Polar Priorities and Membership News

Historian:‘One of the worst injustices in Arctic exploration’


Ken McGoogan, a leading Canadian Arctic historian, came in forcefully as an advocate of Frederick Cook in theApril number of UP HERE, a quarterly journal published in Yellowknife. McGoogan is the author of “The Arctic Discovery Quartet: Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and Race to the Polar Sea.” 

A recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for History and the UBC Medal for Canadian biography, among other prizes, is a world traveler who sails in the Arctic as a resource historian with Adventure Canada. He is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and vice-chairman of the Public Lending Right Commission. His conclusion: 

“One hundred years ago this month one of the worst injustices in Arctic exploration history began unfolding on the northwest coast of Greenland. On April 18, 1909 an American doctor and two Inuit hunters struggled to the top of an icy ridge and looked out over a familiar scattering of igloos. Below, less than a mile away, lay the settlement of Anoatok, which they had left 14 months previously. Exhausted from an unprecedented ordeal, the three rose to their feet and waved, then huddled together and waited while old friends hitched up dog teams and drove out to collect them. 

“On reaching the bedraggled trio, the rescuers could only gape in disbelief. Emaciated and filthy, with wild, unkempt hair falling to their shoulders, the three looked half-human. But then came recognition, and everybody talking at once, and one of the rescuers, a tall, blond white American, stepped forward from one of the sledges. “Doctor Frederick Cook?” He held out his hand: “Harry Whitney. We are honoured to greet you.” The doctor and his companions, Etuk and Wela, “had been so long in the chill of impending death,” Cook wrote later, “that compared to Whitney and to the Eskimos about, we were but half alive.” 

“Back at the village, speaking English for the first time in more than a year, a dazed Cook learned that Whitney was a sportsman hunting polar bear, and that he had arrived here on a ship with Cook’s old mentor, the explorer Robert E. Peary. While bathing and eating, the exhausted doctor asked about his steward, Rudolph Franke, whom he had left here guarding a shack filled with fox furs and narwhal horns Worth tens of thousands of dollars. 

“During the second half of the 20th century, most Arctic historians concluded that neither Peary nor Cook reached the North Pole. In The Arctic Grail, Berton noted that, without mechanical aid, Peary had “got farther north than had any human being before him - and he got back.” 

“As for Cook, his incredible journey across Ellesmere to Axel Heiberg Island and then south through Jones Sound has no parallel in polar annals. The winter during which “he lived like a caveman with only two companions was a masterpiece of Arctic survival for which he would have been lauded and honoured, had it not been for his claim on the pole.” 

“Ah, but what if Frederick Cook really did reach the pole? What if, as he claimed, he had pointed at low-lying clouds to reassure his frightened traveling companions that they remained always within sight of land? Later, the two young hunters would recall how Cook bad “jumped and danced like an angacock,’ ‘ or a shaman, when he looked at his ‘sun glass’ and realized that they were only a day’s march from the pole.” 

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