Northwest NEWS

December 28, 1998

Features

Monument planned for historic Arctic cave on Devon Island, Nunavut

Ted Heckathorn

Ted Heckathorn at the North Pole.

Arctic cave

The site of the historic Arctic cave where a monument will be placed.
Photo courtesy of Ted Heckathorn.

by Ted Heckathorn

   In 1908, as the Arctic winter closed in on American explorer Dr. Frederick Cook, he sought refuge in a tiny cave on the desolate coast of Devon Island in northern Canada. With his ammunition nearly exhausted, Cook and his two Eskimo companions resorted to spears, nooses, and rocks to kill musk-oxen and other game for their survival.

   Later they watched helplessly as polar bears raided their food caches. All they could do was hope that the giant bears would leave them enough to survive.

   In spite of the bears and the winter blizzards, Cook and his companions eventually did return to their homes alive. Arriving in Denmark in September 1909, Dr. Cook was acclaimed as a hero for his great journey on the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole.

   A few days later, a rival explorer claimed that Dr. Cook had lied about his journey and his previous ascent of Mount McKinley, Alaska. A powerful media war ensued and Dr. Cook lost. He was ridiculed, publicly humiliated, and later sent to prison, primarily because of his exploring claims.

   During recent years, a number of explorers and historians have investigated his claims and found strong evidence that he was telling the truth. I led a 1994 expedition to Mount McKinley, and in April 1998, guided two tours to the North Pole over much of the route that Cook followed in 1908. In both cases, the geographic and photographic evidence substantiated Cook's narratives and refuted the allegations of his opponents.

   Recently, the Dr. Frederick Cook Society of New York commissioned me to place a 75-pound bronze marker at the site of his 1908 cave on Devon Island. When I visited the site earlier this year, the snow was so deep that we could not find the cave.

   Currently I am organizing a trip to Devon Island in August 1999 so that we will have no trouble placing the marker at the right spot. A scientist who went there in 1985 told me that the musk-oxen bones that Dr. Cook left outside the cave are still there.

   One important change since Dr. Cook's time is that Devon Island will soon be a part of a new country. The whole northeastern portion will become Nunavut in 1999. It will have a population of only 26,000 and cover an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. This is about one-fifth of Canada and equals half the size of non-Russian Europe.

   Devon Island is about the size of West Virginia and has no permanent population at all. During the summer, scientists conduct studies on its interior ice cap, but few visitors ever see the forbidding northern coast where Dr. Cook wintered. When I was there last summer, I saw both the coast and a large depression in the ice cap where a meteorite had landed many years ago.

   This new Devon Island marker will be a fitting tribute to one of America's greatest explorers, who was a pioneer in the Arctic, Antarctic, and on Mount McKinley.

   It does seem ironic that in 1998, Dr. Cook was honored in Russia, Romania, and Belgium for his heroic work in the polar regions, and the subject of a nasty attack on page one of America's New York Times on Thanksgiving Day.