We as a species have always yearned to tame our planet, to understand it and discover its secrets. Since the dawn of mankind we have looked over the horizon and wondered what lie beyond it, and been infused with the desire to penetrate out into the uncharted wildernesses of the world to find out. We have mapped out our world and expanded our understanding of our planet through this innate drive, yet while many of the great explorers have come back from there journeys others have not been as fortunate, going out over that horizon to never return, their fates forever lost to history.
Going far back through the veil of history, back in the early days of ocean exploration we have the famous Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto, more commonly known by his English name, John Cabot. He is credited as being the first European to discover the coast of North America since the Vikings, when he made the groundbreaking achievement during a voyage in 1497. Cabot had several notable voyages, the first of which he undertook in order to find the legendary lost island of Hy-Brasil, where he believed he would find a vast trove of rare dyes and other treasures but which he was never able to locate. His second voyage was a success in that he would not only discover the coastline of North America, but would also manage to claim Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland as a territory of the British Empire, and spend some amount of time exploring the rugged coastline. It was a voyage that would truly make a name for Cabot, and he received no small amount of money and fame for his grand achievement. This would lead up to his final journey, when in 1498 he departed from the great seaport of Bristol with a fleet of five ships under his command, their target being northern Canada, where they were hoping to establish trade with the Native tribes.
Little is known of what happened next, but there was reportedly a storm that claimed one of the ships, while the other four, along with Cabot, continued on undaunted, going on to apparently just sail off the face of the earth to never be heard from again. In the centuries after this vanishing there have been many theories as to what happened to john Cabot’s final voyage. One is that the whole expedition was simply lost at sea, but some modern historians have disputed this, with one theory being that they likely did reach their destination and just decided to stay and make a settlement. In another idea, historian Alwyn Ruddock has claimed that not only did the expedition reach Canada, but that they had then managed to make it back to England in 1500, going on to have a very successful exploration career after that making journeys to North America and the Caribbean. The theory that they made it back to England is partially supported by evidence that one of the scheduled members of the expedition was documented as living in London in 1501. Ruddock has also claimed that Cabot was able to successfully found the first Christian mission in North American history. However, to this date no incontrovertible evidence has been found for any one theory, and the fate of John Cabot remains a perplexing mystery shrouded in the mists of time.
Coming into the 17th century we have the tragic story of the famous British explorer Henry Hudson. He was best known for his intrepid, nearly obsessive quest for the fabled Northwest Passage, which was at the time a mythical ice free route that would theoretically allow ships to pass through the typically impassable waters through the Russian Arctic in order to have a faster way to reach the Indies, as well as another such route called the Northeast Passage. Hudson mounted several unsuccessful expeditions in search of these legendary passages, and when winds proved an obstacle on one of these voyages he ended up heading to North America, where he would explore the river which now bears his name.
In 1610 he managed to get backing for another try at the Northwest Passage, and this time embarked upon a state-of-the-art ship called the Discovery. Well-equipped and ready to go, Hudson was confident that this time he would find what he had been looking for so long. This time they entered the strait and bay which would later be named after Hudson, and things looked promising at first, but frigid weather and thick ice flows quickly dashed any hopes they had of ever finding the passage. Dissent began to seed amongst the crew, with many of the men wanting to get out of there before they became irrevocably trapped.
Hudson did his best to quell the arguments and allay the fears of his men, but venomous rumors began to spread like an infection. Whispered among the crew were stories that Hudson was playing favorites with his men, and this graduated into unsubstantiated tales that he was hoarding food and other supplies for himself. Anger simmered, then boiled over into a full on revolt and mutiny in 1611. In the end, Hudson, his son, and seven others were put upon a tiny boat and abandoned there in Hudson Bay. The last time anyone would see Hudson was that little boat and its castaways furiously rowing after the Discovery and ultimately falling into the distance and off the face of the earth. It is completely unknown what happened to Henry Hudson and that exiled group after this, and they simply have vanished into history, their bodies and boat never found.
