Taissumani, July 16

The Secret of Smith Sound



Smith Sound is the body of water separating Ellesmere Island from Greenland at their closest points. It is the route that American and British explorers used in their attempts in the late 1800s to reach the North Pole.

Those early attempts all ended in failure. Often the explorers returned with stories of how they had been on the verge of success. More money and another expedition were suggested as ways to solve the problem.

In 1876, the New York Times published a satirical article ridiculing these efforts. I’m reproducing it here almost in its entirety.

“The record of recent Arctic exploration is exceedingly monotonous. The expeditions of Kane, Hayes, Hall, and Nares, successively started with well-equipped vessels, ostensibly to reach the North Pole. They stopped at Upernavik, in Greenland, long enough to send word home that they were in excellent spirits, and confident of success, and then proceeded up Smith’s Sound, in order to get into winter quarters in the neighbourhood of the eightieth degree of latitude.

“As to how the explorers passed their time while in winter quarters, we have, of course, only their own testimony, but we all know that not one of them ever reached the Pole. On the contrary, they uniformly returned at unexpected periods, with the report that on reaching eighty-two degrees of latitude… they found further progress impossible, and so returned home to mention the fact…

“It is impossible that this sort of thing should go indefinitely without invoking the suspicions of the long-suffering and credulous public. The time will come when people will insist upon knowing what is the attraction which makes most officers so anxious to go into winter quarters in Smith’s Sound. Their pretence of wanting to go to the North Pole is altogether too transparent, and their excuses for returning home without having achieved their professed object are suspiciously contradictory.

“Kane and Hayes asserted that they found an open polar sea, which they could not cross because they were unfortunately unprovided with the proper boats.

“Hall said that instead of an open polar sea there was a nice overland road to the Pole, over which he promised to travel in sledges, but as he died before he was quite ready to return home, he avoided the task of explaining why his promised sledge journey was not undertaken.

“As for Capt. Nares, he informs us that he did not go to the Pole because in so doing he would have been obliged to cross a frozen sea, where the ice was only 160 feet in thickness. What his precise weight is we are not told, but even if he weighs four hundred pounds, the ice was thick enough to bear him. The English people may not be very familiar with ice, but they cannot help knowing that ice 160 feet thick can be crossed, with reasonable care, by even the heaviest naval officer in the service…

“When four successive expeditions spend a winter in Smith’s Sound, and return with the report that they could not reach the Pole because there was too much ice or too little ice, or because there was an open polar sea or because there was not an open polar sea, intelligent people cannot avoid the conclusion that there is something in this business which is kept from them, and will demand to know the true reason why explorers are so anxious to spend a winter in Smith’s Sound.”

Next week I’ll tell about a novel plan to find the North Pole.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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