The Quest for the North Pole, Episode 2: Go North, Young Man

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It’s June 1827, and high above the Arctic Circle, British naval officer William Edward Parry and more than 20 men are trudging over the ice from Svalbard to the North Pole. They’re hoping to be the first men to reach 90° North, but it’s not looking good.

No Arctic explorer is more experienced than Parry. He’s already led three voyages to the Arctic and sailed farther through the Northwest Passage than anyone. He’s prepared to face any threat, from extreme cold, to open water, to polar bear attacks.

But now, Parry is beginning to doubt his chances. His crew is hauling their equipment and food on heavy sledges through soft snow. They have to take time-consuming detours when their way is blocked by giant piles of ice. The slushy terrain is soaking the men up to their waists. They’d be fainting with cold if they could actually feel their legs.

They struggle to keep pace with their goal of 13 and a half miles per day—otherwise, they’ll run out of food on their return journey. But something is against them. In six hours, they manage just one and a quarter miles, and after dinner they go only two and a half more, according to their navigational reading. In four days, they march a grand total of eight miles.

Parry’s men are exhausted. Their food is dwindling. And their exertions are not getting them any closer to the Pole.

Only a handful of people had ever been as far north as Parry and his crew. Whalers in the area made sure to leave before the autumn ice closed in—so no one really knew what to expect day to day and season to season. One thing they did know was that the ice, the weather, and the temperature were often unpredictable. The learning curve for explorers who wanted to go north would be steep. But that definitely didn’t prevent people from trying.

In this episode, we’ll dive into the first real attempts to conquer the North Pole, by land or by sea. And we’ll analyze what went so extremely wrong. From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode Two: Go North, Young Man.

A decade before Parry’s expedition, a whaling captain named William Scoresby Jr.—who happens to be my four-times great uncle—noticed a sudden change in the Arctic ice. The vast ice fields that he had observed over the past 14 years as a whaler in Svalbard had disappeared. He had never seen such a dramatic change in the polar region.

Scientist and whaling master William Scoresby, Jr., wrote a letter in 1817 that jumpstarted the British Admiralty's search for the Northwest Passage.
Scientist and whaling master William Scoresby, Jr., wrote a letter in 1817 that jumpstarted the British Admiralty's search for the Northwest Passage. / E. Smith, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

He wrote about the ice’s disappearance to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific organization. Banks had been the naturalist on Captain Cook’s voyage in 1768 and elected president of the Royal Society in 1778. He ruled like a benevolent dictator, and had directed the British government’s scientific priorities for nearly 42 years.

Scoresby told him that thousands of square miles of ocean between Svalbard and the east coast of Greenland was “perfectly void of ice, which is usually covered by it.” He figured that something had forced all of the ice south, where it melted in warmer waters. He also suggested that now would be the perfect time for the government to launch an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. As a quick side note, some scientists today think this observation was a consequence of the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia a few years earlier. But in the 19th century, they didn’t know that.

Back to the Passage. As we learned in our first episode, the Northwest Passage was a long-sought waterway from Europe to Asia over the top of North America. Explorers like Martin Frobisher and Henry Hudson had searched for it back in the late 16th and early 17th century, but little progress had been made since. Mainly because of all the ice in their way, and also a lot of people died.

Russell Potter: So they had old charts and some information from earlier expeditions.

That’s Russell Potter, a historian of polar exploration at Rhode Island College and author of, most recently, Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

Potter: We're going back here to Martin Frobisher in the late 1500s, but there'd been a lull in activity in terms of anything sponsored by the government in that area.

If you were an explorer in the early 19th century and wanted the government to sponsor your voyage, you had to impress Banks, the gatekeeper, first. The Royal Society didn’t actually fund exploration, but Banks had to give your proposal the green light before the government would even look at it.

Scoresby was in luck: Banks could not resist the idea that the Northwest Passage might finally be discovered, and the idea made its way to Sir John Barrow, the second secretary to the Admiralty—that’s the government agency that ran the Royal Navy. If Banks approved an expedition, he could usually convince Barrow and the Admiralty to organize and pay for it.

Unlike today, there was no National Geographic Society or Explorers Club to sponsor expeditions. Aside from a few wealthy benefactors with Arctic fever, the Admiralty was the only organization that launched voyages purely for discovery.

