Throughout the 19th century, the Arctic provoked and tempted countless explorers to dare the region’s silent spaces and frigid furies. Many went in; just as many never returned — ships were gobbled up by relentless ice packs. The search for the Northwest Passage, through the maze-like Canadian Arctic Archipelago, claimed many victims, none more famous than John Franklin, whose mission devolved into a nightmare of scurvy, starvation, and cannibalism.
These were British efforts, the Royal Navy leading the way. America’s own brush with epic polar tragedy, the subject of Hampton Sides’ phenomenally gripping new book, is a less well-known affair. In the summer of 1879, the USS Jeannette, under the command of US naval officer George Washington De Long, sailed from San Francisco and headed into the Arctic ice pack via the Bering Strait. De Long and his 32-man crew were aiming for the North Pole, an uncharted, mysterious place they believed to be ice-free. They never made it: The Jeannette, like so many ships before her, became immured in the ice.
What ensued — a struggle to survive and a nearly 1,000-mile trek across the Arctic Ocean and into the vastness of Siberia — stands as one of the most perilous journeys ever. Sides works story-telling magic as he evokes the pathos and suffering of what unfolded: De Long and his crew endured hardships that boggle the mind.
But there is also beauty here — Sides, a contributor to Outside magazine and author of large-scale narrative histories, writes superbly on the geography of Siberia and the Arctic, and the abundant bird and animal life the explorers encountered on their travels, which took them across ice, storm-tossed seas, treacherous tundra, rocky seacoasts, and volcanic islands.
De Long, and his patron, the colorful New York Herald publisher James Bennett Jr, were “co-conspirators in a quest.” The Jeannette sailed under US Navy colors, but was subsidized, no expense spared, by Bennett, who had famously sent Henry Morton Stanley to Africa in search of David Livingston — and sensational headlines. De Long and Bennett were lured to the Arctic by the now fanciful but then plausible theory of the existence of an Open Polar Sea. The Bering Strait, it was thought, was fed by warm water currents that could propel a ship through the ice pack and into clear seas.
De Long had high hopes when he set sail. “I think we have the right stuff to dare all that man can do,” he wrote as he was about to embark. The Jeannette was reinforced with 6-inch thick Oregon pine, and heavily provisioned. (The men ate well, even lavishly, for much of the voyage. On occasion, they feasted on walrus and polar bears.) To a remarkable degree, they did have the right stuff. De Long’s assumptions were crushed under the ice as the Jeannette got stuck in the pack and drifted for nearly two years, at the mercy of an unyielding frozen sea; but the crew of the ship, under De Long’s firm command, maintained a steady esprit de corps — his motto was nil desperandum, “never despair.” De Long kept his men busy and engaged.
At times, Sides’ account bogs down with background and build up to the main event; he perhaps overdoes it with melodrama — De Long’s parting moments with his wife are straight out of a silent movie. (“I’ve been thinking . . . what a pretty widow you would make.”) The turning point in his narrative comes when the Jeannette sinks in June 1881. Sides’s saga kicks into high gear as he details the crew’s odyssey as they try to reach the Siberian mainland with winter setting in. “Their only hope was place with a reputation for hopelessness.”
Sunburnt and exhausted, “little more than an accumulation of wounds,” they hauled three boats and tons of provisions (De Long lugged his indispensable journals the whole way) making “a devious course across ever-shifting mazes of fissures, hummocks, pressure ridges, and pools of shimmering meltwater.” They island hop to finally open seas, only to be separated in a ferocious gale, ending up in Lena River delta, “which looks like the cross section of an enormous tumor . . . 125 miles in width.’’ Sides’ narrative builds to a harrowing climax as he charts this final phase of De Long’s Arctic trek, the grim details of which you will not soon forget.Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.