This chapter and the next are concerned with fundamental aspects of polar exploration and of the polar regions. They are put here rather than in an appendix because a grasp of general principles should help to make clear many things that might otherwise seem inexplicable in the narrative which follows.
Anyone who does not care to be told in advance what polar exploration and the polar regions are like should skip to the beginning of the narrative proper in Chapter III.
“WHEN attempt is made to arrange a large number of facts in diagrammatic order for the sake of easy comprehension, exact truth frequently suffers in the interests of simplicity. This happens when we classify all polar exploration into four stages. Still, the view is more helpful than a conglomerate of facts and details where no philosophic scheme appears.
There are many overlappings; there is occasional retrogression; and in some instances one stage of exploration will survive parallel to another. But, speaking generally, there are four great successive stages.
When in prehistoric times the Scandinavians spread northward in Europe and when the Eskimos and other Mongol-like people moved north in Asia and America to occupy the rich hunting grounds along the polar shores, this was not exploration in the true sense. It would not be exploration in the true sense even if the story were completely known, for these people came so gradually in contact with their new environment that the quest and adventure and heroic endeavor which in our minds are inseparably associated with exploration must then have been lacking. To the explorer, as we think of him, the North seems terrible. But certainly it can have had no terrors for people who gradually occupied the land because they preferred it to other lands farther south. It is true that some historians and even a few anthropologists have assumed that the northern people were crowded into the North by stronger races that pressed upon them from the south. But in modern times close observers of the polar races have found no evidence that they are now or have recently been suffering any pressure from the south, and there is no real ground for the assumption that they ever suffered such pressure. The northern people do not abhor the North. There have been extensive migrations from northern Norway, but these have never been to the tropics; or, if they have been, it has been for special reasons in restricted cases. The northern Norwegian, if he leaves his country, generally finds himself most at home and happiest in some similar climate, such as Manitoba or Alaska, where the winter is as cold as or colder than he ever knew it at home. For one who does not stop to think, it might be a source of wonder that runic stones carved by Scandinavians have been found on the coast of Greenland north of Upernivik at latitudes the attainment of which brought glory to John Davis. But to the man who carved the stone and doubtless traveled far beyond it, the feat probably brought no local renown. His countrymen would find it no more remarkable that he could survive the cold of Greenland than a Zulu finds it that his neighbors can survive the heat of Africa.
Of polar explorers as we know them, in distinction from the people who live contentedly in the North because they understand it, Davis and Hudson are typical. In the first period of polar exploration, men were universally in such fear of the North that they only made furtive incursions into it by ship in summer, returning south before autumn if they could. At that time it was believed that men of our race, softly nurtured in countries like England, either could not survive a polar winter or would find the hardships of doing so quite beyond any reward that could be expected.
In the second stage, of which Edward Parry is typical, the polar winter was still dreadful, but a few men were found of such stern staff that they were willing to brave its terrors. The battle with frost and storm at that time was a form of trench warfare. The hardy navigator penetrated as far north as might be by ship and then, figuratively speaking, dug himself in and waited for winter to pass, coming out of his hibernation in the spring. In that stage of exploration it was considered an achievement when Parry’s men, dragging a cart, were able to cross Melville Island in the early summer, a journey of only a few score miles. Sir John Ross, who, fortunately for the advancement of polar only was thrown in close association with the Eskimos. I borrowed some Eskimo ideas but used them with the ineptitude of the novice. He employed sledges and made some use of dogs. It seems commenced that no explorer thought of going directly to the Eskimos and borrowing their found of life and travel in toto; that instead of learning native ‘methods they found it necessary to discover for themselves the same principles of living and traveling which the Eskimos had discovered centuries before. Sir Leopold McClintock made notable advances over the same who had preceded him. Had he matched his ability not with his fellow explorers but with the system his strides forward would have been explorers more rapid. When McClintock commenced his work, a journey of a hundred miles in April or May was considered remarkable and was although only at the cost of much suffering and hard labor, while at the end of his service, although it covered less than twenty years, journeys of a thousand miles were made without any greater strain upon health or risk to life than had been the case with the hundred mile journeys.
Yet the fear of the winter was still upon them all. Even Mc Clintock did not commence his great journey from Melville to Prince Patrick Island until April. Although Nares as a lieutenant had the benefit of service with McClintock and Mecham, the expedition which he commanded in 1878 was no advance but actually a relapse into pre-McClintock methods. His statement that a commander should be censured who requires his men to travel in the Arctic before the month of April shows that not only in technique but in mental attitude towards the North he had failed to make any advance beyond McClintock.