Barrow, like Banks, was obsessed with exploration because it spread Britain’s empire ever farther across the globe. Barrow realized that a program of polar exploration could be a boon for the nation.

Potter: Having won the Napoleonic Wars, there were suddenly a whole lot of ships and a whole lot of men available to do something else with.

The Royal Navy was downsizing. Half a million soldiers and seamen were let go, and dozens of naval ships were taken out of service. But career naval officers couldn’t simply be dismissed. According to historian Elaine Murphy, by the time the navy had been trimmed to 23,000 men, “one in five was an officer and nine out of 10 of them had nothing to do.”

Potter: And I think that's why 1818 turned out to be of a pivotal point. You have the capacity; it seems that it's something you could do that would advance knowledge as well as national interests. And the reports from the whalers, particularly William Scoresby, of course, were that the ice was more open than it had been in some time in that area. And so from his information, seemed like this might be the best opportunity to revisit these long unvisited lands.

Barrow was also an enthusiastic believer in the theory of an Open Polar Sea, which we talked about in our first episode. This theory proposed, for various reasons, that there was a huge, ice-free Arctic sea surrounding the North Pole.

Scoresby, however, totally disagreed [PDF] with the Open Polar Sea theory. Over a dozen years, he had seen for himself that sea ice blanketed the polar region—with the exception of the year 1817. And even if a northwest passage could be found in the Arctic, he believed the unpredictable ice and weather conditions from season to season would make it commercially unworkable.

Nevertheless, he fervently hoped that his letter would lead Barrow to appoint him as commander of a voyage to the Arctic, and maybe even to find the Northwest Passage. His motive wasn’t glory or fame. He wanted to improve geographical knowledge, and he also hoped to find new whaling grounds to boost the British economy. He had years of experience in the ice, he was an excellent navigator, and he originated the whole idea of jump-starting the search. Clearly, he had the credentials, but there was one problem: he was not a Royal Navy officer. And Barrow refused to consider anyone but a Royal Navy officer for the job because so many were out of work following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Barrow went ahead with planning an expedition—an objective he always claimed “peculiarly British”—without Scoresby.

The expedition would explore two possible routes: one, across the top of Canada, and the other, across the North Pole. For the Canadian approach, two naval ships, the HMS Isabella and the HMS Alexander, would proceed across the North Atlantic and search for an opening to the west over Canada toward the Bering Strait. Some of this territory had been charted by Frobisher and Baffin more than 200 years before, and much was still unknown. Barrow appointed a tough and fearless Scottish commander, John Ross, as captain of the Isabella, and William Edward Parry—then a 27-year-old lieutenant—as his second-in-command of the Alexander

The North Pole approach involved two more ships, the HMS Dorothea and the HMS Trent. This pair would head due North from Spitsbergen to the North Pole, following the track laid by Constantine Phipps nearly 50 years earlier on the first true expedition to the North Pole.

Potter: All of these expeditions generally had two ships with the idea that if one were damaged or trapped in the ice, you'd get on the other ship, and that would be your escape vehicle, I suppose. And so it's pretty much what they did.

The flagship Dorothea was commanded by Royal Navy Lieutenant David Buchan, a Scottish officer who had spent most of his naval career around Newfoundland. Not much is known about Buchan because he commanded only one Arctic voyage—this one—and was lost at sea on a voyage from India to England in 1838. He also never published a book or memoir about the voyage because he felt it didn’t accomplish enough to interest anyone.

This map by Frederick William Beechey illustrates the region explored by the HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent on its 1818 expedition toward the North Pole.
This map by Frederick William Beechey illustrates the region explored by the HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent on its 1818 expedition toward the North Pole. / Frederick William Beechey, A Voyage of Discovery Towards the North Pole: Performed in His Majesty's Ships Dorothea and Trent, Under the Command of Captain David Buchan, R.N.; 1818: To Which is Added, a Summary of All the Early Attempts to Reach the Pacific by Way of the Pole, Biospanersity Heritage Library // Public Domain

The Trent was commanded by an up-and-coming lieutenant, John Franklin. And we know much more about him. Franklin was a 32-year-old rising star in the Royal Navy; he had seen action in the Battle of Trafalgar and had circumnavigated Australia. The North Pole voyage would be his first time commanding a ship.

