Girl on globe Arctic exploration

The History of Polar Exploration:
Why Humans Boldly Go

Ancient Explorers

Humans have explored and traveled the world long since before they had a language to write. The migrations out of Africa, and from Asia to North and South America took place when there was no tradition of preserving the saga of the voyages except through storytelling. Once humans developed a written language, the ability to save the story for following generations began to change.

Not a great deal is known about the sea voyages of Pytheas, in fact, for many centuries, most people did not believe that he sailed as far to the north as he claimed. Pytheas was an educated man, a librarian in the Greek settlement of Massalia in the Mediterranean. We know it today as the French city of Marseilles. He was born about 350 B.C., and lived at the same time of the great Greek general, Alexander the Great.

A newer understanding of Pytheas makes it clear that he did sail into the Arctic Circle, which begins at 66 degrees, 33 minutes north. (Michigan lies between the 44th and the 46th parallels, exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.) This Greek librarian kept a journal, and later wrote two books about his voyage, but they no longer exist. Only portions, quoted by other authors, mark his trip in about 325 B.C.

Pytheas sailed westward, through the Straits of Gibraltar, then called the Pillars of Hercules, turned north where he passed England, and finally rounded the northern part of Scotland to a place he called Ultima Thule (not the same as Thule, a modern city in Greenland).

Pytheas wrote about a land where bees were kept and honey was produced. He described nights that were only two or three hours long in the summer:

"Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unity the whole together."
Apparently, Pytheas was writing about a sea mist that hovers over frozen sea. He also detailed that people from Scotland visited Ultima Thula occasionally on a voyage that took six days at sea. The land he was describing was Iceland, an island nation that lies just at the Arctic Circle. Pytheas, himself, was at sea for six years before returning to Massalia.

The desire to explore also includes the desire to leave civilization behind, and to search for a calmer existence. Such was the case of St. Brendan, an Irish monk, and abbot of a monastery, who sailed in the early 6th century from Ireland to the northwest. He and a band of monks from Galway were seeking isolation from other humans so they could pray and meditate in peace and silence. In St. Brendan's Saga, he describes seeing a "floating crystal castle," perhaps an iceberg.

There is evidence that St. Brendan and his followers settled in Iceland and encouraged others to follow, for in the 9th century Rabna Floki, a Norseman, recounts seeing a small colony of Irish monks on the island, complete with their "bells, books, and croziers." The bold sailor was known as Floki of the Ravens, because he would set ravens free from captivity on his boat, and then follow them to land.

The Norsemen

The Norse of modern-day Scandinavia were brave and expert seamen. One, known sometimes as Ottar or Ohthere rounded the North Cape, the northernmost part of Scandinavia in 870 A.D., and sailed on into the present Barents Sea (where a Russian submarine exploded underwater in 2000). Much of his voyage was truly in polar waters.

People leave home to explore for adventure, or for a desire to be alone. Sometimes because they are made to leave. Eric the Red found himself in that situation. After killing several men in brawls in his home settlement in Iceland, Eric and a few of his friends were declared outlaws and banished from their country. Oral stories of land to the northwest drew Eric to Greenland where he founded a colony that lasted for nearly 500 years. His son, Leif Ericsson continued his father's adventures even farther, establishing a colony in Vinland, in what is generally believed to be Newfoundland in Canada.

Search for an Arctic Route to the East

More recent explorers have had different reasons for setting off into the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle. The quest for a passage to the riches of Cathay described by Marco Polo were terrific lures to wealthy merchants, nobility and royalty. The idea was to search for a waterway - initially a Northeast Passage, and later a Northwest Passage - that would reduce the amount of time required to travel from Europe to China.

