The Friendly Arctic
Category: History
Level 8.48 36:42 h
Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an Icelandic explorer that took many expeditions in the Arctic. He wanted to create an exploration tour that could take travelers into the Artic. The Friendly Arctic is a historical account of the exploration of the Arctic in the early 1900s. It depicts the expeditions and details how humans can manage to live in the harsh icy climate and unforgiving territory.

The Friendly Arctic

The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

The Friendly Arctic

Chapter I
The Four Stages in Polar Exploration

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 conditions by 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.

To demonstrate the feasibility of this and thereby to bring in the fourth stage of polar exploration, was the main task of our expedition. From my point of view, at least, any discoveries which might be made through the application of this method were secondary to the establishment of the method itself. For, with the method once established, anyone could go out and make the discoveries. When the world was once known to be round, there was no difficulty in finding many navigators to sail around it. When the polar regions are once understood to be friendly and fruitful, men will quickly and easily penetrate their deepest recesses.

I am one of those who, knowing both Peary and his methods, never had any doubt that he reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. I have, however been sometimes impatient of discussion as to whether he reached it or not The all-important consideration is that he developed a method by which anyone could reach the Pole or any other point no farther removed from the nearest land than five or six hundred miles, which he thought (and I agree) was about the limit as to distance of the dog-sledge system of transportation.

If you once concede that the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane and inaugurated the era of air navigation which is now revolutionizing our civilization, both in peace and in war, then it becomes of little interest whether Orville Wright can fly as high or as far or steer an aeroplane as successfully as some one else. Those are accomplishments by no means small but not in a class with the pioneer work that made all the rest possible. When Peary was able to reach the Pole he laid down a system by which anyone of good health sound judgment and a reasonable apprenticeship in polar work can reach it, starting from the same base on the north coast of Grant Land. With that point understood, any attempted disparagement of Peary by suggesting that he was himself too old to get to the Pole a (foolish suggestion, anyway) would be like trying to cast slurs on Watt or Stephenson by pointing out that neither of them drove a locomotive at a hundred miles per hour.

Chapter II
The North That Never Was

The salient characteristics of the arctic regions are only too well known. With minor modifications, they are as follows: The Arctic is a roughly circular or exactly circular area “at the top of the world,” with the Pole for a center. The Pole is the point on the northern hemisphere most difficult of all places to get to. Formerly explorers went north to find a short route from Europe to China or in search of gold; but later they strove and still are striving for the Pole itself. The Northwest Passage was found by the Franklin Expedition in the middle of the nineteenth century (some think it was found by Amundsen in 1905, and the Pole was attained by Peary in 1909. The Northwest Passage has proved of no immediate commercial value and will therefore forever remain worthless. The Pole has been attained, and the supreme achievement of the Arctic thus made a finality.

Why should any one want to explore the Arctic further? The land up there is all covered with eternal ice; there is everlasting winter with intense cold; and the corollary of the everlastingness of the winter is the absence of summer and the lack of vegetation. The country, whether land or sea, is a lifeless waste of eternal silence. The stars look down with a cruel glitter, and the depressing effect of the winter darkness upon the spirit of man is heavy beyond words. On the fringes of this desolation live the Eskimos, the filthiest and most benighted people on earth, pushed there by more powerful nations farther south, and eking out a miserable existence amidst hardship.

This, with individual modifications, is the current picture of the Arctic, and this is substantially what we have to unlearn before we can read in a true light any story of arctic exploration.

According to their varied temperaments, those who bold such views of the North are forced to one or another semi-irrational explanation of why explorers still go there. Some think it is because of an insatiable desire, mysteriously implanted in our race, to throw ourselves against obstacles, to brave dangers and suffer heroic deaths a sort of human counterpart of the impulse which leads the lemming to march in thousands into the ocean to be drowned. Other conceptions vary upward and upward, until we come to the noble view that the explorer is the scientist urged by a thirst for knowledge, who struggles on through the arctic night with the same spirit that keeps the astronomer at his telescope, neither of them thinking of material profit or necessarily of glory or even of the approbation of his fellows.

There is much of the adventurer in some explorers and much of the scientist in others; in a few the qualities are happily blended. But in order to understand the Arctic explorer and his work we must understand the Arctic as it really is. It might seem that the easiest way to do this would be to learn more about it. A far easier way is to forget what we think we already know.

