ELLESMERE ISLAND ARCHIVES 2011
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December 31, 2011
An interesting question from a correspondent:
I am trying to find out about an unopened tin of potatoes, in a glass-walled wood-framed presentation case, which has been in my family for many years. Taped to the tin (which still has a partial paper label attached but it is in rough shape) is a typed note which reads: “Tin of potatoes left at Ellesmere Island by Sir George Nares expedition of 1876, presented to J.C.Lessard, October 15, 1948.”
I found out through my admittedly limited research that some artifacts from the Nares’ expedition were found during a Defence Research Board expedition in 1953 but since that does not accord with the presentation date indicated in the case. I was wondering if you might be aware of any other expeditions before 1948 which unearthed some Nares artifacts.
-- Pam Devine, Alcove, Quebec
Very interesting, that you have Nares stuff. About 1953: you're referring to my friend Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith's dogsled expedition from Alert to Ward Hunt Island that year. A glaciologist by profession, Geoffrey also has a keen interest in history and found several Nares caches on that journey, and even sampled the whiskey from one of them. I write about Geoffrey and his journeys in The Horizontal Everest. But as you point out, the dates are not right for you.
Apart from Peary and Nares, only one other explorer's expedition had been to that NE or N coast before 1950, and that was Godfred Hansen in the 1920s. Alert itself was only founded (initially as a weather station) in 1950. But the site was being looked over in 1948 by US icebreakers -- the US were partners in building the High Arctic weather stations. They would have found the can of potatoes on Floeberg Beach, where Nares's ship, the Alert, was stationed.
Nowadays, there's very little left on Floeberg Beach from those historic expeditions except empty rusted cans, barrel staves, scraps of rope and a few cairns. But in 1948, tons of cool stuff would have been just lying there. That someone from a US icebreaker picked up a tin of potatoes is my best guess. There aren't many other possibilities.
Hope this helps. It's always great to hear from those who have some family connection to the history up there.
In her follow-up letter, she attached a photo of the tin, and said she was hoping to identify the company that supplied the canned potatoes. "Only one-half or so of the label remains and the lettering is difficult to make out," she admitted.
She might find the answer in the Parliamentary Papers (the so-called Blue Books) on the expedition. They're hard to find even in the rare book rooms of libraries, but they're now online. The volume investigating the scurvy that ended the expedition prematurely might list the provisioner, since the choice of food was considered one possible cause. In the papers, note characters such as a Dr. Buzzard opining crisply about scurvy as if he actually knows something.
The Greely expedition's Christmas menu from Fort Conger in 1881. That first winter, morale was high compared to what would follow. The menu includes a couple of inside jokes (eg. Roast Beef a la Frederick) whose humor is lost now.
Salmon a la Paleocrystic
Crab Salad a la Grinnell
Guillemots a la Sanderson’s Hope
Musk ox Tongue, Arctic Sauce
Roast Beef a la Frederick
Eider Ducks a la Kislingbury
Petit pais [sic]
Plum pudding, wine sauce
Grapes – Brazilnuts – Dates – Figs – Candies
Most of the time, the lemming is one of the most rarely seen of Ellesmere's seven land mammals. Sometimes, you glimpse something darting across the ground out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn and focus, it's gone. "When you think you've seen something, you saw a lemming," goes the old northern saying.
Lemming populations follow the classic boom and bust cycle, and some years I'll see half a dozen sets of tracks on the windpacked snow in a single morning. Other seasons, signs of them are completely absent.
In Arctic Eden, I tell the story of a lemming that found us. A snowy owl wheeled overhead nearby, targeting something. A lemming suddenly darted out of a small depression in the ground and ran between Alexandra's rubber boots, where it cowered until the owl flew away.
Lemming tracks, Eureka Sound.
The Dark Season is almost upon Ellesmere, as the sun edges nearer and nearer the horizon at noon. The sun is already gone from Lake Hazen and further north. When it disappears elsewhere in a few days, it won't rise again till February or even early March, on the north coast.
Wrote Greenland guide Hans Hendrik, about his winter spent in 1853 near the present-day community of Qaanaaq, "Never had I seen the dark season like this. To be sure it was awful, I thought we should have no daylight any more. I was seized with fright, and fell a-weeping. I never in my life saw such darkness at noon time. As the darkness continued for three months, I really believed we should have no daylight more."
On October 27, 1875, British explorer George Nares wrote from the northeast corner of the island, "Stars today were visible at noon." At that latitude, the sun would have set over two weeks earlier, but noon twilight would have bleached out the stars until later in the month. Absolute darkness only comes when the sun is at least 18 degrees below the horizon, and in the southern part of Ellesmere, the sun doesn't quite dip that far below at noon, so a faint midday glow is always visible to the south.
Very few expeditions have taken place during the polar night. That's hard core. It's like climbing an 8,000-metre peak in winter. It doesn't get any tougher. In 1986, a group of Russians skied 500 kilometres between two Soviet ice stations floating on the Arctic Ocean. Their equipment was crappy; one guy, Anatoly Melnikov, lost a couple of toes to frostbite. They only carried two headlamps, one in front of the line of skiers, one behind. It took them six weeks. One of the group, Feodor Konyukhov, who later became known as a yachtsman and all-around insane traveler, once gave me a lithograph that he made of that daunting trek. Trudging for hours by the light of a ghostly moon, he said he was hallucinating that their heavy backpacks were Pik Communism, the highest mountain in the then-Soviet Union.
My Google news alert for Ellesmere keeps me up to date with mentions of the island in the news. A recent spate of articles shouts about "Canadian ice shelves rapidly disappearing." I guess scientists are sending out press releases in the hope of drawing attention to their work, because this is such an old story that it's a non-story. Let me state unequivocally: those shelves are doomed. They're gone. No need to run 100 articles every time the next little piece breaks off one of the surviving shelves. They are as gone as the remnant glaciers in the Rockies still clinging to shadowy cirques.
At the turn of the century, an apron of shelf ice extended all the way across the north coast of Ellesmere. These ancient shelves are a unique combination of sea ice and glacial ice. Their unusual characteristics include long corduroy troughs of uncertain origin that, in the eyes of one observer, make the shelves look like “a gigantic potato field, with a long blue lake or a rushing stream in every furrow.”
You find lots of driftwood from Siberia along the north coast. As with most things in the High Arctic, this wood lasts almost forever. In Disraeli Fiord, behind the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, no log is more than 3,000 years old, suggesting that the shelf has blocked the fiord off from the ocean for at least that long. Some neighboring shelves formed over 4,000 years ago.
Pieces of those shelves have been breaking off for decades and drifting away as ice islands. The first ice island was discovered in 1946 by a US spy plane, 500 miles north of Barrow. Because ice islands are, unlike sea ice, stable platforms that last for years, the 1946 discovery was classified as secret. At the beginning of the Cold War, the thinking was that it could serve as a base for operations against the Soviet Union. Scientists have set up long-standing camps on more recent ice islands -- and in The Horizontal Everest, I tell the story of a murder that happened on one of them.
Ice shelves are fascinating things, and it will be a shame to see them go. When the last piece breaks off the last shelf, that's news. Until then, please, no more stories about how they're disappearing.