In 1577, Queen Elizabeth of England agreed to finance the exploration for trade routes to Asia. Sir Martin Frobisher was the first to sail off. He was unsuccessful in finding a passage, but for his troubles a Canadian inlet, Frobisher Bay, is named after him. Frobisher was followed by other navigators who were also backed with royal money and charged with finding that elusive passage. They included men such as Henry Hudson, John Davis, and William Baffin, all of whom have islands or bodies of water named after them. Hudson's story is particularly tragic. In 1611 there was a mutiny on his ship, and he, his son and a handful of other sailors loyal to him were set adrift in a small boat with no food or provisions. They perished at sea, exposed and dying of hunger and thirst. Polar exploration, now centered on a pathway to riches, proved deadly for many.

Arctic explorations were diverted for a time in the 17th and 18th centuries as much effort was directed on colonizing the lands of North America. The reason for polar exploration - the search for a passageway to China - became less important with new resources to extract from the Western Hemisphere, including furs and whales. There were still arctic explorations, though. Vitus Bering, a Dane, made the greatest arctic journeys of anyone in the 1700s, on behalf of Russia. Sadly, he died of scurvy after his ship ran aground in 1741 and could go nowhere. His crew buried him in the sand that had grounded the ship.

Toward the end of the 18th century, there was a renewal in interest in polar exploration, with the emphasis still on the possibility of either a Northeast or a Northwest Passage to Asia and the wealth believed to be there.

New Explorations

Captain James Cook, the renowned British explorer of the Pacific, explored the Bering Strait and returned to report that ice thoroughly clogged any possible passageway. It was apparent that the only way to go forward was through the ice, not around it as that was seemingly impossible. The Royal Navy became interested, and gave Edward Parry, at age 29, his own ship to try to cut through the ice. Parry, a good leader who was careful to provide for his crew and keep their spirits up, wintered his ship and nearly made it through the Northwest Passage in 1819. His trip was viewed as a success, and gave him the chance to lead two other expeditions, also in search of a navigable Northwest Passage. Though he never made it through the passage, or to the North Pole, he pioneered some new techniques for travelling on arctic ice, including using sledge boats for dragging equipment and supplies over the ice, and carrying them across water when it was there.

Unfortunately, his good idea about the sledges needed perfection. The sledge boats that he provisioned for 71 days as he set out for the North Pole were far too heavy. The crew also ran into foul weather, ice hummocks and hills created by pressure ridges. The worst was that the ice draft actually made them go backward at times so that they made far less real progress than they might have without the drift. Even with the hardships, Parry set a record for journeying north. He made it to 82 degrees, 45 minutes North. The mark lasted for half a century.

Tragedy in the Arctic Circle

By now, the British were determined to be the first to arrive at the North Pole. The most tragic event in this rush to claim the record was the expedition of Sir John Franklin. In 1844 the British Admiralty outfitted him with two propeller-driven ships: the H.M.S. Erebus, and the H.M.S. Terror. the Terror was rightly named, for the voyaged was filled with it.

The plan was for the ships, powered and reinforced with extra beams, to crack through the ice and blaze a trail. However, both were caught in the thick polar ice and crushed, not before the 129 officers and men had abandoned the ships, leaving them without much hope of getting back. In the second winter, Franklin died. in the third winter, the 105 men still surviving decided to try to walk south, their only remaining hope of survival. But they didn't have supplies for the long journey. Not one person returned.

The search for Franklin and the ill-fated ships was one of the most extensive ever. It involved forty ships and more than two thousand rescuers. Franklin's wife Jane was convinced that her husband was alive, and pressed the efforts back in England. A group of Eskimos told of a party of white men seen hauling boats near the Great Fish River. Searchers eventually found the frozen remains of forty of the Franklin party

An unexpected legacy of the disaster, and the search, was that significant amounts of information about the arctic were gathered. It was the greatest single time of polar exploration to date.

The Franklin expedition disaster did not discourage other explorers in their desire to either find a passage to Asia, or to reach the North Pole. If anything, it inspired them to go forward. The North Pole remained a mysterious, though dangerous, region. Wanting to be part of the excitement, other nations joined in the hunt.

