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

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

by Hampton Sides


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A Best Book of the Year
USA Today * Time Magazine * Washington Post * Miami Herald * Richmond Times Dispatch * Christian Science Monitor * Daily Beast * Minneapolis Star Tribune

On July 8, 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and his team of thirty-two men set sail from San Francisco on the USS Jeanette.

Heading deep into uncharted Arctic waters, they carried the aspirations of a young country burning to be the first nation to reach the North Pole. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the Jeannette's hull was breached by an impassable stretch of pack ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship amid torrents of rushing of water. Hours later, the ship had sunk below the surface, marooning the men a thousand miles north of Siberia, where they faced a terrifying march with minimal supplies across the endless ice pack.

Enduring everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and labyrinths of ice, the crew battled madness and starvation as they struggled desperately to survive. With thrilling twists and turns, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most brutal place on Earth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307946911
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 46,926
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

HAMPTON SIDES is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Hellhound on his Trail, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers.

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Table of Contents

The Company of the USS Jeannette xiv

Prologue: Baptism by Ice 1

Part 1 A Great Blank Space

1 A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death 21

2 Ne Plus Ultra 32

3 The Lord of Creation 45

4 For You I Will Dare Anything 55

5 Gateways to the Pole 71

Part 2 The National Genius

6 The Engine of the World 91

7 Satisfaction 106

8 The Sage of Gotha 125

9 Pandora 142

10 Three Years, or Eternity 151

11 A Benediction 162

12 Second Chances 168

13 The U.S. Arctic Expedition 175

14 All That Man Can Do 198

15 The New Invader 212

Part 3 A Glorious Country to Learn Patience in

16 A Cul-de-Sac 235

17 Nipped 239

18 Among the Swells 258

19 If by Any Mischance 261

20 A Delusion and a Snare 268

21 Forever, Almost 286

22 Invisible Hands 288

Part 4 We Are Not Yet Daunted

23 On the Lone Icebound Sea 306

24 The Discovered Country 324

25 Tidings 346

26 Death Strokes 366

Part 5 The End of Creation

27 All Mucky 385

28 Nil Desperandum 401

29 The Phantom Continent 420

30 A Second Promised Land 435

31 Eight Precious Days 457

32 The Known World 471

33 Seas High and Spiteful 495

Part 6 The Whisper of the Stars

34 Lucky Fourteen 512

35 Remember Me in New York 530

36 If It Takes My Last Dollar 555

37 Frantic Pantomimes 562

38 Incubus of Horrors 575

39 White Gloom 597

40 The Russian Nation at Your Back 617

41 They That Watch for the Morning 629

42 A Wild Dirge Through Time 647

Epilogue: As Long as I Have Ice to Stand On 653

Acknowledgments 671

Notes 677

Selected Bibliography 739

Photo Credits 759


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Hampton Sides

In July 1879, the U.S. Navy vessel Jeannette set out on an ill- starred voyage of polar exploration via the Bering Strait. In an age in which the Arctic and Antarctic poles represented the last elements of the unknown, voyages like the one helmed by George Washington DeLong represented the last proving ground for heroism and discovery. The Jeannette's voyage was backed by newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, who had previously sent the journalist Henry Stanley into Africa in search of the missionary David Livingstone. Seeking to reproduce the sensational press triumph of that story, Bennett hoped that the Jeannette would discover a new route into a fabled "open polar sea." Instead, the crew met with a series of calamities — impassable ice, shipwreck, and a perilous journey to landfall on a desolate Siberian coast.

Captivated by the little-known history of DeLong's expedition, journalist and author Hampton Sides — whose 2001 book, Ghost Soldiers, a gripping account of the liberation of WWII POWs in the Philippines, became a national bestseller — set out to bring the story of the Jeannette, and its era, to new life. The author sat down with the Barnes & Noble Review to talk about the Jeannette, Gilded Age fascination with the Arctic, and the surprising relevance its discoveries have for scientists today. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation —Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of an Arctic exploration in the 1870s by a ship called the Jeannette. It's a real-life epic, a tale of disaster, endurance, survival, and of the obsession that America and Europe had with the Arctic. Can you start by talking a bit about how you came to discover this story and decide to write on it?