The corduroy furrows of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf
A pilot correspondent caught an error I'd made in the entry below; I believed that landing conditions at the Resolute airstrip were strictly visual. On the contrary, "It has ILS, VOR-DME and an NDB beacon," he pointed out. I've changed the entry to reflect the correction.
When we first heard of the tragic First Air plane crash in Resolute yesterday, I had a sinking feeling that surely I'd know, directly or indirectly, someone involved in it. The High Arctic is one big family and it's rare to show up at an airport without bumping into someone you know. Everyone who has spent time in Resolute knows Ozzie (or Aziz), whose charter it was and who lost one granddaughter in the crash, while a second survived. The head of Polar Shelf, Canada's Arctic science agency, was also on board. Randy Reid, the long-time cook at Aziz's South Camp Inn. The pilot of the plane was the cousin of our physiotherapist here in Canmore.
While accidents have diminished over the years with rising safety standards, plane crashes have always been a fact of life in the Arctic. Almost every community, including Resolute, has twisted wreckage on its outskirts from one or more aviation accidents. Even today, flying in the north combines huge distances, ever-changing weather and few options when conditions change en route. Although the geography around town is largely flattish, the couple of low hills can rear up quickly during a jet's approach in poor visibility. Pilots have to make a judgment call on whether to attempt a landing or turn back toward the nearest safe airport.
When visitors first step onto the gravel runway amid Resolute's dismal summer fog, some joke about how even getting north is an adventure. Once in a long while, unfortunately, it's more than that.
Remains of an old plane crash near Resolute, left, and wreckage from the 1991 Hercules crash at Alert, on Ellesmere Island, right.
Just heard from one of my Facebook friends in Grise Fiord that Jon & Erik arrived in town yesterday.
Just back from lecturing on a Cruise North/Adventure Canada cruise from Kuujjuaq to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland in time to see that Jon Turk and Erik Boomer are about to complete their circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. At last word, they were holed up in the abandoned RCMP cabin at Craig Harbour, just around the corner from ever-windy King Edward Point, the southern tip of Ellesmere.
Hats off to them: they did the clockwise Grise Fiord to Grise Fiord haul/kayak in about 3-1/2 months, at least half a month faster than I estimated that route would take. Though I've been out of touch myself for much of the last two months, it seems that they had the expected difficulties in hellish Robeson Channel, but their progress seemed to improve by Fort Conger, and they ate up distances on a stretch of coastline that historically is pricky with multiyear pack ice.
This is really the most difficult arctic expedition in years, because of its length and the unknown factor. They did not know exactly what they were going to meet, but they adapted and overcame all difficulties without undue melodrama. Compare this with the rash of big egos and small experience boldly announcing speed record attempts on this or that well-worn route, only to fizzle out because of minor equipment issues.
What's more, Jon is 65. Very, very impressive.
Good to see Jon Turk and Erik Boomer still chugging along uneventfully on their circumnavigation of Ellesmere. They're currently off Cape Columbia, near the Peary signpost, Crane City, Godfred Hansen's cache at Cooper Key, and all those bays and points named for Nares expedition members. It's approaching crunch time. Summer has reached even northern Ellesmere, the purple saxifrage are out, and the meltpools will be slowing their pace. It's no longer 15 mpd sledding on a fine frozen ice apron. But the real test will come when they turn the corner after Alert and meet the pack ice that flushes down from the Arctic Ocean. The late Ned Gillette and his companions sledded from Lake Hazen in the 1970s -- one of the first sledding expeditions of the modern era -- and encountered some interesting ice in Robeson Channel:
I've occasionally been in this stuff, and your pace is 100 metres an hour, if that. On the other hand, it's pretty rare to see it this bad, and I'm sure that like any photographer, Gillette chose the most dramatic, heinous-looking ice to photograph. He may have even put the sled in that situation just for the photo, as I've done before. Any detour is better than this sort of terrain. It's not only slow, but there is not a square foot of level ice on which to set a tent. There is far less multiyear ice now than in the 1970s, and I'm uncertain whether the pack ice in Robeson Channel ever gets this bad any more. Still, when Alexandra and I were on Floeberg Beach in 2000, there was a lot of current flushing a lot of mushy ice, no place to kayak and no place to haul. So Jon & Eric will soon be living in interesting times. Here's yesterday's satellite view of Robeson Channel. Greenland is to the right, Ellesmere to the left. The long point coming up from the bottom is the Archer Peninsula, just south of Fort Conger. Hard to say much about the ice, apart from noting the little polynya around Cape Union.
Some unusual Ellesmere Island photos:
Jon Turk and his partner are near Lands Lokk on the NW corner of Ellesmere now, probably near those cabins on Little Fjellholmen Island that I referred to below. No melodramas with nonfunctioning stoves or injuries, just competent mileage. They dodged the polar bears further south and are now in a latitude where bears are fewer.
Lands Lokk (Land's End) also marks Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup's northernmost point. When Graeme Magor and I traveled that area some years ago, we set our camp at the same spot Sverdrup did at Lands Lokk. As I've noted elsewhere, we spent hours looking for the cairn he built, declaring sovereignty over the arctic islands for Norway, but it was nowhere to be found. Up there, cairns never disappear without some help: "There is nothing to equal the longevity of a heap of stones," wrote Victor Hugo.
Lands Lokk then and now: In the past 100 years, skis have become shorter and people taller.
Although Ellesmere is as wild as this world gets, a handful of unmapped shelters give a long-distance traveler a chance to spend a night or two without having to listen for polar bears. Unlike private cabins in more accessible parts of the north, most of these shelters are unlocked.
Earlier this week, Jon Turk and his partner spent a night in one in Hourglass Bay, on the south coast not far from Hell Gate. Used by hunters from Grise Fiord, it was originally put there ten years ago by Graeme Magor, who overwintered in a boat along with his family and four others to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Otto Sverdrup's Second Fram Expedition. At the end of the expedition, he gave the shelter to the Hunters and Trappers Association in Grise.
The HTA has two other cabins, or rather Atco-type trailers, in southwestern Ellesmere, in Norwegian Bay. They're conveniently located in the heart of polar bear country: you have to be alert when first stepping outside. Heated by oil stoves, they have cots, tables and real chairs. Tables and chairs are real luxuries after weeks on the land.
In the opposite direction, near the southeast tip of Ellesmere, the old RCMP cabin at Craig Harbour (below, left and right) likewise gives hunters a heated shelter near the floe edge.
The most obscure shelters are the old DREP (Defence Research Establishment Pacific) cabins around the north coast. Several of these military research shelters were removed some years ago, and I'm not sure how many remain. On one expedition with Magor, we spent a night at an abandoned DREP camp near the NW corner of Ellesmere. The cabins were used decades ago to research something called the Nansen Ice Plug, a wedge of multiyear ice that was stuck for years in the throat of Nansen Sound. The plug was gone when we arrived, but the cabins remained on a wild and lonely shore, overlooking the distant tip of Axel Heiberg Island.
DREP cabins on northwest Ellesmere
On this day on Ellesmere in 1884, the starving members of the Greely expedition dipped into the last of their provisions. After that, they tried to survive on bits of lichen and diminishing harvests of copepods, which they caught in nets near Camp Clay. Several deaths had already occurred, but the major mortality began shortly after their provisions ran out.
