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The Conquest of the Pole

It is no part of the present narrative to follow in detail the explorations and discoveries made in the polar seas in recent times. After the great episode of the loss of Franklin, and the search for his ships, public interest in the North-West Passage may be said to have ended. The journey made by Sir Robert M'Clure and his men, after abandoning their ship, had proved that such a water-way existed, but the knowledge of the northern regions acquired in the attempt to find the survivors of the Erebus and the Terror made it clear that the passage was valueless, not merely for commerce, but even for the uses of exploration. For the time being a strong reaction set in, and popular opinion condemned any further expenditure of life and money in the frozen regions of the Arctic. But, although the sensational aspect of northern discovery had thus largely disappeared, a new incentive began to make itself increasingly felt; the progress of physical science, the rapid advance in the knowledge of electricity and magnetism, and the rise of the science of biology were profoundly altering the whole outlook of the existing generation towards the globe that they inhabited. The sea itself, like everything else, became an object of scientific study. Its currents and its temperature, its relation to the land masses which surrounded it, acquired a new importance in the light of geological and physical research. The polar waters offered a fruitful field for the new investigations. In place of the adventurous explorers of Frobisher's day, searching for fabled empires and golden cities, there appeared in the seas of the north the inquisitive man of science, eagerly examining the phenomena of sea and sky, to add to the stock of human knowledge. Very naturally there grew up under such conditions an in-creasing desire to reach the Pole itself, and to test whether the theoretical conclusions of the astronomer were borne out by the actual observations of one standing upon the apex of the spinning earth. The attempt to reach the Pole became henceforth the great pre-occupation of Arctic discovery. From this lime on the story of what has been done in the northern seas belongs not to Canada but to the world at large. The voyages of such men as Frobisher, Davis and Hudson, and the journeys of men like Hearne and Mackenzie led to the opening up of this vast country and belong to Canadian history. But in recent Arctic discovery the point of interest had never been found in the lands about the northern seas, but only in the Arctic Ocean itself and in the effort to penetrate farther and farther north. Little by little this effort was rewarded. A series of intrepid explorers forced their way onward until at last the Pole itself was reached and the frozen North had yielded up its hollow mystery.

The struggle to reach the Pole was the form in which Arctic exploration came to life again after the paralyzing effect of the Franklin tragedy. Some of the Franklin relief expeditions had reached very high latitudes, and, shortly after the great tragedy, the exploring ships of Dr Kane and Dr Hayes, and the Polaris under Captain Hall, had all passed the eightieth parallel and been within less than ten degrees of the Pole. The idea grew that there might be an open polar sea, navigable at times to the very apex of the world. In 1875 the Alert and the Discovery, two ships of the British Navy, were sent out with the express purpose of reaching the North Pole. They sailed up the narrow waters that separate Greenland from the large islands lying west of it. The Alert wintered as far north as latitude 82 24'. A sledge party that was sent out under Captain Markham went as far as latitude 83 20', and the expedition returned with the proud distinction of having carried its flag northward beyond all previous explorations. But other nations were not to lag behind. An American expedition (1881) under Lieutenant Greeley, carried on the exploration of the extreme north of Greenland and of the interior of Grinnell Land that lies west of it. Two of Greeley's men, Lieutenant Lockwood and a companion, followed the Greenland coast northward in a sledge and passed Markham's latitude, reaching 83 24' north, which remained for many years as the highest point attained. Greeley's expedition became the subject of a tragedy almost comparable to the great Franklin disaster. The vessels sent with supplies failed to reach their destination. For four years Greeley and his men remained in the Arctic regions. Of the twenty-three men in the party only six were found alive when Captain Schley of the United States Navy at last brought relief.

After the Greeley expedition the fight towards the Pole was carried on by a series of gallant explorers, none of whom, strange to narrate, were British. Commander R. E. Peary, of the United States Navy, came prominently before the world as an Arctic navigator in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1892 he crossed northern Green-land in the extreme latitude of 81 37', a feat of the highest order.