Hampton Sides: Yes. For years and years, I was an editor at Outside magazine, and I also write fairly often for National Geographic, so I'm already kind of in this world of exploration and expeditions, and there's something about the Gilded Age that fascinates me as a period. After the Civil War, the nation is healing its wounds and trying to emerge from that conflict and do something big on the world stage, and it's competing in a quasi-military way with the European powers. It seems like one of the great stages for competition is Arctic exploration. The nationalism that drove it fascinated me.

So when I found out about the Jeannette story, it seemed perfect for me. I actually found out about it a number of years ago when I was doing a story for National Geographic about another explorer, a Norwegian whose name was Fridtjof Nansen, who tried to duplicate the Jeannette voyage. As horrible as the Jeannette expedition went, he tried to duplicate it, but in a ship designed in a different way.

BNR: Why? Because he thought that route up through the Bering Strait was the right way to go?

HS: And because the prevailing currents clearly indicated that they were heading in the right direction. They were going toward the Pole. The Jeannette crew thought they would reach open water. By the time Nansen came along, they realized it's not going to be water, it's going to be ice, but if we just hang in there and have a lot of food and a really well designed ship that won't get crushed, we will eventually reach the Pole or get very close.

Nansen did not make it to the Pole, though he almost did. But he survived, and he went on to become a national hero in Norway. In fact, there's a museum devoted to his ship, the Fram. He mentioned, "I was trying to duplicate the Jeannette, of course." This was actually because three or four years after the Jeannette voyage, a number of relics washed up onshore in Greenland, and these relics, which said "George Washington DeLong," were clearly from the Jeannette.

BNR: DeLong was the captain of the Jeannette. HS: It seemed to indicate to Nansen, well, the prevailing currents not only are heading towards the Pole but if you just stick with it, they'll eventually pop out on the other side, to Greenland, on the Atlantic side.

BNR: So you have a route of egress as well as a route of getting there. You have a natural path back to someplace you can get around from.

HS: Right. So I thought, Wait a minute. What was the Jeannette? I'd never heard of it. I've edited and written a lot of stuff about exploration, and I'd just never even heard of it. I started digging into it and found these extraordinary characters. And there were a lot of primary documents, because there were survivors, which is really important. In a way, as a writer you want things to go wrong, because that's when things get interesting, but unfortunately, these tales when no one survives are difficult because there are no documents. In this case there were thirteen survivors, and they gave a huge number of interviews. Stories were written about them, they gave testimony before the Navy inquiry, before Congress, and some of them wrote books.

BNR: One of them, George Melville, went on to become chief engineer of the Navy.

HS: A very prominent man. So that's the second thing, after the great characters, I'm looking for great primary documents. And it also seemed to me, just in terms of the zeitgeist, an interesting time to be writing about both the Arctic, with everything that's going on with climate change, and also writing about Russia. I think there's a great interest in Russia right now, and this era was an interesting time in our relationship with Russia. It was tsarist Russia still. We were very curious about the country — and Americans considered themselves friends with Russia. But it was also considered a very exotic, strange place. The story of the Jeannette ends up very much being a Russian story in the last third.

BNR: The survivors come back through Siberia. And after the ocean, the storms, the ice closing in, boats being crushed, and a familiar story of desolation and survival in that environment, and then as they're landing on this river delta region in Siberia — it becomes a different kind of survival story. The survivors of the ship were trying to find help in a vast, strange territory. The native peoples of that region were Christianized, but they'd been largely untouched by cosmopolitan Russian civilization or by other Western cultures.

HS: Yes. The main tribal group were the Yakuts. They speak a language that's closely related to Turkish, and they look like Mongols. They are in the most remote part of Russia, and have barely been touched by Russian authority and Russian culture. These were the folks who ended up saving the last survivors of the Jeannette. They were barely eking out a survival-based existence themselves. The threat of cold, hunger and disease — scurvy and the like — was just as problematic for them getting through a winter there as for the sailors. And here come these guys who appear to be emerging from the ice, and they didn't know if they were from another planet or from inside the planet or what country. They'd never heard of America. All they saw was these bedraggled men who come in from the ice, and they have to save them.

