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Book addresses a 'polarizing' debate

Montgomery College librarian examines lives of two explorers

The (Frederick) News-Post

MONROVIA - Robert Bryce doesn't think he has definitively debunked the accomplishment of Admiral Robert E. Peary, long recognized as the first explorer to reach the North Pole.

"Geographers have been edging away from Peary's claim for 10 years," Bryce said, while another explorer, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, has gotten some attention from historians.

But Bryce's book, "Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved" examines the claims of both early 20th-century explorers and comes to the almost-unheard of conclusion that neither man made it to the pole.

Bryce, 50, is a librarian at Montgomery College who lives near here with his wife and two sons. His book on Cook and Peary is his first.

To finish it, he worked late evenings and weekends over a period of eight years and took a five-month sabbatical.

Then to his surprise, Stackpole Books, a historical publishing company in Pennsylvania, bought the book. Since its publication, it has already received notice in major newspapers, including the New York Times and The Washington Post.

Bryce wrote "Cook & Peary" using a voluminous mix of letters, diaries and eyewitness accounts of Cook's and Peary's separate 1908 and 1909 attempts to reach the poles. In 1,000-plus pages, Bryce examines the goals and ambitions of the two men, and probes the inner forces that drove each.

"Cook & Peary" got its start when Bryce read a book about the polar explorations. He became fascinated with explorers, whose tales stood in contrast to his own bookish life.

The book, "Weird and Tragic Shores," by Chauncey Loomis, described the death of Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall.

"It made me depressed, but fascinated," he said. "This guy had a mad dream."

He wanted to delve into the dreamer qualities of Cook and Peary.

Explorers, like athletes, are usually not seeking something physical. Rather, they're seeking to surpass a barrier that often exists only in the mind, Bryce said.

"Peary wanted world fame and was casting about for this when the chances of life led him to Greenland," Bryce said. "He saw himself as the hero in a great saga by being able to vanquish nature to show one man could prevail."

Cook wanted to prove himself superior to his peers by doing something no one else had ever done, Bryce said.

"He saw it as a spiritual and physical test," he said. "Dr. Cook had great self confidence that he could do things others couldn't do."

Peary and Cook met on Peary's first expedition to Greenland, when he hired Cook as his surgeon. After that, their lives were inextricably intertwined. After the polar expeditions, they spent much of their lives trying to discredit each other.

Bryce has no illusions his book will settle the matter.

To the public, Cook seemed an honest person, until Peary discredited him. But a tiny minority kept up a belief in Cook, and that belief persists to this day.

A member of the Cook Society was recently quoted in the New York Times saying the Society doubts Bryce's conclusion.

"It tells you something about the way people deal with reality and truth, and how we interact with life," Bryce said. "Truth is very elusive. I've found there's nothing that is absolute truth."

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