The Shameless Diary of an Explorer

The Shameless Diary of an Explorer

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by Robert Dunn

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In 1903, aspiring journalist Robert Dunn joined an expedition attempting the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Led by explorer Frederick Cook (who would later win infamy for faking the discovery of the North Pole), the climbers failed to conquer McKinley, but they did circumnavigate the great peak—an accomplishment not


In 1903, aspiring journalist Robert Dunn joined an expedition attempting the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Led by explorer Frederick Cook (who would later win infamy for faking the discovery of the North Pole), the climbers failed to conquer McKinley, but they did circumnavigate the great peak—an accomplishment not repeated until 1978. The trek also spawned a book unique in the literature of exploration: Dunn’s frank, sardonic, no-holds-barred look at day-to-day existence on an Alaskan expedition.

Before Dunn, most such accounts were sanitized and expurgated of anything unflattering. Dunn, however, a protégé of the muckraker Lincoln Steffens, endeavored to report what he saw, with panache. And what Dunn reported was a journey rife with conflict, missed opportunity, incompetence, privation, and danger. By showing men reduced to their rawest state, the young journalist produced a compelling, insightful, and oddly amusing book that disturbed and riveted his contemporaries. As Hudson Stuck—the Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon who completed the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1913—observed, “[Dunn’s] book has a curious undeniable power, despite its brutal frankness. . . . One is thankful, however, that it is unique in the literature of travel.”

Editorial Reviews

Lincoln Steffens
A classic on exploration.
New York Times Book Review
[Dunn was] a man bent on adventure and ready to face the dangers and hardships that adventure brings.

Product Details

Kessinger Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

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The Master Motive

This is the story of a failure. I think that success would have made it no more worth telling. It is about an exploring party, the sort that so often fails. . . .

Fountains of youth, or eldorados, or wider realms for cross and conscience-these seemed to lure a younger world to unknown regions. To-day men explore for the iron crown of science; they say that they do, at least.

But I believe that neither biology to-day, nor gold nor the creeds of old, have ever been the explorer's master motive. His real ardor is more profound. It has revealed and civilized our sphere. It stirs the thirst to discover and subdue which vests the very fiber of our race; makes us ache for tumult and change, for strife for its own sake against big odds. The true spirit of the explorer is a primordial restlessness. It is spurred by instincts of pre-natal being and a cloudy hereafter, to search the glamour of unknown peaks and seas and forests for assurance of man's imperfect faith in immortality. It is a creative instinct.

The explorer seldom speaks of it openly; he is not unwilling, but he cannot. He is inarticulate, like the victim of a passion. Few but he can understand his inspiration. The world asks of him purposes more obvious. He cites a widespread fervor; of old, perhaps religion; to-day, he will name science. And these are or have been his impulses, in part; and the world can grasp them. Science is the natural heir to the cross as the public avatar of exploration. Each is sponsor for the Unknowable; one was, one is now, the Aladdin lamp of the Improbable.

But science is a cold ambition, remoter from our master motive thanthe world's old notions of exploration, vain as they would seem to-day were they not dead in us. Maybe no peaks remain, flushed with the light that forswears mortality; no unknown seas to shatter doubt with wonder. That I do not believe. For men still roam over a world too wide for any map, and when restlessness and action for its own sake inspire us no more, our race will deserve to die.

All reverence to science! Yet I know this: The elder explorers related what quickened the life and visions of their time, and quickens ours, rousing men to ever harder ventures. Few who seek the iron crown stir us so now. Few men in the street see the "use" of exploration, in the North, especially. To many, explorers seem vain men seeking short cuts to fame, or persons who waste time, energy, and wealth, to win the Impossible, to learn the Unprofitable. And this cynicism appears to be not all the fault of laymen's apathy, or of explorers' dumbness.

