Friday, September 5, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

To tell the truth, polar exploring never held much fascination for me. The only thing that makes me think it might be magical is that so many explorers have mentioned the quality of the light. But the idea that one would risk one’s life and spend more than two years to “get through the ice pack” really seems like a dumb idea to me.

Given that, I probably was not the ideal reader for this book, but I took on this story because I thought maybe all would become clear. Sides tries to make it sound exciting, but he spends a lot of time going over the lives of the financial backers (James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of The New York Herald), and detailing the previous failed attempts to reach the North Pole. By the time the men leave San Francisco bay July 8, 1879, it already feels too late.

The U.S.S. Jeannette was first burdened with the task of trying to locate Adolf Nordenskiold's Scandinavian expedition to find a "Northeast Passage" which was seriously past its return date. The detour to Siberia meant the Jeannette's crew was late in getting off on the real purpose of their journey and indeed, once through the Bering Strait, they became stuck in pack ice. “Wintering in the pack may be a thrilling thing to read about,” DeLong wrote. Well, not so much, really.

Anyway, for two years these folks tried to free themselves and their ship from the relentless cold and shifting ice. The ice pack would move them northwest, only to circle back later. Eventually all choice was taken from them when their ship was crushed by the enormous forces of the ice. It is a frustrating story of hardship and heartbreak, though some of the men made it out alive to tell the tale and pass on locations of the ship’s log, which had to be abandoned.

What they learned was practically all negative: the maps and theories of the polar regions being floated at the time, notably those of the German cartographer August Petermann, were dead wrong. But they did discover a couple of islands (Jeannette, Henrietta, and Bennett seen below) and they learned that arctic ice is constantly in motion. In 1884, some years after Jeannette was wrecked in 1881, some of Jeannette’s wreckage (one of DeLong’s sealskin boots), washed up in Greenland, proving the ice movement absolutely.

Jeannette Island
Henrietta Island

Bennett Island
Sketches of Islands Discovered by U.S.S. Jeannette

Sides does a remarkable job of research, and for those interested in polar exploration, this book must be a wondrous cache of riches. Sides collected the mass of information in a complete and rounded way, stretching long before and long after the two-and-a half years of the expedition. I, however, came away wondering at the choices of some folks. They prepared the best way they could at the time, and did amazingly well finding folks they thought might be able to take the isolation and challenges they were to face. I note that the innovative Mr.-Fixit-Melville was the man who ended up writing the stories of the others who died. He had both heart and brains and survived to tell the tale. There were other exceptional men among their number, Neidermann among them, who could take any amount of cold and physical toil. Tales of their exploits thrill us still. But the cost? These are the trade-offs men make.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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