A physician from Brooklyn and two young Eskimo hunters from a northern Greenland tribe, who together had survived the longest dog-sledge journey in history and thereafter spent the meanest of winters hunkered down in an ice cave like Stone Age dwellers, were again staring death in the face.
Not heard from for more than a year, they had in some circles been given up as lost in the frozen tundra, and no search parties were looking for them.
On the final leg of an arduous return journey begun the previous year, the men had been trekking for weeks up the desolate eastern shores of Ellesmere Island in an effort to reach what served as civilization in these latitudes: Greenland’s western coast, where food and shelter were to be found.
When they had emerged from their forced hibernation in mid-February, they fought through one storm after another coming off Jones Sound in the Cape Sparbo region. After each storm passed, they encountered ice tumbled into mountainous barriers, which they could skirt only by cutting through tremendous snow drifts, often while fighting persistent gales at their backs that made them stagger forth like drunkards. Even in arduous long march northward the previous spring, they had not experienced such difficult travel.
Pulling a single sledge strapped to their shoulders because they no longer had dogs, the load was lightened by disposing of unneeded clothing and equipment.
The Arctic was slowly awakening from its long winter night, which at this high latitude meant eight or nine months of no direct sunlight and freezing storms, during which temperatures plunged as low as minus 50 degrees F.
On their weeks-long march under skies that had slowly lightened, they had not seen any living things on the ice to hunt; no seals or walrus or hare, no beefy musk oxen, not even a lone sea bird headed elsewhere. They were at the top of the food chain with no signs of life beneath them.
When the last of their provisions were gone, they began eating things that humans do not normally ingest. Half of a wax candle and three cups of hot water was served for one meal. Sections of a walrus hide used as a slicker were cut up, boiled and eaten; although difficult to masticate and resulting in a few broken teeth, it filled their empty stomachs for several days. They similarly prepared and consumed lengths of walrus line.
As sub-zero winds cut gashes in the exposed skin of their faces, they drudged onward, every fiber of their weakened bodies quivering with cold and hunger. The exertion fueled by limited sustenance caused their frames to shrivel; the furs they wore hung over increasingly bony skeletons.
On March 20th, they discovered that they were not alone. In the half-dark illumination that turned the ice an eerie gray, they gathered silently around the tracks in fresh snow of a bear many times larger than a man.
They knew about the white semiaquatic bear found throughout the Arctic region. The physician could recite the scientific name, Ursus maritimus, for “sea bear.” To the Eskimos it was Nanuk, whom native hunters considered the most prized of all the animals they traditionally hunted. An adult male weighed as much as 1,600 lbs., stood six feet at the shoulders and grew to eight feet in length. Rising upright on its rear legs, as it did when threatened, it soared to an imposing twelve feet or higher. They were often found alone on the drifting ice in the spring and summer, swimming from one chunk of ice to the other, feasting on seals they usually caught on the ice. The Eskimos considered the bear a great lonely roamer, possessing wisdom as well as strength. In addition to being an able swimmer, the polar bear was a capable traveler on solid surfaces, with black footpads on the bottom of foot-long paws that gripped for traction. On the ice, the bear moved with surprising swiftness, able to gallop as fast as a horse for short distances. Shy by nature, it was dangerous when confronted, and stalked its prey before racing in for the kill that few escaped. In lean times it subsided on seaweed and grass but was carnivorous by nature, with a taste for seals, birds and caribou. Although only the females hibernated while the males remained active during the winter, come spring all “sea bears” were lean and hungry, eager to get on with the eating. Their favored first course: newborn seal pups to be found cavorting on the ice in early spring. Polar bears had a powerful sense of smell, and when hungry, they were known to stalk man.
The tracks were fresh, meaning that the bear was still in the area and would have little trouble picking up their scent. In fact, it probably already had.
The men gauged the situation. As yet, they had seen no seals, adults or babies. The bear probably had no better luck. Nanuk would be famished.
It was a sign of the gravity of their predicament that the nearby presence of such a formidable beast registered on the men not as a threat, but offered a resurgence of hope for having found a potential food source. However, they would first have to do battle with Ursus maritimus, the biggest, strongest, and most fearsome of all Arctic creatures.
That evening, they prepared for the coming of the bear.
Their plan was for their prey to believe it was the predator. A snow house was built with blocks of ice cut from the hard-pack surface; hollow inside, with a peephole on each side and a narrow entryway at one end from which the men might escape or make an attack. On the outside, they built a low-slung shelf upon which they draped remnants of skin and fur, arranged to resemble a recumbent seal on the ice pack. Over this they rigged a looped line, which the bear would have to place its head through to reach the bait. Arranged on the ground were other lopped lines. The end of each line was secured to solid ice.
The men sharpened their lances and knives, then went into the snow house. One remained on watch while the other two tried to sleep.
They did not have long to wait.
