Getting Started

Our preparations have begun. Read on to learn more about how we prepare for fieldwork in 2011, and how Peary prepared in 1908.

This project has its roots in years of research on Robert E. Peary and his work. We have read every book, studied expedition journals, ship’s logs, newspaper accounts and photographic records. We have mounted an exhibit and sponsored a symposium. One thing that stood out in all of this is, on the one hand, the importance of Inughuit (Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland) to Peary’s work, and on the other, the dearth of research on or documentation of their important contributions. They did not keep journals, publish books, or go on lecture tours like the American members of the expeditions. Their story is largely untold.

As archaeologists, we suspected that the communities that Inughuit families working for Peary established at Cape Sheridan during the winters of 1905-06 and 1908-09 could provide some perspective on their daily lives while they lived and worked far from their familiar homes and extended families.  Not knowing how well these briefly occupied sites have withstood the rigors of over one hundred Arctic winters, we applied to the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs for funding to carry out a brief reconnaissance to evaluate these sites and determine whether a larger research project if warranted.

Now funding is in place (thanks to the NSF-OPP). Permits have been applied for, and plane tickets booked. In mid-July we will travel north for a two week field season. But before then, we have much to do. Although our trip is much shorter than one of Peary’s, there are still many things to do. We will be able to fly to Cape Sheridan, but even today it is still a very remote spot, and we will have to bring everything we will need with us. Peary had a heavily loaded ship, we will have crates and boxes on a smaller scale.

Roosevelt deck

Deck view of the SS Roosevelt, with sacks of coal and crates of provisions

We won’t have customized dishes either, but we’ll manage.


plastic dishes for our field camp

Roosevelt mug

Roosevelt mug, 1908-09 expedition

First Aid

Susan and I spent Friday and Saturday in Bucksport and East Orland taking a wilderness first aid course. Peary was with us, although more interested in the surroundings than in first aid, because his vessel, the SS Roosevelt, was built on Verona Island, across from Bucksport. The course was sponsored by a local boy’s camp, Flying Moose Lodge, and was taught by Wilderness Medical Associates. Flying Moose is a rustic and scenic location, although there are too many trees for Arctic folks. The course itself was held at the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery, where the Fish and Wildlife service raises salmon specific to particular Maine watersheds. The visitor’s center is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

Peary under small tree at Flying Moose Lodge

Peary at the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery

These days, Polar Shelf requires all field parties to have proof of some first aid training before they can go into the field – a great idea when medical help is hours away at best, and may be even days away.

In the past, large scale expeditions such as Peary’s brought their own medical staff with them. On the North Pole expedition, Dr. John Goodsell was the doctor, as well as an active member of the exploration party.

Dr. John Goodsell on board the SS Roosevelt, 1908-09

He did not go all the way to the North Pole, and in fact was one of the first teams to turn back, all part of Peary’s careful plan for supporting parties to lay in caches for his ‘dash’ to the Pole. Goodsell’s medical expertise was required of course, and he treated various injuries and ailments from frostbite to stomach complaints, likely associated with a steady diet of pemmican.

Goodsell could not be everywhere, so sledging parties were outfitted with medical kits containing equipment for basic first aid as well as an assortment of state of the art medications. Note the “Bism” on the right – presumably what we know today as pink bismuth, for treating a variety of minor digestive complaints.

A medical kit used on the North Pole Expedition

First aid supplies from one of Peary's medical kits

Some of the medications available to Peary's teams

We will also carry a first aid kit that will include the usual over-the-counter medications, as well as this handy and portable guide, provided by Wilderness Medical Associates. With any luck, we won’t need to use it, but we’re happy to know it is there!


From the time of his first Arctic trip in 1886, Peary knew that hot beverages were key to an expedition’s success and a crew’s happiness. After a long day sledging in subzero temperatures a good cup of tea is one of the explorer’s greatest pleasures. As he gained experience and strove to refine his methods, Peary continually struggled with the need to balance efficiency and comfort. Hot tea requires a stove, and a stove requires fuel, but fuel is heavy, and the heavier the sledge, the more difficult it is for a dog team to pull. Over the years he tried and tested many stoves (both commercially made and of his own design) and different fuels. His training as an engineer is evident in the quality of his stove diagrams, and the care with which he controlled and documented his experiments, tracking fuel type, quantity, and time it took water to reach a boil. Luckily for us, these drawings are preserved in Peary’s papers at the National Archives.

A stove design from January, 1906 (drawn aboard the Roosevelt at Cape Sheridan)

An earlier idea, apparently based on a kerosene lamp

Right up to the time of his last expedition in 1908, he was still trying to find the perfect stove. According to expedition member Donald MacMillan he came close. In his 1934 book “How Peary Reached the Pole” MacMillan described it:

“…a stove, which, with six ounces of fuel, would convert ice into boiling water in nine minutes….We had one unreasonable and selfish objection to this invention – the Peary stove went out in nine minutes. After a long hard cold day and the igd-loo was build, our dogs fed, and the door sealed, we yearned for just a little crumb of comfort, for something warm. It seemed a bit of Heaven to place the stiff, cold, frostbitten hands and horny fingers on the warm cylinder of the only nine-minute stove. But it was the perfection of efficiency, and we had not come on the trip to keep warm.”