Also on this date in 1876, the British Arctic Expedition under George Nares reached its furthest north point, at 83 20'26" on the Arctic Ocean -- a record that would hold for just a few years before the Greely expedition scooped them by 4 miles. By the time the Nares expedition reached this point, several men were suffering from scurvy. Nevertheless, they celebrated the record with God Save the Queen and a composition of their own called, painfully, the Grand Paleocrystic Sledging Chorus.
Sailcoth from Greely's Starvation Camp, above left. For they are jolly good fellows: The Nares expedition sallies over the Arctic Ocean, above right.
While working on a magazine piece recently, I discovered that there is a total of only 300 kilometres of roads in all Nunavut. Almost all are gravel roads within the communities themselves. It's why, in my opinion, Nunavut is so much wilder than Alaska, NWT or Yukon. Roads have always been the death of wilderness.
This begs the question: What is the longest road in Nunavut? I'd originally figured it had to be the one between Arctic Bay and Nanisivik, on northern Baffin Island. It's not. That road is 21 km long. The longest in the territory is the approximately 35km road from the Eureka airport on Ellesmere Island to Skull Point, at the mouth of Slidre Fiord. The longest road is also one of the most remote.
Eureka, with the road in the distance.
Arctic mystery: Some years ago, while skiing across Strand Fiord Pass on Axel Heiberg Island, I bumped into a man-sized cairn. At the time, I was the only contemporary party to travel that route, apart from two geographers during Operation Franklin in 1957. I checked with one of the geographers; he did not build the cairn. An archaeologist told me that it didn't look like an Inuit or Paleoeskimo cairn. I've often wondered who built it...
Ole Gjerstad is a filmmaker who has done several documentaries on the Canadian Arctic. So far, my favorite is Muskox Patrol, about the great RCMP sovereignty patrols of the 1930s. (I've written about some of these in The Horizontal Everest.) The film is available online in its entirety below. Check out especially the priceless footage of legendary Sgt. Henry Stallworthy, typing his report in triplicate on the windy deck of the ship bringing him home (12:26), an interview with the dignified Stallworthy shortly before his death (46:06) and the all-too-brief glimpse of a smiling Nukapinguaq, the greatest High Arctic traveler (45:26). This Greenland guide accompanied just about every expedition between 1913 and the late 1930s.
Ole has just come out with a new film, Qimmit, which I haven't yet seen.
Muskox Patrol from Ole Gjerstad on Vimeo.
Here's a letter from a correspondent who worked at the High Arctic weather stations in the 1940s and 1950s. Thanks to Verne Marsh for permission to reproduce his story.
The ice bridge to Greenland has frozen over for the first time since 2006:
The edge of the Arctic Ocean feels very different from the landfast ice on which I normally travel. In late spring and summer, the added moisture in the air brings a lot of fog to the north coast of Ellesmere. Even in early spring, the humidity is noticeable: I'd never seen ice worms of transpiration wriggling out of the backs of my gloves before skiing that coast one year. Usually the polar air is so dry that it invisibly sucks up that sort of moisture.
The wild, comparatively wet north coast of Ellesmere, top. Above, the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Island, the Arctic Ocean beyond riven with open leads. (Note also the bands of "water sky" reflected on the underside of the clouds.) The snow-plastered cairn in the foreground was built by Robert Peary in 1906.
A little joke from Jarloo Kiguktak of Grise Fiord:
Some Japanese archaeologists were excavating an old Japanese qammaq and found some optical wire and said, "Hey, our ancestors were already using the internet." Then an Inuit archaeologist dug up an old arctic qammaq, found nothing and said to the other team, "Hey, our ancestors already had wireless."
Today, the sun rises for the first time this year in Grise Fiord, the northernmost village in North America. Meanwhile, this morning it's -47C in Eureka. Counter-intuitively, the coldest temperatures always come not during the dark season but around the time the sun returns.
Private Maurice Connell was the one survivor who was not won over by Greely's conduct at Camp Clay. With what Connell thought were his dying words, he wrote, “This is the last you will ever hear from me. I am laying helpless in a starving condition at this point without any hopes of recovery...Liet. Kislingbury died at 3 p.m. today and I feel it my turn next...
When roused by rescuers, the delirious Connell could only exclaim, “For God’s sake let me die in peace.”
“It is the blunders of the heads of this expedition...who are to blame for our misfortunes ... I hold Liet. Greely personally responsible for the lives of this party...it is well that he should not be made a martyr of and if ever he returns to the U.S. he ought to be tried and hung for murder.”
A further remark about Greely and Camp Clay:
In the cold, dry High Arctic, things rot at a glacial pace. Sometimes I'll spot some muskox dung on the ground and not know whether it's a few weeks old or 20 years old. Nineteenth century explorers' camps look as if they were freshly abandoned. If you're lucky, you can stumble on a bottle of Victorian-era rum, still in drinkable condition. Needless to say, this is quite magical. It's how I got interested in arctic history in the first place. The magic, not the booze.
When I first visited Camp Clay years ago, artifacts from that doomed expedition were everywhere, including a hat, a coat, and a stove. But over the years, more and more people have visited the site. Its location is now well-known. You can't land a plane anywhere nearby, but scientists drop by in helicopters. Some years, cruise ships let their 100 passengers wander the rocks for an hour or two. Everyone is aware that it's illegal to pocket artifacts as souvenirs, but it's hard to keep track of everyone. Little by little, items have disappeared. The hat, coat and stove are long gone. There are still many empty food cans, barrel hoops and bits of the sailcloth that Greely's men draped over their whaleboat shelter, but for how long? I've hid certain important objects underneath rocks rather than risk them being spirited away by relic hunters. The artifacts are important to the magic of this haunted place.
I once wondered aloud to a national park official why Camp Clay wasn't designated a national historic site. It's an American rather than a Canadian story, but it's still an important story, and an important place. The park guy told me that there's an unwritten rule against commemorating what he called Bad News History. So apart from the general rules against relic hunting that apply anywhere, Camp Clay is on its own.
By comparison, Fort Conger, which is in Quttinirpaaq National Park, is inspected every year for signs of vandalism. Park wardens have a binder of prints showing all the objects on the ground, and on their yearly visit, they cross-reference the prints with what they see. So few people visit these places that it's easy to assign blame if anything is missing.
A piece of sailcloth from Camp Clay.
A few insider comments about PBS's Greely Expedition film:
- The film was as accurate as you can make it without actually filming on location, which they did not have the budget to do. It's easier to get to Fort Conger and Camp Clay today than it was in the 1880s, but the cost of chartering an aircraft to Ellesmere Island is prohibitive, so they did their reenactment shooting in Iceland. However, there is a one-minute section where they used real footage from Pim Island/Camp Clay taken by an earlier filmmaker. It is the section from 28:18-29:17.
- Although the film shows crosses made from barrel staves on the men's graves, Greely and his men erected no crosses. All barrel staves were burned for fuel. Camp Clay today is littered with barrel hoops, food cans and shreds of tarpaulin, but not a scrap of wood, except for a small pile of the matches they used to light their stove. The men were "buried" on Cemetery Ridge just by throwing a little gravel over them. The frozen ground didn't allow a more thorough burial. There is one account of the wind blowing the thin cover of gravel off one of the bodies, so that the shiny buttons of the man's coat glinted through.