The Arctic as pictured in the first two paragraphs of this chapter and in the minds of most of our contemporaries, does not exist. It may be a pity to destroy the illusion, for the world is getting daily poorer in romance. Elves and fairies no longer dance in the woods, and it appears a sort of vandalism to destroy the glamorous and heroic North by too intimate knowledge, as the Greeks drove their gods off Olympus through the perverse scaling of the mountain to its top.

Our first close look at the Arctic shows us that our central “fact,” the preeminent inaccessibility of the Pole, is not a fact at all. The portion difficult of access is not circular with the Pole at its center, but of a highly irregular shape with the Pole lying well towards one of the edges. The region in the north difficult of access is an ocean more or less covered with ice. The inaccessibility of any part of this area is due to the fact that there is too much ice for ships to sail as they sail on the Atlantic, and not enough for men to walk safely and easily as they walk on land. There is no single huge expanse of level ice: there are instead innumerable floes or cakes of ice. These are pressed against each other under the stress of wind and current, their edges crumble under the terrific strain, and ice pressure ridges are formed resembling mountain ranges in contour, though seldom more than fifty or sixty feet in height. If the floes are extensive they break up under heavy pressure not only along their edges but at various points within the general field, buckling till they crack and forming new floe edges with new pressure ridges. Then when the strains slacken or become unequal the floes, instead of hugging each other, spread apart with water lanes between. This happens even in midwinter with the temperature at its lowest. There is never a time when one can travel on foot or by dog sledge over the ice without meeting this handicap of open water, and open water is more serious than the deepest masses of the softest snow or the most craggy and slippery ice ridges.

All this being so, the North Pole might still be at the center of this floating conglomeration of ice. So it would were it not for a fundamental difference between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. In each of these there is a great stream of warm water rushing northward. In the Atlantic we call it the Gulf Stream and in the Pacific we speak of the Japan Current. The two oceans differ fundamentally, however, in that, no matter how hard it tries, the Japan Current is unable to penetrate to the polar sea in its quarter. It is fenced out by the chain of the Aleutian Islands and by Bering Strait, where Alaska and Siberia almost lock horns. The Strait is thirty-six miles across, scarcely wider than the channel between Great Britain and France, and beside being narrow and shallow it has two islands in the middle. The Japan Current, therefore, instead of reaching the Alaskan arctic with its warmth, spends its heat upon the air and water of the North Pacific, with only a little and practically imperceptible amount of slightly warmed water finding its way to the north coast of Alaska.

In the Atlantic the condition is different. The waters warmed by the Gulf Stream spread northward through the wide and deep gap between Norway and Greenland, splitting on Iceland with such effect that although Iceland is arctic in name and subarctic in latitude it is temperate in weather. The climate of Iceland at sea level does not differ materially from that of Scotland. There are high mountains and these are ice-capped. It is a commonplace of geology that the Scotch mountains would also be ice-capped were they as high as those of Iceland. At sea level in Iceland the temperature in some winters never falls to zero Fahrenheit, and fifteen below is more often experienced in the region near New York City than in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. For the last ten years the mean temperature of January in Reykjavik has been thirty-three degrees above zero, or about that of Milan in Italy. Nor does the Gulf Stream stop at Iceland. Its waters creep north into the polar ocean and melt away the ice that otherwise would be there, so that the Scotch whalers in an ordinary season can sail from six to seven hundred miles closer to the Pole on the Atlantic side than the American whalers on the Pacific side.

There is another place where a ship can steam about as close to the Pole as it can through the breach made by the Gulf Stream.

This is the passage which Peary has called the “American route to the Pole,” the narrow series of straits between Greenland and Ellesmere Land. There is frequently a current running south through this strait. The huge masses of ice from the polar ocean to the north would like to accompany this current south into the strait, but in their eagerness they crowd each other in its northern mouth, like a mob of people jammed in the narrow exit of a building. While the ice cakes on the surface are jammed and only some fragments get through, the water underneath them flows south freely, so that in many seasons those straits are blue water in late summer, though the latitude is higher than that which ships can navigate anywhere else. It was through this circumstance that Peary was able to get a ship up the north coast of Grant Land, less than five hundred miles from the Pole.

