Prologue : Baptism by Ice
On a misty morning in late April 1873, the Tigress, a steam barkentine out of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, was pushing through the loose floes and bergs off the coast of Labrador, heading for the seasonal seal-hunting grounds. Late in the morning, the Tigress encountered something strange: A lone Inuit in a kayak was hailing the ship, waving his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs. The native man was clearly in some kind of trouble. He had ventured much farther out into the perilous open waters of the North Atlantic than any Eskimo ordinarily would. When the Tigress pulled closer to him, he yelled, in accented English, "American steamer! American steamer!"
The crew of the Tigress leaned over the railings and tried to decipher what the Inuit was talking about. Just then, the fog parted enough to reveal, in the middle distance, a jagged floe piece, on which more than a dozen men and women, plus several children, appeared to be trapped. Seeing the ship, the marooned party erupted in cheers and fired guns into the air.
The Tigress's captain, Isaac Bartlett, ordered rescue boats put in the water. When the stranded peoplenineteen in allwere brought aboard, it was immediately apparent that they had suffered a horrific ordeal. Emaciated, filthy, and frostbitten, they had haunted looks in their eyes. Their lips and teeth were greasy from a just-finished break- fast of seal intestine.
"How long have you been on the ice?" Captain Bartlett asked them.
The senior member of the group, an American named George Tyson, stepped forward. "Since the fifteenth of October," he replied.
Bartlett tried to understand what Tyson was saying. October 15 was 196 days earlier. These people, whoever they were, had been stranded on this ice slab for nearly seven months. Their precarious floe had been, Tyson said, a "God-made raft."
Bartlett questioned Tyson further and learned, to his astonish- ment, that these pitiful castaways had been aboard the Polaris, a ship famous around the world. (This was the "American steamer!" the Inuit had been screaming about.) The Polaris, an unprepossessing steam tug that had been reinforced for the ice, was the exploring vessel of an American polar expedition, partly funded by Congress and supported by the U.S. Navy, that had left New London, Connecticut, two years earlier and, after a few stops along the way to Greenland, had not been heard from since.
AFTER PENETRATING JUST beyond the 82nd parallel, a nautical latitude record at the time, the Polaris had become trapped in the ice high along the west coast of Greenland. Then, in November 1871, the expedition commander, a brooding, eccentric visionary from Cincinnati named Charles Francis Hall, had died under mysterious circumstances after drinking a cup of coffee that, he suspected, had been laced with poison. Following Hall's death, the leaderless expedition had completely unraveled.
On the night of October 15, 1872, a large piece of ice on which Tyson and eighteen other expedition members were temporarily encamped had suddenly broken away from the vicinity of the ship and started drifting into Baffin Bay. The party of castaways, which included several Inuit families and a newborn infant, was never able to rejoin the Polaris, and they resigned themselves to their slab of ice. They helplessly floated toward the south, through the winter and spring, sleeping in igloos and living on seals, narwhals, seabirds, and the occasional polar bear. Not having any fuel with which to cook, they ate only raw meat, organs, and blood, when they were lucky enough to have it, for the duration of their drift.
Tyson said they had been "fools of fortune." Huddled miserably on their ever-shrinking slab, they were batted around "like a shuttle-cock," he said, by heaving seas, crashing icebergs, and powerful gales. Amazingly, though, no one in the stranded party had died. In all, they had drifted eighteen hundred miles.
Excerpted from In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Copyright © 2014 by Hampton Sides. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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