The Frederick A. Cook Living Museum:
Cook’s 1908-9 Winter Den
Cape Hardy, Devon Island

by Louis O. (Lon) Constantini

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Cook's winter quarters at Cape Hardy (Sparbo) as sketched by J. M. Wordie in 1937.

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Cook's den, c 2003.  The site is about 200 ft from the Jones Sound shore line landfall, 1908.

Exploring the high arctic is a wonderful experience even when challenged by weather and terrain. However, there is a definable and recurring experience that I always enjoy the most. Upon arriving at some arctic location, on ice or gravel bank, the most pleasurable time is when the DiHaviland twin engine Otter has it’s engines rev’ed to takeoff pitch; the plane rolls forward and in a space less than I can kick a rugby ball, it’s huge tires leave the ground. The plane lifts off, and in this instance flies towards the cliffs, pivots on a wing tip and then, as is customary, roars over our heads. In the time it takes to lift a rucksack, it looks like a bird lost in a cloud. It would be gone, and we would still be there. 

For a second time, I used the services of a Canadian company for guides, food, cooking and transportation. Again, they performed well. We had two guides: a pretty, feminine young woman and a 50ish man who served as guide and naturalist. The young woman was startlingly strong, had significant outdoor savvy and such a reservoir of confidence and knowledge, that no one ever questioned her authority and leadership. Our male guide who had a placid and amiable personality, spent an entire year, and parts of other years doing bio/eco studies of the Devon Island flora and fauna. We saw many things, but because of him, we understood a great deal more.

There were only three paying trekkers. All of us were 50ish; fit with a great deal of outdoors experience. Fortunately, all of us were stoic in the face of difficult weather and terrain. I found it difficult to interact with one of the trekkers, and two of them tended toward coarse language which I always find to be tedious.

The author in full hiking gear for the 
Devon Island trek

Originally, we were going to go on a difficult slog from point A to point B, overcoming whatever was required. Our male guide, with his knowledge of the area, recommended a more meandering route, allowing us to “see the sights” with a lot more flexibility. We all agreed and came to value that decision.

Early on, I began to seek support to insure we made it to the Capes Sparbo and Hardy areas. Our naturalist guide was easily enlisted in this effort.

The weather was cold and windy, raining and windy, snowing and windy and much of the time was cold, raining, snowing and windy. More so, the wind blew so fiercely, that we were confined to our tents for a 48-hour stretch when a storm pushed the winds to a clocked and sustained, 70 kilometers an hour. One tent collapsed and another was badly stove in when a support pole broke from the wind. By design or default, the tent I shared survived the gale unscathed. There was one day that looked to be favorable. I had socks hanging from my rucksack to dry; one trekker had on shorts and the fair-skinned were putting on sun block. It looked to be the kind of day that causes hikers to hike! More so, it was going to be our longest single walk with equipment; about 15 kilometers. Within 45 minutes the wind became chilled. In another 20 minutes, the wind was outright cold and gaining strength, and then it began to rain. That was a very long walk.

Each day we would watch the rain-soggy clouds begin to generate inland, near the icecap. They would march over us and then break up as they hit Jones Sound. There were never more than a few hours of weak sun, total for the two weeks we were hiking. Perversely, we could clearly see Ellesmere Island across the sound and the sun glistened on its frozen surfaces.

We began our trek from the Truelove Experimental Station; the area was named for a 19th century whaling ship, and is used by various scientific groups, among them our naturalist guide for a full year. We visited several interesting sites in leisurely day hikes. Among them was a restored Thule site. I remember it well because I drifted away from the group and saw an almost surreal landscape. I walked up a slope and there was an arctic meadow composed of flowers, grassy bogs, lichens and moss. Arctic poppies looked like yellow swoosh stripes on the green. The green was too green to seem natural. Clouds hung low with gauzy shrouds of mist drifting across the area; large rocks, gothic looking, rose up from the green and the area was encased in dark, forbidding cliff faces. All it needed was a white unicorn to gallop across the meadow. 

Eventually we began the real trek with rucksacks weighing 30 kilos. Most of the first few days were spent maintaining our balance on rock fields. Frost rotation forces the larger rocks to the surface. These rocks were substantial and almost always were covered with rain or wet snow. Our heavy packs were burdensome and clumsy. One day, a rock turned and I slumped to the ground. I started to rise and realized my feet were higher than my head, plus I had the polar bear gun. It took sometime extricating myself from the predicament. 