- For those who want to see more of what Camp Clay and Fort Conger really look like, there is lots of location footage in Horizontal Everest, the Discovery Channel/Canadian Geographic Television film based on my book of the same name. The DVD is available through this website. While it's based on my travels, the Greely expedition is the hook of the documentary, and you can easily tune me out and focus on the Greely sites.
- The photo below shows how close Greenland looks from Pim Island. Salvation for Greely's men among the Polar Inuit of Greenland was a mere 30 miles away. The shot was taken on Pim Island a few miles south of Camp Clay. They stashed their scientific records on the sliver of island to the right.
Just finished watching PBS's documentary on the Greely expedition. (I hadn't seen the film yet either, just the script.) Glad that George Rice, whose story I first told in my book, The Horizontal Everest, is finally getting the credit that he deserves.
Here is an excerpt from the Greely chapter of The Horizontal Everest:
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” – Psalm 133, often recited by Greely
On a sunny July evening, I wrestled my loaded kayak over the ice foot that ringed the shore of Pim Island like an Elizabethan collar. An easy job at high tide, beaching the kayak was hell at low water with the icy overhang eight feet above, dripping and dangerous. As I squeezed my craft through a gap in the barrier, a nearby piece of ice the size of a refrigerator broke off and crashed into the sea. I sped up. I was in search of ghosts but I did not want to become one myself.
If I did join the spirit world, I would not be lonely. This was Camp Clay, sometimes known as Starvation Camp. In 1884, American explorer Adolphus Greely and his twenty-four men had wintered here under an overturned boat, trying to stretch forty days of food over eight months. Only six of them, including Greely, survived.
To get here had taken me two ten-hour days of paddling and dragging my kayak on a little komatik over deteriorating ice in the inner fiords. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I knew something remained of the low stone wall on which the stricken crew had rested their boat, but it might be too subtle and impersonal to evoke the actual men who lived there.
Ashore, I weighed down the bow and stern lines with chunks of the red granite that composed Pim Island, mindful of the sudden gales that rip through this exposed spot. Though the evening was deceptively gentle and schizophrenic Kane Basin was in its mirror-calm mood, some larger boulders still had jagged ice beards on their leeward side from a recent squall.
I walked among barrel hoops, shreds of sail canvas – one piece twisted like a man in agony – and rusted cans whose meagre contents they had apportioned so carefully. But the place spooked me, and after a quick look around I hurried back to sheltered Buchanan Bay. A day later, I regretted my hasty departure.
The stone walls of Camp Clay in late June, the time of year when Greely was rescued.
The midnight sun lighting Camp Clay in early April.
After that first visit, I became obsessed with the Greely tragedy. I’d already been traveling the island for years, but Camp Clay opened up the history to me, which I’d long ignored. I had an aversion to the subject that dated back to my dutiful memorization of too many boring facts in school. But the presence of so many physical reminders, in a place where the events of a single day a hundred years ago could still be reconstructed like a fresh crime scene, was impossible to resist. “This climate deals gently with inanimate things,” one of Greely’s men had written with chilling irony, and the inanimate things brought back to life those whom the climate did not treat so gently.
Several books and scholarly articles, drawing on survivors’ accounts and expedition members’ journals, had already painted a detailed picture of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, especially its dramatic unraveling at Camp Clay. None of the historians, however, had actually been to Ellesmere. I was just a fledgling scholar but I hoped I could give a fresh interpretation of the events through the eyes of an experienced traveler. In particular, I wanted to understand how much the fault lay with Greely himself and how much with those down south who bungled the relief attempts.
The United States had considered establishing a scientific outpost on northern Ellesmere for some time, and Lady Franklin Bay was the natural choice. It had two advantages: a sheltered harbor and a nearby coal vein, discovered by a previous expedition. It was not, however, easy to reach by ship. Even in late summer, thick floes choke much of the narrow channel between Greenland and Ellesmere. “Ye unmercifull yce” had crushed many arctic ships. Greely was relieved when their chartered vessel, the Proteus, safely reached Lady Franklin Bay in August, 1881. Working double days, Greely’s men built the station, called Fort Conger, within two weeks.
Fort Conger is still not easy to reach today. Most visitors arrive via charter aircraft from Resolute Bay, five hours away. They poke about the ruins for an hour or two, while the Twin Otter waits at a rough gravel strip nearby. To be left here and picked up a week or two later costs as much as Greely paid to charter the Proteus – $19,000. Luckily, it’s a little easier to share a flight to nearby Lake Hazen, one of Quttinirpaaq National Park’s two “visitor nodes.” From there, it’s a straightforward seventy-mile hike to Fort Conger.
At first glance, Fort Conger resembles a small garbage dump from the pre-plastic era. To walk the ground is to step over cans, bones, pieces of wood, frost-shattered kettles, chimney parts, broken crockery, square-ended nails, barrel hoops, shards of glass, sled runners, thermometer fragments and many pieces of metal whose original function is hard to figure out.
Relations between Greely and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Kislingbury, soured even before the station was complete. Greely was insecure about his authority and reacted to any perceived threat in the worst possible way, by pulling rank. He and Kislingbury fell out over some silly matter, and Greely relieved him of his duties. The two antagonists never mended their differences, and for almost three years Kislingbury had no official role. He was reinstated during the last weeks at Camp Clay, where he died singing, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow…”
Greely remained an unpopular fussbudget throughout their time at Fort Conger. One of his trip journals, written in obsessively small script, shows his overattention to detail: “4:08 pm. Connell’s knee gives out…4:29 pm rested 5 minutes…4:59 pm rested 2 minutes…6:25 pm rested 2 minutes…6:46 rested 2 minutes…” Each time it must have taken him almost two minutes to take out his journal to record that he was resting for two minutes.
The more I studied this expedition, the more I recalled how all the leaders I had met in the contemporary Arctic – airline managers, wilderness guides, OICs (officers in charge) at weather stations, chief park wardens, coast guard captains, even military commanders – were easy-going and low-key. Type A personalities may thrive in the corporate shark cage down south, but they do not lead well at isolated stations. They just get on everyone’s nerves. One of Greely’s more perceptive men recognized this when he wrote in his journal, “To manage an arctic expedition as if it were a body of troops before the enemy seems absurd.”
Greely's pinched script.
To deepen the connection with the Greely expedition, I’d longed for some time to find my own little trove of artifacts. Over the years archaeologists and geologists in helicopters had preempted all the major spots. Revisiting their finds on foot just wasn’t the same as making the discovery oneself. Around the big dining table at Tanquary Fiord park headquarters, as the Spilsbury radio squawked static in the background, the wardens and I spoke longingly of one day finding Greely’s wagon, made of “discarded velocipedes,” which he had abandoned in 1882 near the southeast corner of Lake Hazen. The wardens had already looked for it a couple of times without success. We spoke of it as kids speak of finding pirate treasure. It remains one of the most tantalising pieces of undiscovered garbage on the island.
In the meantime, since I was at Fort Conger I set my sights on a lesser goal: Depot A. This had been a tent camp not far from the station, where sledge parties gathered before striking east for Greenland or north up the coast. Later explorers such as Peary and MacMillan had passed by, but no modern party had visited this spot. It was clearly marked on Greely’s maps, a little plum waiting to be picked.