BNR: Now, one of the survivors had some language in common with some of the Yakuts. Is that right? Am I misremembering?

HS: No. But there was one guy who spoke some Russian, and two guys on the expedition were Inuits from Alaska. Their language wasn't similar, but they looked . . .

BNR: Their background was similar.

HS: Yes, and they ended up having a sweetheart, and fitting in a little better than the others.

So I had stumbled on this Gilded Age story that I had never heard about, and I just jumped right in. I spent three and a half years on this book. I went to Siberia. I went to a lot of these places in the Russian High Arctic, where the story unfolds. I had a ball doing it.

BNR: What was surprising when you went to Siberia, when you went to some of those environments? Did you experience what you expected, or was it very different?

HS: I think the first thing is, I was unprepared for the truly gargantuan immensity of the terrain. Some people wonder, What was wrong with these American explorers? They finally reach land. Why didn't they all live? Well, it's this unbelievably remote and sparsely populated, mature Pleistocene wilderness. You fly over it for hours and hours and hours, and you see no marking of man. It's like a desert of ice.

BNR: Was there plant life? Was there game for them to hunt at all?

HS: Very little. There are some reindeer. It's way above the Arctic Circle — permafrost. Almost nothing grows there. There's no timber except for driftwood, so it's difficult to keep warm. And they came ashore in this river delta called the Lena River. It's one of the largest deltas in the world. It has many tens of thousands of islands, and oxbow lakes, and tributaries that peter out. So you can't really imagine a more complicated labyrinth for men to come ashore and try to find themselves. Of course, they got lost.

BNR: They had no reliable map of the region.

HS: There were no reliable maps at that time. To the extent that there had been any maps made, they were wrong. The survivors were expecting to find these villages, and there were no villages. What was marked as a village would be a hut that was abandoned.

It's sort of an amphibious survival tale. It goes from being an ice story to being a sailing story, because they do eventually reach open water in these small boats. Then, after they get separated in this horrible gale, they make landfall, and it becomes this land-based story as they make their way toward civilization.

BNR: I think George Melville himself in his writings suggested that at least a major part of the reason why his party survived was they had an extremely strong cohesion. They really worked together and cared for one another, and they didn't have the sort of dissensions you see in some groups. Do you agree? HS: I really think that it's mostly a matter of luck. They encounter this gale, and they get separated, and the three boats have three very different fates. DeLong comes ashore on the western side of the delta that is very sparsely populated, and by sheer chance Melville comes to shore on the eastern side, where there are some larger villages. And they encounter, almost the first day they're in the delta, villagers who save their lives.

BNR: Although they have to kind of chase them down and say, "No, really, we need to see you," and the villagers are rowing away, saying, "I don't know . . . "

HS: They're scared of them. Who are these bedraggled, furry, sour-smelling and very, at this point, emaciated, starving guys? They're running away from them, thinking they might be criminals — to the extent that the regions are populated at all with Russians, it's exiles sent from Moscow all the way to be in this prison without bars that is Siberia.

That's just the travel narrative, the survival narrative. But I wanted to cut back to what's happening in the United States with some of the primary characters. The life of the explorer and the man, James Gordon Bennett, who paid for and sponsored this expedition. It was a Navy expedition, but it was paid for by an eccentric millionaire, a playboy, a publisher, James Gordon Bennett.

BNR: He really is a remarkable figure. He has that kind of classic drive to compete in so many things. One of my favorite scenes is the race-walking bet that he undertook with the former champion speed walker of New York. They race-walked ten miles from Manhattan to the Bronx, with all these people sort of surrounding them and all these other bets being laid on their performance, and Bennett beats the other fellow.

HS: Well, Bennett was one of these great characters who believe in sport. He believed in spectacle. Not only did it sell newspapers, but it was something that he personally did in his own life. He was the youngest commodore of the New York Yacht Club. He brought competitive polo to the United States. He brought tennis to the United States. He brought, in terms of funding, various cups. There's an international balloon race that still exists to this day called the Gordon Bennett Cup.