First came an ominous crackling sound made by a large creature advancing on the ice and snow. Through the peephole, they saw the little black nose held high – most of bear’s bulk was awash in the whitish background. Then, the beady eyes, large head and extended neck came into focus as the bear approached in slow, measured steps, smelling the ground toward the furs.
From their crouched position, the bear appeared gigantic. Apparently every bit as hungry as the men and without fear, it came straight for the bait.
The two natives crept to the entryway, one with a lance and the other with a spiked harpoon shaft, ready to jump out and do battle.
Inside the snow house, the doctor jerked the line and the loop tightened around the bear’s neck. Another line was yanked, catching a front paw as the bear reared angrily. Within moments, the lance and the spike were driven home into the growling creature, and a fierce struggle began.
When it had become apparent the previous fall that they would be trapped by winter, the doctor had taken his last four cartridges and hidden them away. The Eskimos knew nothing of them, believing that their ammunition had been expended. These cartridges the doctor intended to use at the last stage of hunger to kill something – perhaps even themselves if their suffering proved too great.
The doctor took one of the precise cartridges from his pocket, loaded the large-bore, single-shot rifle and raced outside. He tossed the weapon to one of the hunters, who turned toward the flailing bear and fired at point-blank range.
The bleeding bear fell to the ice in an earthshaking tumble.
The animal was quickly skinned. Before the butchering began in earnest, the natives hung up the skin atop the snow house, carefully laying it out lifelike. According to legend, the spirit of a dead polar bear that was properly treated by a hunter would share the good news with other bears. The animals would then be eager to be killed by such men, making future hunts successful.
Thick chops were sliced off the beefy thighs, and with no thought given to cooking or boiling the meat, the steaming flesh was devoured. More was passed around with bloodied hands until each man had his fill. They then slept, radiating with the inner warmth of full stomachs, only to arise and eat more.
They had abundant food before them, and if they stayed where they were, by the time they ran low the seals would be out on the ice in great numbers seeking sun baths. The men could then continue their march, methodically hunting along the way to supply their needs.
After enduring so much hunger, it was a tempting prospect to travel with adequate nourishment at hand. Yet, that benefit had to be weighed against the ice conditions they would be facing as spring turned into early summer.
Situated squarely between them and salvation in Greenland was Smith Sound, thirty miles at its narrowest stretch between Cape Sabine and Annotok. From their present position south of Cape Sabine, they were prevented from making a crossing because the ice in the sound had begun breaking up with the sun’s return, and they no longer were hauling the canvas boat they had used last summer to cross gaps of open water known as leads. To make Greenland on foot meant heading farther north along the Ellesmere coast toward the expanse of Kane Basin, where they hoped to find the sea ice solid enough to traverse. The loop north before heading eastward could add two hundred miles – and several weeks – onto their journey, but in this they had no choice.
If they remained idle and waited for abundant game, their fate would be tied to a dangerous race with warmer weather, which could open up so many leads in Kane Basin as to make a crossing without a boat impossible. The onset of fall and an early winter could find them stranded on the Ellesmere shore.
These life-and-death issues weighed heavily on the doctor. The Eskimos were not plagued by any doubt: with Greenland so close, it must be reached at all costs. The doctor decided to honor their well-honed instincts for survival.
After some more gluttonous eating, the three men set out again, taking with them all the now-frozen bear meat they could carry.
A new world of trouble soon found them. Unrelenting storms, mountains of ice, fresh snow up to their waists, vicious winds and impassable snowdrifts impeded their progress and lengthened their course by forcing them to zigzag repeatedly. By the time they reached Cape Sabine after great exertion and long delays, their food supply was once again exhausted.
Starvation was no stranger to this region – the scene of one of the most tragic incidents in the history of Arctic exploration. In 1881, twenty-four American soldiers, newcomers to the Arctic region, set out under the command of U.S. Army Lt. Adolphus Greeley to conduct scientific observations on the remote northwest coast of Ellesmere. Two years later, after resupply ships failed to arrive, their situation became bleak and the ragtag band retreated southward. After weeks of travel – much of it spent drifting aimlessly on the ice pack of Kane Basin – they made Cape Sabine before being halted by winter. As the weeks passed and food ran out, men began to die. The survivors subsided on leather from their boots, bits of moss scraped from the rocks, and eventually, the flesh from the bodies of their fallen comrades. Alone or in small groups, hungry men – hunting knives in hand – visited the ridge above their camp where the corpses were piled like logs, and found themselves life-sustaining meals. By the time a rescue ship arrived in summer, eighteen men had perished. The six survivors included the leader, Greeley, who came under criticism for weak leadership, although poor planning, bad weather, and a lack of sufficient financial and logistical support from the government contributed to the disaster.
Passing through the area, the three travelers grew solemn as they came across human remains, dug up and picked clean by foxes, wolves and ravens. The two hunters determined that the dead were from their own tribe. Some of the sordid details Cook already knew, but from his companions, Etukishook and Ahwelah, he heard more about the tragic deaths of their people in 1901.
