Twenty Years of Arctic Struggle, by J. Kennedy
from Heroes of the Farthest North and
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
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.
óJ. KENNEDY McLEAN.
[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