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What Would Peary Do?

What Maine's polar explorers have to teach us about schmoozing outside during a pandemic winter.

Admiral Robert E. Peary
By Brian Kevin

You know who else passed a lot of time outdoors in frigid conditions while enduring long periods of relative isolation? Polar explorers, that’s who. In non-COVID times, a visit to Bowdoin College’s Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum is a great way to remind yourself that even in the depths of a Maine winter, things could be worse. The space is closed during the pandemic, but the museum’s excellent online exhibitions — full of images and accounts from the journeys of Admiral Robert E. Peary and other expeditioners, as well as from the Arctic’s First Nations peoples — achieve much the same effect.

What might Peary and his ilk have to teach us about schmoozing outside with friends and family during a Maine COVID winter? We talked to Dr. Susan Kaplan, director of the museum and Bowdoin’s Arctic Studies Center, about the habits of polar explorers, and a few threads emerged. 

Layer Up

“If you’re going to be outside,” Kaplan says, “you’ve got to dress in layers.” The Admiral’s red long undies were among the most popular artifacts displayed in a 2009 exhibit marking a century since Peary’s last Arctic expedition. They’re neat because of the clever pockets that Josephine Peary sewed on, so her husband could keep instruments where he knew they wouldn’t freeze, but also, Kaplan says, because “here you have this really dignified guy, and underneath all that: bright-red long underwear.” Whatever color you prefer, a snug base layer is no less important today, though your options won’t be as exotic as some of the museum’s artifacts, many of which were made or inspired by Inuit and Yupik peoples: a bird-skin parka (“beautiful, basically down,” Kaplan says), boot liners made from grass (“it’s insulating, but it also absorbs moisture”), and raincoats made from seal and walrus intestines (“extraordinary items . . . it’s a completely waterproof garment”). 

Keep Active

Josephine Peary, who became the first woman ever to take part in an Arctic expedition, in 1891, “got out in the dead of winter and made sure she was out for a walk every day,” Kaplan says. In the 24-hour darkness, no less. Her journals note the walks’ importance for both her mental health and her body temperature. “A clear day,” begins a typical entry, “the stars are twinkling and the air is delightful, but one must exercise to keep warm.” Also, to stave off existential dread: when Peary led his teams way out onto the sea ice — so far that his Inuit guides got nervous — his young assistant Donald MacMillan, a former gymnast, organized mini–Olympic Games on the floes to distract the men and break the tension. You need not be so competitive, but why not catch up with friends during COVID by, as Josephine writes, “indulging in long snow-shoe tramps”?

Have a Hungry Mind

Explorers’ accounts suggest that those who thrived in the extreme circumstances were those most committed to learning from them. Take a page from Peary, who loathed idleness and kept his men busy taking tidal readings and jotting down bird observations. Kaplan tells of geologist and biologist Walter Elmer Ekblaw, who joined an expedition led by MacMillan in 1913 and saw each frigid day as an opportunity for self-improvement. He and his shipmates tried getting into opera on their steamship’s gramophone, they taught themselves to bake, and Ekblaw threw himself into collecting geological, zoological, and botanical data. When ice and poor weather trapped the party in northwestern Greenland and a planned two-year journey tacked on two more years marooned, Ekblaw was unfazed. “During those four years,” Kaplan says, “the guy just had a blast.” 

Online exhibits at the Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum include Kajak!, a deep dive into the construction and use of traditional kayaks from Greenland, Labrador, and elsewhere. 

Read more tips about COVID-friendly winter outdoor hangs!