Boreal Ties, Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition
edited by Kim Fairley Gillis and Silas Hibbard Ayer III
University of New Mexico Press
Reviewed by Paul vanPeenen
In the flood of books that have been published in recent years about the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic, Boreal Ties is an unremarkable book with a connection to a remarkable Arctic explorer. Boreal Ties, Photographs and Two Diaries of the 1901 Peary Relief Expedition is a compilation of the diaries and photographs of Louis Bement and Clarence Wyckoff, two American business men who in 1901 paid for the privilege to travel north aboard the Erik to resupply Robert Peary.
Wyckoff, 25, had six years earlier inherited his father's typewriter manufacturing company which eventually became Remington Typewriter. Bement, 35, sold hats and caps and was married with three daughters. Wyckoff was a member of the Peary Arctic Club, established by Robert Peary in 1898 as a foundation for exploration. To join, members were asked to pay $1,000 a year for four years to support Peary in his Arctic work. In return, members received Inuit art and artifacts and Peary named newly discovered geographical points after them.
In 1899, the relief ship Diana went north and discovered Peary had suffered severe frostbite and needed to have most of his toes amputated. When Peary's wife Josephine learned of this, she took their young daughter Marie and set sail the following summer aboard the Windward to convince her husband to come home. She was unsuccessful and when the Windward failed to return, the Peary Arctic Club decided to mount yet another relief expedition.
To finance the expedition, the club asked its members to shell out an additional $500 in exchange for the privilege to travel north aboard the Erik as a guest of the club in search of Peary and his family and crew and to tell Peary of the death of his mother. Wyckoff jumped at the chance to get away from boring business meetings and easily convinced his friends Bement and Alfred Church to join him in this adventure. As noted in the book,s introduction, these men were possibly the first paying tourists to travel in the Arctic.
Wyckoff and Bement outfitted themselves with appropriate clothing, supplies and photographic equipment and boarded the SS Erik for a rather mundane journey into the Arctic waters of Baffin Bay and Smith Sound between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The book is a written and photographic record of a two and half month journey. It is by no means a great adventure story, but one is not to be too hard on Wyckoff and Bement as neither man was a writer. They were businessmen on an exotic journey into one of the few regions of the globe that still held some secrets.
It would be another two years before Roald Amundsen would set sail in the Gjoa to traverse The Northwest Passage. The North Pole had not yet been achieved by Peary (and it may be argued he never did) and it was many years before Shackleton,s incredible journey near the southern pole. This was a time of some of the most intensive exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
The most interesting part of the publication is the introduction which is filled with details one is unable to glean from the sparse text of the diaries. It discusses the reason for the journey in great detail and gives a feeling of the competitive and secretive nature of northern exploration at the time.
There is a chapter on the photographic equipment carried by the Wyckoff and Bement and a discussion of the challenges of making and developing photographs in a remote location with the equipment available at the time, as well as a look at the photographic style of both men.
The chapter on racial perspectives sheds some necessary light on the prevailing ideas on race at the beginning of the 20th century. For example, in both diaries, the Inuit are referred to as "Huskies" and it appears Wyckoff and Bement reflect the white man's view of race in 1901, but between the lines one can read the respect they undoubtedly had for the Inuit, their culture, abilities and way of life in the harsh landscape of coastal Greenland.
This is evident in Wyckoff's entry for August 7th describing how difficult it was for them to successfully hunt walrus despite having some of the best fire arms of the day. "Unless hit in the vital spot bullets seem to make no impression," he writes. "Even when the walrus has been mortally wounded, they will sometimes slip off the pan and sink to the bottom, so where possible we stick to the Husky method."
There is obvious admiration from both men for the Inuit and their skill in hunting walrus, an animal that can weigh anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds, and can be aggressive when threatened or wounded. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this kind of writing in either diary. Life in the Arctic must have seemed so foreign to them, yet it is not evident in the writing.
Aside from the introduction and a few insightful passages, what saves this book are the photographs. Although the writing of Wyckoff and Bement leaves much to be desired, the photographs provide redemption. There are many candid photographs of life aboard the Erik as well as some wonderful images of the Inuit camps they encountered on the journey. There are many beautiful portraits of the crew and the Inuit who travelled with them and photographs of Peary and his family.
There are portraits of some of the who,s who of Arctic exploration at that time: Peary, Matthew Henson, Peary's companion when he claimed to have attained the North Pole, and Dr. Frederick Cook, who claimed to have attained the Pole before Peary. There are sweeping Arctic scenes of distant headlands, endless ice floes and majestic ice bergs, reminding the viewer that this truly was, and remains, an exotic land full of wonders rarely seen by most of us.
A photograph of the Erik anchored at Dalrymple Rock shows how small and vulnerable mankind and its contraptions really are when seen alongside a cold, rugged and craggy headland on the Greenland coast. Wyckoff,s journal entries get shorter as the journey continues and he seems to have stopped writing altogether during the latter stages of the expedition as the Erik sailed out of Baffin Bay back toward civilization.
In conclusion, Boreal Ties does not entirely fulfil its promise of "an intimate and unforgettable impression of two friends aboard ship in the Arctic." Although it is true that Wyckoff and Bement were not much more than tourists, the "stresses of sailing in polar seas ... and the incompetence of the ship's crew, which they themselves became a part of, [and] threatened their lives on more than one occasion," is not entirely true. There were times when ice threatened to beset the ship and on several occasions the captain and crew could have caused accidents because of their reckless behaviour, but neither the dairy nor the photographs reflect that the expedition was in great danger at any one time. In the end it was a rather unremarkable jaunt into Arctic waters when compared to material from other contemporary Arctic journeys.