"Most of us are out of our right minds. I fear for the future."- Lieutenant Adolphus Greely
It was 18 September, 1883. Twenty-five men huddled in their sleeping bags on an ice floe grinding erratically through the shifting ice and swirling currents of the Arctic's Kane Basin. They were the men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, sent north to establish a base for scientific exploration and observation, and now engaged in a fight for their lives.
The expedition had had a turbulent birth, marked by scandal and political infighting in Washington, D.C., where the Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, had shown marked antipathy to the whole project. As a result, when the approval finally had come, the expedition had had to assemble in haste, and it showed, from the equipment to the ships to the personnel, a group composed primarily of Army Signal Corps soldiers with no experience in the Arctic.
Once up at Lady Franklin Bay, the personality differences had quickly made themselves known. One soldier drank too much. Another grew despondent. The second in command, Lieutenant Kislingbury, found the orders of his commander, Lieutenant Greely, objectionable, and Kislingbury was quickly relieved of duty. The expedition's doctor, Octave Pavy, clashed with the commander as well, and both wrote furiously of the other in the journals they kept. "If he could read my thoughts, he certainly must have read all the contempt I have for his person," wrote Pavy. "If he was anything but a doctor, I would deal with him summarily," wrote Greely.
Nevertheless, a degree of camaraderie developed, the scientific work went forward, and in a separate foray, the Americans jubilantly planted their flag at a point farther north than any human had ever attained-triumphantly surpassing 300 years of British polar record-breaking. For all its rocky beginnings, the expedition looked as though it would be a success after all when the unexpected happened.
The ship that was supposed to resupply them after one year never came.
The ship that was supposed to relieve them after two years never came.
They were on their own.
Greely ordered a retreat to Smith Sound, 250 miles away, where more supplies were cached, but the gales blew, the ice thickened, their launch could make no headway. In desperation, Greely ordered the launch abandoned. If only ice floes could get through, they would ride them across Kane Basin to safety. Many of the men thought it was a bad idea, but they had no choice.
Now, more than five weeks since they had set out from their base, and after ten grueling days at the oars and drag ropes, the party had bivouacked on a paleocrystic floe one mile wide. They munched on seal meat before taking to their sleeping bags. No shelter was erected. The plan was to start off early the next morning. "I think land is within our grasp," Sergeant Brainard wrote. They were, in fact, some twenty miles from Cape Sabine, the pack having veered back north. Strong gales persisted, hurling ice-capped foam over the floe's rim. At the height of a blizzard, the floe broke in two. The segment with its half-frozen human cargo now whirled eastward across Kane Basin.
Powerful winds brought the party closer to the Greenland shore than to Ellesmere Island. When the storm abated, the party managed to erect a tent on the floe. It had space enough for only a few, Greely included. The others remained in their sleeping bags. But dulled senses revived enough to take in the words of the commander calling a council. To his people hunched in their snow-mantled bags, he declared that the Greenland coast about twenty miles to the east was now the only reasonable goal, "the only one where positive relief could be expected." Etah natives might be met there. The best course, Greely reasoned, was to "abandon everything but 2,000 pounds of selected baggage and with twenty days' rations start across the moving pack in the direction of Greenland." No one else agreed. Even Lieutenant Lockwood, while "hardly willing to give a decision, favored delay." Those were Greely's words, suggestive of Lockwood's characteristically neutral attitude. Sergeant Brainard's disagreement was stated with an outward show of respect. Within his bag that night, he scribbled a single word for the commander's proposal: "Madness."
Reprinted from Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition by Leonard F. Guttridge by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Leonard F. Guttridge. All rights reserved.
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