As I hiked toward Watercourse Bay, the overland shortcut to Depot A, dozens of trickles from the thawing permafrost sparkled in the sunshine and nourished broad pastures. These back meadows had been a meat market for the men and dogs of nineteenth-century exploration machines. Later travelers found nothing but empty hills; now the animals were repopulating the place. I kept running into stolid muskoxen and small groups of hare whose skittish members zigzagged off like Brownian particles as I approached.
Watercourse Creek, the route from Fort Conger to Depot A and where the Greely and Nares expeditions found coal for heating.
In three hours I reached Watercourse Bay and saw for the first time the infamously rough ice of Kennedy Channel. Eighteen miles across loomed the mystic shores of Greenland. One day I would walk there, across the floes and floebergs, but this was the wrong season.
I set up camp by a stream, ate supper and gazed at Greenland which, because I had never been there, seemed like a beautiful stranger crooking her finger at me. Polaris Bay was lost in heat haze. There, explorer Charles Francis Hall was buried. Through binoculars I could see tiny Joe Island to the south, in front of a big paw-shaped glacier that slides down from the Greenland ice sheet. Hall had affectionately named this island after Joe Ebierbing, one of his Inuit companions. Long before Peary drafted whole Greenland villages into his military-style polar system, Hall had discovered that “Esquimaux-izing” yourself, as he put it, was the only sensible way to travel.
I reached Depot A around three in the morning. It lay on a sloping meadow above the high tide line at Cape Murchison. Little remained: the outline of a tent, sun-whitened tentpoles, a ridgepole, a few cans, a section of stovepipe. More interesting: a saw blade and two pickaxes. Had Depot A been further south, visitors from Greenland would have appropriated these tools decades ago, but this was well beyond the range of hunting parties. A few steps away, something I’d read about and hoped to find: the remains of the one-and-a-half tons of coal that Greely’s men had transported here from the vein at Watercourse Creek.
It wasn’t pirate treasure and it wasn’t even Greely’s wagon but I was buoyant. I spent an extra hour on the hike back to camp taking photo after photo of grounded floebergs, just as Greely’s photographer, George Rice, often did at Watercourse Bay when he was feeling ambitious.
Of the nineteen who failed to return from Starvation Camp, George Rice’s silence speaks the loudest. Before his death on April 7, 1884, he was the most popular man on the expedition. One of the survivors later spoke of him as “the life of the Greely party, full of hope, buoyancy and energy.”
Rice was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1855. He was not a soldier. The only Canadian in the party, he had enlisted in the U.S. army as a formality to be able to join the expedition as photographer. His lack of military background gave him a common-sense outlook about the conflicts.
Rice’s official journal surfaced only recently when an anonymous vendor put it up for auction at Sotheby’s. Purchased for $8,000, it is now part of an impressive collection of polar books and manuscripts at Dartmouth College, an elegant old school in wooded western New Hampshire. The journal is about the size of a thick bookkeeping ledger. Its dry leather binding flakes if not delicately handled. At the back Rice had glued a woodcut of an Arab girl bringing water from a well. She is wearing a loose, clinging outfit, one breast partly exposed. In the Arctic it helped him remember, perhaps, that humanity consisted of more than smelly, bearded fellow males.
His early entries, in a flamboyant script full of curlicues and sprawling letters, show a mixture of regret and expectation. The Arctic never got inside him. “I see very clearly I have made a great mistake in leaving civilization,” he wrote after ten months. “Nothing can recompense me for the time lost.”
Rice was a strong traveler who kept up their murderous sledding pace without complaint. They marched for twelve hours on two crackers. Like expeditions before them, they were always thirsty – neither Thermos bottles nor trail stoves for quickly melting snow had been invented yet. There is nothing wrong with twelve-hour days, but to do them on two crackers and no water is like trying to drive a car two hundred miles on a cup of gas: The engine soon shuts down, and you have to push the rest of the way. You can do it, but it’s very slow and inefficient.
Despite his endurance, Rice was accident prone. If he was not slicing his finger open on a pemmican can, he was breaking his collarbone in a fall or spraining an ankle just fooling around. In one bizarre incident, he fell out of bed and hit his face on the floor. In two years, he had seven injuries.
Today, raised earth still marks the perimeter of their house at Fort Conger. Ceramic piping from the chimney occupies the ground where Rice’s alcove had been. A section of floor, iron bedsteads and even a human jaw that Greely plundered from an old Inuit grave also litter the interior, but nothing suggests George Rice. I kept coming back here, but Rice never liked this corner and his ghost, wherever it may be, does not haunt this place.
The remains of the Greely expedition house at Fort Conger, with Peary's huts in the background.
Despite tensions, the first year at Fort Conger was a success. Data on meteorology, astronomy, tidal and magnetic variations were meticulously collected. In spring, 1882, Greely’s new second-in-command, Lieutenant James Lockwood, reached a Farthest North that stood for fourteen years. Greely himself made two important journeys that year and discovered Lake Hazen, the largest High Arctic lake in the world.
I’d followed bits of Greely’s routes on past trips and came to respect his accuracy. It is often impossible to reconstruct exactly where an explorer has been from his writings. You go to the general area and read the passage that supposedly describes where you are, but either he screwed up the mileages and you’re in the wrong place or he made the entry a couple of days later, by which time he’d half-forgotten how the hills lined up or how a bay was shaped. Even the great Otto Sverdrup made a mess describing his route up western Axel Heiberg Island. But Greely’s caches and cairns were always easy to find. That was the flip side of his irritating, “4:26pm…rested two minutes.”
“The mark of a successful adventurer,” writes Chris Bonington, the modern British mountaineer, “is a romantic streak tempered by an analytical mind.” Actually, the romantic streak is a feature of our time: Most explorers were pragmatically driven. The need for an analytical mind, however, spans all the ages. Greely had it. He knew that the Grand Idea was built on a million tedious details. Unfortunately, he had no control over one crucial aspect of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition: the ride home. That was in the hands of people in Washington. The men at Fort Conger needed a Greely down south to bring them home safely. Instead, they got men who failed to think through all the possibilities.
The 1882 resupply mission had been a half-hearted affair. The relief ship Neptune reached Littleton Island, just off the Greenland coast, where it ran into pack ice and gales. Its attempts to push north were unsuccessful. Eventually, the crew established small caches here and on Pim Island, then returned home with most of the supplies.
Since Fort Conger was equipped for three years, the supply ship’s failure was not crucial. But for the station’s morale, it was a disaster. Isolation paranoia now began to spread, especially among the high-strung. “The worst,” wrote Rice, “is that the failure of the ship to come this year has shaken the confidence of many in her coming next year.”
Greely’s orders were that if the relief ship did not show up by August, 1883, he was to head south in small boats in order to meet the ship somewhere between Fort Conger and Pim Island. But almost to a man, everyone but Greely believed that this plan was crazy, and likely fatal. Even for sailors – which they were not – early autumn is the worst time for a two hundred and fifty mile boat journey. With new ice forming, it’s too late for boats but not early enough for sleds. Nor could they hike overland, because packs can’t hold enough supplies. Years later, Robert Peary took ten days to sled in spring the route Greely needed fifty-one days to boat in the fall.
All the murmuring made Greely feel under siege, and he reacted by further tightening the screws of discipline. In early October, someone spotted polar bear tracks and three men took off in pursuit, without informing him. Piqued, he sent a party after the hunters, with orders to relieve them of their weapons. One of the three resented having his hunt ruined and he made a snappy remark. Greely instantly demoted him to private and declared that he would be tried by court martial down south. Greely read this decision aloud to the men. “He rather surprised us by speaking of it as a mutiny!!” wrote Rice, using his only two exclamation points in four hundred pages.