He was really into the spectacle of sport, and I think he viewed this Arctic expedition that he funded, the Jeannette, as just another sport, in a sense. I don't think he really thought a whole lot about the human lives that were at stake or all the risks that were involved. He had sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone, but his newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune, had enjoyed so much success with those dispatches that Stanley sent back from Africa, that he was looking for kind of another international sensation story, an encore to sell newspapers. So in a sense, it was a stunt to sell newspapers. But along the way, the Jeannette expedition, as with Stanley, was actually a fairly important exploration as well. The writing that came out of it, the descriptions, some of the mapmaking improvements in terms of our understanding of Africa or the Arctic that emerged were actually quite significant.

But Bennett is just one of those larger-than-life Gilded Age characters. He was the third-richest man in New York. From a narrative point of view, he's like a gift that keeps on giving. He's always doing something outrageous. He urinates in a grand piano at a high society salon, and . . .

BNR: He kidnaps the cast of a play. This is my favorite one of his stunts.

HS: In Amsterdam. He was smitten with this star, and so he kidnapped the entire cast of this play, took them out on his yacht, and didn't tell them that he was leaving . . .

BNR: Presumably because he was hoping to make time with the lead actress, I take it.

H: Right! One of the dangers of this character was that he could upstage the entire Arctic narrative if I wasn't careful. But once the expedition gets going, leaves San Francisco in the summer of 1879, it becomes more really about the explorers and what happens to them as they make their way north toward the Bering Strait.

BNR: I want to talk a little bit more about the fascination in this period with the Arctic. There's a wonderful line. You quote the San Francisco Examiner talking about how DeLong, when the expedition set off, would "force the Northern Sphinx to give up its secrets," and the notion of the Arctic as this unknown region brooded over the top of the glow and tormented the imaginations of all these people. "What's up there?" This was a real feeling that people had. What do you think drove that obsessive quality?

HS: This was at a point in the history of the world where there were just a few places left that had never been touched by man. The North Pole, the South Pole, a couple of places in the interior of Africa, and certainly some mountains in the Himalayas, for example. It drove people crazy that there was this part of the world that we don't know what's up there, we don't know what it looks like, we don't know if it's an island, if it's warm or cold or populated, civilized in any way. There were a lot of theories that there were people up there, or that there were holes at the poles that led down into the earth. This idea of an open polar sea was an ancient notion that goes back to the Greeks and the Vikings.

BNR: The hope was that eventually you get to this place where there's an open sea, and maybe new trade routes would be established. It would be an easier way to cross over from different parts of the world.

HS: Yeah. The idea of an open polar sea is one of those great myths that would not die. It goes way back, and people wanted to believe it with a kind of religious fervor. I don't fully understand why. I think it has to do with some of the early maps that depicted it. When you put something on a map, it's very hard to dislodge that idea from the imagination until you prove something else. The early Mercator maps and other maps going way back to the 1500s show this open polar sea.

BNR: The mind just wanted to believe that it was there, even if all the evidence indicated that anybody who had gone far enough north kept running into more and more pack ice.

HS: Right. And it took men dying in the Arctic to prove that it wasn't true, and really, the Jeannette expedition was the last expedition that was deliberately launched into the Arctic looking for this open polar sea concept. From then on, people resigned themselves to the idea that it's probably just ice up there. But it's really hard for us to understand why people were so fascinated and obsessed with knowing what was up there. Now we know that it's just an icecap, and it's shifting endlessly, and there are no civilizations up there, are no holes that lead into the earth. It's cold and dreary and desolate. So now we're thinking, What's the big deal? But back then it was like . . . I quote someone in the book saying that it's like a man has to know every room of his house, and if there's a room in the attic that you can't get to, it will drive him mad. That's what this was like. "It's like: there's a room in the attic; there might be a monster in that room; we don't know; but we have to be there."

Of course personal glory figures into it. And science, to a real degree; this wanting to find out the answer to this scientific question, really an exploration — what's there? And national glory figures into it. There's no question that there's a quasi-military aspect to this kind of exploration. Number one, it's mounted by the Navy, and all the officers are Navy officers.

