Book Review:

Boreal Ties

Edited by Kim Farley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III

2002 University of New Mexico Press,
248 p, illustrated with 186 duotone plates

ISBN: 0-8263-2810-5

Boreal Ties
Edited by Kim Farley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III (University of New Mexico Press)

The 1901 Erik Expedition was significant in many ways. It represented the last contact in the field between Frederuick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary. It was the occasion of the prophetic physical examination and diagnosis of Peary by Cook.

And it was a unique insight into the fascination that Arctic exploration was held by the North American public at the turn of the century, when Pole-seeking was at its best- and soon to become its worst.

In 1899 Peary, on an extended stay in his Northern Greenland Expedition, had suffered the loss of seven toes to frostbite at Fort Conger but refused to return to receive proper treatment (see Ralph Myerson, MD: “Peary’s Toes: A unique medical history of the explorer’s loss of his toes,”: Polar Priorities, 2001, p 39-40). When Josephine and their seven year-old daughter went to Greenland to persuade him to come home, the die was cast for the Peary Relief Expedition, organized in 1901.

Herbert Bridgeman of the Peary Arctic Club, sensing Peary’s failure in his extended expedition, asked Cook to become second in command and as its physician to examine the explorer after he and his family were located. Two Ithaca, NY friends soon joined the party and make the voyage on the schooner “Erik”. Clarence Wyckoff and Louis Bement would leave a narrative and photographic legacy of the voyage and their accounts would become this book, reconstructed by two of their descendants a century later.

Last April the co-authors spoke to both the Byrd Polar Research Center Symposium on the Inuit and the Explorers and the Spring board meeting of the Frederick A. Cook Society (the Society had in 2001 authorized a grant to help in the book’s publication). Kim Fairley Gillis is the great-granddaughter of Clarence Wyckoff. She received her graduate degree from the University of Michigan, where she specialized in Arctic photography. She is an independent researcher living in Chelsea, Michigan. Silas Hibbard Ayer III is the grandson of Louis Bement. He graduated from Middlebury College and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, were he is retired.

The book’s striking photographs are interspersed with the excerpts from the diaries of both Wyckoff and Bement, who were the prototypes of what 21st century travelers would call adverture tourism. They envisioned themselves hunting wild game, admiring and photographing magnificent scenery, and escaping the stresses of their lives as businessmen. The scenery did not disappoint, as the photographs assembled here testify, but the stress of sailing in polar seas was worse then imagined. They endureed maggoty food, head lice, and hives. The ice and the incompetence of the ship’s crew threatened their lives on more than one occasion. In addition to the drama of the journey and the magnificent Arctic scenery, this is a valuable record of the American explorers’ encounters with the Inuit.

Consider the psychological and emotional landscape that presented itself when the “Erik” caught up with the “Windward” and the Peary family. The dramatis persona would have been worthy of an Arctic soap opera: Robert E. Peary, still in some pain from the horrific amputation of his frozen toes in January 1899, aware that his extended stay had produced no great achievements; his wife Jo Peary, who would in the previous year learn of her husband’s infidality with the Inuit girl Allakasingwah and find their son being proudly displayed to the Cape York tribe; Thomas Dedrick, the physician who had performed what was the northernmost surgery on Peary’s toes, and then would break with the explorer in a bitter falling-out.

Then there was Matt Henson, an explorer in his own right but still relegated to Peary’s “manservant” mentality, despite the fact that he had broken the trail and led the party to its destination at Fort Conger. The Relief Expedition had its own cast of characters, some of whom would play roles in the controversy that would sweep up many of them less than a decade away: Herbert Bridgeman, the leader of the Peary Arctic Club, who was to become Peary’s manager in the “North Pole wars.” Cook, the second in command, observed the consequences of the Peary-Dedrick break, the treatment of Henson and the lack of trust that the Inuit felt for Peary.

Wyckoff was the son of the founder of the Remington Typewriter Company and was praised by his shipmates as “cheerful and willing to take on any task.” Bement, was called “the best friend I ever had” by Wyckoff. “He was joyous in everything he touched or did.” Their diaries reflected their appreciation of life and the survival instincts of the people of the far north.

Wyckoff, like Dedrick, would have a unhappy break with Peary, resigning from the Club that Bridgeman would use as the command center in a Watergate-type plan of defamation against Cook after 1911. The “Erick” relief expedition would be a prelude to that unfortunate chapter to come.

From Boreal Ties, a selection of photos from the Cook Collections at the Library of Congress and the Byrd Polar Research Center.

Top Left: Cook with Bement on the voyage to Greenland. Below: Henson, Peary and Cook on the “Erik.” Below left: On shore at the meeting with the Pearys’ - Robert, Jo and Cook.

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society