National Geographic : 1957 Apr
A Visit to the Living Ice Age 525 Plants, Animals, and Men Defy Subzero Weather and Bitter Winds, Perpetuating Life in the Shadow of the North Pole BY RUTHERFORD PLATT With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author IN THE Far North there is a world so strange, so different from the one most of us know, that a visit to it is like a trip to another planet. It is a world still in the grip of the Ice Age, which several times dur ing the last million years spread ponderous ice sheets over half of North America. I saw this world first from the deck of an 88-foot wooden schooner, the Bowdoin, coast ing the west shores of Greenland (page 526). Two summers I have visited the living Ice Age under sail, a botanist shipping north as a crew member with Rear Adm. Donald B. MacMillan, USNR, one of the last of the pre Air Age Arctic explorers.* Life Persists Even in Icy Wastes Here I have seen what conditions must have been like when the big ice of the last glacial age ground its way as far south as Long Island and the Ohio River. Here, too, I have met people as elemental in their mode of life as the earliest Americans, who huddled in caves against the cold and hunted now extinct animals.t From even a few hundred yards offshore the rock and ice empire of the polar regions, far north of the Arctic Circle, seems totally lifeless. It is almost as arid as a desert. A few inches beneath the surface the ground is permanently frozen. There are no springs, no swamps or bogs as we know them, and few level places. The surfaces are dry through much of the year and terribly exposed to freezing winds. Yet life exists, and even thrives, in this icy waste. When I walked about on shore, I found lichens and mosses, grasses and colorful wild flowers flourishing amid tumbled rock along the face of advancing glacier tongues. Birds wheeled and cried; in clear, frigid ice-melt pools, hundred-legged tadpole shrimps wrig gled and darted in urgent instinct to live out their short life span before their puddles froze once again. In Arctic summer, 24-hour sunlight bathes this world of paralyzing cold and rocky des- olation and brings it alive. It was then that I saw it, at the best time for Admiral Mac Millan to take us to this land of the big ice. Through the years MacMillan has made some 30 polar expeditions by ship. He has sailed his rugged little Bowdoin, specially built for northern exploration, boldly into the ice pack, cruising uncharted waters merely, as he says, "to learn something." MacMillan helped organize the supporting parties that made possible Robert E. Peary's successful dash to the Pole in 1908-1909. Now, nearly fifty years later, having gone north again and again, he still looks forward at the age of 83 to sailing once more "to learn some thing" about the Arctic (page 545). His expeditions have been sponsored by universities, by the United States Government, and by museums and geographical institu tions, including the National Geographic Society.S Scientists, college professors, and research students have signed on as crewmen to study the plant life, rocks and fossils, birds, animals, and people of the polar region. My own goals were three: To see what type of plant life grows at the face of the Greenland glaciers; to visit the site of a fossil forest on the west coast of Greenland near Disko Island; and to find out what nat ural life exists in the Far North. Northward Along Treacherous Shores Sailing from Boothbay Harbor, Maine, "Captain Mac" took us along the treacherous shores of Labrador, zigzagging from point to point inside the reefs (map, page 531). Few men living dare bring such a deep-draft ship so close inshore along this coast. If the skipper of a Newfoundland fishing vessel saw the daring course we set, he * See "Far North with 'Captain Mac,' " by Miriam MacMillan, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Octo ber, 1951. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Ice Age Man, the First American," by Thomas R. Henry, December, 1955. + See "The Society's Hubbard Medal Awarded to Commander MacMillan," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1953.