Then comes the third stage of polar exploration, of which Peary is typical, a greater step forward, it seems to me, than either of the preceding. The significance of this step can be made clear especially to those not personally familiar with arctic conditionsby a truthful analogy. It is a matter of conjecture how the first man navigated a raft and bow the first primitive sailor handled his bark. But, however it was and whenever it was, we can take it for granted that the earliest traveler by water paddled fearfully from bay to haven along prehistoric coasts, dreading nothing so much as the gales which could convert the placid surface of the waters he knew how to deal with into tumultuous seas, dangerous and even fatal to his craft and himself. In that time no one thought of the wind as anything but hostile to the mariner. But the time came with the greater development of knowledge when the wind ceased to be hostile and became a friend. Then there was advance after advance until the sailor began to dread the calms which his fore-runners had courted, and to pray for the strong breezes that had been to his ancestors things to dread. Finally, the time came when the winds carried clipper ships across the widest oceans, and it became almost inconceivable to the world how commerce could be carried forward without the aid of winds.
As the primitive sailor feared the storm so the early arctic explorer dreaded the winter. This dread gradually became less until there appeared the men who turned winter into a friend as the sailors had done with the gale. The leader among these was Peary, who saw that the cold should not be avoided but courted, and that the most successful journeys could be made in the winter, beginning in January or February, and should come to an end on any properly managed expedition by April, before the first thaw. A calm used to be ideal for paddling, and ideal for that it remains to this day, but paddling is not now a serious occupation. To Peary at work on the polar ice the warmth of summer was as welcome as a calm to Nelson at the hour of battle.
In the first stage of exploration the polar winter was considered so dreadful that it could not be endured; in the second stage it was dreadful, though it could and had to be endured, and no work could be done till it was nearly over; in the third stage it was not only neither dreadful nor difficult to endure, but was the season when work could be done most easily, and was therefore preferable to summer. Apparently the limit of progress had been attained in this direction. But just as steam altered navigation and brought back the time when a calm is more agreeable and valuable than a strong breeze, so there was possible in arctic exploration an advance which would again bring summer into a degree of favor, although it did not discard use of the winter cold as steam navigation has discarded use of the wind.
Explorers of the Peary type might no longer dread the winter, but there was another arctic condition which to them was still full of menace. Though traveling could be done and had to be done in winter, it was laborious, fraught with hardships, and had to be limited because of the difficulty of transporting enough food for men and dogs. It was universally conceived that an ice-covered arctic sea could supply neither suitable food nor suitable fuel in adequate quantity for the support of traveling parties. For centuries Eskimos had been known to subsist on the shores of the polar sea, but it was believed that this was existing rather than living, and that the people were different, although enough like us to be as wretched as we believed we would have been under arctic temperature, arctic night, scarce and undesirable food, and other difficult living conditions. Now and then a traveler had come forward with reverse testimony that the Eskimos were healthy and happy, and that life by their method was as comfortable in the Arctic when you once become used to it as the life of a primitive tropical people was when you become used to that.
The Eskimos themselves considered it impossible to make a living by their method anywhere except on land or on the ocean near land. The explorers all fell in with this view and so did geographers and others who theorized about it. Sir Clements Markham, himself an arctic explorer and over a long lifetime in close touch with polar progress, toward the end of his career in his “Life of Sir Leopold McClintock,” speaks of “the polar ocean without life” (page 172) , and at various times in other places referred to the “fact” that, while people could subsist on certain arctic lands, subsistence on the high sea was not possible. Similarly Nansen on his great journey over the ice after leaving the Fram killed his dogs one by one, feeding the dead to the living, because he did not conceive it possible to secure food for them. Even Peary, though he did not usually deliberately plan to kill his dogs, says in his last book, “The North Pole,” that he expected to drive them so hard and feed them so little that sixty per cent, of them would die on the journey.
But it is obvious that were this opinion of the Eskimos and the explorers wrong, then a further advance in the method of polar exploration was still possible, and without the aid of new mechanical invention. The men of early time had shown that travel on the ice is possible in summer, although difficult and disagreeable. The men of the Peary stage had shown that traveling on the sea ice in winter is far easier and more agreeable than traveling in summer and that the only limitation to the length of journey was through the difficulty of transporting enough food. Now if it could be demonstrated that food suitable to sustain indefinitely both men and dogs could be secured anywhere on the polar sea, then obviously journeys over the ice would cease to be limited either in time or distance. Any part of the polar sea would then become accessible to whoever was willing to undergo the supposed hardships of living on meat exclusively, using nothing but blubber for fuel, and remaining separated from other human beings than his own traveling companions for a period of years.