As an aside, when I am in the wilds, I dress for the warmest moments, while most all others dress for the coldest moments. The cold moments occur at the beginning and the end of the hike. In between, there is usually a great deal of heat buildup, and coincidentally, moisture build up. Upon stopping, this body clinging moisture immediately cools and becomes clammy – and cold. I am quite willing to be cold for a few minutes in the beginning and when we stop, I immediately put on clothing. I avoid the moisture and am quickly warmer. When we again begin to walk, I take clothes off. I often look at hiking companions, and feel that I would collapse from heat exhaustion with all those layers of heavy clothing.

Eventually we came out of the hillsides onto a large plain of glacial rebound. This is ground which rose from the sea bottom after the glaciers removed their great weight. It was when we left this campsite that we went on the long and wet hike. Even so, I was walking toward Frederick A. Cook’s winter den. I called out to one of the hikers who knew of my interest in the explorer: “This is hallowed ground.” Looking at me, his eyes were so vacant, there was a “for rent sign” in them. 

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Arctic wildflowers growing on the den sleeping shelf.

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Looking at the Cook den from Devon Island highlands.

In the distance, Capes Sparbo and Hardy rose from the horizon. Before them was a huge plain of bog and tundra over which we needed to walk. Large clumps of rock and rock-covered hillocks left behind by retreating glaciers broke up the horizon. This would be my first “living museum” experience: I began to understand the distance and loneliness that Cook and his two Inuit companions had to endure; lonely mountains, facing an empty sea (Jones Sound) and across almost the whole horizon, Ellesmere Island, empty and bleak looking. Reading about isolation is different from a visceral feeling.

Eventually, we arrived across an inlet from Cape Hardy. I looked and realized that these were the very rocks that Cook, Etuqishuq and Ahwelah clambered as they sought to capture game for survival. I will return to these rocks and their hunting. We set camp. I climbed into my tent and took off soaked and clinging clothing for dry and warmer clothes. We ate and I excitedly waited for dawn, because the next day, we were going to seek the den in which Cook and his loyal companions endured an arctic winter!

Frederick A. Cook and his Inuit companions upon returning from their North Pole attainment worked their way along the northern coast of Devon Island. The struggling trio realized that without ammunition, they could not compete with the polar bears nor could they negotiate the summer ice conditions. Resigned, they abandoned their dogs and traveled westward where they recalled seeing abundant game. They entered a very small inlet in which there was an open area protected by a large mountain. In this location, they found abandoned Thule dwellings. They rebuilt one of the habitations; hunted; stored food and waited for the spring. Within that simple description is a story of survival, discipline, cooperation and a display of character demanded of few people. 

A weak and reluctant dawn arrived. This day would be like most of the days; cold, rain, snow and wind. We walked around the inlet to the exposed rock below Cape Hardy Mountain. This was hard going! Later, the naturalist and I got into a low level argument. He seemed to feel that Cook and his Inuit hunters commuted these rocks to go hunting. I tend to doubt that. From his camp to the tundra where the game lived took an hour and a half, one way, of ankle turning and knee torque’ing potential. I feel that they used the boat as long as possible and then walked on ice so as to make incursions into areas that had game. I’ve read and reread the relevant chapters of My Attainment of the Pole (available in a Frederick A. Cook Society reprint) and Return from the Pole, but there is no explanation how they accessed the game areas.

Ancient Thule tent rings and a complex of caves distracted my less committed companions. The ancient Dorset culture preceded the Thule culture, which in turn, was supplanted by the Inuit. One thousand years ago the arctic and the world was a much warmer place. This area of Devon Island quite literally, has evidence of Thule habitation in any area that faced the sea and could allow a below ground dwelling. When Commander John Ross entered Lancaster Sound, 1818, he met a small group of Greenland Inuit who had been separated from their clansmen in the Baffin Island region. So much were they isolated, they thought they were the only humans on the planet.1 The area surrounding Devon Island supported what must have been a numerous population though today, most islands in this region are effectively unpopulated. Where there are populations, the communities are contrived affairs designed to confirm national territorial claims. (Here I will go on a personal rant: We are told that internal combustion engines cause the greenhouse effect which in turn, is causing a warming of the earth. Well, what were the Thules driving? The reason weather changes, is because weather changes.) 