It is a commonplace of arctic lore and indeed self-evident that so long as sledges hauled by dogs, men or motors are used for arctic exploration, that point will be most difficult to reach which is farthest away from the ultimate goal of a ship where the sledge traveling has to begin. If this ultimate ship base is 450 miles from the Pole in Grant Land, or Franz Josef Land, about 800 miles at Cape Chelyuskin on the north tip of Siberia, and over 1,100 miles near Point Barrow on the north tip of Alaska, it becomes evident that the point in the Arctic hardest to get at, which we may call the “Pole of Inaccessibility,” by no means coincides with the North Pole but lies about four hundred miles away from it in the direction towards Alaska. This coincided roughly with the center of the unexplored area in the polar regions when we sailed north, an area of over a million square miles then, and still to be reckoned as at least seven hundred thousand square miles. The region is unexplored, partly through its inherent inaccessibility, but partly also for two other reasons.

The first of these reasons is that the civilization of our time has developed on the two shores of the Atlantic, and that the sailors of this ocean have been the chief explorers of the North. It was natural they should attack the problem along the frontier nearest home, and that is one reason why knowledge has advanced into the inaccessible area more rapidly from the Atlantic than from the Pacific side. Incidentally, those who went north with a desire to find a way from their homes to the Indies naturally struck into the unexplored area on a promising route to attain this purpose, which again was the frontier nearest home.

But a second reason has been the glamour of the search for the Pole. Even when you realize that it is comparatively easy of access, it is still ninety degrees away from the equator, and unique. The sentiment surrounding the idea of uniqueness might have been weakened had people realized that as a known mathematical point the North Pole was obliged to be comparatively accessible. But that bit of knowledge has succeeded in maintaining itself as the exclusive property of a few specialists, and the world in general has imagined the North Pole to be to the Arctic what the mountain top is to the mountain. That analogy is true when applied to the Pole of Inaccessibility but not when applied to the geographic North Pole. But false views when strongly held are as powerful in their effect upon human conduct as any true views can be, and this has been another reason why men brought up on the shores of the Atlantic have striven into the polar area with the latitude of 90 North as their goal, but with the practical result of progressively uncovering vast areas that lay between.

In the process of removing the imaginary Arctic from our minds, we come to the proposition that all land in the far north is covered with eternal ice.

Permanent ice on land is another name for a glacier. When we stop to think of it, glaciers exist in any part of the world with the proper combination of high altitude and heavy precipitation. Mount Kenia in Africa, the top of which is considered to be about seven miles from the equator, has “eternal ice” upon it, a glacier of considerable area. There are known to be huge glaciers in subtropical Asia and lesser ones in South America. They are eternal on the mountain-tops of Mexico; in California they come a little nearer sea level, as they do in Switzerland. They come lower yet in the State of Washington, not primarily because it is farther north but chiefly because of the heavier precipitation. British Columbia is the warmest province in all Canada, and yet it contains three-quarters of all the glaciers of continental Canada, again because of the heavy precipitation. The south coast of Alaska has a climate not very different from that of British Columbia or of Scotland, though somewhat more rainy than Scotland. A comparatively warm country, southern Alaska contains huge glaciers which in some instances reach to the ocean and break off, forming icebergs that float away to be rapidly melted by the warm waters of the Pacific. But if you travel seven or eight hundred miles overland from the glacier-infested south coast northward you come to the prairies bordering the Alaskan north coast. Here is a comparatively cold climate; but on the great triangular coastal plain of fifty thousand square miles there are no mountains, consequently no glaciers. Geologists tell us that a few millenniums ago there was a sheet of ice covering England in Europe and New England in America. At that time what are now the cities of New York and London were covered by an ice sheet, but there was no ice sheet covering the low plains of northern Alaska, and there never has been since. The explanation is that northern Alaska is low, flat land with a precipitation so light that the snow which falls in winter is all thawed away in the spring.

