In an Arctic That Never Was, and Will Soon Be No More
A Lost Note from a Long-Dead Explorer Prophesies the End of the Polar Ice
On May 19th, 1861, 28-year-old American Isaac Hayes stood 15˚ above the Arctic Circle on a seaside cliff on Ellesmere Island, off Greenland’s northwest coast. It was the farthest north any American explorer had ever been. He was, he thought, on the edge of the Open Polar Sea—a legendary ocean at the top of the world closed off by miles of an ice-belt circling arctic landmasses. At the foot of the cliff, sheets of ice rocked in the water. In the distance he saw a solid band of dark blue sea that he imagined also lapped the Russian coast.
As with most polar exploration through the 19th century, his trip had been stalked by death and disappointment: his schooner, far south of him, had been trapped in the ice; many of his sled dogs, which he used to reach that cliff, had died; his good friend, the astronomer August Sonntag, had fallen into the water and died of hypothermia. To say he was relieved by this vision of the sea—which had demanded so much sacrifice—is a profound understatement. He describes himself in a near trance as he stares at the watery horizon.
He tore a leaf from his notebook and wrote a short paragraph detailing his farthest-north claim and this liquid proof of the Open Polar Sea. Wind whipped up the cliff. He put the note in a glass vial he had brought along for the ceremonious occasion, and laid it in a circle of rocks, over which he built a cairn. Then, staring out to sea, his mind floated from the practical—early arctic explorers, ornithology, temperature, inevitable fame upon return—to something far more fantastic. As he later wrote in his account of the adventure, The Open Polar Sea, (1867, Hurd and Houghton),
The thought that these ice-girdled waters might lash the shores of distant islands where dwell human beings of an unknown race, were circumstances calculated to invest the very air with mystery.
If he could return with steam-powered boats to cut through the ice, he thought, he could sail to the polar island people living in seclusion somewhere in the warm water sloshing on top of the world.
Shortly after he stacked the last stone, he readied his sled dogs and journeyed a month and half south to his ice-locked schooner, the United States. From there he sailed to Greenland and then to America where, unbeknownst to him, the Confederate Army had bombed Fort Sumter. Thus, the United States—filled with walrus skins, preserved fish, arctic shrubs, notebooks with temperature recordings, evaporation rates, daylight hours, and poetic prose on Aurora Borealis—returned to Boston unnoticed by city officials, who were preoccupied by the war that had consumed America in the 14 months since Hayes’s departure. The Smithsonian, where Hayes was supposed to send his arctic specimens from a year of collecting, was in Washington, DC, a city surrounded by artillery and pitted with rifle dugouts. Instead of fame and a lecture tour, Hayes was met with an assignment as a surgeon at Satterlee Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the largest Union Army hospitals and where Gettysburg’s casualties were sent. Sawing off gangrenous arms and legs, smock blood-soaked, he might have thought of returning north, to a sky smothered in the jittery green light and dinners of caribou meat followed by coffee and tobacco pipes. It would be six years and after the end of the war that he finally published his account to the edge of arctic ocean, The Open Polar Sea.
Of course, the problem with The Open Polar Sea is that there is no Open Polar Sea. The North Pole is frozen year-round—until it won’t be, in about 30 years. The (disputed) first picture of Americans on the North Pole in 1909 shows Naval engineer Robert Peary and his crew crowded around a hummock of ice, victory flags by their side, a landscape of snow-covered ice extending to the sky. (I can’t imagine Peary et al weren’t disappointed in the same way others were when the moon turned out to be a lifeless desert of dusty rocks.) Some part of me wants to believe Hayes made an honest error in his claim: I wonder how many of us, after a year toiling in -70 degrees, wouldn’t hang on to every patch of dark blue water rippling between the ice sheets as evidence? Maybe he really did see—or thought he saw—something like an ocean. From his book, you can see that he desperately wanted to believe there was something up there, that there was a secret place hemmed in by an impenetrable wall of ice, behind which survived an arctic Eden. Blind optimism and fatigue could explain a lot of honest mistakes in our history.
But if we aren’t so kind to him, we can assume that he published a novel-length lie to build funders’ interest for a second trip with steam-powered ice-breakers so he could reach the North Pole first and receive the immortal fame that Peary took.
There is one error that makes his possibly war-torn honesty hard to believe. The note under the cairn read his coordinates as 81 35’ N and 70 30’ W. The map that Hayes included in his book shows these coordinates on the absolute northern edge of Ellesmere. A quick search of 81 35’ and 70 30’ will show that he was nowhere near its edge, but closer to the island’s center, almost 100 miles south of where land ends and the frozen sea begins. “Boreals”—as I delightedly discovered high-arctic explorers and arctic archeologists sometimes call themselves—will tell you that there’s no way to see open water from where Hayes stated his coordinates. To the east of central Ellesmere is a narrow channel visible from Hayes’s approximate coordinates, but, as one Ellesmere explorer Jerry Kobalenko wrote, “It’s choked with ice except little pockets that come and go.”
The North Pole has never before been so easy to explore. What was once a hard-won sight for the starving, boot-eating, polar bear-hating, hypothermic explorers is now an image-search away. Now that we’ve seen the North Pole’s ice-capped center, and the water below the ice has been claimed (see: Russians plant flag on North Pole’s ocean floor in 2007), and cargo ships are managing to make northern journeys from Europe to China, one of the great mysteries the pole holds is not in the dimensions of its landscape, but in the history of its unknowability. Scattered along the fringes of the Arctic Circle, tucked in cairns through the tundra, they are relics of the last generation to not really know what was on top of the world and, more, assume the most magical.
Two years ago I began asking myself, could I find the Hayes note? I wrote a bunch of boreals to confirm that, no, the note has not been found, thought many know of its existence. If I were to look for it on Ellesmere Island, I thought, would I follow his coordinates to the center of the Island, or piece together a location from his descriptions of landscape and take his word that he was on the northern edge, right on the sea and looking down at ice sheets? It’s a matter of either believing he was wrong in his coordinates or believing that he lied.
The Hayes note has become important to me not only because it predates all other high-arctic notes, but because it represents a vaguely nostalgic and enviable time when the world was still mystery to itself. With the help of texts about Hayes and a senior ranger on Ellesmere Island who turned out to be a history enthusiast, I’ve been able to narrow down the note’s location within the span of a few headlands on the eastern edge of Ellesmere. I imagine the note there, under the arctic stones that Hayes touched in his delirium, once as a sentinel stationed at the gates to the north, and now as a witness to the melt, which I’ve been thinking about more and more in the past week in light of these talks in Paris. We’re reminded that the Earth has warmed by 1.7 degrees since 1880, which was 28 years before the pole was first seen. To rephrase that, as The New York Times ingeniously did this week, “The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.”
Hayes’s note, simply in having been mostly forgotten, left alone, untouched, has been enfolded with relevance as winters pass more warmly. These coming decades will make the note strangely omniscient. Hayes will, one summer in the near future, be right—except for one detail. Instead of ice-girdled waters lashing the shores of distant islands peopled with an “unknown race,” our very real vision will be one of oil rigs, cargo ships, and the machinery of progress. These are not circumstances “calculated to invest the very air with mystery” that Hayes, and his contemporaries, were lucky enough to feel.