Exploration, Arctic; Continent: North America, Europe

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

  • You think you’re having a rough winter? Check this story out. Blanket and cocoa recommended.
  • 410 pages

It’s the end of the 1870s, and to the people of the newly industrialized United States, the world yields to those who insist upon knowing her secrets. Arctic experts of the day hold that there is a warm, ice-free polar sea at the very top of the world, if only one can break through the ring of pack ice surrounding it. The Western nation that succeeds in creating a trade route through this entirely theoretical sea will have access to China and the East without having to sail around the Cape of Good Hope or the tip of South America. British exploration has not produced results with attempts to reach the North Pole by way of the western coast of Greenland. It is time, then, for an American team to solve the mystery of the polar landscape.

Bold Men Behind the Mission

Enter George De Long, a lieutenant in the United States Navy. He’d earned his Arctic sailing experience by miraculously retrieving survivors from the famed shipwreck Polaris from an ice floe. At once a hero, he became the natural choice for an expedition to conquer the North Pole. He’d never had any intention of going above the 72nd parallel when he’d enlisted, but De Long’s sponsor, James Gordon Bennett, thought him the man for the job.

Bennett was the eccentric millionaire owner of the New York Herald. His newspaper had sent Stanley into Africa to find Dr. Livingstone (another great story), and now the paper needed an exciting follow-up. Bennett wasn’t stupid – he had an instinct for what sold newspapers – but he would and did design a story if he couldn’t find one interesting enough for his readership. Knowing his readers craved adventure, Bennett cooperated with the U.S. Navy to foot the bill for an Arctic expedition the government wasn’t especially keen to fund.

Ready for Arctic Action

De Long found the ship, tiny compared with the enormous ships with which she kept company during her overhaul in the naval shipyard outside San Francisco. She was practically rebuilt to prepare for the rigors of the Arctic Sea, and De Long needed to give his attention to handpicking his crew. However, he had already found an officer he thoroughly trusted to oversee the work while he traveled to fill out the rest of his crew. Finished and as prepared for the trip as the late 19th century can make her, she was rechristened the Jeannette.

His international crew consisted of a Chinese cook and his partner from San Francisco’s Chinatown, an Irish naturalist, a couple of Danes and Germans, and some Americans. Some had come from within the military, while others have been lured away from whaling ships. All showed aptitude and strength of character required for the rigors of Arctic exploration in De Long’s judgment. He would later add a pair of Yukut hunters and several sled dogs to round out the party.

…And Then Straight to Hell

Despite the massive overhaul in the naval shipyard, the ice-bound ship succumbed to the squeeze of Arctic ice. Leaks and mechanical failures offer no surprises to the reader for the man-versus-nature storyline. However, De Long had chosen an especially able chief mechanic. That man, Melville, offered a crucial skill set and cleverness upon which the crew’s survival would depend. Author Hampton Sides creates a tense mood in his description of the haunting sounds of ice crushing slowly against the hull, the nerve of the crew, and the list of failures growing moment-by-moment aboard Jeannette, for even if she achieved her freedom from the ice was she still seaworthy?

The scope of De Long’s troubles were not entirely limited to the natural world. Edison’s novel electric lights proved more trouble than they were worth pretty much right away – not surprising, considering how new and untested in extreme environments this technology was. Their failure was embarrassing for the science officer charged with their operation and added to Captain De Long’s frustration with the scientific aspects of the mission. The science officer’s inferiority complex fed a resentment of the mission and the captain. And remember that trusty officer who oversaw all the upgrades and repairs to the ship? He had concealed his later-stage syphilis from De Long so he wouldn’t be declared unfit for duty. He’d been institutionalized, and now he was going blind in one eye secondary to the infection a few thousand miles from a hospital. De Long could and did declare him unfit for duty and confine him to quarters, but he still took up space and required rations.

Abandon Ship!

When at last the Jeannette sinks, the real troubles begin. Author Hampton Sides does a wonderful job of maintaining the tension for this part of the story, which is an achievement considering that frostbite and near-starvation shouldn’t surprise the reader. The boldness of the captain’s plan to reach civilization and whether or not he can maintain order among his suffering crew – some of which are descending into madness – makes for a thoroughly engaging story. Sides has made sure to characterize each of the men with a major role in the crew carefully, starting back when the Jeannette was making good time north from San Francisco. By this point in the story, then, a reader has invested in the outcome of favorites.

One knows the ship’s log books have survived…but how? Did the men make it back to the edge of human population? Or did they cache these critical records somewhere for later discovery? The resolution to this story will make you shake your head. What made me shake mine as I ruminated on this story afterward was the conceit at the outset of the journey. The mission’s sponsors largely felt that preparations were so complete as to eliminate unknown dangers or just plain poor luck (in fact, Bennett lost interest in the trip once the ship was deemed ready). Maps, rations, technology: they only did so much. In the end, resourcefulness proved the most important thing to pack for exploration because it’s the only real counter to unforeseen disaster.

Image by Wikilmages, 2012. Provided by Pixelbay.com. Satellite view of the Lena River Delta in Siberia, a location mentioned in this story.

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