These being the facts, it seems strange at first that people should so universally have the idea that the lands of the far north are covered with glaciers. The explanation is simple. There is one land in the north that is covered with glaciers and from it all the rest of the north has been pictured by analogy. Greenland is a mass of high mountains in a region of precipitation so heavy that the heat of summer does not suffice to thaw all the accumulated snows of winter, so they change into glacier ice that flows down the valleys into the sea and breaks off into the icebergs that are the delight and dread of the transatlantic tourist. We thus have in fact as well as in the hymn-book “Greenland’s icy mountains.” And Greenland is close to the big modern centers of population. In the days before Standard Oil became the light of the world the whale and seal fisheries were profitable, and men from nearly every seaboard town were engaged in them. They brought home stories of the ice of Greenland and some of them wrote books about it. In more recent years about every other owner of a yacht has more or less timorously approached Greenland, near enough at least to see the ice and to talk and write about it. And because Greenland has been truthfully described as a land mainly ice-covered, we have thoughtlessly assumed that all northern lands are similarly ice-covered. Some glaciers, although much smaller, exist in Franz Josef Land and in Spitsbergen, and there are glaciers of considerable size in Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands, and lesser ones in Baffin Island. But when you get west of that, the great archipelago that stretches northward from Canada towards the Pole is quite free of them and so is all the Canadian mainland along the polar sea and southward to the arctic circle and beyond, except for some high valleys and peaks in the Rockies.

But even after making it clear that Greenland is a peculiar island and the only one having an ice cap, and after explaining further that the glaciers of Baffin Island are comparable in size to the glaciers of British Columbia, we may meet the objection, “But surely the land is covered with snow all summer.” This, of course, cannot be the case. If it were, a glacier would gradually develop. As a matter of fact, the snowfall in the Canadian arctic slands and on the north coast of Canada and Alaska is less than half and in many places less than quarter of what it is, for instance, in Montreal or Petrograd or the hills back of Christiania. It is less than in Chicago, Warsaw, northeast Germany or the Highlands of Scotland. The amount is difficult to estimate exactly for the snow is so frequently disturbed by the wind, but in all probability the typical arctic snowfall would not, if translated into water, amount to more than four or at the most six inches per year, where the snowfall in certain inhabited portions of Europe and America amounts to ten times that much. Sverdrup estimates the total annual snowfall of Ellesmere Island, the most northerly island yet found in the world, at about one-tenth of the weather bureau estimate for the annual snowfall of St. Louis, Missouri. Most of what little snow falls in the far North is soon swept by the wind into gullies and into the lee of hills, so that from seventy-five to ninety per cent, of the surface of arctic land is comparatively free from snow at all seasons. What we mean by “comparatively free” is that a pebble the size of a plum lying on the ground would have more than an even chance of being partly visible above the snow.

Closely allied to the idea that all land in the north is covered with eternal ice and snow is the one that the climate is an everlasting winter of intense cold. Whether this is true is largely a matter of definition. A person brought up in Manitoba or Montana would be inclined to think that there is no winter in the south of England, while a native of Sicily or India might consider the climate of England all winter. We might begin by defining summer, and defining it as that season when ponds are unfrozen and the small rivers flow ice-free to the sea. This season may be five months long, as it is on the arctic circle north of Great Bear Lake in Canada; four months, as in Victoria Island; three months, as in Melville Island; or even shorter, as in the islands discovered by us to the north. But there is always a summer, the presence of birds, with the hum of bees and the buzz of insects more unpleasant and with green grass and flowers.

The question of whether the arctic winter is intensely cold is also a matter of definition. Temperature is a field where everything is comparative, even though you concede to the thermometric scale an absolute value. The Canadian government has for more than twenty years maintained a weather observatory at Herschel Island on the north coast of Canada, about two hundred miles beyond the arctic circle, and during that time the lowest temperature recorded has been 54 below zero Fahrenheit. This may seem cold, and indeed is cold in comparison with Zululand or England. But it is not cold when compared with certain permanently inhabited countries. Traveling south from Herschel Island less than two hundred miles you come to Fort Macpherson, for a long time the most northerly trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and here the temperature some winters drops as low as 68 below zero. This is because, although going south, you are getting away from the moderating effect of the huge amount of unfrozen and comparatively warm water that underlies the ice of the polar sea and that forms a great radiator which prevents the temperature from dropping exceedingly low. Traveling again south from Fort Macpherson several hundred miles you come to the city of Dawson, the capital of the Yukon Territory. This is a great mining center, although it no longer has a population of forty thousand people as in the days of its highest prosperity. Dawson is an ordinary town with buildings steam-heated and electrically lighted, and with all the ordinary activities of a place of four or five thousand population. There are shops where people buy and sell as they do in other climes, there are churches with people going to church (a few), and there are little children toddling to school, all without any greater apparent discomfort, though the temperature sometimes drops to 65° below zero, than you find in France or in North Carolina where the temperature goes a little below freezing. More hardship is felt, more complaint expressed, and there is more interference with the ordinary routine of life when snow falls in Paris than when Dawson is at its coldest.

