20 Apr The Henson Obsession Project
Even after many years of adventure travel I still agonize over the purchase of a new piece of equipment. With my finger hovering over the “buy now” button at the Baffin.com web site, I weighed the prospects of full commitment to this latest project. The outlay of serious cash for a pair of three-pin ski boots was the first step in putting together an ambitious kit capable of withstanding the harshest cold-weather conditions on the planet. Five years now after a double hip replacement and well into my 51st lap around the sun, I often wonder if I’m past my prime, the best days of my life in the review mirror. But that just makes me mad. Resolved to take advantage of the many rare opportunities that fortune has smiled upon me, I clicked the trackpad to confirm payment.
Just as the sensation of relief washed over my mind and body, I actually felt a chill creep up my spine. In that instant a vague notion crystallized like liquid water into a snowflake, from a soft idea into a hard reality. In that moment I decided. I’m going to the North Pole.
A few weeks early I walked the halls of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The idea had begun taking shape and I went searching for the perfect spot to display a new exhibit. Long before the NMAAHC opened to the public in 2016 I had hoped there would be some reference to the accomplishments of the great African-American explorer Matthew Henson. With more than 400 years of history to recount from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, through the Civil War, the Jim Crow Era, the Civil Rights struggle and the rise of the first black president, it’s no wonder that this relatively obscure adventurer of the early 20th century was overlooked. Having devoted a chapter to Henson in my book the Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, it’s pretty much my mission in life to raise the profile of those individuals whose remarkable deeds in the world outside have been under reported or simply ignored. The exploits of this Black man from Baltimore, Maryland firmly planted people of color in the pantheon of modern adventuring with the first successful mission to the North Pole in 1909. His story must be told
Though U.S. Navy Captain Robert Peary is given primary credit for this achievement, Henson was a critical member of the expedition team. He was a master craftsman who built the sleds for the journey. He trained the dogs who pulled those sleds. And as a speaker of the Inuit language he was instrumental in forging relationships with the native people who were also part of this landmark achievement. He was known among them as Matthew the Kind One.
On the day of discovery, April 6, 1909 it was Henson, driving the lead sled, whose foot prints first pressed into the snow of the North Pole. But it would be almost 50 years, under the aegis of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, a year before his death, that Henson would receive the recognition he deserves as a partner in the expedition. And in the year 2000 the National Geographic Society presented Henson posthumously its most prestigious award the Hubbard Medal. Ironically, the first recipient of this prize was Robert Peary in 1906.
Today I find myself with a bit of a Henson obsession. I am fascinated by all that he accomplished during this era in the United States that witnessed the rise of so much racial discrimination and oppression. As we see a gradual increase among people of color entering into the world of outdoor recreation I believe that it is important to acknowledge the accomplishments of past heroes in order to more firmly cement the roots of the present. Much like the many other wonderful exhibits of historical significance at the NMAAHC I want to see displayed the story of Matthew Henson to inspire modern people from every sector of our society to continue their interest in exploration and discovery into the future.
Truthfully, I could just as easily amass a collection of photographs, artifacts and documents to write Henson’s story without actually visiting the top of the globe. But where’s the fun in that? Just as I’ve conducted reporting projects in Africa, South America and the Arctic a journey to the North Pole would be well within the traditional purview of the Joy Trip Project. But a journey of this particular magnitude requires extensive preparation as well as obsession. So this week I’m heading to Winnipeg, Manitoba for 10 days of training with my friend, Polar Explorer Eric Larsen.
“I’d love it if you’d tell Henson’s story. He was such a badass!” Larsen said to me in 2014 around the time of last major North Pole expedition. “You should along one of my training trips in Canada and then maybe do the big trip.”
It’s hard to imagine someplace colder than Madison, Wisconsin in January. Over the weekend it was -9º on our morning dog walk. And I needed studded tires on my bike to ride to gym for Sunday yoga. On this trip to Winnipeg I, along with several other students, will learn from Larsen how to travel, move equipment and camp in temperatures around -40º. In preparation for a for a trip in 2019 to follow part of the route that Henson took to the North Pole, my goal is to document the experience from a first person perspective and speak knowledgeably about the importance of not only adventure, but the consequences of warming planet. Despite frigid cold weather across of much of North America this past week, abnormally high temperatures around the globe are creating changes in world’s climate that put humanity at risk.
My ambition is to share Henson’s historic legacy of polar exploration within the context of the modern natural environment. As it happens the original 1909 expedition cannot be duplicated today because the conditions of ice and snow at the North Pole have changed so dramatically. The melting ice cap and great expanses of open water have made the journey even more dangerous than it was a century ago. “Historically, you would have ice that was five, six feet thick and that’s relatively stable,” said Larsen in a 2015 article in National Geographic by Kelley McMillian. “Now, the ice is thinner [and] breaks up more often and much more irregularly. As a result, you have a more rough surface area, which is more difficult to cross.”
The inherent danger of a trip to the North Pole notwithstanding, my purpose in this venture is to discover the realities of something infinitely more threatening. Melting polar ice and rising sea levels now compromise the safety and security of everyone on Earth. The changing climate has caused human beings to become vulnerable to coastal flooding, more violent hurricanes, massive wild fires, withering drought, drinking water contamination and the depletion for fertile soil. I believe that if we can raise awareness of the profound impact that climate change has imposed upon the natural environment we can redouble our efforts to correct the damage we have caused.
By creating a historic link to the past I want to frame a discussion that can engage a broader cross section of the American public. Through the power of storytelling I aim to craft a detailed narrative that includes the interests of those that history has so often forgotten, but whose accomplishments in the world of adventure were groundbreaking. Just as we are inspired by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement of the last century to inform our struggles against racial discrimination today, I believe that we can learn similar lessons from those who, like Matthew Henson, overcame difficult odds to explore the most distant corners of our planet.
As if in answer to the declaration of my commitment to this project, I received an email less than 20 minutes after pressing “buy now” on my new ski boots. It was from William S. Pretzer, Ph.D, Senior History Curator at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, who wrote in reply to a query I sent shortly after my recent trip to Washington. “As the curator responsible for the history of science and technology, I am interested in hearing more about your ideas,” the note read. “I am most interested in learning more about the resources, collections and collaborators you have already acquired, the scale and scope of the proposed exhibition, who the audience is, what you hope the project ultimately achieves, and your proposed timeframe.”
The first step in any great undertaking is a definitive act of commitment. For me it was the purchase of a pair boots. I have long believed that with each step we take, moving forward in the direction of our dreams, fortune moves just a bit closer. I’m reminded of this quote by William Hutchinson Murray:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”
In 2018 the Joy Trip Project is moving forward with a new mission. Committed now to physical training, painstaking research and outreach to scholars across the country I aim to tell the story of Matthew Henson in the most comprehensive way possible. I hope to formally open an exhibit at the NMAAHC on August 8, 2020, Henson’s 154th birthday. From this collection of historical information I intend to create a series of educational units for schools to use to teach young people about the importance of adventure and exploration. With a clear objective in mind all that remains now is figuring out how the hell to get there. How’s that for an adventure?!?
Many thanks to all the wonderful sponsors and supporters who have provided free or discounted equipment and clothing for this latest project. Patagonia, Wintergreen Northern Wear, Baffin, Sierra Designs, Kelty, MSR, Outdoor Research and Osprey
Drop me a note in the comments with your questions. To follow along on the Joy Trip Project hit the “Subscribe” link or find me on your favorite social media channel.