Still more striking was the work of Dr Fridtjof Nansen, which attracted the attention of the whole world. Nansen had devoted pro-found study to the question of the northern drift of the polar waters. It had often been observed that drift-wood and wreckage seemed, in many places, to float towards the Pole. Trees that fall in the Siberian forests and float down the great rivers to the northern sea are frequently found washed up on the shores of Greenland, having apparently passed over the Pole itself. A strong current flows northward through Bering Strait, and it is a matter of record that an American vessel, the Jeanette, which stuck fast in the ice near Wrangel Land in 1879, drifted slowly northward with the ice for two years, and made its way in this fashion some four hundred miles towards the Pole. Dr Nansen formed the bold design of carrying a ship under steam into one of the currents of the Far North, allowing it to freeze in, and then trusting to the polar drift to do the rest. The adventures of Nansen and his men in this enterprise are so well known as scarcely to need recital. A stout wooden vessel of four hundred tons, the Fram (or the Forwards), was specially constructed to withstand the grip of the polar ice. In 1893 she sailed from Norway and made her way by the Kara Sea to the New Siberian Islands. In October, the Fram froze into the ice and there she remained for three years, drifting slowly forwards in the heart of the vast mass. Her rudder and propeller were unshipped and taken inboard, her engine was taken to pieces and packed away, while on her deck a windmill was erected to generate electric power. In this situation, snugly on board their stout ship, Nansen and his crew settled down into the unbroken night of the Arctic winter. The ice that surrounded them was twelve feet thick, and escape from it, even had they desired it, would have been impossible. They watched eagerly the direction of their drift, worked out by observation of the stars. For the first few weeks, propelled by northern winds, the Fram moved southwards. Then slowly the northern current began to make itself felt, but during the whole of this first winter the Fram only moved a few miles onward towards her goal. All the next summer the ship remained fast frozen and drifted about two hundred miles. With her rate of progress and direction, Nansen reckoned that she would reach, not the Pole, but Spitzbergen, and would take four and a half years more to do it. All through the next winter the Fram moved slowly northwards and west-wards. In the spring of 1895 she was still about five hundred miles from the Pole, and her present path would miss it by about three hundred and fifty miles. Nansen resolved upon an enterprise unparalleled in hardihood. He resolved to take with him a single companion, to leave the Fram and to walk over the ice to the Pole, and thence as best he might to make his way, not back to his ship again (for that was impossible), but to the nearest known land. The whole distance to be covered was almost a thousand miles. Dr Nansen and Lieutenant Johansen left the Fram on March 13, 1895, to make this attempt. They failed in their enterprise. To struggle towards the Pole over the pack-ice, at times reared in rough hillocks and at times split with lanes of open water, proved a feat beyond the power of man. Nansen and his companion got as far as latitude 86 13', a long way north of all previous records. By sheer pluck and endurance they managed to make their way southward again. They spent the winter on an Arctic island in a hut of stone and snow, and in June of the next year (1896) at last reached Franz Joseph Land, where they fell in with a British expedition. They reached Norway in time to hear the welcome news that the Fram, after a third winter in the ice, had drifted into open sea again and had just come safely into port.

Equally glorious, but profoundly tragic, was the splendid attempt of Professor Andree to reach the Pole in a balloon, which followed on the heels of Nansen's enterprise. Andree, who was a professor in the Technical School at Stockholm, had been for some years interested in the rising science of aerial navigation. He judged that by this means a way might be found to the Pole where all else failed. By the generous aid of the king of Sweden, Baron Dickson and others, he had a balloon constructed in Paris which represented the very latest progress towards the mastery of the air, in the days before the aeroplane and the light-weight motor had opened a new chapter in history. Andree's balloon was made of 3360 pieces of silk sewn together with three miles of seams. It contained 158,000 cubic feet of hydrogen; it carried beneath it a huge wicker basket that served as a sort of house for Andree and his companions, and to the netting of this were lashed provisions, sledges, frame boats, and other appliances to meet the needs of the explorers if their balloon was wrecked on the northern ice. There was no means of propulsion, but three heavy guide ropes, trailing on the ground, afforded a feeble and uncertain control. The whole reliance of Andree was placed, consciously and with full knowledge of the consequences, on the possibility that a strong and favoring wind might carry him across the Pole. The balloon was taken on shipboard to Spitzbergen and there inflated in a tall shed built for the purpose. Andree was accompanied by two companions, Strindberg and Fraenkel. On July n, 1897, the balloon was cast loose, and, with a southerly wind and bright sky, it was seen to vanish towards the north. It is known, from a message sent by a pigeon, that two days later all was well and the balloon still moving towards its goal. Since then no message or token has ever been found to tell us the fate of the three brave men, and the names of Andree and his companions are added to the long list of those who have given their lives for the advancement of human knowledge.

With the opening of the present century the progress of polar exploration was rapid. Peary continued his explorations towards the north of Greenland, and, in 1906, by reaching latitude 87 6', he wrested from Nansen the coveted record of Farthest North. At the same time Captain Sverdrup (the commander of the Fram), the Duke of the Abruzzi and many others were carrying out scientific expeditions in polar waters. The voyage made in 1904 by Captain Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, later on to be world-famous as the discoverer of the South Pole, is of special interest, for he succeeded in carrying his little ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of Bering Strait the only vessel that has ever actually made the North-West Passage. But the great prize fell to Captain Peary. On September 6, 1909, the world thrilled with the announcement that Peary had reached the Pole. His ship, the Roosevelt, had sailed in the summer of 1908. Peary wintered at Etah in the north of Greenland, and in the ensuing year, accompanied by Captain Bartlett with five white men and seventeen Eskimos, he set out to reach the Pole by sledge. By arrangement, Peary's companions accompanied him a certain distance carrying supplies, and then turned back in successive parties. The final dash for the Pole was made by the commander himself, accompanied only by a Negro servant and four Eskimos. On April 6, 1909, they reached the Pole and hoisted there the flag of the United States. To make doubly certain of their discovery, Peary and his men went some ten miles beyond the Pole, and eight miles in a lateral direction. They saw nothing but ice about them, and no indication of the neighborhood of any land.


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Adventurers of the Far North, Pioneers of the North and West, By Stephen Leacock, Hunter-Rose Co., Limited, Toronto

 

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