Ordeal in the Arctic

It was a blustery day. Although summer, the temperature hovered around freezing. A party of men in an open boat edged through the choppy seas, peering at the coast as they went. All they could see was barrenness - patches of snow and ice on brown, stony earth. No life. In the distance, their mother ship sounded her steam whistle.

On the lifeless shore, a man with intense eyes and wildly flaring whiskers heard the whistle and labored to raise himself to his elbows. He asked two companions to climb a nearby ridge and investigate. They squirmed from tattered sleeping bags and stumbled out of a barely standing tent. But there was nothing new - only the same featureless, inhospitable sea they'd gazed at for eight months now. One of them turned back toward camp. As he neared the tent, he noticed that the wind made low moans, a bit like a ship's whistle, as it whipped through discarded tins and bottles. The Arctic elements were playing tricks on them again, he concluded.

Minutes later, the men in the boat cleared another of the island's serrations and saw something they had nearly lost hope of seeing - a human figure, standing forlorn on a high point of land. They exploded in shouts and waves. The gaunt figure ashore struggled to raise a nearby oar and wave it in return. As the boat's crew raced to the rocky beach, the lone man tripped and tottered to meet them. ''How many of you are there?'' was the first question put to him. ''Seven left alive,'' he gasped. ''Greely's alive ... over there,'' he added, motioning toward the decrepit tent.

That was June 22, 1884, just a little over a century ago. For most Americans, it's a day lost in history. At the time, however, it was a date trumpeted on front pages coast to coast. The long-lost Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, led by US Army Lt. Augustus Washington Greely, had been found. Three years had elapsed since its departure from St. John's, Newfoundland, for the virtually uncharted waters near Greenland's topmost shores. Out of the 25 men who in the fall of 1881 built an outpost on Grinnell Land, nearly 1,000 miles inside the Arctic Circle, seven remained. Only six would survive to step again on American soil.

Among the fragments of belongings and equipment that the Greely party's rescuers gathered together that June day was an assortment of diaries kept by members of the ill-fated expedition. Those literary remnants - filled, often, with the flourish of Victorian penmanship and diction - still exist, reminders of an age of Arctic exploration that engaged the public's imagination no less than space probes do today. Dartmouth College recently acquired a number of the wizened documents, adding to an already extensive collection said to be among the world's two or three largest assemblages of Arctic lore and research. The diaries have never been fully published, although some works on Arctic exploration have included highly expurgated portions of them. Dartmouth hopes to publish them in full soon.

Their fragile, ink-splotched, yellowing pages tell of adventure, struggles, and triumph. But most of all, they record the repetitive, relentless minutiae of life in the globe's least-hospitable region as what began as a quest for individual glory and scientific advancement slid toward a grim struggle to survive.

A squarish, dogeared diary holds the elegantly inscribed observations of young, Canadian-born George W. Rice, who signed on as the expedition's photographer. His high spirits buoyed the men through the dreary winters. One of his exploits was the founding of a camp newspaper, the Arctic Moon, for the isolated residents of Fort Conger, as the outpost was christened in honor of US Sen. Omar D. Conger of Maine, sponsor of the bill that provided federal funding for the expedition.

Philip Cronenwett, curator of manuscripts at Dartmouth's Baker Library, points out that Rice's diary gives scholars a rare perspective on Arctic exploration. ''What we have here is the view from the bottom of the totem pole - just one of the soldier boys,'' says Mr. Cronenwett, adding that it's usually the words of leaders and officers which have survived to our day.

Many of Rice's early entries record the social life at Fort Conger, such as it was. For example, the plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in 1881: ''It is proposed that we shall make it a holiday and engage in ... rifle matches and other amusements. The commanding officer offers prizes to contestants in the different matches.'' He also notes a lecture delivered by Lieutenant Greely on ''the Arctic Question,'' shorthand for the long-running debate over how best to reach the elusive North Pole. It was ''a subject especially absorbing to those present,'' young Rice adds parenthetically, with the self-conscious formality characteristic of the era.

Later, when Greely's party was forced by circumstances and a prearranged schedule to abandon Fort Conger and sail hundreds of miles south in whaleboats and other small craft, Rice proved himself perhaps the best ice navigator of the lot. Still later, he perished in a desperate attempt to find food for his starving comrades.

The diary of Sgt. David Brainard offers a very different point of view. Here is the consummate good soldier, Greely's right-hand man. To him fell the trying job of divvying up dwindling supplies as the party clung to life on the shore of Bedford-Pym Island, waiting for rescuers who had already failed to penetrate the ice-clogged waters for two years running.

His entries - in a narrow, frazzled notebook whose appearance perfectly fits its sad tale - detail extremes of diet that would make today's hardiest survivalist turn pale. On Saturday, June 7 (only two weeks before rescue), his increasingly wobbly handwriting records: ''This evening we dined off a stew of sealskin boot soles and a little reindeer moss.... The small quantity of shrimps furnish material only sufficient for the morning meal.''

These ''shrimps,'' by the way, were not what we would order in a seafood restaurant. They were tiny, hard-shelled creatures that Brainard painstakingly extracted from the frigid waters with an improvised net.

