Early arctic explorers reported seeing birds and animals moving north as winter was setting in, instead of going south, and inferred that they were heading to a warm land in the north. Peary once experienced a heavy fall of black dust in Greenland and thought it may be volcanic dust from unexplored land to the north. In 1904 Dr R.A. Harris of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey published an article explaining why he believed that there must be a large body of undiscovered land or shallow water in the polar basin northwest of Greenland. He argued that the prevailing currents seemed to indicate their deflection by an unknown landmass lying in this approximate area, that the Eskimos living on the northern fringes of the Arctic Ocean had a tradition that a landmass existed to the north, and that the disruption of the tides north of Alaska indicated a moderating effect explainable by intervening land .
Various arctic explorers actually reported seeing land in the distance, though it should be noted that visibility can be very poor, and mirages are very common. In 1811 Jakov Sannikov reported that he had seen a vast land to the northwest of the New Siberian Islands; it was named Sannikov Land. E. Moll claimed to have seen it twice, in 1886 and 1893, and it was marked on maps. Nansen did not find Sannikov Land during his expedition, nor have any later expeditions found it, and it is now thought to have been an ice island. Eskimos in Alaska have sometimes reported seeing hilly land to the north in the bright, clear days of spring. Land in this vicinity was seen by Captain John Keenan and his crew in the 1870s. However, no such land has been discovered.
Another famous disappearing land is Crocker Land, 'discovered' by Peary. He first saw it on 24 June 1906 from the top of a 2000-ft mountain situated behind Cape Colgate in northern Greenland. He wrote: 'North stretched the well-known ragged surface of the polar pack, and northwest it was with a thrill that my glasses revealed the faint white summits of a distant land which my Eskimos claimed to have seen as we came along from the last camp.' A few days later, on 28 June, Peary was at Capt Thomas Hubbard at the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Island. It was a clear day and, from the top of a 1600-ft hill, Peary says that through his binoculars he was able to 'make out apparently a little more distinctly, the snow-clad summits of the distant land in the northwest, above the ice horizon'. At both locations Peary built cairns in which he left a brief record.
Peary estimated that Crocker Land lay 120 miles from the northern coastline of Axel Heiberg Island. In 1914 his friend, Captain Donald B. MacMillan, led an expedition to find it. On 16 April he left Cape Thomas Hubbard with Ensign Fitzhugh Green and two Eskimos, Pewahto and Etukishuk. They trekked out onto the frozen polar sea, bypassing many leads of ice-free water. By the evening of 21 April they were nearly 100 miles from shore, yet nothing was in sight on the horizon, even though the mist had cleared. The next morning, however, MacMillan was inside their igloo when he heard Green shouting excitedly that Crocker Land was in sight. In his diary he wrote:
"We all rushed out and up to the top of a berg. Sure enough! There it was as plain as day -- hills, valleys, and ice cap -- a tremendous land extending through 150 degrees of the horizon. We had even picked out the point to head for when Pewahto remarked that he thought it was mist . . . resembling land. As we watched it more narrowly its appearance slowly changed from time to time so we were forced to the conclusion that it was a mirage of the sea ice."
This phenomenon has fooled many and many a good man . . .
They thought they could see land again in the morning of the 23rd, but it had faded away in the afternoon when the sun worked south and west. Though they advanced a total of nearly 150 miles, they found no land, and MacMillan concluded: 'my dream of 5 years is over.'
After returning to shore, the party found one of Peary's cairns and retrieved his message. Although he had seen Crocker Land from this spot, the record read simply: 'Peary, July 28, 1906.' MacMillan looked out to sea and thought he could see land as well. He believed that if he had been there in Peary's place, he would have declared the discovery himself. Later, Peary's other cairn was discovered. The message it contained stated that on the day Peary claimed to have first seen Crocker Land he had 'a clear view of the northern horizon', yet there was again no mention of land.
Wally Herbert draws attention to the fact that Peary's diary entries for both days also make no mention of his discovery of new land to the northwest. Nor do the telegrams he sent out on his voyage home informing his sponsors of his achievements. Only in his book Nearest the Pole, published in 1907, did he mention 'Crocker Land', which he named after one of his financial backers. Herbert thinks that both Crocker Land, and his highly dubious claim to have set a new 'farthest north' on the same expedition, may have been forced upon Peary by his desperate need to be given one final chance to reach the north pole.