As you go south along the Rocky Mountains from Dawson you get farther from the great temperature equalizer, the ocean, as you get nearer the equator. A thousand miles south, in northern Montana, the United States Weather Bureau gives the same minimum figure for winter cold near Havre that the Canadian Weather Bureau does near Dawson — 68° below zero. We know from observation it is never colder than 54° below zero on the north coast of North America at sea level: we know theoretically that it cannot ever get much colder than 60 below at the North Pole which lies in a deep ocean. It is, then, at Havre, Montana, fourteen degrees colder than on the north coast of North America and ten degrees colder than at the North Pole. Near the great city of Winnipeg in Manitoba the weather bureau shows lower temperatures than for the north coast of Canada. So if you happen to be living in northern Montana or southern Manitoba and want to go polar exploring, it would seem you might leave behind a few clothes. I once said substantially this in a lecture in Kalispell, Montana, whereupon some one in the audience took me to task for running down Montana. But the merits of Montana are securely established, I told him. A friend of mine has a cattle ranch near Havre where steers do well running out all winter. I was not, therefore, running down Montana by the comparison but praising the North Pole.

The cold pole of the northern hemisphere, far from coinciding with the North Pole, is believed to be on the continent of Asia north of Irkutsk, where the temperature is said occasionally to fall to 90° below zero. And that is a settled country, the inhabitants of which probably do not complain any more about the climate than do those of London or New York.

A corollary to everlasting cold in the north is absence of summer heat. It is not easy to say which one of the common notions about the North is the least true, but it is hard to see how any idea can be more wrong than this one.

I spent the summer of 1910 from fifty to seventy-five miles north of the arctic circle in Canada, northeast of Great Bear Lake, and for six weeks the temperature rose to the vicinity of 90° in the shade nearly every day. Neither did it fall low at night, for in that region the sun does not set and there is no respite through the cooling darkness. The sun beat down on us from a cloudless sky as it continued its monotonous circling, and all of my party agreed we had never in our experience suffered as much from cold as we suffered from heat that summer. The distress was augmented by the unbelievable numbers of pests of the insect world — mosquitoes, sandflies, horseflies, and so on. No one who has not been in the Arctic, or near it, has any idea what mosquitoes may be like. I have found it wise not to even try to explain, for although people are willing to believe any horror of the North if it centers around cold and ice, they lose faith in your responsibility if you try to tell them the truth about the northern mosquito.

Every summer the United States Weather Bureau reports temperature above 90° in the shade at Fort Yukon, in Alaska, four miles north of the arctic circle. The maximum recorded there so far is 100° in the shade.

Still following the typical view of the far north we come to the question of vegetation. Even those who would make the offhand statement that the land is covered with eternal ice and snow would, if you pressed them, admit that they had heard of vegetation in the North. You would, however, find that in their minds the idea of vegetation was coupled with such adjectives as “humble,” “stunted’ “clinging,” and more specifically they would be of opinion that what vegetation there is must be mosses and lichens. Should you succeed in reminding them that they have read or heard of arctic flowers, they would think of these as an exception.

Yet Sir Clements Markham in his appendix to the “Life of Admiral McClintock,” points out that he knows of the existence of 762 species of arctic flowering plants and only 332 species of mosses, 250 of lichens and 28 of ferns. Similarly Dr. Elmer Ekblaw, the American botanist, gathered over 120 different species of flowering plants in one vicinity six or seven hundred miles north of the arctic circle. And these are not flowering plants that are strange to us, but they include such common forms as saxifrage, poppy Alpine chickweed, bluegrass, heather, mountain avens, sedge, arnica, cat’s-paw, reed-bent grass, blue-bell, sixteen species of cress, dandelion, timothy, scouring rushes, ferns and edible mushrooms.

Even while we realize that the number of species of flowering plants in the Arctic is far greater than the non-flowering, we might still believe that the non-flowering are comparatively luxuriant and conspicuous and the flowering plants shrinking and rare. In general this is the opposite of the truth. In special cases it may be that, through scarcity or absence of soil, lichens and mosses prevail locally, for the peculiarity of lichens especially is that they manage to live even on the surface of naked rocks. But whenever soil is abundant, and this is as likely to be the case in the Arctic as elsewhere, the prevailing vegetation is grasses, sedges and the like; and in some places, no matter how far north, this kind of vegetation completely obscures the non-flowering.