Kat Long: And were people conscious of the dangers and the conditions involved? Potter: Well, yes. Although, partly because they hadn't been up there in such a long time, they had a number of rather peculiar ideas about what to expect. They didn't really understand the extent of permanent polar sea ice at that time. They didn't understand what affected the persistence of icebergs or other hazards along the way. They didn't have any specially prepared ships although I think the general idea was that if they were very strongly built, that would be a good thing. And, of course, some people continue to believe that if you could get through the initial ice barrier, as they called it, there would be warmer water farther along the way, closer to the pole. [...] No one had been up there to test that hypothesis, you might say.

Barrow instructed Captain Buchan to sail along the western coast of Spitsbergen as far as possible in open sea, then force his way through the pack ice without stopping. The Admiralty had told Buchan—incorrectly—that the sea north of Spitsbergen was reportedly free of ice as far north as the 84th parallel, just 400 statute miles from the North Pole.

Potter: Of course, one great way to discover the North is just to head directly North. And in fact, they were, in some ways, Henry Hudson had tried this a long time ago, and they were in some ways following in his footsteps I think that the fallback position was Spitsbergen in part, because they could expect possible assistance, or if their ships were found to be unfit to continue, they could find some passage home.

But no one really knew how long it would take or how difficult it would be. None of the officers in charge had been to the Arctic before (though they did take experienced whaling masters as ice navigators), and no expedition had spent the winter locked in ice, 24-hour darkness, and extreme subzero temperatures since William Barents was forced to in 1596. But the Admiralty had a typically rosy outlook: If Buchan reached the Pole, he was to head for Bering Strait and complete the passage. Or, if that was impossible, he should sail for home via Baffin Bay. If they were lucky, they’d meet up with the Isabella and Alexander there or north of Alaska. It sounded great on paper.

Let’s take a break here. We’ll be right back.

The four ships on the Admiralty’s Arctic voyage left the River Thames in April 1818. John Ross in the Isabella, William Edward Parry in the Alexander, David Buchan in the Dorothea, and John Franklin in the Trent all sailed north to the Shetland Islands, and then parted ways. The Isabella and Alexander turned west, and the Dorothea and Trent set their compasses on Phipps’s route. 

The latter ships ran into an extensive barrier of sea ice at the northwestern corner of Spitsbergen and struggled to force their way through. Chunks of ice came loose from the floes and congealed around them. At one point, they were trapped for three weeks, frozen in place and unable to break up the ice around them to sail free. They even tried placing anchor lines in the ice and reeling in the lines to move the ship forward. After days of exhausting work, they realized a southerly current was taking them backward anyway.

Buchan and Franklin hadn’t made it any farther than Phipps had almost 50 years earlier. And they were in trouble. Ocean currents and winds were piling hundreds of tons of ice against the sides of the Dorothea and Trent, squeezing their hulls almost to the breaking point. 

Frederick William Beechey, a lieutenant on the Trent, said the ship was, “so twisted that the doors of all the cabins flew open, and the panels of some started in the frames, with her false stern-post moved three inches, and her timbers cracked to a most serious extent.”

Toward the end of summer, a gigantic storm nearly wrecked the ships. Unable to sail away from the encroaching coast, Buchan steered the Dorothea into the pack ice, while tremendous waves forced the Trent broadside against the edge of the ice field. “The vessel staggered under the shock, and for a moment seemed to recoil,” Beechey wrote. Another wave curled under its hull and hurled it into the ice. 

Potter: It was so bad that according to Sir John Franklin, who was second in command there, the bell on his ship was ringing as it almost turned horizontal in this thrashing water and ice. Both ships were rather significantly damaged.

When the storm finally passed, they limped into a harbor in Spitsbergen where they made repairs. Buchan and Franklin were forced to return to England, having gotten no farther than previous explorers. Wrote the naval officer and historian Albert Hastings Markham, “the expedition examined about the same extent of the pack edge as did Phipps in 1773, and found the ice equally as impenetrable as he did.”

But England was in the grip of Arctic fever. Their escape from the storm made Buchan and Franklin instant heroes.

