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  • Writer's pictureSusan Flanagan

Bob Bartlett: Ice Pilot | Mariner Magazine

This year the world is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of American Commander Robert Peary reaching, or at least coming very close to, the North Pole. This is the story of the man who took him there, Captain Bob Bartlett, who became Peary’s ice pilot and mariner of the North.

The Hubbard Medal awarded by the Canadian Geographic Society for distinction in exploration, discovery and research is not an honour to be taken lightly. Since its inception in 1906, only 34 people have received the medal including Neil Armstrong, Charles Lindberg, Jane Goodall, George Mallory and our own Bartlett Bartlett of Brigus.

Robert Abram Bartlett was born August 15, 1875 in Brigus, Newfoundland to Mary Leamon Bartlett and Captain William Bartlett. The eldest of 11 children, Bartlett’s father always hoped he would follow in his footsteps as ship’s captain until he realized what a puny and frail child Bartlett was. So when Bartlett turned15, instead of training him to be a sailor, his parents shipped him off to Methodist College in St. John’s to become a priest.

The 150 years of seafaring blood that ran through Bartlett’s veins could not be denied, however, and, despite his father’s wishes, Bartlett skipped out of the seminary and joined the crew of a ship delivering a load of salt cod to Brazil.

“I held that tack as long as I could, but then I came about, eased off and ran before the wind of what I was meant to do,” Bartlett said.

It was mid September 1893 when Bartlett joined the Corisande. Bartlett was 17 and quickly found that despite his supposed weak constitution, the sea life agreed with him.

“…like a magical tonic, the bracing sea air, coupled with daily physical exertion and filling food, worked wonders on Bartlett’s constitution. Rapidly he found himself developing both physical prowess and nautical know-how,” Paul Sarnoff writes in Bob Bartlett Ice Pilot (p. 24).

On the return trip to Newfoundland with a full load of Brazilian bananas, the Corisande crashed against Devils’s Chimney off Cape Race and was smashed to smithereens. Skulking home to face his father’s wrath, Bartlett was happily surprised to not be scolded, but instead be invited to captain his father’s boat, the 120-foot long Panther built the same year Bartlett was born.

Bartlett’s first mission as captain was to ferry his mother and ten siblings to their summer fishing grounds off the coast of Labrador. In his father’s absence that summer, Bartlett was king of the roost and made decisions affecting his often older and more experienced relatives who also came every summer to Turnavik to fish. For example, on his first excursion to the fishing grounds, Bartlett decided where the fleet would drop anchor to fish. There was some dissension among the ranks of older, more experienced relatives, but Bartlett’s decision was sound.

“Nothing breeds confidence as much as first success. And the coming home to Turnavik at the end of his very first day in command, with his ships ‘choked with cod,’ instilled in Bartlett a confidence in himself that he carried for the rest of his life,” says Sarnoff.

It was here in the summer of 1893, on the small island of Turnavik, that Bartlett first set eyes on Commander Robert E. Peary of the US Navy. Bartlett’s Uncle John was commander of Peary’s ship, The Falcon.

“He was a lean, rugged man: trim as a schooner on the way to the banks,” said Bartlett of Peary.

It wasn’t until 1898 after Bartlett had taken his master exams and became a captain licensed to operate any size vessel, on any ocean in the world, that he first signed with Perry as first mate aboard the Windward, a giant three-masted ship that his Uncle John was commandeering.

Peary, a civil engineer, had taken a five-year leave of absence from the Navy to make an attempt for the North Pole. He had already been to the interior of Greenland several times.

It was on this voyage, on which Peary hoped to sail within 500 miles of the pole, that Bartlett first learned to navigate through the huge slabs of ice that formed the polar ice pack.

“To say I was scared would be an understatement,” Bartlett confessed. “But Uncle John simply smiled at my distress. Calmly he urged me to be patient. Confidently he assured me the ship would find a suitable channel through the pack.”

Bartlett’s Uncle John taught him the importance of correctly guessing the amount of time he had to navigate through a passage in the ice before it closed again crushing the vessel. These were lessons that served Bartlett well on later expeditions when he found himself in command.

Bartlett also discovered that he was just as much at home in the frigid north - where exposed skin froze in minutes - as in his parents’ warm living room in Brigus.

“Often, icicles would form, hanging down like tusks from Bartlett’s nostrils. But he knew that breaking them off would tear away the skin, so he patiently waited until he was inside an igloo and the ice spears melted away from the heat of the seal lamps,” Sarnoff writes.

Bartlett quickly became a trusted shot with a gun and provider of meat, earning both Peary’s and the Inuit’s respect. As a result Peary appointed Bartlett supply chief of the expedition.

Although the Windward became iced in 800 miles from the pole, Peary set a new goal to establish a supply base 200 miles north so that he would have a cache of supplies in place for his next expedition. He set out in a sixty below gale in December 1898 to sled north to Fort Conger to establish the supply base. It wasn’t until two months later that Peary reappeared, strapped to his sled. Eight of his toes needing immediate amputation.