In the 20th century we have several other lost explorers. Perhaps one of the most famous of all was the Norwegian Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen. Instrumental to exploration of these frozen wastelands, and was part of the first team to ever reach the South Pole in 1911 and part of the first expedition confirmed to have reached the North Pole in 1926, and he took part in numerous journeys through the polar regions of the world. He is also known for his unsolved vanishing.
On June 18, 1928, Amundsen, Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and three more French crew took off in a Latham 47 flying boat on a rescue mission to save the crew of an airship that had crashed in the Arctic near the Barents Sea. They never returned. A search was launched, but all that could be found were a wing float and a gasoline can from the plane bobbing about in the icy water, with no trace at all of the missing men. The Norwegian government scoured the entire area, but were unable to locate the rest of the plane or the men, and the search was called off. It would not be until 2004 and again in 2009 when the Royal Norwegian Navy would reopen the search, meticulously combing a 40-square-mile area of the seafloor using advanced unmanned subs, but no sign of the wreckage or the bodies of the missing men were found, and the ultimate fate of Roald Amundsen is a mystery to this day.
Another of these was the American artist, poet, and writer named Everett Ruess, who was just as known for his extensive exploration of the most remote and uncharted areas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as the California coast, the High Sierra, and the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, selling landscape paintings along the way to raise money for his excursions, as he was for his writings. He began his journey in 1931, and during his myriad adventures he travelled by whatever means were at his disposal, including on foot, on horseback, and even at some points riding cattle, and he ingratiated himself with the Natives of the regions he explored, learning to speak fluent Navajo and a bit of Hopi, and he was also instrumental in helping with some archeological digs.
In November of 1934, Ruess headed out into the badlands of Utah along with some pack animals, telling his family that he would be gone for two months. This turned into three months, then four, and his concerned family organized a search party to look for him. While two of the missing man’s burros were found, as well as a makeshift corral Ruess had made and a cryptic inscription that read “NEMO Nov 1934,” of Ruess himself no trace was found. In later years his disappearance has been attributed to dying out in the wilderness, to being washed away by a flash flood, to running away to start a new life with the Natives, to murder, but no one really knows, and his body has never been found. In 2009 remains were found in the same general area that were thought to be his, but DNA tests confirmed that they were of Native American origin, and so the vanishing of Everett Ruess and the meaning of his enigmatic last inscription remain an unsolved mystery. Within his last letter to his family is a haunting passage that was perhaps prophetic in a way, which reads:
As to when I shall revisit civilization, it will not be soon. … I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to any paved highway, the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.
Perhaps Ruess ended up exactly where he wanted to be. Also in the 20th century we come to our last vanished explorer, the Japanese mountaineer Naomi Uemura. He was a major force in mountain exploration in the 1970s and 80s, part of the first Japanese team to ever successfully climb Mt. Everest and the first person to ever reach the North Pole alone, as well as the first to raft the Amazon River solo. In 1984 he set his sights on a new conquest, that of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.
Uemura set out on his journey alone, and adding to the hardship was that he aimed to be the first man to climb the peak in the winter, which was completely insane but it was thought that if anyone could do it, then it was this seasoned, experienced mountaineer. Indeed, despite the forbidding weather and inhospitable terrain he actually did pull it off, reaching the peak and radioing that he was on his way down. This would be the last anyone ever heard of the intrepid adventurer. A search for Uemura turned up his ski poles and a diary carrying the last entry, “I wish I could sleep in a warm sleeping bag. No matter what happens I am going to climb McKinley.” Although he did fulfill this dream, Naomi Uemura’s body has never been found, and no one has the slightest idea of what happened to him.
Here we have looked at but a few of the great explorers and wanderers of our planet who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their quest for understanding. What happened to these great adventurers and what did they see in those last hours? It is sad to think that many of these people have become just as known for their mysterious vanishings as for their discoveries in life, but whatever happened to them, their achievements will remain inedlibly imprinted upon the history of exploration for generations to come.