Traveling Companions

Peary immediately set his men to work sledging and hunting once the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan and supplies were offloaded and stored on Floeberg Beach. Teams of Inughuit and Westerners went on month-long trips. The forays away from the ship gave the Westerners opportunities to gain important dog handling and sledging skills and allowed the collective group to learn the terrain and figure out how to work together and overcome language barriers. By early spring, when the hard work of crossing the Polar Sea began in earnest, teams of Inughuit and Westerners traveled effectively together, and some men became close friends.

Our little Peary doll and Samson Simeonie, our polar bear watcher, developed a close camaraderie as well. Samson enjoyed taking Peary exploring as much as we did. Together the duo documented some Cape Sheridan sights.

Traveling buddies

Peary standing on salt deposits

A number of ponds in the area have dried up, leaving salt deposits. The salt taste is mild and pleasant, and to everyone’s liking.

Peary measures polar bear paw print

Samson and Peary were always looking for evidence of animals at Cape Sheridan. They came across tracks left by musk oxen, fox, wolves, various kinds of birds, as well as a polar bear. Happily, Samson judged the bear’s paw prints, which are rather large, to be a number of weeks old, and none of us came across any evidence of recent bear activity in the area.

Peary enjoyed climbing up to examine the Alert and Roosevelt cairns — so much so that Samson built Peary his very own Inukshuk!

Peary paying his respect at the Alert cairn

Peary climbing the Roosevelt cairn

Peary with Inukshuk built for him by Samson

Human-made objects from all time periods were always interesting, but most fascinating were the remains of structures and material culture on Floeberg Beach left by members of Peary’s expeditions.

Peary amidst North Pole expedition cans and remains of a shipping crate

Exploring, surveying, and excavating are hard work. Samson often heated water for our afternoon tea and a badly needed chocolate break. Peary often supervised preparations and then settled in for a nice afternoon nap.

Peary enjoying a nap following our afternoon tea break

Once back in Resolute, Samson went home. Waiting for his flight south, Peary spent his time watching “Operation Nanook” Canadian armed forces activities around him. He was also impressed by the logistical base of operations of the Polar Continental Shelf Program and the helpful men and women staffing the facility. He loved his venture north and hopes that people will take him on their travels throughout the world, especially if they are headed to polar regions.

Peary aboard a Polar Continental Shelf Project truck

Peary surveying tents associated with "Operation Nanook"

Buzzing insects

We have often been asked whether we have purchased head nets and lots of insect repellent for our northern venture. The stories of travelers devoured by black flies in particular seem to have impressed lots of people. And I have to admit that in my case, the questions about insects take on an additional meaning. Family, friends, and colleagues have noticed insects, of the plastic kind, in their homes and offices after I have paid them a visit. What can I say, I love bugging people.

In places like Labrador, where there are trees and bushes, blackflies thrive and find shelter. We do not expect to encounter them at Cape Sheridan, which will have little vegetation. Nor can either Genny or I recall reading any journal entries in which Peary’s men commented about insect problems. We know we will be found by mosquitoes, that is inevitable, but hope that we pick a campsite with enough of a breeze to discourage swarms. We are resigned to the fact that the mosquitoes we encounter will be big and hungry, a fact of life for all warm blooded mammals that venture north.

I write this from Ottawa, where Fred, Genny, and I had dinner together and are preparing for our flight to Resolute. Peary stayed in the hotel room. Security screenings, traffic noise, and the heat got to him.


Northern mosquito approaches caribou!


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


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.