Last week Genny and I took the LL Bean “Introduction to Safety and Shooting” course to brush up on our handling of firearms, since neither of us shoots recreationally. We shot at clay discs being hurled from various directions and were not particularly adept at the task at hand. Judging from our efforts, the wildlife at Cape Sheridan, especially the winged kind, have little to worry about! We have no intention of doing any hunting – our firearms are required in the event we encounter serious polar bear problems. Robert E. Peary accompanied us to the shooting range in Freeport and by all appearances enjoyed the afternoon outing.
The experience brought to mind two Arctic explorers, Josephine Peary and Louise Boyd, who were quite familiar with firearms. On the 1891 expedition, when Josephine spent a year in Northwest Greenland, she carried a 38-caliber Colt revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun. The shotgun was passed down in the family and is now housed at the Maine Women Writers Collection.
Louise Boyd, a most fascinating and little known Arctic explorer, was a wealthy Californian who self-funded seven Arctic expeditions. She photographed and filmed the region, carried out top-secret geomagnetic studies for the US Government during WWII, participated in the search for the lost explorer Roald Amundsen, and hunted big game. Her favorite animal was the polar bear. Ironically, she showed her respect by shooting dozens of them and having their skins sent to her San Rafael, California home, part of which is now the Marin History Museum.
An incident on Peary’s 1908-09 North Pole expedition reminds us that gun safety is of paramount importance, as accidents due to inattention can happen at any time. Near the conclusion of the voyage Donald MacMillan was nearly killed while in his bunk on the Roosevelt by a bullet discharged from a .40-82 Winchester rifle. He had been hunting and returned the loaded rifle to Peary. The next day Chief Engineer George Wardwell volunteered to remove the cartridges and clean the firearm. In his book, How Peary Reached the Pole, MacMillan describes what happen next:
Standing at the messroom table with the rifle upside down, and lever up, he [Wardwell] began to pump the cartridges out of the chamber. Evidently his finger caught the trigger as he closed the lever, and with a bang the bullet was gone!
It passed through a partition, over the head of a sleeping mate, through another partition, and burst through the wood within a few inches of my eye, ripped through my arm between the ulna and radius, came out at the very middle of the wrist, entered my shoulder just above the collar bone, came our through my back, clipped off the side of one finger, passed across the room, dented the wall, and dropped to the floor!
Dr. Godsell tended to MacMillan, who was up and about in a few days. In his journal a clearly upset Wardwell describes the August 11, 1909 incident and in subsequent entries takes note of MacMillan’s steady recuperation. MacMillan kept the errant bullet, now in the Arctic Museum collection.