“Barren Ground” is a libelous name by which the open land of the north is commonly described. This name is better adapted for creating the impression that those who travel in the North are intrepid adventurers than it is for conveying to the reader a true picture of the country. If we want to be near the truth we should rather follow Ernest Thompson Seton who is so impressed with the grasslands of the North that he makes the expression “The Arctic Prairies” the title of his book describing a journey north. Mecham, one of the most remarkable of arctic travelers and the original explorer of southwestern Melville Island and southern Prince Patrick Island, says in his report, published in the Parliamentary Blue Books of Great Britain for the year 1855, that many of the portions of Melville Island which did not happen to be rocky reminded him of English meadows. This was five hundred miles north of the arctic circle and this is the case no matter how far north you go. Northern Greenland is not only the most northerly land so far discovered but the refrigerating effect of the ice in the sea is there greatly accentuated by the chill from the inland icecap. Here, descending from the inland ice to the coast, Peary found musk oxen grazing in green and flowered meadows among the song of birds and the hum of bees. That the musk ox is a grass-eating animal and not a lichen-eater, and is the most northerly land animal known, sharing that distinction equally with the caribou, shows that grass must be abundant on the most northerly lands.

The Friendly Arctic
The Friendly Arctic

We now come to the remarkable adjective “lifeless,” so frequently applied to the North. What has been already said is an indirect comment on this, but we may develop it further. Look in any work of oceanography, and you will find the statement that in the ocean the amount of animal life per cubic unit of volume does not decrease as you go north from the equator. To this it is of course possible to reply, “Oh, yes, but when we call the arctic lifeless we are not thinking of the depths of the sea but of the surface of the land.” If that is the position taken, it differs diametrically from that of such a polar authority, as, for instance, Sir Clements Markham, a former president of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, who on page 172 of his “Life of Admiral McClintock” speaks of the “polar ocean without life” in contradistinction to the polar islands, which he recognized to be well supplied with it.

The arctic grasslands have caribou in herds of tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands to a single band, with lesser numbers of musk oxen here and there. Wolves that feed on the caribou go singly and in packs of ten or less, and their aggregate numbers on the arctic prairies of the two hemispheres must be well in the tens of thousands. There are the polar foxes, both white and blue, that feed in summer on the unbelievable swarms of lemmings that also form the food of hundreds of thousands of owls and hawks and gulls. There are the goose and brant and swan and crane and loon and various species of ducks. The ground at the moulting season in some islands such as Banks Island, three or four hundred miles north of the arctic circle, is literally white with millions of wavy geese and equally white with their moulted feathers a little later in the season when the birds are gone. When you add to this picture the bumblebees, blue-bottle flies and abundant insect life of which the clouds of mosquitoes form the most impressive and least tolerable part, you get a picture of a country that in summer certainly is not without life.

“But then,” it may be said, “there comes the winter when the insects live only as eggs and larvae containing the potential life for the coming year, and when all land animals migrate south.” It is true that this opinion can be supported by direct quotations from explorers, especially the early ones. It seemed so eminently reasonable to men brought up in England that any animal with legs to walk on would move south in winter, that they translated this belief into a statement of fact and asserted that both the caribou and the musk ox leave such islands as Melville in the fall to come again in the spring. If this were so, surely my companions and I could not have lived on the meat of land animals which we killed every month of the year as far north as 76° and even 80° N. Latitude. Musk oxen never leave any island on which they are born, for there is no evidence that they go out on the sea ice at all. Caribou do move about from island to island but they are just as likely to move north in the fall as to move south. On the north end of Banks Island McClure found them abundant in midwinter seventy years ago, and we found them more abundant in the north end of the island than anywhere else every winter while we lived there. The bull caribou shed their horns about the middle of winter, and even the summer traveler cannot fail to notice that the horns of bull caribou are scattered over every arctic island that he visits.

No more than the caribou and musk oxen do the wolves that feed on them go south. The white foxes leave the islands and the mainland, ninety per cent, of them, but they go north rather than south. What they really do is to leave the land for the sea ice, where they subsist through the winter on remnants of seals that have been killed and not completely devoured by the Polar Bears. The lemmings stay in the north. Most owls and most ravens go south but some spend the winter north. Fully half the ptarmigan remain north of the arctic circle. The hares live in winter about where they do in summer.

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