Kane’s death left Hayes eager to return to the North at the head of his own expedition; but with no support from the US government and little from the philanthropist who had bankrolled Kane, it took him three years to raise the roughly $30,000 he needed. (In the process, he alienated the only woman he ever loved, who told him he had could have her or the Arctic, but not both.) He furthered his cause by following up on Kane’s great book, Arctic Explorations, with one of his own, Arctic Boat Journey in the Autumn of 1854, about the Kane expeditionary schism. In June of 1860, the Hayes North Pole Expedition finally set sail. Its objectives were to increase scientific knowledge of the Arctic, reach the Open Polar Sea, and, conceivably, steer a course all the way to the North Pole.

In Greenland, Hayes supplemented his crew with Eskimos, including one who had taken part in the Kane expedition. The Eskimos were crack hunters, and Hayes depended on them to keep his 20-member party supplied with fresh meat. They performed well enough that no one fell victim to the condition that had plagued Kane’s party: scurvy.

Hayes’s plan was to cross Smith Sound from Greenland to Ellesmere Island via sledges pulled by dogs, with a boat strapped to one of the sledges for eventual launch into the Open Polar Sea. But the dogs kept dying, and the terrain—if that’s the right word for an immense jumble of ice slabs and hummocks—was so intractable that often the explorers had to climb, descend, zigzag, backtrack, and plod ahead all day long just to advance a mile or two. The thermometer recorded temperatures in the minus 60s, a zone where snow on the ground hardens, causing friction and hampering progress. Luckily one of the Eskimos knew how to cope with this condition: melt ice in your mouth and drool on the sledge’s runners, where the liquid formed a slick ice coating.

Even so, the trip proceeded at such a petty pace that Hayes was driven to distraction. The food supply dwindled, game became unavailable, and he finally had to admit that the best he could do was use clues from his surroundings to infer the existence of the Open Polar Sea. In a morose frame of mind—and with fingers that may have trembled in the profound cold—he took measurements with a sextant to estimate the latitude where he and his men had to turn around. The figure he wrote down, 81° 35’, brought him some solace: at least he’d attained a new farthest north—that is, a point closer to the Pole than any previously recorded.

Or had he? Almost everyone who has since looked into the matter believes that Hayes made a self-serving mistake, overestimating his forward progress by a good 100 miles. The main evidence comes from his own journals, where his descriptions of the landscape fail to jibe with the position he claimed to have reached. To the end of his life, however, he clung to his belief in that farthest north.

Much as Hayes yearned to go on, it was impossible—he and his men were too weak from hunger. They made a long, gloomy retreat, getting back to Greenland in the summer of 1861 only to be told that the United States had fallen apart. So preoccupied were most Americans with the Civil War that the expedition’s arrival in Boston a few weeks later went virtually unnoticed.

The Hayes Expedition may have failed on its own terms, but then they were impossible terms to begin with: there is no Open Polar Sea (although global warming may soon contradict that statement). Hayes managed his men well, collected some interesting fossils, and successfully introduced photography to Arctic travel. He also wrote evocatively about his experiences, including the isolation that clamps down on a person during the months-long Arctic night:

 “Silence has ceased to be negative … I seem to hear and see and feel it. It stands forth as a frightful spectre, filling the mind with the overpowering consciousness of universal death … Its presence is unendurable. I plant my feet heavily in the snow to banish its awful presence—and the sound rolls through the night and drives away the phantom. I have seen no expression on the face of Nature so filled with terror as THE SILENCE OF THE ARCTIC NIGHT.”

And the expedition had legs, if you will. Not only did Hayes ignite the late-19th-century craze to discover the North Pole, but his methods influenced Robert Peary, among others. Peary took Hayes’s route northward—possibly all the way to the Pole in 1909, though this remains a matter of lively debate—and emulated Hayes by relying on Eskimo solutions to Arctic problems. (In a world that swore by a rigid hierarchy of races, Hayes’s willingness to learn from a “primitive” people had been exceptional.) The most important legacy of the Hayes Expedition, in short, was to point the way to others, who followed it with greater success.

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FEATURE: Pointing the Way to the Pole By Dennis Drabelle
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Hayes planned to cross Smith Sound from Greenland to Ellesmere Island using sledges pulled by dogs, with a boat strapped to one of the sledges for eventual launch into the Open Polar Sea. He was defeated by impassable terrain, frigid weather, and dwindling food supplies—and the fact that no such sea existed—but this chart of Smith Sound, possibly by Hayes himself, shows his track and discoveries in the 1860-61 expedition. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin Libraries.


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Last modified 10/28/11