We will not be sledging over the ice, nor living in a snow house (MacMillan’s “igd-loo”), but even a summer hike in the far north Is improved by the prospect of a nice cup of tea. Our kitchen tent will be outfitted with a standard Coleman stove, itself a tried and true stove used in the north, but we would also like a hot drink while away from camp surveying. Not having Peary’s engineering background, we did not want to design one ourselves and so will have to make due with whatever we can purchase. We have used various small portable stoves in the past, but were intrigued when we found what appears to be the smallest, simplest, stove around, hanging on the rack at LL Bean. The manufacturer even specified the burn time and temperature of the fuel, so we could not resist; like Peary, we would test a stove.

Our sample of stoves was small, one. Our goal was to see how efficiently it would heat ice water, since that is what we will be using in the field. We included some actual ice for effect, but unlike Peary we won’t actually have to be melting ice for drinking water.

Our test stove was the Pocket Stove, by Grabber. Basically, it is a small folding stand which burns solid fuel (wax) tablets.

Package back, showing burn time and temperature

The Pocket Stove in its package

We put about 32 ounces of water (some frozen) in a pot, and let it go.

The pot and stove, ready to go

In the spirit of modern science, we filmed the experiment, although since watching water boil is hardly enlightening, this is a much edited version:

The result was a qualified success. The fuel burned for about the right amount of time, and it did seem to burn hot, although at times the flame was difficult to see in bright sunlight. It was not hot enough to melt the ice, although it made a good start, and since we won’t actually be melting ice, it will probably be fine. We’ll post an update once we have really field tested it!

Shipping, but no ship

We will be flying to Resolute Bay in about three weeks, but our gear should be there in a few days, flown in by First Air. I drove up to Montreal on Sunday with the gear we had purchased here to finish the shopping (food mostly), pack it, and get it all to First Air for shipping to The Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute.

There will be four of us in the field for two weeks, and we must have everything we will need with us for that time, plus extra in case bad weather delays the plane coming to pick us up. It is a five hour flight on a Twin Otter from Resolute to Cape Sheridan, so once we arrive there, there will be no chance of getting anything that we have forgotten. Tents, kitchen supplies and food made up most of this shipment. The food ranged from ten pounds of pasta to freeze dried meat and vegetables, and of course lots of chocolate, all packed into 12 crates and boxes. I forgot to bring a camera with me to Montreal, but did manage to snap a few pictures of packing in progress in my hotel room with my iPad – not the best camera, but it works in a pinch.

packing boxes in a hotel room. The top box is freeze dried meat.

A box of miscellaneous items

Realistically, our twelve boxes are nothing compared to supplies for the 15 month-long expeditions that Peary mounted. In his book The Secrets of Polar Travel he lists some of the provisions he purchased: 1000 pounds of coffee, 10,000 pounds of sugar, 7000 pounds of bacon…the list goes on. Like us, he had to bring absolutely everything his expedition would need, and then some in case of contingencies. His ship, the Roosevelt was heavily laden when it left New York bound for the Arctic. Donald MacMillan, one of Peary’s assistants commented in his book How Peary Reached the Pole that “an Arctic ship leaving home…is always frightfully loaded, even dangerously so.” The Roosevelt was no exception. He goes on to describe the flood of water that entered his cabin during a storm on their first night out from Sydney, Nova Scotia. They eventually traced it to water washed over the door sills because the scuppers, which should have channelled it over the side, were clogged by sacks of coal on the deck. Perhaps it was this incident that prompted MacMillan to climb the mast with his camera to snap this photograph.

View of the deck of the SS Roosevelt from the masthead as she sailed north in 1908

We don’t expect to have water washing over our supplies, although we are anxiously waiting for an email from Polar Shelf to let us know that they have arrived safely. And we are still making lists of things that we need to bring with us – more on that later.

Music, more music

When I first started doing fieldwork in the Arctic, recorded music was an important aspect of our camp life. In those days we had a cassette player, run on a limited supply of C-cell batteries. Everyone had brought along a few of their favorite tapes, but the two we played the most often were compilation tapes made by one of the crew members, back when making a compilation was a lot of work, mostly taping from record albums. There was a lot of good music on those tapes: blues; classic rock; even Dire Straits (Twisting by the Pool was a popular number that summer). Whenever I hear some of those songs I am transported back to the Truelove Lowlands.

The Arctic Institute of North America's Truelove research station, 1986

Before long, CDs had replaced tapes, and now of course, everyone brings an iPod or other digital device. This has its advantages and disadvantages. It means far greater selection of music, but unless someone plugs their iPod into a set of speakers, only one person at a time can hear the music. We try to prevent people from spending too much time plugged into their devices – for one thing it can be dangerous when the music is so loud you can’t hear someone yelling “BEAR!” The sharing of musical tastes can also be important and even enlightening. Inevitably, everyone has some music that no one else likes, but there can be some surprises too. My iPod has music for my daughter on it too, and one season I was amazed to see how delighted my undergraduate student workers were to discover the soundtrack to Muppet’s Treasure Island.