Often, the faithful supply sergeant had to endure the suspicious glances and mutterings of perpetually hungry men. And he frequently sets down his own suspicions that less-principled members of the party were sneaking more than their share of the foodstuffs.

What was the impetus behind the Greely party's long journey, its explorations , and its subsequent privations?

The expedition was undertaken as part of the International Polar Year of 1881 - an observance that marked ''the first time in history that a dozen countries were cooperating in a scientific venture,'' writes A. L. Todd in his gripping account of the Greely party, ''Abandoned'' (McGraw-Hill, 1961). The Americans' goals included the establishment of a permanent far-north base for future Arctic forays, collection of all possible weather, geological, and biological data, and pushing back the horizon of Arctic exploration - all of which were attained. But beyond the pragmatic, scientific motivations lay the romantic notions that had pushed men northward for decades before Greely's voyage. Again, A. L. Todd: ''One attraction in sailing Arctic waters was that elusive golden fleece, the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.An even stronger magnet was the North Pole and the glory that would come to him who should first reach it'' (a glory captured by Robert Edwin Peary in 1909).

But all was not glory, as Greely and his men found out. The dark side of Arctic exploration shadowed them even after the physical ordeal in the north was over. The yellow press of the day went wild with rumors of cannibalism among members of the expedition. Greely himself, a stern but fair-minded New Englander reared in the Puritanical environs of Newburyport, Mass., was aghast. Some of the rumors proved true, but the commanding officer emerged from the furor free of complicity. He went on to attain the rank of general, head up the Army's Signal Corps, and take on other such demanding assignments as supervising the relief effort following the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of 1906. A chronicle of Arctic life Diary of George W. Rice Sat., July 28, 1883.

After a continuation of bad weather we have at last a beautiful day. For the last three days the snow and rain have been falling alternately all the time. I have been prevented thereby from completing my photographic work which required about one day's sun.... Sun., July 29, 1883.

Another day so fine as almost to reconcile one to the Arctic. I can best liken it to an Indian Summer day at home. I have completed my photographic work this morning and there remains nothing more to do except pack up.

An announcement was made this morning before divine service, by the commander (Lt. A. W. Greely), that an attempt to retreat will be made on the 7th day of August in case the ship does not reach us before that time. The station will then be abandoned.... Each man is to be allowed 8 pounds personal baggage, and the officers 16. Mon., July 30, 1883.

Everybody is busy preparing for the possible retreat by boats, and the selection of the articles to make up the precious 8 pounds is a matter of no little difficulty. Everyone has belongings which possess other value than their intrinsic worth to him, but if the retreat becomes a serious affair - as it undoubtedly will if there is no ship to cooperate with us at an early date, for there has been little preparation made along the coast for this contingency - a pair of socks will be more valuable to their owner than a gold watch or the most highly prized souvenir. I have many things I should regret to abandon, and trust the ship will arrive in time. Besides I have a natural apprehension of the unpleasant conditions of a retreat in the fall by boats with the young ice forming and other disadvantageous circumstances, etc., etc. Tues., July 31, 1883.

I have been up almost all night sorting prints, etc. (Pvt. Maurice) Connell and (Pvt. Charles B.) Henry have been a watch on the launch and alarmed the station by firing guns for help. A party went to their assistance. The C.O. (Greely) afterwards sent me down, it was about 4 a.m. I returned at once. There appeared to have been very little ground for so much excitement. The lanch was pushed from her anchorage - or they had laid out chains, or something of the kind, but I could see no trouble out of which two men could have have extricated her. I do not know what demonstrations they would have made under great danger as they had no cannons.... Wed., Aug. 1, 1883.

I have turned in the photographs for the expedition and have packed up all the negatives and photographic apparatus ready for shipment; 4 dozen negatives have been selected to take in the boats if ship does not arrive. Thurs., Aug 2, 1883.

Today is not so fine as we have had the weather lately. Snow has been falling this evening.

The fog and clouds have prevented a good view of the straits and Lady Franklin Bay, but the ice appeared packed in the latter place. The ice is clearing out of the harbor here.

(This is the last entry in Rice's diary. On Aug. 9, 1883, the station was abandoned, and the retreat by boats began.) Diary of David Brainard Fri., April 11, 1884 (two months before rescue).

A fine beautiful day - the best so far in this month, clear and a temperature at 4 a.m. -23, at 9 a.m. -15. And at the same time in the sun it rose to +17. In the evening it fell to -24 at 9 o'clock. Inside +25....

I went down to the shrimp grounds after dinner and while awaiting the tardy little crustaceans and walking up and down to keep from freezing and evolving a fine supper in my mind, I saw a medium-sized bear come in sight around the point 200 yards below me. My first impulse was to secrete myself behind a hummock and make an attack on the animal with the seaweed spear and hatchet, but as they did not strike me as being particularly desirable weapons with which to encounter a ferocious and hungry bear I considered discretion the better part of valor and hastily decamped, taking the 5 pounds of shrimp which I had collected - not wishing to lose both bear and shrimps....

At 9:50 the hunters returned and announced that they had met with success and that the bear had been met near the cove - having followed closely on my trail - and returned toward the open water - and that they killed him not more than 20 yards from the water. At once all was life and animation and in 20 minutes nine of us had left with the sledge first and loaded him on after much difficulty....

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