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2015-02-04 Steve Gardiner Book Review: In the Kingdom of Ice

Many years ago, I developed a deep interest in the literature of polar exploration. I read about Peary and his quest for the North Pole. I read about Amundsen and Scott in their race to the South Pole. I was amazed by Fiennes and the TransGlobe Expedition which reached both poles.

I was probably most impressed by Fridtjof Nansen's story in his book Farthest North. He intentionally stuck his ship, The Fram, in the ice north of Siberia with the intent of riding the polar ice cap across the North Pole. This was a bold move in the early 1890s, and I remember him commenting that it was debris from the wrecked ship USS Jeannette that showed up on the shores of Spitsbergen Island north of Norway that gave him evidence of the polar ice movement and the inspiration to complete his three-year voyage. The ice pack carried Nansen's ship in the general direction of the Pole, but not close enough for success.


While I admired Nansen's feat, I did not give the story of the Jeannette much thought until now. Hampton Sides' book In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Doubleday, 2014) brings to life a journey that is as exciting, dangerous, and compelling as Nansen's aboard The Fram.


Leaving San Francisco in 1881, the Jeannette, under the command of George De Long, was almost fully funded by James Gordon Bennett, owner and editor of the New York Herald, the newspaper which had sent Henry Stanley to Africa in search of David Livingstone. Bennett loved an exciting story and wanted his paper to have the best stories to tell. The growing interest in reaching the North Pole was a temptation he could not resist.


De Long made his name during an attempted rescue of another ship off the west coast of Greenland. Although the survivors were rescued by another ship, De Long proved he was capable of handling a ship in polar ice. More importantly, however, is what happened to De Long during those days in northern Greenland. Like hundreds of men before and since, he fell under the spell of the Arctic.


As De Long crossed the Arctic Circle, he “became more and more intrigued by the Arctic, by its lonely grandeur, by its mirages and strange tricks of light, its mock moons and blood-red halos, its thick, misty atmospheres, which altered and magnified sounds, leaving the impression that one was living under a dome. He felt as though he were breathing rarefied air. He became intrigued by the phenomenon of the 'ice blink,' the spectral glow in the low sky that indicated the presence of a large frozen pack ahead. The scenery grew more impressive; ice-gouged fjords, towering bergs calved fresh from glaciers, the crisp sound of the cold surf lapping against the pack, ringed seals peeking through gaps in the ice, bowhead whales spouting in the deep gray channel. This was the purest wilderness De Long had ever seen, and he began to fall in love with it” (p. 5).


In the late 1870s, little was known of the world beyond the edge of the pack ice. The reigning theory was that the pack ice formed a rim and that if one could break beyond that ring, it would be easy sailing on what was then called the Open Polar Sea. Sailors had long understood that the Gulf Stream pushed warm water north through the Atlantic Ocean and a similar stream called Kuro Siwo was believed by Japanese sailors to do the same thing. The optimistic ideal of the day was that the Gulf Stream and Kuro Siwo would push enough warm water north to provide a “Thermometric Gateway” through the rim of ice and create a passage to the Open Polar Sea. By following the Kuro Siwo through the Bering Strait, the route to the North Pole would be essentially “downhill” in terms of ice movement. A second theory of the time was that a long peninsula of land extended several hundred miles off the north coast of Greenland. De Long and the Jeannette would either be able to sail on the Open Polar Sea or walk the Greenland peninsula to the North Pole. This was the belief held by De Long and his crew as they headed north.


In the pages that follow, Sides recounts the years of preparation needed to ready the Jeannette and crew. Using information from ship's records and letters from De Long to both his wife Emma and Bennett, Sides recreates sailing into the frozen waters, the months trapped in polar ice, and the harrowing culmination of the journey. Although the subtitle of the book forewarns the reader, that in no way diminishes Sides' masterful retelling of the gripping adventure of the USS Jeannette.


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