This year is likely to be no different. I still have the same eclectic mix on my iPod, heavy on the classical, but some of just about everything (even, thanks to my daughter, some Abba). One of the crew, Fred, will have a good mix of contemporary Canadian music (Bedouin Soundclash!) I am pretty sure, though, that our play lists will look nothing like Peary’s.

Peary was just as aware of the importance of entertainment as we are. On board the Roosevelt he had a pianola (now on view at his summer home, Eagle Island), as well as a phonograph, and an impressive collection of music.  Luckily for us, the list of records he purchased for the 1905-06 expedition has been preserved at the National Archives.

Popular and Dance music for the Roosevelt, 1905

Operatic selections for the Roosevelt in 1905

One of the interesting things about this list is the price for the music, which ranges from $.50-$1.75. It seems not too different from what digital songs cost these days, until you think about it in 1905 dollars. According  to this conversion web site, one dollar in 1905 is equal to about $24 today, so for every song Peary bought in 1905, someone could buy about 20 today. Putting it another way, Peary paid $135 for this music, at a time when the average wage in the United States was about $400 – quite an investment.

Some of the music he chose for his team is familiar today, particularly the operatic selections. Carmen, the Mikado, and Sousa marches such as Prince of Pilsen are all readily available on iTunes. Others are more obscure. A Google search on Maid and the Mummy reveals that is was a Broadway musical that ran for 42 performances. You can even listen to computer generated versions of the music here. The popular music seems even more obscure. Turkey in the Straw and Blue Danube have survived, but Gin and Razors (a cakewalk as far as I can tell) has disappeared, despite its intriguing title. Some have survived when perhaps the shouldn’t. Under the Anheuser Busch lives on in multiple youtube videos showing original recordings played on phonographs not unlike Peary’s.

The phonograph was available to the men on the expedition, but  the pianola was in Peary’s cabin. That is not to say he didn’t share. In How Peary Reached the Pole MacMillan recounts how, when he was bedridden with a high fever in the fall of 1908, “Commander, always considerate and ever kind, never failed nightly to open his door and play for me my favorite pianola record ‘The Wedding of the Winds.'” It too can be seen and heard courtesy of youtube. Maybe we could make up a playlist of Peary’s music…


We plan on using a solar panel to charge our satellite phone, computer, iPads, and cameras. I imagine Peary would have been delighted by solar technology because it would have reduced his dependence on fuel, a heavy commodity of concern to him. Like Peary, we are concerned about weight, so when buying tools for our trip –a variety of screwdrivers, a hammer, a saw, pliers, wrenches, etc., I decided to get a hand drill, not a cordless drill. I do not want to worry about charging a drill’s battery, nor do I want to deal with the battery’s weight.

I was deep into the tool section of a big box chain, closely examining tools to figure out what I wanted, plus just looking at neat stuff, a hobby I developed accompanying my father to hardware stores throughout my life. My request to be directed to the hand drills was met with silence. After the sales person established that I was definitely not looking for a cordless, battery operated device, a look of utter disbelief registered on his face. He then directed me to go to the web to look at antique or retro tool sites! Little did he know that we have considered making an Inuit bowdrill instead!

Inuit using bowdrill to make a repair

First page of George Wardwell's 1905-06 journal

George Wardwell seated, with Second Engineer

While visiting various hardware stores over these last few weeks I have wondered what sort of shopping list George Wardwell, chief engineer on the Roosevelt in 1905-06 and 1908-09, would have had. Reading his 1905-06 journal is becomes clear that the man could and did rebuild everything in the Roosevelt’s engine room and on the vessel. The Almy boilers, nicknamed Vesuvius and Pelée because of their explosive unpredictability, required constant care and one was often off line. Pumps broke or clogged, and then there was the new rudder that Wardwell and Captain Bob Bartlett had to build out of parts of the vessel after ice destroyed the Roosevelt’s original rudder.

I have read Wardwell’s journals, on loan to us from his family, many times. He rarely discussed his tools, no doubt because they were nothing remarkable to him. The one “tool” he and Robert Bartlett did mention is dynamite (referred to by Bartlett as “Mr. Dupont”), used to blast and weaken thick sea ice in the Roosevelt’s path and to remove vestiges of the damaged rudder in order to hang the new one.

When planning an expedition to uninhabited and remote parts of the North, be it for 15 months, as in Peary’s case, or a few weeks, as in ours, one has to consider being self sufficient, and a basic set of tools is essential. Genny and I will not, however, be carrying explosives this time.


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.

Peary reading LL Bean's shooting range rules

Peary after an afternoon of shooting shotguns at the LL Bean range

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.

Josephine's shotgun, now at the MWWC at the University of New England

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.

Bullet that went through MacMillan five times