Greely was not finished. Using the old authoritarian tactic of penalizing everyone for the misdeed of one, he ruled that henceforth no enlisted man could walk more than five hundred yards from the station. This put a stop to the two or three-mile walks that everyone took to relieve the monotony. “These little circumstances,” Rice concluded gloomily, “promise us a pleasant arctic winter.”
Rice's corner in the Greely house at Fort Conger stands in front of a surviving section of kitchen floor and is littered with chimney piping.
Thanks partly to the determined lobbying of Greely’s wife, Henrietta, the 1883 relief expedition was better organized. It should have succeeded but for bad luck, more vague orders and mediocre personnel.
Its two ships included the sturdy Proteus, which had first brought Greely to Fort Conger, and the Yantic, a fragile backup vessel with instructions not to risk itself in the pack ice. The mission was under the command of Lieutenant Ernest Garlington. His orders were to reach Fort Conger without delay; failing this, to set up winter quarters near Littleton Island, then cross to Cape Sabine and continue as far north as necessary to meet the Greely party. Everyone would winter together near Littleton Island.
Logical enough, if all went well. But what if the Proteus went down with all its supplies? What if both ships did? What if the Proteus sank far to the south, in notorious Melville Bay, and the Yantic couldn’t proceed within reach of Greely? What if neither ship managed to clear Melville Bay? There was not just one calamitous scenario, there were several.
On July 22, ten miles north of Cape Sabine, ice closed in around the Proteus. It was alone; the slower Yantic was still struggling northward. The pressure exerted by pack ice can be tremendous. Floes grinding against each other produce mountains of ice along the edges, just as the grinding of continental plates produces mountains of land. When a piece of wood is squeezed between these plates, it splinters – even if the piece of wood is a 467-ton ship. Its crew escaped in lifeboats, but within a few hours, the Proteus lay 1,200 feet down at the bottom of Kane Basin. It remains there today, ignored for a hundred and twenty-eight years, despite the fact that it is North America’s northernmost shipwreck.
On my last evening at Fort Conger, I walked south along the mossy shoreline to Dutch Island, a speck of land so small that its name has been left off modern maps. When I reached it, the tide was running out, and tongues of gravel on Dutch Island and the mainland were drawing closer. A couple of quick hops through ankle-deep water put me on the island.
Dutch Island is just a mile and a half from the station. A popular destination for the walkers and ice-skaters of the Greely expedition, it is a little turtleback of tilted shale some thirty yards across. From here, they set out on their terrible boat journey southward on August 9, 1883. On this day, the boredom of Fort Conger ended and the tragedy of Pim Island began.
A ten-foot length of timber remained from that day over a hundred years ago. Was it repair material, or a spare mast discarded minutes before their hurried departure? Although a soft midnight sun warmed Discovery Harbour, progress beyond Dutch Island looked nightmarish. Bobbing ice floes choked the water. On another journey I had tried to travel across a similar surface elsewhere with my kayak, but the ever-shifting channels were too narrow and winding. Dragging the kayak over the unstable floes was so slow and perilous that two hundred yards took the afternoon. Manhandling heavy boats for miles through that stuff was fighting the Arctic rather than rolling with it.
Had Greely’s men remained at Lady Franklin Bay, everyone would have survived to head south in the spring. But despite all the vague orders, this one was unambiguous, and Greely had no reason to override it. It was likely that after a little discomfort, they would run into the relief ship down the coast and be home that year. Nevertheless, it was this Washington-based order to abandon Fort Conger that stands as the opening of Pandora’s box. From the moment they left the station, their lives depended on meeting a relief ship somewhere down the coast.
With four boats and just eighty days food per man, they struggled southward. All the latent resentment toward Greely surfaced during these difficult days. Greely himself faltered in near-hysteria, screaming, insulting, threatening, as he endeavored to keep command of his crew. Meanwhile, Rice stood on the foredeck of the lead boat and guided the bickering party through the ice, cracking jokes whenever a sudden bump tumbled him into the frigid sea. “If there is any problem with Rice,” said an admiring Kislingbury, “it is that he works too hard.”
Lady Franklin Bay on an idyllic August afternoon.
The unwieldy caravan progressed until August 26, when the ice stopped them. By morning they were frozen in place about forty-five miles from both Cape Sabine and the Greenland coast.
Throughout the retreat, Greely had wavered on their ultimate destination. At first they had to stick to the Ellesmere side because that is where they expected to meet the relief ship. If the two failed to connect, Greely’s original plan had been to make a last-minute crossing to Littleton Island, where the 1882 ship had presumably unloaded all its supplies, and where the 1883 rescuers were supposed to overwinter. But when the going to Pim Island looked good, Greely changed his mind. A few days later he changed it back to Greenland. Eventually he settled on Ellesmere.
Wilderness travelers have to constantly adjust their expectations to changing weather and terrain, but Greely seemed to regard Ellesmere and Greenland as equal choices. They were not. When the ship failed to materialize, there was only one possible destination: Greenland. Littleton Island would have disappointed them at first – neither supplies nor rescuers were there – but muskoxen grazed all winter on the rich slopes of Foulke Fiord. In late winter, grunts of walrus echoed from the cliffs of nearby Cape Alexander. By May, the air twinkled with dovekies. In June, eider eggs were so plentiful that a later expedition gathered six thousand of them from Littleton Island alone. And Greenland hunters would likely have stumbled across the party long before this.
By contrast, the Ellesmere coast around Cape Sabine is an asteroid. Ice caps lurk just behind the austere coastal peaks. Cold north winds make the little unglaciated land raw and sterile. It is Ellesmere’s most savage face. The meadows around Fort Conger were a Vermont pasture by comparison. Littleton Island versus Cape Sabine was hardly a toss-up.
In mid-September, still trapped in the ice, Greely again toyed with dashing to Greenland, but he abandoned the idea. This was sailor thinking, and even an intense month at sea could not turn these landlubbers into old salts. Yet Greely’s men could certainly have managed the forty-five mile crossing, just as the Proteus crew did in their lifeboats. All Greely’s justifications for not taking that course, typically beginning, “The uninformed may wonder why…” sound hollow.
And so they continued to drift, like ants on a piece of styrofoam – first south, then north, then south again, then east, then west. A month after their besetment, a gale drove them south past Cape Sabine and almost into open Baffin Bay. But they came within four miles of shore, and after hours of hard work, they stepped onto dry land at Eskimo Point. It was September 29.
Greely's landfall at "Eskimo Point", with one of the three stone enclosures they built before moving to Camp Clay.
When I wrestled my sled over the vertical plates of ice guarding Eskimo Point, it was spring, not fall. The High Arctic has two springs, marked by the Return of Light in mid-February and the Return of Warmth in late April. This was still the Return of Light phase, and my sled hauled poorly over the cold snow. It would be another week before the sun rose high enough to soften those steely granules.
Greely had named the site Eskimo Point because of its stone rings – old Thule encampments. A few hundred yards to the north, the Alfred Newton Glacier slipped into the sea. When the North Water washed right against the snout, native travelers had to risk the three-mile glacier crossing. Eskimo Point was a good place to stop before the long trek to Cape Isabella.