Frederick A. Cook stated that on his journey to the north pole in 1908, he looked for Crocker Land but did not find it at the location given by Peary. However, he said he had seen a mountainous, ice-clad land slightly further from shore, which he named Bradley Land. He saw it to the west of his line of march north across the pack on 30 March 1908, and again on 31 March. It extended from 83°20'N to 85°11'N and was located at about 102°W longitude. It appeared to consist of two islands, and had an elevation of about 1800 feet at its highest points.
Later exploration has not found any land at that location. However, in the late 1940s aerial reconnaissance did reveal a number of large 'ice islands' -- breakaway pieces of the ancient ice shelf -- drifting slowly clockwise in the arctic basin north of Ellesmere Island. Several arctic researchers have suggested that Cook may have mistaken one for land. However, ice islands are much smaller than the features Cook described, and only rise about 25 feet above sea level. Some Cook partisans therefore claim that the ice island Cook saw was not 40 miles away, as he thought, but only 2 miles away, but since Cook claims to have seen Bradley Land in clear weather, this is unconvincing.
One thing is certain: the photograph of Bradley Land that Cook included in My Attainment of the Pole (1911) does not show an ice island but real, ice-clad land. Cook supporters tend to agree, but say that, as with some of the Mount McKinley photos, Cook may have used a photograph of a body of land resembling what he had seen as a substitute for the actual but probably poor-quality photo! Others, like Wally Herbert, see the photo as evidence that Cook faked his north-pole journey. Cook's Eskimo companions are reported to have stated that Cook had not seen Bradley Land and that the photograph in his book was taken off the northwest coast of Axel Heiberg Land.
Prior to his attempt at the pole, Cook had expressed the common belief that land would be found in the Arctic Ocean. He said it was reasonable to expect some rocky islets north of Greenland, perhaps extending as far as the 85th parallel, and that any land would probably have an elevation of at least 1000 feet. His faith in Harris's 1904 paper on the likelihood of a polar continent was probably reinforced by Peary's claim of seeing Crocker Land. It seems that Cook took a calculated gamble by claiming to have seen Bradley Land and marking its location on his map. On his return journey, he supposedly came to within 11 miles of Bradley Land, yet he said he had not see it, though his Eskimos had seen it while he was asleep. But he did not make any effort to reach it and confirm its existence.
As evidence of how Cook's story evolved, it is worth nothing that, in contrast to his later book on his polar expedition, he stated in one of his notebooks that he did in fact see Crocker Land, on 30 March 1908, and he even gives a detailed description. He also stated that he first sighted Bradley Land on 4 April, rather than 30 March, and that on his return journey he saw both Crocker Land and Bradley Land!
Cook asserted that he encountered an island of old, glacial land ice between 87° and 88°N, only 120 miles from the north pole, and travelled over it for portions of two days. He was astonished to discover this island of ancient glacial ice so many hundreds of miles from land. Although it is now known that drifting islands of old glacial ice do exist in the region of the higher Arctic, Cook's photograph of the glacial land ice has proven fraudulent. Wally Herbert discovered that Cook did not print the entire plate in his book. In the Cook Collection at the US Library of Congress, he found an uncropped lantern slide that shows an enormous piece of rock on the right-hand side of the ice. In other words, the glacier is visibly resting on dry land of unknown extent, yet Cook made no mention of this.
Since there is no known land close to the north pole, Herbert and others regard the photo as further evidence that Cook was a liar. The incriminating lantern slide was originally discovered back in 1913 by Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, and led him to renounce his belief in Cook. Cook supporters, on the other hand, trot out their familiar argument that Cook must have used a substitute photograph for 'illustrative purposes'! In his book, Cook expressed uncertainty as to whether the glacial island was floating ice or was resting on land beneath sea level. This may have served as a hedge that some such feature might be discovered, since this part of his route lay across the zone Harris thought might hold an unknown continent.