Potter: There's quite a popular painting of this that was done in London the year after showing the arrival of the ships at Spitsbergen, and showing all of the wildlife and all of the activity up there. It should have been called the glorious although unsuccessful endeavor, was painted on this giant canvas and displayed in Leicester Square. Franklin even posed for his appearance in it, and then avoided Leicester Square because he was afraid someone would recognize him from the panorama. So it became famous, even though like some others of Franklin's later exploits, it wasn't really a success as such.

Meanwhile, Ross and Parry in the Isabella and Alexander had sailed up the western coast of Greenland searching for an opening in the Baffin Bay pack ice. They reached a large bay between the 75th and 76th parallels, which Ross named Melville Bay. The crews also encountered a group of Inughuit that had never had contact with Europeans. The expedition’s Inughuit interpreter, a Greenlander named John Sacheuse, was able to communicate with them, and the two groups spent several days learning about each other’s lifestyles and customs.

Ross noticed that the Inughuit had knives with metal tips, and asked where they came from, because metal is scarce in the Arctic. The Inughuit said they chipped small pieces from a black mountain some distance away. Ross concluded that they were talking about an iron-bearing meteorite. Ross later wrote, “it was in several large masses, of which one in particular, which was harder than the rest, was a part of the mountain … the others were in large pieces above ground. … They cut it off with a hard stone, and then beat it flat into pieces of the size of a sixpence.” Ross didn’t have time to visit the site, but we’ll definitely hear more about these meteorites in later episodes.

The Isabella and Alexander encountered this enormous iceberg on their quest to find the Northwest Passage in 1818.
The Isabella and Alexander encountered this enormous iceberg on their quest to find the Northwest Passage in 1818. / John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery, Made Under the Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander for the Purpose of Exploring Baffin's Bay, and Enquiring into the Possibility of a North-West Passage, British Library // Public Domain

The Isabella and Alexander battled their way across the ice pack in Baffin Bay to the eastern coast of Canada. They proceeded south along the shoreline, over territory that William Baffin had explored 200 years earlier. Eventually they came to Lancaster Sound, which Baffin had seen so full of ice that he believed the channel would always be impassable. But now, it was open water. Ross and Parry sailed ahead. Thirty miles in, fog stopped their progress. When the fog lifted for a few moments, Ross clearly saw a chain of mountains at the foot of the channel. He had two officers take their bearings and enter them into the ship’s log. He named the apparent landmass Croker’s Mountains, after John Barrow’s boss, the first secretary of the Admiralty. Then, with their path seemingly blocked and autumn approaching, Ross ordered their convoy to turn around.

When they got home, Ross was in for a rude surprise. Parry and a scientist on the voyage noted that they didn’t observe the mountains, undercutting Ross’s authority. Barrow was incensed that Ross had failed to fully explore Lancaster Sound.

Potter: He rediscovered Baffin Bay. He got farther North than anyone had gotten before, but I think his problem was that he didn't have enough risk and enough danger. John Barrow of the Admiralty famously mocked it as a pleasure cruise because there wasn't enough danger. There wasn't enough hazard. He didn't risk losing his life. And so I think even though it was successful, it didn't necessarily play well with the public, but it did have one good consequence. So as he was skirting the edge of Baffin Bay, he came to the entrance to Lancaster Sound, which actually does turn out to be the key entrance to any Northwest Passage that might be.  The controversy over that, which came back to the Admiralty, ended up spurring a second expedition under Parry because Parry doubted Ross's belief that these mountains existed. And indeed they didn't.

They had been a fata morgana—a mirage resulting from the sun’s rays passing through atmospheric layers of different temperatures. 

