December 11, 2018
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Adventure is in the blood of polar explorer’s family

For Mardi Thompson George and Tyler Thompson, siblings who live in Hancock, a love of traveling and risk-taking comes naturally.

Their grandfather, Bangor native Harrison J. Hunt, couldn’t resist the siren call of adventure. In 1913, when he was 35, he left a successful career as a country doctor in Aroostook County — and a wife and young daughter — to hop on board a steamship for the Arctic, as part of an ill-fated polar expedition led by Donald B. MacMillan.

“It feels normal to be an adventuring sort of family. I don’t know any other way to be,” said Thompson George, 77. “I do think it’s genetic. I think jumping into the fire with things that are a little dangerous or exciting is in our blood. My grandfather really did not like the cold. So where did he go? To the coldest place on earth.”

Harrison J. Hunt was born in Bangor, the son of Dr. Walter Hunt, one of the founders of Bangor City Hospital, which later became Eastern Maine Medical Center. He was raised in Bangor and later attended Bowdoin College, where he got his medical degree. His first post was in the Aroostook County town of Island Falls, where he was a country doctor for nearly eight years, and which was where he met his wife, Marian.

In 1913 Hunt spotted an ad in the Boston Sunday Herald. Although he’d been considering traveling to London to do post-graduate work, the idea of a setting off into the polar wilderness was far more alluring.

“‘Doctor for Crocker Land Expedition needed. Sailing in six weeks, to be done in two years.’ That’s what the advertisement read,” said Thompson George. “He inquired. He was hired. And he left his family behind and went off into the wilderness. I think he wanted an adventure.”

The expedition was a search for Crocker Land, a massive island that polar explorer Robert Peary, himself a native of Portland, claimed he’d spotted somewhere between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

On the expedition were team leader Donald Baxter MacMillan, scientist Walter Elmer Ekblaw, engineer Fitzhugh Green, zoologist Maurice Cole Tanquary and Inuit guides Minik Wallace and Piugaattog plus Hunt, the team’s doctor who was an imposing 6’3”.

The expedition was fraught with problems from nearly the moment the team set sail from Brooklyn Navy Yard on July 2, 1913. The ship struck rocks while avoiding an iceberg, and the team had to transfer to a different ship, arriving in Greenland during the second week of August.

Things got worse. The team set off in negative 32 degree cold, traveling by dog sled before reaching a 1,400-foot-high glacier. Members of the team suffered severe frostbite, and as the months dragged on, it started to become clear that Crocker Land was as fictional as Brigadoon or Lilliput.

During their time on the ice, the team split up, with Green and Piugaattog setting out to explore other routes, before getting into a fight over sled dogs; Green shot Piugaattog but claimed the guide had frozen to death. A ship that was supposed to pick the team up got stuck in the ice as did a later rescue ship. The local Inuit community gave the team food so it didn’t starve to death.

“A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier,” written by David Welky and published in 2016, paints a vivid picture of the ordeal. Hunt is portrayed as a dogged, no-nonsense character who managed to find provisions, guides, dog sleds and kayaks even in the most remote corners of the Arctic.

Hunt and the others were lost in the Arctic for nearly four years. Hunt eventually ditched crew leader MacMillan and made his own way back to civilization. Such self-reliance has become something of a family tradition.

“Here I am at 77, living alone in the Maine woods, and I’m fine. I know how to get resources. I know how to trust my instincts,” said Thompson George. “I think that’s something I learned from my parents, my grandfather. I think that’s something we all know how to do.”

Hunt finally made it to Denmark on June 1, 1917 and sailed for New York City a week later. After a few weeks telling his incredible story to New York newspapers, he made his way home to Bangor.

In the 1950s, Hunt wrote a book with his daughter, Ruth — Mardi and Tyler’s mother — called “North to the Horizon: Searching for Peary’s Crocker Land.” Hunt inscribed a copy to his granddaughter: “A steady heart and a firm mouth.”

“It means that you can be afraid before danger happens or after it happens, but while it’s happening, you’d better stay calm,” said Thompson George. “A firm mouth means keeping your mouth shut when you think you’d rather say something mean … that’s kind of a family motto.”

Hunt remained in Maine for the rest of his life, spending nearly 30 years as a doctor in Bangor. First, at Eastern Maine Hospital and then in private practice as a urologist at the corner of State and Broadway, treating patients with venereal diseases.

Hunt switched gears after seeing an ad in the Bangor Daily News and ran the Red Cross mobile blood unit for two years in the early 1950s. Then, from 1954 until 1960, he was a traveling doctor on Swan’s Island. He finally retired in 1960 and died in 1967 at age 89.

His grandchildren still have artifacts from his polar expedition, including a tiny kayak given to him by an Inuit guide, a short narwhal tusk and a bear skin rug.

“Growing up, I got to explore the north woods with my grandfather all the time. The woods, the lakes, the oceans. I’m not afraid of them. Neither was he. They are my friends,” Thompson George said.

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