My naturalist companion who at least feigned interest in Cook suggested that one of the Thule rings we had passed was the Cook site. I could not accept that. I pushed on, climbing some very imposing rocks and to my great pleasure, I saw the wintering site. I felt probably much what Dorothy experienced when she left her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse, and looked at the colorized Land of Oz. Behind me were rocks, covered by moss and lichen. They were dark with shadows and pummeled by the elements. In front of me was a large green sward, triangular in shape. The green area was well above the shoreline with easy access. Toward the front of the green were two formations. One was much larger and I felt confident I was looking at the Thule structure where Frederick A. Cook and his Inuit companions spent the winter of 1908 and 1909.

Behind the site loomed Cape Hardy, which served as a wonderful protection from the unsympathetic weather coming out of the center of the island. Across Brae Bay was Sverdrup Glacier. (Looking north, one could see four more glaciers leaking from the Devon Island ice cap.) Cook said there were Thule tent rings at the water line, however, all I saw was about 10 meters of ice foot. 

Ice buildup at Cape Hardy in front of Cook den.

I bounded rock to rock to get to the area. I walked to the shoreline to try to understand what Cook felt as he walked toward where he would try to survive what he knew would be a harrowing half year. I left the rocks and stepped on verdant vegetation. The vegetation was more established than any other location I saw on the island. In front of me was what had to be their habitation? It was large for a Thule structure. The sleeping shelf was still clearly evident. A whalebone, the size of a large wooden plank, and which was probably part of the roof, lay dividing the living area in two. 

All these features matched Cook’s descriptions. No lecture could approximate the appreciation I had for what I was seeing: another living museum experience.

When I trod on that green vegetation I felt emotions similar to when I walked up the Parthenon steps and while walking across the village green of Lexington. At this juncture, I can understand if a reader might feel that was “over the top” even for hyperbole. However, within a Western Centric view, this is an historic location. There are few event/places in the arctic. Fort Conger which was Adolphus Greeley’s 1881-3 scientific headquarters; kickoff location for most North American attempts for the Pole, as well as the burial place of several of Robert E. Peary’s toes (1898); Cape Sabine where the Greeley group starved and where most died (1883); the coastline of King William Island where the Franklin party off loaded their ships and tried to escape their fate (1845-8),2 and lastly, Cook’s winter site (1908-9). All other history is events in transit, indicated by dotted and dashed lines on a map. I have a considerable number of arctic books. I have been excited and carried away by the stories of determination and desperation, but none filled me with the feeling of actually being where something real and palpable occurred.

Some disparagers of Cook dismiss this achievement with the statement that Inuit routinely lived through arctic winters. But that is just the point. Cook was not an Inuit; he was a man of his times trained to be a professional. Inuit spent their entire lives acquiring the education needed to survive in the arctic. An arctic historian wrote this saga “…was in itself enough to rank Cook among the immortal explorers of the Arctic, with Greely, Nansen, Sverdrup and Peary himself.”3 If one may think it is easy to survive in alien environments, remember that the mortality rate amongst Inuit who visited western locations was almost 100% while there.

Cook’s wintering site is not exactly a much-visited “living museum”. Captain Bob Bartlett, Admiral Peary’s sea captain, was sent in 1910 on what must be described as a pillaging expedition for anything that might debase Cook’s claim to having achieved the North Pole. In 1937, an anthropologist excavated the site and found articles that would assumedly have been abandoned by desperate men.4 I am aware of two other Society members who have either visited or attempted to visit the site over recent years.

Cook’s winter den is not on tourism’s “list of hot spots”, but I, as once did Admiral Peary, had the experience of walking in Frederick A. Cook’s 1908 footsteps.

The next day was planned to be just as exciting as we were to walk about 15 kilometers, over variable ground, to visit Cook’s Fall which feeds Cook’s River. However, the Devon Island weather gods had decided that I had had enough fun. The gale to which I had earlier alluded struck and any plans to go a measurable distance ended. We lay snaked in our sleeping bags, listening to the tent fabric strain to remain whole. Our young lady guide threw her torso into the opening of our tent; tossed a block of cheese, some tortilla patties and Mennonite sausage that had the atomic weight of lead for us to eat the first day and much the same the next day. Resting on my elbow, I cut the chunks of food with my knife, hands in fingerless gloves and began to muse about what is pleasure and what is soul-satisfying pleasure. Barely three weeks earlier I was seated at a table for eight; we were in Dublin, Ireland; the ladies were lavishly attired, wearing enough decoration to probably equal a year’s mineral and ore production of South Africa. The men were in tuxedos (and I think I looked very dapper in my white dinner coat) and champagne poured faster than Devon’s glacial melt streams. One realizes that though all the honors, achievements and wealth we acquire in life seem important, when we get to the basic elements of life, we give more importance to something warm to drink, and dry socks.