Long: I always wonder what would happen if Ross had just continued sailing. The whole 19th century would have been different. Potter: That's right. We would just skip the whole thing. It would mean you just cruise on through and come out the other side and return to universal praise. But I do think there is that funny thing. It's a feature of all of these Arctic expeditions, that the undertaking hazards, and the suffering of difficulties, loss of life, or whatever, is actually in a weird way a plus. If you really risk something as you go up there, that plays well back at home in Britain, at least. And if you simply sail around and don't risk anything, or discover anything new, even though you might achieve some scientific goal or another, that's not going to play well back home. Long: Right. So these tales of danger, and survival, and courage were very romantic with a capital R. And so did it spark a lot of interest in the media? Did the public interest encourage the Admiralty to send out more expeditions? Potter: Well, yes, I think so. And I think it is also important that this happened at a time of increasing literacy, of wider circulation of newspapers and magazines. There was the beginnings of a mass culture out there, and that culture was interested in partly, just because it sold newspapers I suppose, but it was interested in that kind of dramatic story. So in addition to the press accounts, you get paintings, you get woodcuts, you get artists renditions, everyone is exceedingly curious to learn more about these things. And everyone comes back, of course, from their expedition and publishes a large folio volume with beautifully engraved pictures showing the strange and wondrous beauties and hazards of this land. So it's kind of a first exploration effort for Britain that has a PR component where all of the books are published by the same publisher. They all come out after the expedition people line up to get them. An inexpensive, smaller version is soon produced, and that actually does fuel public interest. The Admiralty was doing this voluntarily. There wasn't some external imperative and they weren't really competing initially with any other country, but they were competing for public attention with other things. So they really just had to be the star performance for the people back home. Long: It's amazing to think of exploration as a performance, but I guess that does make sense. Potter: It's true.

Though the Admiralty sent many more expeditions toward the Canadian archipelago to search ever westward, it did not attack the North Pole again until 1827.

We’ll be right back.

Between 1818 and 1827, Britain’s Arctic campaign ramped up. Parry revisited the search for the Northwest Passage on three more expeditions to different areas of Canada. At one time he was able to sail farther west through Lancaster Sound than anyone before or since and earned a 5000-pound prize from the British government. John Franklin also went to the Canadian Arctic and charted vast stretches of territory over two land expeditions. One trip went so disastrously wrong that Franklin and his team of British sailors and Canadian voyageurs almost starved to death. This is how Franklin became known as the Man Who Ate His Boots—he actually ate his leather boots when there was literally nothing else on the menu. The expedition was eventually rescued by the Indigenous Yellowknife [PDF] people. 

Their years in the Arctic wilderness burnished Parry’s and Franklin’s reputations as fearless Romantic heroes. They were the most respected members of the informal club of Arctic men at the Admiralty. That’s why, when Franklin and Parry started thinking about another trip to the North Pole, Barrow was all in.

By 1826, it was clear that ice would block any ship that tried to sail to the North Pole. Franklin suggested going by ship on the same route as he had done in 1818, and then walking the rest of the way over the sea ice. Barrow, who preferred Parry over Franklin for the job of commander, made sure that Parry got a copy of Franklin’s plan. Parry quickly made a formal proposal to the Admiralty, which was personally backed by Barrow and the Royal Society.

Though the powers that be would never admit it, much of Parry’s proposal was based on a plan suggested by William Scoresby back in 1815. In a scientific paper presented in Edinburgh, Scoresby said a journey over ice from Spitsbergen to the North Pole could be possible. The key was bringing only a minimum of personnel and supplies, transporting the gear on light sledges pulled by reindeer or dogs, and hiring Native people to drive them. Scoresby recommended lightweight sledges that could double as boats for crossing open water.

Most importantly, Scoresby said an expedition to the North Pole should not start any later than late April or early May, when the ice was relatively flat and still frozen solid. Any later than that, and the higher summer temperatures would melt ice and make travel extremely difficult.

However, while Parry adopted Scoresby’s route from Spitsbergen to the Pole over sea ice, he ignored his advice for how to travel, from the lightweight sledges to the optimum season for departure. And that was a shame. Scoresby had 60,000 miles of experience traveling through ice and had been farther north than any European explorer. In 1806, as the first mate on his father’s whaling ship, Scoresby sailed to 81°30’ North, within 500 nautical miles of the North Pole. The record still stood when Parry began planning his expedition.

Parry brought the exact opposite of what Scoresby suggested. He had two boats that weighed 1500 pounds each—when they were empty. Fourteen crew members were to drag each boat on two heavy oak-and-iron sledges. Fully loaded with food, equipment, and every conceivable spare part, each boat weighed an incredible 3573 and one-quarter pounds. That meant each man—not dogs or reindeer—had to pull more than 250 pounds over hundreds of miles of ice and snow. And in what might have been Parry’s biggest mistake, he began way too late in the year.

In the ship HMS Hecla, Parry and the crew departed London in March 1827 and sailed due north for Spitsbergen. Bad weather and ice delayed the start of the overland journey until June 21, almost two months later than Scoresby had recommended. And Parry discovered that summer temperatures had made his route rough and treacherous. 

