One of the purported scoundrels of the past for whom I retain admiration is Robert E. Peary, who either did or did not reach the North Pole in 1909. His Maine summer home on Eagle Island in Casco Bay sits eight miles to seaward of my own longtime summer, and now permanent, home. It is a gentle, thin curve, like a wooded moon daily and futilely attempting to rise further above the horizon. Open to the public, it provides an instant trip into the simple world of a century ago albeit with no evidence that the owner might have been a fraud.
Down the road, less than a mile, is the former of home of Donald MacMilan who accompanied Peary on his polar expedition.
In these parts you don’t hear much talk of the numerous doubts about Peary. Myth, if close enough to home, can easily substitute for reality.
I was reminded of the Peary problem by a recent article by the NY Times’ John Tierney who has little use for the explorer:
“A century later, the ‘discovery’ of the North Pole may qualify as the most successful fraud in modern science, as well as the longest-running case study of a psychological phenomenon called ‘motivated reasoning.’
“The believers who have kept writing books and mounting expeditions to vindicate Cook or Peary resemble the political partisans recently studied by psychologists and sociologists. When the facts get in the way of our beliefs, our brains are marvelously adept at dispensing with the facts.”
The NY Times gave up on Peary some time ago while the National Geographic hangs on, albeit with the caution that it “remains open to any new information, including application of new technologies, that would shed light on the question.”
As I read Tierney, I found myself not taking sides but realizing how removed he was from some of the other realities of history, such as the fact that there was a time when even coming within three to one hundred miles of the North Pole was a stunning achievement and how we now live in a time filled with Tierneys but few Pearys or MacMillans. We critique the known but no longer explore the unknown the way we once did.
Many years ago my mother took my wife and I to visit Mrs. Donald MacMillan, then in her eighties. Few things I covered in Washington were as thrilling as to meet perhaps the first non-Inuit or non-Sandanavian woman to have sailed above the Arctic Circle. At first, the crew hadn’t even wanted her; it was considered bad luck to sail with a woman. But MacMillan convinced them to let her go as far as Greenland. When they arrived he was presented with a petition from the crew urging him to let her stay. She would join Macmillan on nine trips above the Arctic Circle.
Miriam MacMillan’s house was filled with Arctic and maritime effluvia. I sat under a nine foot long narwhal tusk as I listened to her stories.
When it was time to go, she first gave us directions and then changed her mind, got in her car and one of the last explorers of unknown places on the earth led us to the main highway near Owl’s Head.
Her husband had been a teacher who came to Peary’s attention when he saved nine shipwrecked people in two nights. He joined the great expedition but his heels froze and he had to turn back 26 days before Peary claimed to have achieved his goal.
If Peary fell short at the pole, it wasn’t the only time. There was also Crocker Land. MacMillan described it thus:
“In June 1906, Commander Peary, from the summit of Cape Thomas Hubbard, at about latitude 83 degrees N, longitude 100 degrees W, reported seeing land glimmering in the northwest, approximately 130 miles away across the Polar Sea. He did not go there, but he gave it a name in honor of the late George Crocker of the Peary Arctic Club. That is Crocker Land. Its boundaries and extent can only be guessed at, but I am certain that strange animals will be found there, and I hope to discover a new race of men.”
In 1913, MacMillan led an expedition to Crocker Land. Two weeks later they struck some rocks, according to MacMllan thanks to a drunken captain. They moved the expedition to another ship and eventually set out on foot on a 1200 mile journey that included temperatures 32 degrees below freezing. They also spent three days climbing a 4700 foot glacier.
Before long members of the party started giving up. In the end only MacMillan and three others, two of them Inuits remained. Finally they saw what appeared to be a huge island, described by MacMillan as having “Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.”
One of the Inuits said it was just mist, but MacMillan kept on. One hundred and twenty five miles later, he had to admit the Inuit hunter was right:
“The day was exceptionally clear, not a cloud or trace of mist; if land could be seen, now was our time . Yes, there it was! It could even be seen without a glass, extending from southwest true to northeast. Our powerful glasses, however. . . brought out more clearly the dark background in contrast with the white) the whole resembling hills, valleys and snow-capped peaks to such a degree that, had we not been out on the frozen sea for 150 miles, we would have staked our lives upon its reality. Our judgment then as now, is that this was a mirage or loom of the sea ice.”
The remaining members of the expedition were finally rescued two years later after two failed attempts.
Now I’m willing to wager that John Tierney of the Times, like myself, has never experienced anything close to that. But Robert Peary and Donald MacMillan did and to dismiss polar effort as merely a fraud, even if Peary did fudge the final result, is a reflection of our ESPN culture where only the final outcome counts.
It is so easy to forget how easy we have it today. I drive a car with a GPS lady who tells me where to go whenever I’m in doubt. But I can remember not even being able to imagine such a tool. When I was a Coast Guard navigator I once had to put the Nantucket lightship back on station after it had lost its loran and its radar. Try telling a ship precisely where to go and then stop using just your own radar and loran. It’s hard to even think about in the time of GPS.
And the ship I was on had, just four years earlier (before I joined it), accompanied two other vessels in making what was the third navigation of the Northwest Passage – and the first by deep draft craft.
The first passage had been accomplished about a half century earlier by a small vessel captained by Roald Amundsen. Eight years later Amundsen was the first to make it to the South Pole and fifteen years after that he flew an airship over the North Pole. Given the disputed status of Peary and other early claimants, some feel that Amundsen deserves credit for being first at that pole.
But when you read all these stories, the ultimate triumph fades in the common courage and the struggles of both the winners and the losers. Peary may have fudged, lied, been mistaken or told a sea story, but when you realize what he went through just to get within three to a hundred miles of the truth, one’s judgment softens.
As Barbara Tuchman put it, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”