Saturday 6 April 2013

Mine At Last!

Although he lost eight toes, although his hear went gray, although he contracted scurvy, "he always kept coming back" according to one local Eskimo.  His name was Admiral Peary and his destination was the North Pole.  He would not stop until he planted the Stars and Stripes in its icy cap.

Robert Peary was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Maine.  Losing his father when he was young, Robert preferred solitude and used to take long hikes to find it.  As a boy, he liked to explore the unexplored parts of Eagle Island off the coast of Maine.  At college, he had a professor who wondered about conquering the North Pole.  Little did he know that was young Mr. Peary's dream and he wouldn't quit until he achieved it.

In total, Peary would make seven expeditions to the North Pole, each one costing millions of dollars in today's currency.  In the late 1800's, he made his first trek, accompanied by 49 Eskimos, 246 husky dogs, 300 tons of coal, 70 tons of whale meat, 50 walrus carcusses, 5 tons of sugar, 8 tons of flour and 15 tons of pemmican.  

Peary soon adopted the Eskimo form of dress, wearing a deerskin parka, bearskin pants and sealskin boots.  He soon abandonned a tent, preferring instead to lodge in an igloo, as the Inuit did.  

Travelling by dog sled, Peary relied on the veteran dog sled drivers and the sturdy husky dogs.  Although they only weighed 70 pounds, they could pull 100 pounds for 20 miles.  The explorer also travelled by ship, purchasing the first ice cutter and naming it "The Roosevelt" after the President who had promoted his work.

Image courtesy 

In 1898-1899, Peary made a trek to Greenland where he was able to map much of the unexplored northern coast and prove that the country was indeed an island.  Temperatures in Greenland plummeted as low as -69 degrees.  One day, he pulled off his boots and snapped off eight toes in the process.  The doctor who accompanied him on his expedition promptly amputated the remaining stumps.  

Peary's perseverance could be seen as both a blessing and a curse.  While he never gave up, he was also difficult to get along with; one acquaintance said that he had an "iron hand ungloved".  While at times he listened to the Eskimos in his party, he sometimes ignored them or dismissed them.  Similarly, he saw his wife as inferior, choosing to sleep with a local Greenland woman, with whom he fathered two children (he also had children with his American wife).:  Regarding the North Pole, he had tunnel vision, writing a letter to his mother which said:  "Remember, mother I must have fame!"

Crossing the Arctic circle was like crossing a giant river on a series of giant shingles.  Besides the crippling cold and the vicious winds, another obstacle Admiral Peary faced were "leads".  These were sudden cracks in the ice which opened it to reveal the frigid water below.    In 1906, Peary's party was split in two by one of these leads.  On another occasion, a pack of dogs was swallowed by a lead, later to be rescued.  

In 1909, Peary waited a week for a lead to close.  The shifting ice moved his party 70 miles east of where they wanted to be.  According to one man, "the fog was so dense, it looked as black as the smoke of a prairie fire".  With their supplies dwindling, the party survived on dog meat, returning with only a third of their dogs. 

On April 7, Peary and his party found themselves only 133 miles from the North Pole.  Discouraged, most of his last support group turned back.  Peary was left with his right hand man Matthew Hensen and four sled drivers.  They pressed on until the finally reached the icy cap where Peary planted the Stars and Stripes:  "The Pole at last.  The prize of three centuries.  Mine at last!" 

Photo of Admiral Peary at North pole courtesy

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