Potter: Boats are good for Britain, but Britain and boats go together. Land maybe not so much. Long: Yeah. I mean, it was an interesting overland by sea type of hybrid. Potter: Yes. And I think, as happened a century or so later with Scott in the South using ponies, this idea of having reindeer draw sleds and things, all these bizarre ideas of how to actually travel over the ice, none of which included of course, traveling the Inuit way, which would have worked perfectly fine if they had had dog teams, and people who knew how to drive them.

Parry discovered that heavy rain melted the surface of the ice and created knee-deep pools. Oceanic currents broke up the ice fields and piled the floes on top of one another in huge mounds. When the sun shone, the rays bounced off the reflective ice and caused snow blindness among Parry’s men. Dragging the heavy sledges over the slushy surface and hummocks was impossible, yet the ponding water was too shallow to launch the boats. With every step they took, the men felt shards of ice poking like needles through their sodden boots.

In this illustration from William Edward Parry's account of his 1827 North Pole expedition, men are shown hauling boats on sledges among ice hummocks.
In this illustration from William Edward Parry's account of his 1827 North Pole expedition, men are shown hauling boats on sledges among ice hummocks. / William Edward Parry, Narrative of an Attempt to Reach the North Pole, Biospanersity Heritage Library // Public Domain

Parry calculated that they would need to travel about 13 miles a day to stay on schedule—an ambitious goal in ideal Arctic conditions, but totally impractical in the current situation. On one occasion, the crew spent two hours marching and dragging the sledges, Parry wrote, “a distance not exceeding 150 yards”—about the length of a football field, including the end zones.

Their slow pace was probably not helped by rations of just one-and-a-quarter pounds of food per day. To understand how that made a big difference in the expedition’s chance of success, let’s take a quick detour into Arctic sledging cuisine.

Parry’s men were eating mainly pemmican and ship’s biscuit, two portable and high-calorie foods.

Pemmican, from a Cree word meaning “manufactured grease,” is a combination of roughly equal portions of animal fat and dried, pulverized meat. The ingredients were melted together and then fashioned into bricks, which stayed edible for years without needing refrigeration. Cree people in North America made pemmican with bison, moose, or deer meat and fat, along with berries for flavor and nutrients. Hudson Bay Company traders learned to take pemmican on their long river journeys, and the Royal Navy picked it up from the traders, though they substituted beef for the bison and moose. Parry’s pemmican had been manufactured in London according to a recipe by Dr. John Pocock Holmes, a surgeon who had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada for several years. 

Ship’s biscuits, also called hardtack, are rock-hard baked crackers made of flour and water. They last longer than bread or other kinds of carbohydrates on long sea voyages, but sailors had to dunk them in tea or soup before they could be eaten. Stories abound of sailors breaking their teeth on unsoftened biscuits.

The biscuit on Parry’s North Pole expedition came from Francis Lemann, a well-known bakery that supplied the Admiralty.

According to the Oxford Handbook of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine, a 165-pound man hauling a sledge might need more than 10,000 calories per day to maintain body weight. The caloric content of pemmican is not easy to discern, but a 2004 study found that 100 grams, or about three and a half ounces, of pemmican made from a South Dakota Indigenous recipe had 211 calories. 

The naval historian Janet MacDonald, in her book Feeding Nelson’s Navy, wrote that 100 grams of biscuit equaled 436 calories.

Stay with me here. Remember that each of Parry’s men was getting only a pound and a quarter of food each day. That’s just 20 ounces. According to Parry’s narrative, the daily rations included 10 ounces of biscuit and nine of pemmican. When we do the math, ten ounces of biscuit is 1236 calories, and nine ounces of pemmican is 538 calories. So each of Parry’s men was consuming just 1774 calories, plus what they got from an ounce of sweetened cocoa powder per day and some rum. That is nowhere near the 10,000 calories they should have been getting.

By the middle of July, Parry began to notice that they were not making any progress despite their constant labor. On July 20, their position was less than five miles north of where they were three days before. A brief respite on hard, level ice netted them only four miles after traveling for 10 on July 22.  

