Saturday, August 30, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice // Hampton Sides

Found the next in the book series I call Men in Bad Weather.  It began of course with Shackleton.  The most recent was Stove by a Whale - the story of the Essex.  There the weather wasn't so bad - it was the dehydration and the starvation.  An Empire of Ice was before that - arctic exploration in the heroic age.  That title compelled Hampton Sides to call his account


The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
Illustrated. 454 pp. Doubleday. $28.95.

...The Jeannette remained confined in the ice for two years. Then one day the ice opened, and the ship slipped into the water — and floated. But not for long. The pressure resumed “with tremendous force,” De Long wrote. The Jeannette foundered, and the truly appalling chapter of the tale began. The 33 men set out over the ice, 1,000 miles from the Lena delta on the Arctic coast of Siberia, “one of the most remote and unforgiving landscapes on the planet.” They battled “ever-­shifting mazes of fissures, hummocks, pressure ridges and pools of shimmering meltwater.”

And “they pulled more than eight tons of provisions and gear, on improvised sleds whose crosspieces had been fashioned from whiskey barrel staves and whose heavy oak runners were shod with smooth whalebone. In addition to the three battered boats, they hauled, among other things, medicine chests, ammunition, stew pots, cooking stoves, tent poles, oars, rifles, ship logs and diaries, canvas for sails, scientific instruments, the wooden dinghy and 200 gallons of stove alcohol. As for food, they had inventoried, at the outset, 3,960 pounds of pemmican, 1,500 pounds of hardtack, 32 pounds of beef tongue, 150 pounds of Liebig’s beef extract, 12› pounds of pigs’ feet, and substantial quantities of veal, ham, whiskey, brandy, chocolate and tobacco.” (The stories of polar explorers are but little without the wonderfully evocative lists of the things they carried.)

Sides observes that De Long met all the hardships with a remarkable penchant for understatement. “Gazing at a puzzle of jammed ice and meltwater that would require weeks to cross, he stoically predicted: ‘We are in for a time.’ Hopelessly disoriented by fog for the better part of a week, De Long would only allow that ‘we are in the dark as to our position.’ Halted by a lashing blizzard, he scribbled that the day’s weather was ‘anything but ­satisfactory.’ ”

After 91 days on the pack, the men took to (relatively) open water in the three small boats they had been dragging. They were soon separated. One boat disappeared and was never heard of again. The whaleboat commanded by George Melville, the Jeannette’s engineer and most resourceful crew member, was lucky. He and his men made it to land, found natives and were saved. De Long’s cutter landed only eight miles from a branch of the Lena that would have led to a settlement within a day. Instead, he and his men left their boat, wandered and suffered terribly. Sides vividly recounts the horrors: gross frostbite, crude amputations, madness, much boot eating and, ultimately, starvation. Before succumbing, the ship’s surgeon had gnawed his own hand. Earlier De Long had sent his two strongest men for help. They somehow met up with Melville, who eventually found the bodies of De Long and his comrades. Only 13 of the 33 survived.