Voyages to the Ends of the Earth

Voyages to the Ends of the Earth

An explorer’s work is vastly routine, and at times mundane. Raymond Coppinger stated it as an “unglamorous collecting of data, and charting of land and water.”  But every once and a while a mission comes along that captivates the imagination of man; explorers and the public alike.  Man’s insatiable quest for the North and South Poles were such missions, they produced both triumphs and disasters.

Quest for the North Pole

From the beginning the men who braved the Polar Regions have depended on dog teams.  In the 1870’s and 1880’s Nares and Greely used dog teams in their attempts to reach the North Pole.  In 1895, Nansen was to become the white man that had reached the furthest north, he accomplished this feat with the aide of native Eskimo dogs.  Nansen’s record was broken by a mere twenty-two miles in 1901 by Italian Naval officer, Lt. Cagni.

Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920) is widely credited with reaching the North Pole first, a feat that he accomplished in April of 1909.  For Peary this victory was only achieved after a hard fought battle that began in 1886 with a trip that started at Disco Bay, and proceeded one-hundred miles over the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Peary returned to the Arctic in 1891 with seven companions that included his wife, and F.A. Cook.  Leaving from Hvalsund in the spring, Peary and his party sledged an impressive twelve hundred miles to the northeast of Greenland, and discovered Independence Fjord in the process.  It is important to note Peary’s befriending of an isolated tribe of Eskimo referred to as the “Arctic Highlanders”.  These natives, according to Peary, were of the “greatest assistance” on his later expeditions.  Peary made additional excursions into the arctic regions in 1893, 1894, 1896, and 1897.

In 1898, Peary announced his intentions of reaching the North Pole. Because of his single-mindedness, over the next four years Peary relentlessly reconnoitered possible routes from bases at Etah in Inglefield Land and Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island.  He adopted Eskimo techniques of travel, shelter and clothing.  The “Arctic Highlanders” were his drivers, and his igloo builders.  Following the prescribed methods of McClintock, food and supplies were cached, and a trail was laid.

In 1905, Peary made a valiant attempt at reaching the North Pole.  His group traveled with over two hundred sled dogs and reached latitude 87º 6’ N. eclipsing Lt. Cagni’s closet approach.  Severe ice conditions conspired with a run of bad weather, and forced the party to make a premature return.

In February of 1909, Peary departed Cape Columbia, Ellesmere Island with twenty-four men, nineteen sleds, and one hundred and thirty-three Eskimo sled dogs.  In the final leg of the trip Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos accompanied Peary.  The men with their courageous dogs “covered the last 133-miles in five forced marches, arriving at that magic spot where there is no North, East, or West on April 6, 1909.”

The group then made the 485-mile return trip in a nearly unbelievable sixteen days.  His once friend, F.A. Cook, claimed to have superseded Peary’s accomplishment by reaching the North Pole during the previous season.  Cook’s claims have been widely discredited, yet they continued to mar the enjoyment of Peary’s triumph.  That the dispute was even taken seriously at all was owed to the fact that Peary’s return trip was so astonishingly quick.  However, most experienced mushers agree that one’s return trip on a marked trail is generally almost twice as fast.  Peary died on February 20, 1920 in Washington D.C. His contributions to the sled dog and scientific communities however live on.

____________________

Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies radio show.

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