Around 1980, the Alfred Newton Glacier surged, and a crossing today is much more dangerous than it used to be. The terminus is a mess of seracs, and hidden crevasses thickly mine the upper reaches. I had no intention of hanging around Eskimo Point long enough for a gale or spring tides to tear away the sea ice, my safe road to Pim Island.
Spring is a poor time to visit historic sites such as Eskimo Point because snow hides all the treasures. Even the remains of their ice-boat, the Beaumont, was buried somewhere. Only the stone foundations of the three unfinished huts poked above the knee-deep snow. They were exactly like the one at Camp Clay, only smaller and built with brown sedimentary rocks rather than Pim’s distinctive red granite.
On this sunny evening, the stone walls cast long blue shadows over the snowscape. From this angle, the Alfred Newton Glacier looked benign. Greenland must have been a cheering sight, because Littleton Island and even the warm brown cliffs of Foulke Fiord – sure salvation – were within view. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get over how sterile Eskimo Point was. They really knew how to pick them. No muskox or caribou would find its way here in a thousand years. Only polar bears and foxes occasionally pass by. The summer walrus would have already left for Greenland. Littleton Island and all its riches may have looked next door, but the Greely expedition was on the wrong side of a life-or-death gap.
Greely planned to winter at Eskimo Point and instructed his men to start building winter huts. Meanwhile, Rice and Jens, one of two native Greenlanders accompanying the expedition, set out to search Cape Sabine for news of the Proteus. The sea ice was not yet solid, so the two crossed the Alfred Newton Glacier and edged their way north through an unknown strait, which Greely later named after Rice. Circumnavigating Pim Island, they squeaked past ever-nightmarish Cape Sabine to Stallknecht and Brevoort Islands. Here they found a small food cache and Garlington’s note about the fate of the Proteus.
Rice Strait, discovered during Rice and Jens's trek to Cape Sabine.
They returned to Eskimo Point with the news. Their prospects could hardly have been worse. The Proteus was at the bottom of Kane Basin. They had food for another forty days at most. Garlington’s note that he would do “everything within the power of man” to rescue them promised nothing concrete, but Greely’s men devoured the encouraging words as they now devoured their rations, without criticism. Even Greely believed that Garlington was at Littleton Island and would come for them when the light returned in February. To the south lay open water, but Greely remained unwilling to stake their lives on a boat crossing. He ordered the party to move to Cape Sabine on Pim Island, the probable landfall of the rescuers. Meanwhile, the energetic Rice left on another volunteer mission to locate an old British food cache at Cape Isabella, twenty miles south.
The message at Cape Sabine did not tell the whole story. It couldn’t give the crucial news that after picking up the Proteus crew in Greenland waters, the Yantic had set a course for home. Most of the food had gone down with the Proteus; Garlington’s crew had taken much of the remainder for themselves, leaving only the one small depot. Greely’s men were on their own.
For all its vagueness, the message struck a hopeful note. After reading it, Greely felt warmly enough toward Garlington to name Pim Island after him. When he later heard the details of the botched rescue, Greely withdrew the honor. Given the nature of the place, leaving it as Garlington Island might have been a fitter insult.
Although it is the fate of the Greely expedition that gives Pim Island its haunted-house creepiness, even the earlier British seemed uneasy about it. “This place is sterile and barren to the last degree,” wrote George Nares, “and for the future I shall keep as far from Red Granite Rock formations as possible.”
In 1972, geologist Fritz Mueller considered Cape Sabine as a scientific base but rejected it more on emotional than rational grounds: “Although an ideal site to study the North Water, it is the most inhospitable place I have ever seen in the Arctic and I could not bring myself to establish a station here.”
Today scientists still occasionally visit Pim Island. Some geologists believe that in the last ice age it was a pivotal place where the Greenland and Ellesmere ice sheets collided. A few years ago, archaeologists studying an old Thule camp were treated to some memorable Pim weather. “A wind came up suddenly, and I noticed all these scraps of blue nylon blowing past,” recalled Karen McCullough. “My first thought was, ‘Now who left that garbage lying around?’ Then I realized it was the remains of my tent.”
Recalling such stories, I felt uneasy when, around midnight, the sky south of Eskimo Point turned bruise purple. I’d never seen Ellesmere clouds look that weird before. The perpetual anxiety of the solo traveler pursued me into the sleeping bag that night, and after five restless hours I broke camp and hurried north to put the Alfred Newton Glacier behind me. In Herschel Bay, the ground winds became so strong that the taut sled traces hummed like a mouth harp. To keep from being blown backwards over the bare ice, I had to slip a pair of studded soles over my sealskin kamiks. Even then progress was difficult, as the sled behind me slewed crazily whenever a crosswind caught it.
Soon the ice became rougher. Sea ice conditions vary unpredictably from year to year. Every summer, the ice breaks up but doesn’t completely disappear. Pieces of ice about four feet thick drift to and fro with the tides, winds and currents. A bay that is completely open one day may be choked with loose blocks the next. In September, freeze-up catches the blocks where they happen to lie and for the next ten months that’s where they remain. These irregular blocks can make the going, as explorer Isaac Hayes put it, “like traveling from one end of New York City to the other over the house-tops.”
By putting in a long day, I finally made Stallknecht Island, a low-lying satellite at the southeast tip of Pim Island. While wrestling the wind to set up the tent, a sudden gust snapped two poles. It took forty-five minutes and several hundred pounds of rocks to secure the damaged shelter with guy lines.
Greely’s arrival at Pim Island was no more auspicious. It was, on the contrary, “the worst night of our lives,” according to Brainard. But the blizzard eased up by morning, and on October 15, 1883, they reached Camp Clay. Over the next four days they hurriedly built one big shelter. They draped their whaleboat as a roof over the three-foot-high wall, then covered it with a white canvas tarpaulin, scraps of which still lie everywhere about the site. Finally, they banked the outer walls with snow and built a pantry of snow blocks beside the entrance. They moved in just as the sun disappeared below the horizon for the winter. “I wonder,” reflected Brainard, “how many of us will ever look on his glorious face again?”
Rice, meanwhile, had located the old British cache at Cape Isabella but he needed help to retrieve it. He sped back north and reached Camp Clay on the same day as the rest of the party.
For the next two weeks, Rice was too busy to return for the cache. He and the others had to transport to Camp Clay the other modest supplies left by Garlington and the earlier relief ship. They also left notes on their whereabouts for rescuers and brought back two barrels of moldy dog biscuit that Nares had stored on Stallknecht Island eight years earlier.
During a lull in the storm that pinned me down for the next three days, I looked for signs of this activity. All I found were a one-foot pile of rocks on Stallknecht Island and the scattered remains of Nares’s cairn on the rounded summit of Brevoort Island. Consisting of about three hundred rocks, it must have been gigantic in its time. The cairn was gone now, dismantled by recent visitors in search of goodies, perhaps the Hydrographic Survey mapmakers whose yellow nylon X’s and metal frames sully the tops of many otherwise virgin hills.
On November 1, 1883, with the active work complete, winter rationing began. It consisted of six ounces of bread, four ounces of meat and trace amounts of lard, rice, soup, canned vegetables and dog biscuit. It added up to one pound a day per man – about half the necessary amount.