BNR: It was a pretty bedraggled Navy at that time.

HS: Yes, it's not a strong Navy at this point. But it took some kind of level of organization to make this thing happen, and it happened to be a Navy expedition. Not only that, but we were competing against the British. Primarily the Brits had done all the kind of cutting-edge exploration, but the Russians were doing things, the Swedes were doing things, the other Scandinavian nations, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the French had talked about mounting expeditions as well. So there was an element of just pure competition here.

BNR: Was the idea to stake an outright claim?

HS: Maybe claim it. Certainly just prove ourselves on the international stage for doing something great. Because we had emerged from the Civil War. This would not have been possible during the war, obviously. It took a number of years before we were a wealthy enough nation to even contemplate something like this. We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We were a young nation, itching to prove our power.

BNR: It's a very proto-Rooseveltian sort of thing.

HS: Yes. Another aspect of it is that Manifest Destiny and the push west had more or less come to an end. We were occupying the West and filling it in. But the exploration west had sort of stopped and taken a right turn and gone north, because we had bought Alaska from the Russians. People wanted to know what was up there. People were very excited by the fact that this expedition was the very first expedition to go by way of Alaska.

BNR: So it was a way of almost justifying Seward's Folly? Maybe it's the stepping-off point to a real great new frontier.

HS: Right. Going through the Bering Strait and using Alaska as a launching pad for an exploration was a new idea. In fact, DeLong did discover new islands and claim them for the United States, and some of the expeditions that were sent after DeLong, to look for him, landed on some islands that were claimed for the United States. Now there are various sort of jingoistic groups, right-wing groups that say that we've given these islands away to the Russians and we need to claim them back. Wrangel Island . . .

BNR: Wrangel Island is a fascinating place, especially biologically.

HS: Yes. It's the last place where a woolly mammoth lived. The largest breeding ground in the world for polar bears.

BNR: The Russians maintain it as a preserve.

HS: Yes. I went there and did a story for National Geographic about it. Wrangel Island is an extraordinary place. They call it the Galápagos of the High Arctic. It's a refuge for animals. Humans have gone there, and generally not done so well, but animals seem to do quite well.

This always happens with these Arctic stories. We send one boat, and it gets lost, and then we have to send waves of people to search for the lost vessel. On one of these ships was a young journalist, a future conservationist, John Muir, who just wrote this unbelievably vivid account of this search for the Jeannette. And they made landfall on Wrangel Island and claimed it for the United States.

BNR: With that mention of Muir: Was it ever in your mind, or do you think that understanding more about the history of our exploration of the Arctic will help people have more consciousness about or understanding of what's at stake in climate change, and how much that environment is changing and its effects on the rest of the globe?

HS: Yes and no. It's a pure historical narrative. There's no polemical embedded message. But nonetheless, there is a fascination and a very legitimate interest now in what's happening in the polar regions. This was one of the few expeditions that went that way. Usually they were looking for, like the Northwest Passage or something like this. In this case, they got trapped in the ice and drifted for two years deep into the polar cap. What's interesting is, every single day, the members of the expedition took meticulous measurements: the thickness of the icecap, wind velocities, temperature, salinity, specific gravity. All these very specific scientific logs that were taken. Then these logbooks were dragged, at great hardship, across the icecap to civilization, and were ultimately preserved. These logbooks are in the National Archives, and there they are. Now NOAA knows about them, and has digitized them all, and these people are studying the Jeannette logbooks because they offer the most pure data about what was the condition of the icecap in the 1880s.

BNR: So we could potentially get a baseline for understanding the condition of that environment that goes back before anything else that we had measured.

HS: Yes. When I was in the National Archives looking at these logbooks, I was thinking, What a shame, what a waste that all this data was collected and it's never going to be used. Well, it is being used, it turns out, and it is actually terrifying how much the thickness, the quality and the condition of the ice has changed, and the breadth of the icepack since the 1880s. It's remarkable. I guess the final irony here is that this was an expedition that was trying to find the open polar sea, and in another generation there probably will be an open polar sea. DeLong wasn't crazy. He was just off by 140 years.

August 25, 2014

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