If the earth is smaller and tamer than in the old days, our sympathies are warmer and the whole world's heart is more alert. It craves, above all, knowledge of itself, for it is a more complex and interesting old world. The life of man as it is, naked and unshadowed, brutal maybe, life under every stress of fortune-that wins the hungry ear and the deeper charity of these present hours. And life has thus been searched and exploited almost everywhere all lands over, except: Among us who seek on enchanted rivers an answer to those under-thoughts that make life at once a tragic and an ecstatic thing, who dare for nothing but the cause of daring, who follow the long trails.

Men with the masks of civilization torn off, and struggling through magic regions ruled over by the Spirit of the North or of the South; human beings tamed by the centuries, then cast out to shift for themselves like the first victims of existence-they must offer the best field of all to help this knowledge of ourselves. He knows life best who has seen it nakedest, and most exotic. So he that goes plainspoken from the city to the outer waste should become indeed quite wise. He might tell how the weakling's eyes blazed with courage and reproach when his leader turned back disheartened, or in what words the athlete of the avenue may be the first to whimper at starvation; and men would sit up and see some of their children in a very, very large perspective. And in telling the truth about others, a man might reveal it about himself, which would be best of all.

The passions of the long trail bring out the best in men and the worst, and all in scarlet; and while the law of compensation, which keeps life livable, provides that in the after-memories which form existence, only what is pleasant survives, I hold that it is unfair to nature and the blessed weaknesses which make us human to divert by one hair's breadth in any record of the trail from facts as you saw them, emotions as you felt them at their time. To distort or hide, in deference to any custom, or so-called sense of pride or honor, simply is to lie. The tragic moments in the heat of the trail's struggle, the event as it affected you as you then were-to note that with all the passion or heroism, the beastliness or triumph, of the moment-must not such a record in the end turn out all fair? And true as can be?

Exactly this honesty explorers to-day do not attempt. From their stories I get in my mouth a horrid taste of varnish. Modestly they derogate all heroism or cowardice in the outer places, and dryly, oh, how dryly! Whatever may beget that big perspective, that in particular is hidden-the while from the borders of beyond you hear rumors of quarrels on the floe, of heroic forbearance, of trivial impatience. But never a living man or human act! And little science, either. A conclusion relates: The real results of this expedition will appear during the next ten years, one volume a year, printed in Latin by the society that financed us.

I do not accuse science directly of this concealment; only, science is the link between the world and the explorer, the key to what he gives it in answer to its encouragement and its instinctive interest in him. But it surely seems to me that the modern explorer deliberately avoids illuminating the world in a corner which is very dark, which he knows best. Wherein, after and beyond all others, he has chance to tell the greatest human truths, he has to all intents-deceived. If he is pledged to exactitude about his diptera, is he not obliged, in relating human deeds at all, to record as truthfully and in full how the outer waste and the ego of each companion uplifted or scarred his own? Is not this human obligation the greater one, in justice to the explorer's self as stirred by his master motive, and to the world whose encouragement unwittingly has the same source? If such a record be not as direct, as full, as frank, as his registry in science, by what hypocrisy under the sun has he right to state at all the words or acts of any fellow?

But when I proposed to reveal life as I saw it in the back of beyond, in order to realize something of that large perspective, I was met with silence, or cant. It was against the custom of exploration; it would harm the business, destroy order and discipline. It wasn't loyal to one's companions in the battle of the trail to record words and acts for which their saner selves were not responsible; and besides, much happened in the outer places which the world had better not know, said some explorers. Everywhere I encountered the inhuman repression which one associates with science; not with that experimental science of the daring and uplifting imagination, but with that jealous sort that disputes and differentiates-a justification for deeds of inspiration, not their honest end. Loyalty to truth was gaped at. Apart from malice, such an idea was inconceivable to these persons.

Disloyal? To be insincere is disloyalty. Human nature in the large is concrete; men are responsible beings, wherever in the world, at whatever task-else we have no need of law, and the insane expert must rule us. It is insincere to deny a man responsibility for his acts, dishonorable to pervert by gloss or omission the significance of any of his deeds, noble or ignoble.