Although Greely occasionally gave small supplements to those who, like Rice, exerted themselves for the good of all, it was otherwise an equal split. In the unwritten etiquette of survival, this division goes unchallenged even today, yet it raises a lot of questions. Should a thin man get the same as a heavy man with plenty of reserves to live on? Should a hundred-pound woman get the same as a hundred-and-seventy-pound man? Should a twenty-year-old get the same as a fifty-year-old, whose body no longer needs as much food? Most of us fantasize about how we’d fare in emergencies relevant to our lives, and questions about the fair division of food in such a situation had always haunted me, because as a slender male with a high metabolism, I knew that I’d always be among the first to die of starvation. Sometimes even-steven is not fair, and I wondered how I could have accepted that arrangement at Camp Clay.
Untroubled by such thoughts of self-preservation, Rice finally left on November 2 for the meat cache at Cape Isabella, accompanied by three of the tougher men, Elison, Lynn and Julius Frederick, whose five-foot-two stature earned him the nickname Shorty.
Dragging a small sled, they reached Cape Isabella on the third day – excellent traveling by hungry men in what was now perpetual darkness or twilight. In fact, it was too torrid a pace for the exhausted Elison, who began to drop behind on the way back. When Elison slowed, hypothermia set in. His nose, feet and fingers froze. Soon he could no longer move, and they had to ferry him a short distance on the sled, then leave him on the ice while they returned for the meat.
The sea ice of Baird Inlet near Cape Isabella, where Elison collapsed and where Rice later died.
The waiting during these shuttles worsened Elison’s condition. To save his life, they finally had to abandon the meat. Marking it with a rifle stuck upright in the snow, they hurried to the shelter at Eskimo Point. In the abandoned stone hut with the boat roof, they placed Elison between them in the four-man buffalo-hide sleeping bag. As his limbs thawed, the nerves around the damaged tissue also revived. “No person can imagine how that poor man suffered,” wrote Frederick later. They had traveled forty miles in fourteen hours on a cup of tea and no food, and it is a wonder that they all hadn’t perished.
By morning, the wind had not let up. They continued into the gale and soon Elison’s limbs were frozen again. At the head of Herschel Bay, they didn’t even have the strength to drag him up a gentle ridge to what is now called Elison Pass. So Lynn and Frederick lay down on the ice foot and sandwiched Elison between them in the frozen bag while Rice – the mind boggles – continued another eighteen miles by moonlight to Camp Clay.
Elison Pass, looking south. An exhausted Rice, Lynn and Frederick were unable to drag Elison up this low ridge.
Shortly after the exhausted Rice reeled into camp, rescue parties under Brainard and Lockwood hurried out. They found Elison, Lynn and Frederick locked helplessly in their frozen sleeping bag. The wind was still whistling through that gunsight pass, but Brainard managed to cook a little stew for them. Elison begged for death, but the rescuers dragged him on the sled back to Camp Clay. He survived, but the freezing, thawing and refreezing had damaged his limbs irreparably. Some weeks later, both hands and both feet dropped off.
Their shared suffering, the emerging heroism of people like Rice, Brainard and Frederick, and the moral frailty of some of the other men, created an emotionally naked atmosphere at Camp Clay. One of the biggest surprises was Greely himself. Since his hysteria on the drift south from Fort Conger, Greely had pulled himself together. As things got tougher, his spirit grew rather than diminished. Occasionally he secretly gave a portion of his own food to one of the weaker men, or resolved squabbles over some unpleasant chore by doing it himself. He was evidently a wartime commander who became human under stress but struggled in peacetime – a typical Ellesmere extremophile. It was too late to win everyone’s respect, but more than one person noticed the change that had come over him. “Lt. G. has shown himself in every way greater than I believed him to be,” Biederbick wrote in his journal. “I am very sorry not to have sooner found out his full worth. While at Conger and on the retreat, I so often did him injustice in my thoughts. Now I think it better that he and our records be saved than all of us together.”
The Greely story is continued in The Horizontal Everest. Arctic Eden also features stories and photos about that expedition.
An article from a Michigan newspaper gives some background on Edward Israel of the Greely expedition. One of the things that makes the Greely saga so rich is that we can get to know these 25 men, not just Greely and one or two of his lieutenants. Many of the men left journals. You can probably find a personality in this tragedy to identify with, "how odd soever your brains be, or your wisdoms."
On January 31, PBS's series, The American Experience, is airing a documentary on the Greely expedition in which I figure as an on-camera commentator. With the recent demise of historians Alden Todd and Len Guttridge, the director told me, I know more about the Greely expedition than anyone else. His remark both surprised me and, I suppose, pleased me, especially since it was the Greely expedition that made me interested in history in the first place. Before that, the Arctic was for me a beautiful gymnasium and a beautiful photo studio. After that, it acquired an extra dimension.
The story of the Greely expedition is more than your typical wilderness tragedy. It's a kind of arctic Greek myth.
Judging solely from the temperatures at Ellesmere's three weather stations -- Grise Fiord, Alert and Eureka -- you might get the impression that the island is never particularly cold: It's rarely below -41C or so, even now, during the darkest part of the polar night. Eureka is consistently the coldest of the three; although it's on the coast, surrounding mountains give it a continental climate, warmer in summer, colder in winter. Still, I've experienced much colder temperatures in winter Labrador than I ever have on Ellesmere. Ellesmere, however, is more consistent. In interior Labrador, temperatures might be -50C one night, -25C the next and -10C the next. On Ellesmere, stable winter or spring weather might keep the temperature around -30 for night after night.
That's not to say it never gets frigid on the island. The weather stations are just not in the coldest locations. A Quttinirpaaq park warden once told me that a minimum registering thermometer on Ward Hunt Island caught -72F (-58C) one winter. On March 4, 1876, the Nares expedition registered -74F (-59C) at Fort Conger. "Rectified spirits of wine became of the consistency of hair-oil,” Nares reported. This says as much about the hair oil of the day as about the effects of cold. Frederick Cook once noted a temperature of -81F, but he believed in exaggeration for effect. In 1973, the temperature at Tanquary Fiord -- another continental location, despite its position at the head of a long inlet -- reached -77F (-60.5C), the island record.
Labrador, incidentally, has the same issue with its weather stations not being in the coldest spots. The coldest Newfoundland/Labrador temperature on record is -54C; the coldest Quebec temperature is -54.5C (-66F). One night in the interior, around the border of Quebec and Labrador far from any weather station, I experienced -54C. Clearly, the true minimum record has to be well below that.
January 2, 2011
The discovery of another patch of ancient wood on northern Ellesmere Island made headlines recently. Such mummified wood is not unusual up there. The best known source is the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island, not far from the Eureka weather station, but remnants of ancient forests occur on Ellesmere itself, including one in Strathcona Fiord and a couple in Quttinirpaaq National Park near Fort Conger. But 2 million or 45 million-year-old fossils are not the only wood on the island. Discounting the common arctic willow, which grows horizontally rather than vertically, the north coast -- where this newest discovery occurred -- abounds in certain spots with driftwood from Siberia. The Wood River, near Alert, is not named after someone named Wood. And you could almost build a log cabin with all the detritus at the mouth of the Hilgard River, at the bottom of Black Cliffs Bay.
A log from Siberia, right, at the mouth of the Hilgard River, northern Ellesmere Island.
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