Understanding by Degrees: The Open Polar Sea (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by on Dec 15, 2013 in Arctic Visions | No Comments

OPS Smith SoundDuring the 19th century, some scientists and explorers believed (or wanted to confirm) that an Open Polar Sea existed north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, presumably as an ice-free area of navigable water in the region of the Lincoln Sea. Much like the search for the Northwest Passage, this legendary open sea was thought to provide a more Greenland-oriented Arctic seaway. Isaac Israel Hayes, a medical doctor-explorer, believed in this Open Polar Sea and dedicated most of his life (and health) to its discovery and substantiating its existence. This third and final post discusses Hayes’ “most northern land” that he claimed to have reached.  

In 1853 as a newly-graduated physician, Hayes had served as ship’s surgeon on the Second Grinnell Expedition. This expedition was led by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane on the schooner Advance. New York City businessman Henry Grinnell, sponsored this expedition (as he had a previous one in 1850) to search for the lost Franklin Expedition, which had been sent by Britain in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage.  

Early in 1860, Hayes published his first book, An Arctic Boat Journey, in which he described his arduous if not life-threatening trek from the ice-beset Advance in an attempt to reach Upernavik, a Greenland settlement with adequate resources to send a rescue party to Kane and his scurvy-debilitated crew. Because of extreme cold, a lack of food, and impassable conditions, Hayes and his party were force to return to the Advance, where the entire crew, including invalids, made a heroic 83-day forced march to Upernavik, one of the most extraordinary events in 19th century Arctic exploration. 

Borne out of this extraordinary Arctic experience, Hayes secured funding to lead his own expedition in search of the legendary Open Polar Sea. Leaving Boston Harbor in July, 1860 in the schooner United States, Hayes had with him Kane’s astronomer, August Sonntag. With Sonntag as his second in command, Hayes followed much of Kane’s earlier course along the convoluted shores of Greenland and Ellesmere Island.  

Tragedy struck Hayes’ expedition when his close friend, Sonntag, died of hypothermia secondary to falling into icy water. Sonntag’s death was devastating to Hayes and to his crew, to the extent that they felt the expedition had lost direction. Nevertheless even without an astronomer, Hayes persisted with his quest north to find the Open Polar Sea. This two-year expedition culminated in a harrowing, forty-day push north along the Kennedy Channel coastline of Ellesmere Island. In Hayes’ second book, The Open Polar Sea, published in 1867, he wrote: 

This point, the most northern land that has ever been reached, was visited by the undersigned, May 18th, 19th 1861, accompanied by George F. Knorr, traveling with a dog-sledge. We arrived here after a toilsome march of forty-six days from my winter harbor, near Cape Alexander, at the mouth of Smith Sound.  My observations place us in latitude 81º 35’, longitude 70º 30’ W. Our further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks. Kennedy Channel appears to expand into the Polar Basin; and, satisfied that it is navigable at least during the months of July, August, and September, I go hence to my winter harbor, to make another trial to get through Smith Sound with my vessel, after the ice breaks up this summer. May 19th, 1861, I. I. Hayes.  

The location of Hayes’ “most northern land…reached” has been a matter of scholarly debate if not controversy. Research of historical dairies, drawings, and photographs suggests that Hayes was significantly further south than he stated, possibly in the area of picturesque Church’s Peak (N81º 15’ 30” by W65º 37’ 30”) or Cape Joseph Good (N80º 15’ 7” by W69º 54’ 41”). To further complicate this investigation, In the “enlarged and illustrated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey, Hayes indicated in Note 8. – Page 22:

“In my journey to Grinnell Land in 1861, I further traced the coast line to latitude 82º 45’, and from its shores I looked upon the Open Polar Sea. This is the most northern known land, and the most northern point of it I name Cape Union.” 

This retrospective notation adds one full degree of north latitude (~70 miles) to Hayes’ statement found in The Open Polar Sea. Interestingly, Hayes’ coordinates for Cape Union are north of Alert (N82º 30’ 05”). The concern is whether Hayes could reliably claim to have seen Cape Union, much less “traced” that northern point on foot since his “further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks.” Ultimately, Hayes’ Open Polar Sea may have been a  transient summer polynya, or open area in the ice, in the far reaches of Kennedy Channel or Hall Basin. 

Fourteen years later in 1875, the British explorer George Nares in the HMS Alert reached the most northern limits of Ellesmere Island. Nares’ observations potentially placed Hayes’ northern-attained landmarks into question. This may have prompted Hayes to bolster his authoritative position by publishing the “notated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey before he died December, 1881. 

As found in The Open Polar Sea, “Chart of Smith Sound” shows Hayes’ track north and the longitude and latitude of his claimed most north point attained. While elegantly engraved for publication, this chart contains errors in geographic locations and in latitude and longitude. As discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog, Hayes likely made some fundamental errors in distance calculations. He may have miscalculated his distance north traveled along the difficult Ellesmere Island coastline, his progress significantly impeded by perilous ice hummocks, deep snow, and tiring sledge dogs. 

Douglas W. Wamsley, in his revelatory biography, Polar Hayes, has complied comprehensive research on Hayes’ final push north. According to Wamsley, Hayes’ most northern attained point was closer to Cape Joseph Good or about 100 miles south of Cape Lieber, the point Hayes indicated he reached. Whether or not Hayes climbed to some elevation and peered north into Hall Basin, some debate exists, at least in Hayes’ own writings, that he actually saw ice-free water that could have been interpreted as an Open Polar Sea or even a navigable passageway into Hall Basin. 

With regard to Hayes’ sextant sightings, Wamlsey indicated that Hayes and Knorr suffered from snow blindness, and that Hayes made sextant sighting(s) with an instrument that he had not previously used. Whether Hayes’ sightings (one or more) were made at local solar noon is not known or whether he had a clear view of water or ice horizon. Nevertheless, no doubt exists that Hayes’ longitude reading (W70º 30’) is within the mountains of Ellesmere Island and not along the Kennedy Channel coastline. 

The debate of Hayes’ most north point attained could be solved if modern-day explorers could find the cairn built by Hayes and Knorr. As Hayes wrote in The Open Polar Sea: 

It now only remained for us to plant our flag in token of our discovery, and to deposit a record in proof of our presence. The flags were tied to the whiplash, and suspended between two tall rocks, and while we [Hayes and Knorr] were building a cairn, they were allowed to flutter in the breeze…” 

Subsequent explorers into the Greenland-Ellesmere region found historical rock cairns and gravesites, including that of August Sonntag. The possibility exists that Hayes’ cairn could be discovered, though its contents may be lost. Nevertheless, this archaeological evidence could potentially solve a puzzling 150-year mystery posed by this 19th century Arctic luminary. 

Retrospective Thoughts

From the perspective of someone who admires Hayes and studies his published writings, I struggled through months of angst, attempting to reconcile the discrepancies discussed. My approach was to read Wamsley’s Polar Hayes and eventually to place less emphasis on vexing numbers (degrees and miles). I returned to the books I love and focused on what Hayes does best: exemplary narrative accounts, poetic-like passages, and majestic descriptions. Derived from this personal odyssey of agonizing over maps, nautical charts, and measurements, I arrived at a greater understanding of Dr. Hayes, his historical writings, and published maps that represent personal ambitions, achievements, and a life-long quest for greater discovery and knowledge of Arctic regions. I wish to thank Russell Potter, PhD for his guidance in making this three-part blog possible. 

Frances Hennessey writes informally on Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and other 19th Arctic-related topics. She has a small collection of Hayes first-edition books, two signed by the author. Fran tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com

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