After the supply mission Peary estimated it would take four years to raise the funds for a new ship with ice-breaking capacity and for a new attempt at the pole. He invited Bartlett, who he came to admire and trust, to stay on with him in Cape York, Greenland to help design the new ship and expedition.

Bartlett took him up on the offer and didn’t return to Brigus until the summer of 1900, his reputation as Peary’s confidant and right-hand man, preceding him. For the next three years, while he waited for word from Peary to return north, Bartlett captained two sealing vessels, the Kite and the Nimrod out of St. John’s with great success.

The summons came in February 1905 for Bartlett to pick up the brand new 181-foot steam ship, Roosevelt, in Maine and captain her North. On July 16 they sailed out of New York in hopes of reaching latitude 80 degrees, farther north than any vessel had ever sailed.

The Roosevelt, although new and expensive, ran into innumerable problems en route to meet up with Peary. Two of the three boilers exploded in Halifax, the blubber of whale meat, taken on board to feed the sled dogs, seeped into the wood on the deck causing the ship to sink, and an errant cinder caught the whole works on fire.

Finally the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan, 425 miles from the pole. Peary split his group into three parties with the intention of establishing forward bases so he could have support in his push to the pole.

Each party was led by a member of Peary’s main staff and with Inuit guides. The first party was led by Peary, the second, by Matthew Henson, often described as Peary’s man servant, and the third was led by Bartlett. Everyone who signed on to the expedition had to sign confidentiality agreements saying they would not report a single word about the mission.

That honour was to fall to only Peary. The bases were complete in the spring of 1906.

On April 21, 1906 Peary’s party reached 86 degrees 6’ north, 174 miles form the pole, when a huge lead opened in the ice and the team was forced to turn back.

While up north, a huge gaping hole formed in the hull of the Roosevelt, the rudder and propeller broke and on the return trip they ran out of coal and had to begin burning pieces of the ship.

On Christmas Eve 1906, while Peary was being feted all across North America, Bob Bartlett sailed the crippled Roosevelt into New York and returned to Newfoundland where he took on the job of sealing captain in the spring of 1907. Unfortunately for Bartlett his ship the Leopard suffered the same fate as the very first ship he sailed on: it sank off Cape Race.

It wasn’t until spring of 1908 that Peary once again telegrammed, requesting Bartlett captain the Roosevelt once again, this time for the final push to the pole. On the deck of the Roosevelt - besides 49 irate Inuit who Bartlett forbade to smoke on deck after the fire the last trip - were piled 550 tons of coal, 70 tons of stinking whale meat for the dogs and 246 savage dogs.

“To my dying day, I shall never forget the frightful noise, the choking stench and terrible confusion that reigned aboard the Roosevelt as we swung into the pack of Kane Basin,” Bartlett said later.

Bartlett guided the ship safely to Cape Sheridan and from there Peary instructed his men to keep a path open between the vessel and Cape Columbia to the north. This kept them busy all through the winter of 1908 until in the spring of 1909 Peary directed Bartlett to lead the pioneer party on the final push to the pole.

With his group of Inuit, Bartlett made it to latitude 86 degrees before falling into a crevasse on march 27 and getting rescued by the Inuit.

“No man had ever fallen into an Arctic crevasse and lived. But the luck of the Bartletts did not desert me.”

Bartlett went on to 87 degrees 47’ and could have easily made the pole but knew that Peary wanted to conquer it for himself and the people of the United States, who had funded his missions. So he waited for Peary at 88 degrees north, only to be ordered to turn back.

“I’m sorry that I can’t let you go along to the Pole. But you must see that this victory has to be for America… No country but mine can have this prize. It would not be fair to those who put their faith and money behind me.”

So there it was, Bartlett was turned back on the final lap while Peary continued on reporting later that he had hit the Big Nail, as the Inuit called the Pole on April 7, 1909.

Back at Cape Columbia there was no way of getting the news out to the rest of the world and it wasn’t until September when the Roosevelt made it to Battle Harbour to wire the news that the North Pole was an American prize that they got the stunning news that the surgeon on Peary’s 1891-93 voyage, Dr. Frederick Cook, had reached the pole just a few days before them.

A century ago, politics were just as vicious as they are today. Two New York newspapers, the Herald and the Times, were bitter rivals and decided to support different explorers. Because Cook’s mission was backed by The Herald, the New York Times decided to back Peary and spent tons of money and manpower trying to discredit Cook’s claim.

The dispute, although quieter, continues 100 years later. Did Peary and Cook make it to the North Pole within days of each other? No one knows for certain.

After the glory of New York, Bartlett returned home to captain the Neptune, a fishing schooner.

But not for long.

Within a year he received a telegram from Vilhjalmur Stefansson, another polar explorer who wanted Bartlett to help him explore between the north coast of Alaska and the Pole. So it was that Bartlett entered another chapter in his ice pilot life and went onto captain the ill-fated Karluk and embark on one of the greatest maritime rescue missions of all time.

But that, my friends, is another story.

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