International Efforts

Swedes and Austrians put together expeditions in the late 1800s, in addition to those funded by the American and British governments. But the Americans would not be outdone, either publicly or privately. The famous publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett outfitted U.S. Navy Lt. George Washington De Long in 1879 to drift northward in hopes of finding land, or the North Pole. Bennett was experienced at sending people off to exotic places for stories his readers would soak up. Seven years earlier he had sent reporter Henry Stanley to Africa to search for Dr. Livingston.

The results of this expedition were hardly better for De Long and his ship the Jeannette than they were for Franklin. Though the ship was extra sturdy and had engines designed to power through the ice, it got stuck. There were ample provisions on board - enough for several years - but the ship finally was crushed after nearly two years and those on board were left to try to walk south on the ice to land. Only two men finally reached a settlement, Bulun in Siberia. Lt. De Long's body was found months later. He and the others had been on the ice for almost five months before they died.

In 1882, the International Polar Year stirred more interest in arctic exploration, and in gathering research data about the weather, climactic changes, and other geophysical aspects of the region. Eleven separate groups from a number of nations headed to the arctic while four struck out for the Antarctic. Unfortunately, there was more tragedy. An American military expedition that was part of the International Polar Year ran into terrible luck, made worse by bad management. The plan was to leave a unit far north on Ellesmere Island, off the coast of Canada. From there, they would conduct explorations, and try to reach the North Pole, or head as far north as possible.

Major Adolphus W. Greeley commanded the group. While it was well provisioned and had early success with the help of Eskimos from Greenland, Greeley was a poor and unpopular leader. He fought with other officers, going so far as to have the ship's doctor arrested! When re-supply and rescue ships could not reach them - one got crushed in the ice - the survivors hunkered down in an overturned lifeboat and searched unsuccessfully for food stashes they had hidden earlier. They were left to eating their leather goods: "The sleeping bag cover roasted and boiled to suit each one ... the last of the skin divided today." So wrote Greeley in his diary.

Greeley was on death's bed when rescuers finally arrived. Of the 25 men who had been stationed on the island, only seven were alive when it was over, and only three of them recovered. One was Major Greeley who lived 50 years more, and retired a major general.

Among those whose expeditions followed was Fridtjof Nansen, a young and brilliant Norwegian who figured out directions of ice floes and decided "ride" them to a passageway, or perhaps north. With enough food and supplies for five years the Fram, his ship, drifted from the Siberian coast to the Atlantic Ocean. He had gone the farthest north to date, at 85 degrees, 55 minutes north.

"The Pole at Last!"

The man most determined to reach the North Pole was Robert E. Peary. With a new approach and a stubbornness to match, he was inspired by the success of Nansen, though he believed he could do better. In preparation, he spent 20 years becoming familiar with arctic conditions as he explored Greenland.

Peary was a naval officer who had carefully studied the hunting and living patterns of Eskimos. He realized that winter was a better time to travel because the ice was firm and not as soft and dangerous as in summer. He used dogs, Eskimo clothing, and even organized Eskimo villages to help him in his push to reach the pole.

Like Greeley, he started from Ellesmere Island. But the similarities after that are fewer. Peary had a well-organized team of six men from America, including Matthew Henson, the African American, along with 17 Eskimos and 133 dogs. Peary's operation was a bit like a pyramid. The supporting groups would make it possible for a small group to make the final dash to the North Pole. As the whole party moved forward, small numbers of men and dogs would peel off and turn back, leaving a refreshed group to continue.

On April 6, 1909, Commander Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson and four Eskimos reached 90 degrees north. After a short nap he wrote in his journal: "The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for 20 years. Mine at last!" While Peary was a good leader, he could not have made it to the North Pole without the assistance of Henson and the other team members, nor without all of the information that earlier expeditions had gatherer. While he had reached the pole, it wasn't his.

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