Omnivorous Reader

The Unforgiving Arctic

Story of the perilous Lady Franklin Bay Expedition

By Stephen E. Smith

In July 1881, the USS Proteus set sail from Newfoundland for Lady Franklin Bay in the Canadian Arctic. On board were the expedition’s commander, Lt. Adolphus W. Greely, astronomer Edward Israel, photographer George Rice, and 21 men chosen from the U.S. military. Their stated purpose was to establish a meteorological observation station as part of the First International Polar Year. But Greely had a personal objective: to reach “Farthest North,” an achievement claimed by the British Navy decades earlier.

A month after departing Newfoundland, the Proteus anchored off Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle, where tons of supplies were unloaded, a substantial building constructed, and the expedition’s work began in earnest. The four years that followed were to be the most harrowing and terrible of all recorded Arctic voyages.

Buddy Levy’s Labyrinth of Ice is the latest and most comprehensive popular history of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (the undertaking’s official designation), recounting in detail the travails that befell men subsiding on meager rations and caught in continuous sub-zero temperatures — sometimes 50 degrees below — during extended periods of total darkness. Their suffering notwithstanding, Greely’s men fulfilled their scientific obligations and maintained meticulous records that are useful today in our analysis of global warming. And during the first year of his Arctic sojourn, Greely also achieved his personal objective: Two of his men established Farthest North. Then the expedition settled in to await resupply ships that never arrived.

What befell the Greely Expedition is what doomed many of the Arctic and Antarctic voyages of the 19th and early 20th centuries: extreme privation. Without resupply, the expedition had to abandon their camp and head south, first by boat, then by sled and finally on foot, hoping to link up with relief ships headed in their direction. They were constantly impeded by ice — mountains of ice, jagged blocks of broken ice, icebergs, massive ice floes, ice in every possible configuration — making forward progress almost impossible, and denying the explorers sustenance and subjecting them to the unforgiving elements.

Relying on Greely’s notebooks and the personal dairies of expedition members, Levy writes in measured, almost journalistic prose, describing the quirks of personality and the details of the inevitable conflicts that arose when the expedition’s men were confined in life-threatening conditions. Greely was able to mediate most of these squabbles, but when rations grew short and shelter increasingly insubstantial, the conflicts grew more intense: “Pavy grew incensed, and when he started yelling at Whisler, the dutiful military man drew and leveled his pistol at Pavy to show there would be no more talk.” Disagreements between Greely and the Expedition’s doctor were a constant source of unease, and the growing tension among the starving men eventually led to the execution of Pvt. Charles Henry, who had confessed to stealing food, which he continued to do after numerous warnings.

In 1882, the relief ship Neptune was blocked by ice and forced to abandon its mission, leaving much-needed supplies in Newfoundland, thousands of miles south of the expedition. The Proteus attempted a rescue in 1883 but was crushed by pack ice and sank. The expedition would surely have perished but for Greely’s dutiful wife, Henrietta, who had political and journalist connections. She lobbied constantly for her husband’s rescue, and much of the book is given over to her unrelenting efforts. She had to contend with a Washington bureaucracy that was painfully slow to act. There were boards of inquiry and much finger-pointing concerning failed relief efforts. But Henrietta’s persistence yielded results, and a third rescue mission was finally mounted, despite Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln’s reluctance to waste resources on “dead men.”

By the time Greely and six of his surviving crew were located on the barren shores of Cape Sabine, they were hours from death. “Greely is that you?” a rescuer asked. “Yes — seven of us left — here we are, dying like men,” Greely replied. “Did what I came to do — beat the record,” meaning he’d obtained Farthest North.

Readers are left to decide if the suffering was worth it. The survivors may have thought so when they were received as heroes. Celebrated and roundly lauded in the press, honored with a parade, promoted in grade and awarded medals, they basked in the limelight. But not long after they had settled into their new lives, rumors of cannibalism materialized. Greely and the other survivors denied any knowledge of such an outrage, but a medical examination of at least one of the corpses revealed that flesh had been removed from the bones with a cutting implement.

It may be that our general lack of knowledge of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition is the result of these lingering accusations — after all, we’ve never forgiven the Donner Party — and only in recent years have books on Greely’s Arctic adventure seen publication. Three of these books, Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Frozen in Time and Abandoned, have helped raise awareness among readers of popular histories, and a PBS American Experience documentary, “The Greely Expedition,” has attracted attention, but we live in a moment when yesterday’s news is ancient history and the majority of Americans can’t tell you where the Grand Canyon is located.

A plethora of recent books detailing other desperate Arctic and Antarctic expeditions have come to constitute a “desperate polar rescue” subgenre. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, a beautifully written history of a 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole, has received much critical attention, and the lifeboat Shackleton used to navigate the stormy waters from Antarctica to the Falkland Islands has toured museums around the country. But Shackleton’s Expedition had a happy outcome; every member of the Endurance crew survived. Nineteen of Greely’s command died in order to achieve the most ephemeral of objectives.

If you have a grim fascination with self-inflicted suffering in inhospitable environs, you can always revel in TV’s Life Below Zero, Ultimate Survival Alaska, Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, or, this reviewer’s favorite series title, Dude, You’re Screwed. There’s no denying that the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition suffered unimaginable horrors — and there was no “tapping out” when they found themselves trapped in the Arctic. How silly and shallow reality TV programs seem when compared to the real reality of the Greely Expedition.

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

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