The third day of the storm we were able to emerge from our tents, construct a kitchen from a tarp and stretch our legs. Lo! There only a few meters away, was a musk oxen group. Gazing at us was a bull about 4 years old, two cows and a calf. The three paying trekkers cautiously crept slowly and stealthily fearful of spooking the family group. Our naturalist guide watched us and then casually strolled to within 50 meters of the herd. The bull, as he is supposed to do, stepped forward to protect his wards. The cows were half an animal length behind him while the calf got between the bull and its mother. I have, since my first interest in the arctic, desired to see this tableau.

Looking around, I realized I was in another wing of the Cook Living Museum. We were camped probably among the very rocks in which he and his stalwart companions hunted the musk oxen with rope. I don’t begrudge Cook for shall we say, enhancing the drama of hunting musk oxen employing rope to restrain the oxen before the felling blow. However, I don’t think the description in the book fully explained the nature of the danger. Musk oxen are smallish, just above my waistline in height. Their size is nothing near like a bison (they are related to goats). The horns are placed at “wolf height” and they are actually very docile and defensive. I could easily have further halved the distance of the naturalist. I clearly see how two members of the party would wrap rope ends around rocks; a third man would entice a member of the herd to venture forward in a defensive move; the rope would be looped around its head and then, as it struggled, wind the rope tightly until it could not move.

It is not my intention to belittle what they did, since I am glad I don’t have to fill my pantry that way. But after a visit to the living museum, I have a much better understanding of their experience. (Cook also spoke of caribou and wolves on Devon Island. According to our naturalist guide, caribou were hunted out in the 1920’s, and with them, went the wolves. I have seen wolves on Ellesmere during a dog sled traverse in 1996.) 

In modern times, it is customary for people to emotionally and publicly eviscerate themselves, but a man of the early 20th Century would have shown more restraint. In Return From The Pole, Cook muses about the events of his life. But as I sat in the remains of his 1908-9 redoubt, I wondered if his thoughts went to how he got to be where he was. Did he ever think that if his first wife had survived childbirth, would he then have become another prosperous, adventure-book reading member of society? Did he miss the warmth and presence of his wife and daughters? Did he think of the fame, the rewards that would be his upon his return? Did he have any premonition of how history would abuse him? Did he ever regret his dangerous commitment to the chimera of arctic exploration? On a much more personal level, I often wonder how I get myself into such exotic circumstances. My conclusion is that every decision of our lives, cumulatively, leads to where we are this moment as did the decisions of Frederick A. Cook. Those decisions, small and large, inexorably, led him to the long arctic night on Cape Hardy.

The trip was coming to an end. We trudged to the pick up point. We missed so many larger meals because of the inclement weather, our rucksacks were not appreciably lighter.

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Cook's route to and from Devon Island in 1908 - 09.  From Geographical Discovery and Exploration in the Queen Elizabeth Islands (Canada 1955).

Camping in the arctic may seem far more exciting than it is. However, it does have a cachet denied many other outdoor experiences. Here I will again employ hyperbole by comparison. This summer, an erstwhile Governor of New Mexico, my state, achieved the summit of Mount Everest and I applaud his achievement. However challenging, there is almost a traffic control problem on that mountain. Thousands of climbers and support personnel, with all their detritus and effluvia, have left the Everest slopes almost squalid. On Devon Island, we enjoyed a pristine environment. In the arctic, I watched, and felt it absolutely appropriate, for a 50ish year old man to sprint directly into a rock-strewn stream to retrieve a wind-stolen candy wrapper. We were alone essentially, for almost hundreds of miles in every direction.

The next person who visits the Cook winter den will find a small rock cairn. In the cairn are relevant chapters from Cook’s writings; various Society publications and Society contact information. 

The pilot left for our pickup during a window of acceptable weather in Resolute Bay. As we approached Resolute Bay at the end of a two or so hour flight, it was obvious there had been a major deterioration in the weather. With the jockeying of position; the roaring of the engine and the very hard landing, I think the runway surprised the pilot. He climbed out of his chair, looked at us and said, “You guys are lucky to have gotten out.”


1 Parry of the Arctic; Ann Parry; pg. 38
2 Ice Blink; Scot Cookman; pgs 154-173 
3 The Big Nail; Theon Wright; pg 159
4 Cook & Peary; Robert Bryce; Pgs 906-8

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