Custom and false standards of honor have stultified exploration. To-day the world dwells mostly on the sensational fact of winning pole or peak, oblivious that the long human struggle, inspired by that master motive which mitigates endurance and suffering, are to the explorer his real end, consciously or not. Although it needs aid from a liberal world, exploration in the true sense never was or can be a business; and order and discipline are primarily vested in the force of honest and inspired personalities. Viewed thus, it is hypocrisy to accuse outspokenness with malice. And what, to-day, I ask, had the world better not know?

This Diary is an attempt to give, perhaps for the first time, a glimpse of that large perspective. Yet I went on this expedition through Alaska with no such idea in mind. I started and maintained my record with the sole idea of stating facts as I saw them, emotions as I felt them at their time. Only after the job was all done did its meaning show clear.

Maybe it has been a shameless task. I know that it is without malice. For heaven's sake do not read these pages with charity. Its words as they appear here were so written at the time that the events and feelings which they represent occurred; if not always in present order, or exact form of sentence, immediately from notes, and on the trail. Only clearness demanded the few insertions, public taste insignificant omissions.

I know that the whole truth is always beyond reach. Sometimes you think that there cannot be such a thing. Utter self-detachment is impossible, and the greater the human strain, the more remote. The tension of the trail casts a shadow over life, could we dispel which we should be gods. To tell the truth about other people is hardest of all. But if you are honest at it, you may reach at least one end: You will have told the truth about yourself. It is beyond the power of words or art to make any one feel exactly as I have felt

a-crossing the Alaskan tundra. Afterwards, you seem to have written of stage rivers, stage swamps, property horses; of unreal acts, and words, and shifts of human feature. Under that tension, the human ego, with its warring equations, instincts, race traits, will seem to have distorted brain and hand; added futility to injustice. In the after-comforts of home, you may seem to have libeled companions whom in the field (under that uncontrollable restraint that all men feel beside a fellow with his mask off) you felt sure you gave less than their due. But the vision of which life, afield or by fireside, is the more searching? That in the outer waste, I think.

The journey was no polar dash, no battle with a tropic jungle.

It involved no heroic struggle for life, though we were always in utter wilderness. Yet no explorer, knowing the peculiar scourges of summer travel in Alaska, as we had to undertake it, would afford

to smile at us. Perhaps we were ill-equipped, incompetent. We did the best we could with the resources at hand. At any rate, our masks of civilization again and again were torn off, and-nakedness is nakedness; and-all in all we tried our hardest. Therein lies fitness enough for an inkling of the large perspective. I know that I am an explorer only potentially, in spirit. I would not presume to try a task harder than this Diary relates.

We failed. Failure is more than the average lot of any venture. It is typical, and through its dark glass human nature appears more colorful and more complex than in the raw light of achievement. So I think that failure, more than less, helps the significance of this record. That our task may since have been accomplished bears not at all upon it. The fiascos could reveal more of the big perspective than the successes of exploration, and give it more honest touch and a brighter future with all men.

We of this journey had no mutual obligations, except those that bind laborers in the same shop. I am under no debt of sentiment or gratitude, subjective or material, to the men of this Diary. How to do each day's work with least friction of limb and soul-that was our one problem. Restraint was imperative overtly on the trail, and there alone was exigent for physical reasons. How each of us helped or hindered the day's work is all my story. We were not friends in any sense admitting sentiment. Yet I believe that I have given, and now give, the men with whom I traveled no reason to be my enemies. I believe that no motives of any sort distort my written record, except the elements of my own temperament and heritages. And I hope that in reporting any inherent vanity in my fellows, I have hit off hardest my own insufferable egotism.

Copyright 2001 by Robert Dunn

Meet the Author

Robert Dunn wrote this book at the age of twenty-six after serving as the expedition's geologist and second in command. In 1905 he explored the wilderness and surrounding Mt. Wrangell, a 14,613-foot volcano two hundred miles east of Mt. McKinley. Dunn died in 1955.

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