Twenty Years of Arctic Struggle, by J. Kennedy McLean

from Heroes of the Farthest North and South (adapted)

On the 28th of February the various parties took their departure from Cape Hecla, and following in the rear, Peary hurried on with all possible speed, hopeful of reaching the Pole at last.

For some days the ice was in motion everywhere; but it gradually became quieter, and as there was very little wind the travelling was particularly good. Full of impatience as he tramped along, and grudging every moment given to rest, Peary dreaded lest he should meet with some obstacle, such as open water or impassable ice, that would put an end to the journey northwards.

Delayed by gales and open water, and driven out of his course seventy miles to the eastward, Peary was cut off from communication with his supporting parties; and finding that he could no longer depend upon them, he determined to make a dash for the Pole with the party, eight in all, and the supplies which he had with him.

Abandoning everything not absolutely essential and bending every energy to set a record pace, they travelled thirty miles in a ten hours' march. Storms of wind and snow added considerably to the difficulties of the journey, the strain of which told severely on both men and dogs.

The 20th of April brought the weary travellers into a region of open leads, [Footnote: Open leads: open ways in an ice-field.] bearing north and south. Resting here for a few hours, Peary and his companions resumed their march at midnight, pushing on with feverish haste to lessen the distance between them and the goal that was luring them on. Travelling as fast as they could till noon of the 21st, they then came to a final halt.

Disappointed at once more having to stop before the object of all his striving had been reached, Peary would have liked to make the last dash with only one or two of his men; but he dared not do this in view of the condition of the ice, and reluctantly he had to confess that once again the prize had eluded his grasp. Making observations, he found that they were in 87 deg, 6' north latitude, the most northerly point that had yet been reached by man.

Warned by the haggard faces of his comrades and the skeleton figures of the few remaining dogs, Peary saw that no time must be lost in turning back. After hoisting a flag from the summit of the highest pinnacle, and leaving a bottle containing a record of the journey, the exhausted men turned their backs on the Pole, and began the weary march homeward.

Trying as the outward march had been, the dangers of the return journey were even greater. Besides, there was no longer the excitement of possible victory to encourage the men in the face of hardships. Killing their dogs for food, and breaking up the sledges to provide fires for cooking, the tired and dispirited explorers pushed on till they found themselves stranded on an island of ice. Was this, then, to be the end of the enterprise, and were they to meet death in that cold and pitiless sea? Such a fate seemed inevitable. But just as they were preparing for the worst, two of the Eskimo scouts came hurrying back to the camp with the report that, a few miles farther on, the water was covered with a film of young ice, and that there was a possibility of their being able to cross on snow-shoes.

It was a desperate chance, but they were prepared to take it; and carefully fixing on their snow-shoes, they made the venture, the lightest and most experienced Eskimo taking the lead, with the few remaining dogs attached to the long sledge following, "and the rest of the party abreast, in widely extended skirmish line, some distance behind the sledge." They crossed in silence, the ice swaying beneath them as they skimmed along. What the result would be none could tell; but they all felt the greatness of their peril.

Peary himself confesses that this was the first and only time in all his Arctic experience that he felt doubtful as to what would happen. "When near the middle of the lead," he says, "the toe of one of my snow-shoes, as I slid forward, broke through twice in succession; then I thought to myself, 'This is the finish.' A little later there was a cry from some one in the line, but I dared not take my eyes from the steady gliding of my snow-shoes. When we stepped upon the firm ice on the southern side of the lead, sighs of relief from the two men nearest me were distinctly audible. The cry I had heard had been from one of my men, whose toe, like mine, had broken through the ice." The crossing had been made just in time, for, as the travellers looked round for a moment before turning their faces southward, they saw that the sheet of ice on which they had crossed was in two pieces. "The lead was widening again."

All were safely across; but they were not yet out of danger. Unable to find a route which they might traverse with any degree of safety, Peary and his men ascended a high mass of ice to have a better view of their surroundings, and to look for a way of escape. What they beheld from their elevated position might well have struck terror into the boldest heart. Before them extended "such a mass of shattered ice" as Peary had never seen before and hoped never to see again, "a confused mass of fragments, some only the size of paving-stones, others as large as the dome of the Capitol at Washington, but all rounded by the terrific grinding they had received."

Once again death was looking them in the face, for it seemed an utter impossibility to find a path through that frozen wilderness. But as long as they could keep a footing they determined to struggle on; and stumbling forward at every step, bruised and sore, they at last struck a better road. They made their way to Britannia Island, [Footnote: Britannia Island: one of the most northern islands of the Arctic Ocean.] and thence to Cape May and Cape Bryant.

The brave party suffered much from want of food. For days on end they were on the verge of starvation. A hare that was shot gave them the first full meal for nearly forty days. With snow falling around them, and without tent or covering of any kind, they lay down on the ground to sleep.

Waking in the morning as tired and hungry as ever, they found the tracks of musk-oxen [Footnote: Musk-oxen: the musk-ox has long shaggy hair and somewhat resembles a buffalo.] in the snow, and their hopes rose as they endeavoured to follow the trail. Sweeping the valley with their field-glass, they could see no sign of a living thing; but later on they espied several black dots at a distance, and knew that they had located the herd. Pushing on towards them, Peary and a companion lay down behind a big boulder to rest and gather strength, for they dared not risk a shot before they were sure of their aim. Resolving at last on an attack, the two men grasped their rifles, and, rushing out from behind their place of shelter, made straight for the animals, now less than two hundred yards away. An old bull that was standing guard gave the signal to charge, and in a minute the "black avalanche of thundering beasts" was bearing down on their enemies.

Fortunately for Peary his shot went true, and the great bull fell dead. The maddened rush was stopped; and before the oxen could make their retreat over the ridges six of their number lay dead upon the frozen ground; and for the next few days the party revelled in the delights of a continuous feast.

Reaching the Roosevelt [Footnote: Roosevelt: Peary's ship.] at the end of July, the expedition returned to America a few months later. After twenty years of heroic striving, Peary had again missed the prize; but the victory was postponed only for a little while.


[Footnote: How does the heroism shown in this account of Peary's struggle compare with military courage? What qualities of the true explorer does Peary show? What picture do you get of the country in which the travelers journeyed? What do you know of Peary's later expedition? Do you think the descriptions would be so purely objective if they were written by the explorer himself? Would the account seem more real or more interesting if it had been told in the first person?]

Louise de la Ramee