Under a telltale pile of rocks marking a food cache, the carcass of an old seal was found in an oil-soaked bag. It had been caught the year before, and placed here by Panicpa, father of Etukishook. Also in the cache was a crude hieroglyphic drawing telling of a loving father’s futile search for his lost son and two companions. The meat, along with a pound of salt, had been left as an offering. Eating some now and saving the remainder, they portioned out the salt and eventually devoured every eatable part of the seal – meat, blubber, skin – which was so rotten it had the aroma of Limburger cheese.
Heartened at finding the cache, they took it as a good omen.
They pushed farther north, along Bache Peninsula to near Cape Louis Napoleon. Under the ascending sun, soon to offer round-the-clock daylight, nature’s incubator had begun to hatch little ones of various species; seals, foxes, bears, all experiencing the newness of life on the sun-kissed ice cap.
Northern Greenland, home for the natives and the first stepping stone to home for the doctor, never seemed nearer. Yet, they were still separated from it by much open water, so they continued northward. With the sun upon them and the ice breaking up and the sea beginning to breath after its winter lock, they still dared to dream they would find a way across.
After two days of travel, pushing hard in their race against Mother Nature, they found good ice. Turning southeast, they headed back toward the native settlement of Annoatok, which they had overshot due to being forced so far north. On the back end of the loop their course had taken, they were able to angle toward their destination over steep icy hummocks and through pockets of deep snow.
Inevitably, they would come to open water, which necessitated more detours. When they had eaten all the frozen seal and found nothing to hunt, they began to eat other things again – even their shoelaces and pieces of their boots.
On their southward course, they came upon a tall icy ridge. By then they had so little energy that they had to scramble up it on their hands and knees. At the top, they immediately recognized – not more than a mile away – Annoatok, from whence they had departed on their journey a year earlier.
The weary ice men stood weakly and waved; gaunt, dark figures arrayed in rags of fur. Silhouetted against the white, icy backdrop, they were recognized from afar as men in trouble, and dog sledges were dispatched.
The three men awaited rescue, huddled together, too exhausted to show any outward signs of joy, although their hearts were beating wildly.
As the sledges pulled up, there were hoots of recognition from the dog drivers. Due to their long absence, the three men had been presumed to have perished, and those who saw them could not believe their eyes. The men who had returned from the dead were sights to behold: half-human, half-beast, rail thin, long stringy hair down to their shoulders, and terribly dirty – a grounded-in grime that would take more than one immersion in hot water to cleanse.
Ahwelah and Etukishuk stood together, facing their tribesmen. They held their distance and no one said anything at first, but stood just gazing in disbelief. Everyone seemed to realize at the same instant that it was not a dream or illusion, and suddenly all together they began talking very fast.
A tall blond stranger, handsome and rather dashing, stepped forward from one of the sledges and approached the doctor.
The two white men were astonished to see the other.
Speaking his own language for the first time in more than a year, the doctor spoke first. “I am Frederick Cook.”
The other man looked as if he had seen a ghost. Quickly regaining his gentlemanly manners, he introduced himself as Harry Whitney, and added as if in the parlor of one of his private clubs: “We feel honored to greet you.”
The survivors were loaded onto the sledges, and off they went, pulled by howling dogs anxious to return to the village the way horses yearn for the barn.
Little was said on the short dash to the village, where the thin, bony men were brought in from the cold. A tasty meal was prepared with dispatch by the native women – meat broth, fresh biscuits, hot coffee.
“You have been away for fourteen months,” Whitney said when he had a moment with Cook, “with food for two months. How have you done this?”
It was like asking someone how they survived against impossible odds. Though they nearly died countless times, the proof was that they had not.
Cook did his best to satisfy Whitney’s curiosity, however, at the moment food and sleep were paramount, although a long, hot bath had to come first.
Whitney understood, and held off further queries. “Doctor, you are the dirtiest man I ever saw,” he said, smiling. “We have a bath ready for you – a tub of hot water, plenty of soap and brushes and big clean towels.”
Later, Cook went to the one-room shack he had wintered in a year and a half ago and left stocked with food and supplies for his return. It was meant to serve, with its priceless store of supplies, as his relief station. He was shocked to find two white men he did not know living in it; all winter they had been partaking of his goods. In addition to the food, there had been blue-fox skins, narwhal horns and walrus ivory worth thousands of dollars. The two interlopers were, it turned out, crewmen from Roosevelt, a ship built tough for ice travel and named after the U.S. President, and were on orders of their commander to utilize anything they needed. The skins and horns had been seized and already taken away.
A bitterness rose within Cook that would not soon abate.
It was April, 1909, and Roosevelt, having left northern Greenland eight months earlier, was now in the Far North with Robert E. Peary, who was in command of a large, well-stocked expedition attempting to fulfill what he had long considered his rightful destiny: discovering the North Pole.
Isolated from the rest of civilization, Peary had no way of knowing the dramatic declaration Cook was planning to make to the world:
The North Pole had already been reached.