Looking out my window this morning I see snow, snow, and more snow. But even with a foot or more predicted, this weather is nothing compared to the arctic, and it’s pretty clear to me that I was not cut out for arctic exploration. Reading — and writing — about it is as close as I would like to get.

Living in Maine, I have easy access to a terrific resource: The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College. The museum collects both historical artifacts and arts from the people of the region. When I visited I was able to see one of the sledges used on the expedition, as well as videos, photographs, and journals. These made the journey come alive, and enabled me to add specific details to the story. The staff of the museum, especially curator Genny LeMoine, were wonderful about answering my questions as I incorporated Peary and Henson’s final, successful trip to the Pole into The Water Castle.

The museum is named for Robert Peary and Donald MacMillan, both graduates of Bowdoin. MacMillan accompanied Peary on the 1908 expedition that reached the Pole, but had to turn back early because of frozen heels. (Frozen heels! This is why I am not an arctic explorer.)

Image from Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum
Image from Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

Robert Peary was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, but spent much of his life in Maine. He graduated from Bowdoin and began work as a civil engineer, first in Maine and, eventually, for the US Navy Civil Engineers Corps. Though originally assigned to the tropics, he had his heart set on being the first to the North Pole as early as 1885. He made his first trip to the Arctic in 1886. A year later he met Matthew Henson, and hired him as a valet. Henson would accompany him on all subsequent voyages to the Arctic.

For twenty-three years he planned, plotted, and attempted to reach the North Pole. He developed a system of sending groups ahead to leave caches of food, so the team moved forward in a relay-like fashion. On his various attempts, he suffered a severely broken leg, lost 8 toes to frostbite, but still he kept trying. Finally on April 6, 1909, he achieved his lifelong goal of reaching the North Pole (allegedly — many believe his calculations were off and he was actually about 5 miles short of his goal).

Image from Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum
Image from Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

Peary died on February 20, 1920. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The National Geographic Society placed a monument near his grave inscribed with the words “Inveniam Viam Aut Facium” (“I shall find a way or make one.”) became the motto of the school in fictional Crystal Springs in The Water Castle.  Just like Peary, Ephraim will not give up until he finds the cure for his father.

Robert Peary is just one of many historical figures who plays a role in The Water Castle. Stay tuned for stories about Matthew Henson, Frederick Cook, and Nicola Tesla. In the meantime, check out Chasing Ray’s post: “On Frederick Cook & why men climb mountains.”

Robert Peary: Dedicated Explorer

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