Corwin 'Corky' Peterson, who skied to North Pole at age 69, dies at 90

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Corwin Peterson was one of the oldest people ever to reach the North Pole on foot when he skied ahead of a group led by explorer Paul Schurke in 1999. - Courtesy Sheila Peterson/TNS/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — Corwin “Corky” Peterson, a Minneapolis man who skied to the North Pole at age 69 to fulfill a childhood dream of Arctic adventure, died Aug. 25 at his home. He was 90.

Peterson was one of the oldest people ever to reach the pole on foot when he skied ahead of a group led by explorer Paul Schurke in 1999. That trip inspired him to explore Greenland twice with Schurke at the ages of 71 and 72.

Born in Minneapolis, Peterson graduated from Washburn High School and entered the Navy, serving on the U.S.S. Hanson during the Korean War. He married Doris Mechaelsen while at Drake University, and went to work for Remington Rand Univac in Minneapolis. He became director of data processing for Hennepin County in 1979.

His dreams of polar exploration began at a young age, as attested by his childhood map of Antarctica, done in crayon, that hung in a frame in the family home. He finally made good on it by traveling on a Russian trawler to Antarctica as a paying customer, but the trip was something of a letdown, according to his daughter Sheila, of New York City, since he felt he had been ferried to his destination.

Then in 1998 he learned that Schurke was planning a North Pole trip. By then Peterson had already trekked in Ellesmere Island with Schurke, but he felt he needed to prove himself to get on the polar expedition.

Fit for his age thanks to regular jogging, cycling, and commuting to his downtown office on foot — a 5-mile round trip — Peterson bought an exercise machine and “skied” for miles in the family basement to train for the North Pole. Some days he hiked up hills at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, carrying a backpack filled with weights.

Peterson went to Ely, Minn., in late 1998 with other potential team members and skied on frozen lakes with sled dogs and slept outdoors. The training ended with a test: skiing into a hole in the lake, fully clothed, and then climbing out. Peterson passed, and a few months later was aboard a plane en route to a landing at the 88th parallel, some 150 miles from the North Pole.

Schurke’s team planned to ski and ride dog sleds over 12 days. In his written account, Peterson said morale sunk when they first set foot on the ice. Temperatures were 15-below, and the ice sometimes gave way to open water or piled into impassable rubble, forcing detours for the group of 11 people and 18 dogs.

His son Curt, of Minneapolis, said his dad told him the ice near the pole was soft, and that he could see it oscillating on the horizon. It popped and groaned as it flowed away from the pole, noises that easily penetrated the thin walls of a sleeping tent.

“At first,” Peterson told his son, “you don’t really sleep.”

As they neared the pole, Schurke and others let Peterson take the lead. After a final push and a double-check of the GPS, they made it. Peterson ran around the pole, joking in his journal that he ran around the world in 15 seconds.

“Corky’s a pretty robust character,” said Schurke, recalling their 1999 expedition. Schurke said he and others from that trip recently shared memories of Peterson and were inspired anew.

“Corky’s the beacon ushering us forward, knowing that we’ve got plenty of time for adventure yet, as he did,” said Schurke.

Sheila Peterson said family time with her father was often active, whether biking to Lake Harriet or ice skating at Lake of the Isles. A sailing trip to Isle Royale National Park, she said, left her with indelible memories of adventure with him.

Besides his wife of 64 years and two children, Peterson is survived by a grandson, Benjamin. His family said a celebration of his life will be held when it’s safe to gather.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Corwin "Corky" Peterson. - Courtesy Sheila Peterson/TNS/TNS