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First to the Pole


Robert Peary and Captain Robert Bartlett on their ship in Battle Harbour, Labrador, Canada in 1909

Robert Peary and Captain Robert Bartlett on their ship in Battle Harbour, Labrador, Canada in 1909

[by Earl Blacklock] Robert E. Peary was the first to lead a successful conquest of the North Pole, one of the great achievements of history. However, the measure of the man can be found in what happened after his return.

Peary had made previous expeditions to the North, including a failed attempt to reach the pole in 1906. He and his men came within 174 miles before they had to turn back, barely alive.

In 1908, at the age of 52, Peary knew he was facing his final chance to reach the pole. He planned his expedition carefully. A thick-hulled ship named the Roosevelt carried him to Cape York, Greenland. There he met his Inuit helpers and their families, who knew him well from his previous expeditions. They came on board for the journey to the jumping off point at Cape Columbia, the northernmost point of Canada. There, they spent the winter locked in ice. The Inuit hunted for extra food, and they built sledges for the journey.

In mid-February, the advance parties started out. They broke trail on the sea ice and built food caches and igloos.  Then the final party made the 500 mile dash, following the trail and using the provisions and shelter. With the darkness of the winter night still upon them, they made their charge.

It was a race against time and weather. Spring tides caused open leads of water which had to freeze before they could proceed. Finally, on April 6, 1909, the party reached the North Pole. Photographs were taken, observations made, until it was time to make the arduous return journey before melting and moving ice doomed their attempt. The team – four Inuit, Matt Henson, and Peary – returned safely to the ship, and Peary began to look forward to others knowing about his achievement.

When the Roosevelt reached Battle Harbor, Labrador, a ship filled with reporters met Peary with stunning news. Dr. Frederick Cook, a member of one of Peary’s previous expeditions, claimed to have reached the North Pole in April of 1908. To Peary’s shock, everywhere he went, Cook was acclaimed, and he was ignored.

Peary responded with patience, refusing all honors until both men could prove their claim. Cook took to the lecture circuit, where he made as much as $10,000 per night. Peary presented to the National Geographic Society, and his claims were carefully scrutinized and accepted. Nevertheless, Cook’s supporters attacked Peary’s reputation at every opportunity.

In a hearing before Congress, he was called a “wilful and deliberate liar”. Peary responded to even the most outrageous questions with care and courtesy. When Cook finally presented his evidence to the University of Copenhagen, it was rejected as without merit. Peary was vindicated, and lauded for his accomplishments.

Jesus said in Luke 21:14-15 “Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Peary gave us an example of that grace.

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