In the annals of the early 20th century polar expeditions that challenged explorers battling the unforgiving elements and thrilled a public riveted by tales of their exploits, there are stories both heroic and tragic.
The heroes whose deeds are lionized in history books and biographies include such legendary figures as:
- Admiral Robert Peary. After decades as a U.S. Navy officer, ironically serving in the Florida Keys and Central America, Peary spent more than 20 years organizing polar expeditions across Greenland and in the Canadian Arctic. On April 9, 1909, he finally reached the North Pole — so he claimed — with an admirably diverse party of four Inuit natives (who names are never mentioned) and Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer. But it turned out that former colleague Frederick Cook claimed he’d made it to the North Pole a year earlier in April 1908, a controversy hyped by breathless newspaper stories back then and still unresolved to this day.
- Robert Falcon Scott. Although blessed with perhaps the best name ever for a daring adventurer, Scott’s 1911 British Antarctic expedition was doubly doomed. The group started out in October with motorized sleds, ponies and dogs. However, the sleds soon broke down and the ponies couldn’t cope with the icy weather and increasingly rough terrain. In December, the dog teams turned back, leaving only Scott and four companions trekking on foot. On Jan. 17, 1912, the men reached the South Pole, only to find out that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beaten them to the Pole. Scott and his men started the 930-mile journey back, but they died from starvation and exposure on March 29, 1912, according to Scott’s logbook discovered by a later search party, tragically just 12 miles from a prearranged supply depot.
- Sir Ernest Shackleton. The Irish-born explorer was famous not for reaching the South Pole, following a pair of abortive attempts, but for somehow surviving the most disastrous polar expedition of all time. In 1914, Shackleton attempted a trans-Antarctic crossing, only to have his ship, the Endurance, trapped and crushed in pack ice, forcing most of the men to spend nearly a year-and-a-half stranded on a barren island, while Shackleton and a small party sailed across open Antarctic seas in a lifeboat to a remote whaling station before crossing on foot a previously unscaled mountain range on the return trip to rescue the rest of his men.
But among the roster of polar pioneers is a lesser known explorer whose exploits — and his infamous Arctic Diet — caused quite a stir nearly a century ago.
Tragedy, and Validation
Vilhjalmur Steffansson was a Canadian anthropologist who, as The New York Times noted in a review of a recent biography, was once described by none other than Amundsen as “the greatest humbug alive.”
But in the early decades of the 20th century, Steffansson enjoyed quite a high profile, thanks to newspaper accounts and magazine stories of his polar expeditions, which resulted in the legitimate identification of some previously unrecorded land masses, along with a more controversial claim to have discovered “blond” Inuit natives, whom he declared had descended from Norse settlers centuries earlier.
In 1913, Steffansson launched an ill-fated expedition to promote his notion of a “friendly Arctic” well-suited for both scientific exploration and commercial exploitation. Just two months out, his ship, the Karluk, was trapped in the ice, and Stefansson and five men abandoned the group, trekking south to Alaska, where, as biographer Jennifer Niven’s book “The Ice Master” described it, “Stefansson was quick to send off his story — though not a search party.”
Ultimately, eight men from the ship set off across the pack ice and were never seen again, while three others died after being stranded for months on a Siberian island before a rescue party reached the remaining members of his expedition.
However, Stefansson later achieved even more notoriety while living in New York City in 1928, not by reimagining his Arctic exploits, but from the publicity he generated living on a diet of nothing but meat for an entire year. His goal was to validate the Inuit’s meat-centric diet, which was based almost entirely on fish and meat from seals, whale and caribou, along with occasional wild plants, supplemented by specialties such as “akutaq,” a mixture of caribou fat, seal oil and salmonberries whipped with fresh snow into what can only charitably be called “dessert.”
A Diet of Turf — and Turf
Of course, the Roaring Twenties were notable not only for Prohibition but also for the rise of vegetarianism and the emergence of “health spas,” such as John Harvey Kellogg’s famed resort in Battle Creek, Mich., that put once-sickly patrons on a vegetables-and-whole-grains-only diet.
As the website Atlasobscura.com noted in an article, “The Arctic Explorer Who Pushed an All-Meat Diet,” Stefansson was ridiculed by the New York press, typified by one story headlined, “Stefansson Braves the Wrath of Vegetarians.”
Indeed, the common wisdom of the day was that eating mostly meat would lead to “rheumatism, gout, and premature old age.”
To debunk those dire predictions, Stefansson and a colleague began a year-long, meat-only dietary sojourn, funded by the Institute of American Meat Packers, and they apparently survived remarkably well eating nothing but steak, roast beef, brains, tongue and calf liver.
The challenge, as it turned out, was consuming enough fat. As the Atlasobscura.com article noted, “The human liver can only process so much protein sans fat without kickstarting the symptoms of protein poisoning: nausea, wasting and death. Fat, and lots of it, is essential to the all-meat diet.”
And independent of Stefansson’s antics, dietary fat is also essential — and enjoyable — as part of a more modern and more balanced diet for those of us not planning an Arctic expedition anytime soon.
Or polishing off a meal with a serving of akutaq.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.