This is the true story of the voyage and tragic ending of the USS Jeannette as it tried to reach the North Pole, only to become stranded when trapped in walls of ice. Eventually, all the men onboard were forced to go on foot across the Polar Regions. Injuries and illnesses plagued them as they soldiered on, in spite of all the pitfalls they faced. The amazing journey coupled with the amazing courage and fortitude of the men as they crossed the tundra, ferried down canals surrounded by ice, moved in uncharted territories with maps that were inferior, or less complete than originally thought, and filled with errors, is a feat worth noting and learning about. Although, at times, the details were tedious, since almost every moment written in a journal kept by Lieutenant Commander DeLong is referenced, the retelling of their expedition reads like a novel, with the tension slowly building, but never reaching a fever pitch, which would make the reader uncomfortable. There are scenes described which are brutally honest and cruel. The fates were surely not with them. The amount of research that went into this book had to be monumental because it is so complete, so well told, the reader will feel they are exploring with them.
In a time before airplanes and cruise ships, telephones and automobiles, extensive maps and geographic information, the desire to explore unknown areas like the North Pole, obsessed some wealthy people who were willing to fund such expeditions. The danger was enormous but the curiosity, for some, was greater. Because of the conditions in the Arctic, there was no way for anyone to be rescued if things went awry, no planes to search the ocean, no maps to follow, no GPS, no ice breakers to mount a really successful and immediate search. Any effort would be very time consuming and difficult. All of the dangers that the explorer ship encountered would also be encountered by the rescue ships, so often they turned back without results.
An American publisher, James Bennett, August Petermann, a well-known British cartographer, and George Washington De Long, a Naval officer, all wanted to explore the waterways north and be the first to reach the North Pole. Bennett funded the expedition and hired George Washington De Long to lead it. Petermann was the mastermind behind the failed effort since his charts and maps were flawed and fell short of providing the correct information necessary for success and survival. In addition, his theories about the area to be explored turned out to be balderdash and led to the U.S.S. Jeannette’s (formerly “The HMS Pandora”), eventual short-lived journey. They became marooned on an ice floe, for almost as long as they tried to escape the Arctic ice by ship. They remained lost at sea for about 4 years.
When they became irrevocably stuck in the ice and could not get free, they survived for several years on the stores of supplies they carried with them and on wildlife from the sea, land and sky, Soon, though, they were fraught with unexpected dangers. The ice crushed and tossed the forlorn crew and ship, hither and yon, causing it to spring leaks and sustain damage, and eventually, the ice dealt it a death blow and it had to be abandoned. DeLong and his crew suffered from illnesses like frostbite and scurvy, and also from some unknown sicknesses, one of which was eventually determined to be from the lead in the cans of tomatoes. When they became ill, they did not have adequate medical supplies and were unable to get help from elsewhere. Also, this was more than two centuries ago and medical knowledge was in its fledgling stage; there were no antibiotics and no diagnostic technical equipment was available. There was no way to communicate their plight to anyone in the outside world. Their world was virtually blacked out from the rest of humanity.
The excruciating journey was burdened with unforced errors from the beginning. Following the in completely drawn maps of the famed cartographer, August Petermann, and also trusting in his theories about a water route to the North Pole through the Bering Strait, which was later proven incorrect and rife with errors, the expedition was doomed to failure. This is the story of their struggle to survive. The first third of the book was filled with details about the backgrounds of the major characters involved in the endeavor. It sometimes got bogged down in the minutiae and became tedious and a bit boring. Moving along, though, once the journey begins, it grows fascinating as you realize the determination, strength of character, courage and fortitude these men must have possessed to even undertake such a journey, knowing many before them had died trying to accomplish the same goal. Their valor and fearlessness when confronted with so little hope for survival and such vast expanses of emptiness and uninhabited wastelands, was extraordinary. The author deserves kudos for the amazing amount of research that went into this well planned and well laid out explanation of the USS Jeannette’s birth and ultimate death, concentrating on the period of time from its purchase in 1878, its refitting and its sailing in 1879, to the time of the discovery of the remains of the seamen that never made it back, in 1882, in spite of the multiple search parties sent out to find them. When one thinks of the conditions that they suffered under, one has to wonder that any survived and marvel at their courage, determination and sense of purpose..