When a researcher interpreting long-closed documents concluded recently that the legendary Robert E. Peary was not the first explorer to cross the shifting arctic ice to the North Pole, it came as no surprise to Ralph Plaisted.
"We knew Peary didn't do it. All the members of our expedition knew it," said Plaisted, who led a group of nine do-it-yourself snowmobile explorers to the pole in April 1968 in the first "indisputable" conquest by surface.Still, Plaisted was an asterisk in the record books behind Peary until this fall, when original navigational records, uncovered from Peary's 1909 dog-sled voyage, indicated the renowned explorer probably never got closer than 121 miles from the pole.
Though Peary's record has been in doubt from the day he returned, a Senate committee and the influential National Geographic Society, which co-sponsored the Peary expedition, certified his claim in 1911. Peary was promoted to rear admiral in the Navy and retired on a comfortable pension.
"He became wealthy from books and lecture fees, but I didn't," said Plaisted, now 61, sitting in a study adorned with clothing, photographs and memorabilia from his expedition in the large mobile home he shares with his wife.
Plaisted said his own difficulties in the arctic, including a failed expedition in 1967, convinced him that Peary's claim was only wishful.
"He said he went to the North Pole in 37 days and came back over the same trail in 16, and we knew that couldn't happen because the roads we built were gone in a few hours," said Plaisted. "Up there, there're 51/2 million square miles of ocean and it's moving constantly."
For 20 years, Plaisted and his crew, which included a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a doctor and a movie cameraman, had to content themselves with knowing inside that they were first.
Meanwhile, Plaisted ran his own insurance agency until 1971, when he and his family built a log cabin near a remote lake in Saskatchewan and lived for a year on moose and caribou meat, fish and canned food. He and his wife now run a small fishing camp at the site for spring and summer vacationers.
Proof that Peary never reached the pole came when Baltimore astronomer Dennis Rawlins unearthed and analyzed Peary's navigational observations from the day he claimed to have been at the pole.