On July 26, Parry obtained a reading of their location by the sun. They were at 82°40’ North, about 440 nautical miles from the Pole. Now, an awful realization broke over the group. Parry realized they had actually lost ground. The ice field on which they stood was drifting south—in fact, they were three miles south of where they had been four days earlier, despite having struggled forward each day.

Potter: The trouble was their contrived method didn't make enough progress. The ice drifted South farther faster than they could go North the way they had things set up. So I think it could be an early example of the way in which this British sense of self-assurance and ignoring the solutions offered by other cultures is evident in the failure of that particular expedition.

The southward drift put any hope of reaching the North Pole out of the question. Now Parry and the crew had to survive their return journey.

The highest point they reached was 82°45′ N on July 23, only 172 miles from where their ship Hecla lay at anchor. They had actually covered 580 miles of ice and open water. Parry managed to venture 75 nautical miles beyond Scoresby’s 1806 record and claimed a new farthest north. But as the historian Pierre Berton wrote in his book The Arctic Grail, “had he taken Scoresby’s advice, he would have certainly achieved more.”

Britain’s first two North Pole voyages of the 19th century both ended without achieving their goals. Buchan and Franklin’s voyage of (non-)discovery in 1818 can be chalked up to the leaders’ ignorance of the Arctic conditions. Their only guidance had come from Phipps’ account from 50 years before and whalers like Scoresby.

By 1827, though, the Admiralty should have known better. Its officers had spent almost a decade exploring and charting the polar regions. Just as importantly, they had observed Inuit clothing, food, and shelter that was perfectly adapted to Arctic conditions. Scoresby had recommended in 1815 that traveling lightly, more or less in the way of northern peoples, was the only way to go. But the Admiralty would have never entertained that idea.

Edward J. Larson: When you're talking about these British explorers, and they believed in Britain, they had this enormously elevated idea of the courage and bravery and accomplishment of British people.

That’s Edward J. Larson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration.

Larson: And they could not conceive of any native peoples being better at doing anything than British people. It was the same way that British explorers and the British colonial leaders were in India, or that they were in Africa. They just carried that forward. So I think it was a combination of their ethnic racial biases against these native peoples, which was true throughout the British Imperial Empire. And at the same time, tremendously expansive in view of their own people and their own power, so what they could do. And so you combine the two, they just would think they'd do a much better job of it, and the British could figure out better foods and better packaged foods and packaged equipment.

Parry’s return journey to England in the fall of 1827 was much easier than the one toward the Pole. They were able to kill seals and reindeer to replenish their meager diets and regain their strength. But the Admiralty and the public were disappointed that he failed to reach his goal. Parry must have felt abashed, but he still told the people in charge that he could not think of anything he would have done differently.

Now Scoresby got the last word. In a published rebuttal, he pointed out the obvious fact that Parry did the opposite of what Scoresby’s experience in the Arctic had recommended. After the disappointment of being passed over for leading an expedition in 1818, Scoresby felt vindicated but still hopeful, writing, “whatever probability there at any time was of reaching the Pole by a journey over the ice remains little, if at all, diminished by the late experiment of Captain Parry.”

The Admiralty again paused its investigation of the North Pole and refocused on the “peculiarly British” enterprise of finding the Northwest Passage in Canada. In 1845, Barrow sent John Franklin—who was now a commander and a knight—to make one more stab at the passage through Lancaster Sound. No expense was spared to make the Franklin expedition successful. Two strong ships were stuffed with the latest technology and comforts, including three years’ worth of food, lavish libraries, and a pet monkey named Jacko. The most experienced and skilled Arctic hands were on board to ensure that they would emerge triumphant in the Bering Strait.

But then, they seemed to disappear. They did not emerge on schedule. The British government launched more than a dozen expeditions to search for the missing men. Along with them, American explorers and Hudson Bay Company traders combed the Arctic for a trace of Franklin for more than a decade. They searched literally everywhere except the one spot where evidence of their catastrophe was eventually found. In 1859, searchers found a written note that explained that Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. Several officers and men had also died, and the survivors had abandoned ship. To this day, no one is sure what turned the best-prepared Arctic expedition in history into a disaster.

But one mystery was solved. The dozens of expeditions didn’t find Franklin, but actually did find the Northwest Passage. The puzzle pieces were filling in. The primary goal of Arctic exploration shifted, once again, from the passage to the Pole. And this time, British explorers had competition.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

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