of land was to be seen; nothing but ice lay all around. They could not stay long, for provisions would run short, and the ice might melt before their return journey was accomplished.

So after a brief rest they started off for Cape Columbia, [535] which they reached after a wild rush of sixteen days. It had taken them thirty-seven days to cover the four hundred and seventy-five miles from Cape Columbia to the Pole, from which they had returned at the rate of thirty miles a day.

The whole party then started for the Roosevelt, and on 18th July she was taken from her winter quarters and turned towards home. Then came the day when wireless telegraphy flashed the news through the whole of the civilised world: "Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole."

The record of four hundred years of splendid self-sacrifice and heroism unrivalled in the history of exploration had been crowned at last.


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