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The Lady Franklin Bay Expeditionary Force
July 9, 1881—Labrador Basin, North Atlantic Ocean
Lt. A. W. Greely, commander of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, rode at the bow of the two-hundred-foot-long steamship Proteus, his vision fixed on the northern horizon. He wore a double-breasted, boiled-wool peacoat with thick fur at the collar and cuffs. He and his crew were bound for the top of the world, to one of the last regions yet unmarked on global maps. As the inlet narrowed near the strait of Belle Isle, they passed great protruding shapes of ice rising from the sea. Some resembled immense white-blue anvils, and some looked like the wind-scoured sandstone towers he’d seen in the American Southwest. Most of the icebergs1 he could not describe, or compare to phenomena he had ever witnessed before in nature. He observed them and everything else, squinting through his oval spectacles at the breathtaking expanse, trying to visualize what lay ahead. The combination of ice, rock, and water appeared to have some vague kind of course he might plot his way through. As the Proteus plowed into the wind-chopped Labrador Sea, massive slabs of glacial ice cleaved off the shore and crashed into the sea, spewing freezing brine over the gunwales and frosting his sharp narrow face and pointed black beard.
His heart raced with anticipation, but his mind was much burdened. Less than a week earlier, on July 2, at the Baltimore and Potomac Rail Station in Washington, D.C., President James A. Garfield had been shot twice at point-blank range—once in the shoulder and once in the back, the second shot lodging near his pancreas—and now, with family and physicians huddled around him, he fought for his life at the White House. Greely’s heart was heavy at this news, with the uncertainty of how another presidential assassination—should Garfield not recover—would rock the Republic. And he already missed his young family, his wife of just three years, Henrietta, and their two infant daughters, Antoinette and Adola. But the call of adventure—and possibly international fame—had lured him toward the Arctic on a voyage of exploration and discovery that would last at least two years, should all go as planned. However, Greely was savvy enough to know that Arctic journeys never went as planned. He had spent years studying the history of Arctic exploration and the quest for the Northwest Passage, and he understood the dangers and stark realities: He steered toward a harsh, ice-bound labyrinth where crew losses of 50 percent or more were the norm. But Greely had some hard bark on him, a war-earned toughness coupled with an uncanny sense of the thing to do now, and he hoped his men had it too. They’d better: A. W. Greely would allow no disorder. This was sovereign. He’d started following orders when he was seventeen, then nicknamed “Dolph” by his friends. He’d been weaned on discipline. Now he was the one giving the orders, and he demanded a strict, unwavering adherence to them, and to discipline generally.
Poor weather and northwesterly gales slammed into the Proteus, slowing progress, but within a week they’d steamed into the Davis Strait, where they encountered their first pack ice.
Greely was fascinated and awed by the ice, noting in his journal that
the greater part of the ice ranged from three to five feet above the water, and was deeply grooved at the water’s edge, evidently by the action of the waves. Above and below the surface of the sea projected long tongue-like edges.… The most delicate tints of blue mingled quickly and indistinguishably into those of rare light green, to be succeeded later as the water receded from the floe’s side by shades of blueish white.
They passed more bergs, some jutting fifteen feet from the water, the ice rising in giant hummocks and pinnacles. Greely contemplated the threefold mission at hand: First, he was to set up the northernmost of a chain of a dozen research stations around the Arctic, to simultaneously collect magnetic, astronomical, and meteorological data. This was part of a revolutionary scientific mission named the International Polar Year (two years, really)—a global effort to record data at the farthest reaches of the world to better understand the earth’s climate. Second, Greely would search for and hopefully rescue the men of the lost USS Jeannette, which had vanished two years earlier during an attempted voyage to the North Pole. Greely had known Lt. Cdr. George W. De Long, the expedition’s leader, very well. He would try his best to find him. Third—though definitely not last—Greely secretly intended to reach the North Pole; or, should he fall short, to attain Farthest North, an explorer’s holy grail of the highest northern latitude, which had been held by the British for three hundred years.
At thirty-seven, tall, sinewy, and strong, Greely had earned his current command through two decades of army service, surviving some of the bloodiest battles in the nation’s history. At Antietam in 1862, as part of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment, Greely took a bullet to the face that fractured his jaw, knocked out several teeth, and left him unconscious as his regiment retreated. When he came to, a Confederate soldier stood over him and tried to capture him, but Greely fought his way to safety, though he was struck in the thigh by another musket ball during his escape. As Greely received treatment and then recovered in a field hospital cot, he witnessed a macabre sight: Piled up high against the side of the house were the amputated arms and legs of soldiers, both Union and Confederate, stacked like cordwood. The Union lost 12,410 men that day, the most of any single day in the Civil War.
From then on, Greely wore a full beard to cover the scars from his wound, and as well to hide the reminder of the atrocities he’d witnessed.
He’d worked his way up the army ranks since he was an enlisted teen, eventually being posted out West to construct telegraph lines throughout the hostile Indian frontier. During this duty, through careful observation, he’d become an expert in telegraphy, electricity, and meteorology. Eventually, through his leadership skills and his abilities, he’d convinced the Signal Corps and the highest brass of the U.S. Army—as well as Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln’s son, who signed his orders)—that he had the “stuff.” He would lead this mission, formally named the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in honor of Lady Jane Franklin. Her husband, the legendary Sir John Franklin (and his crew of 129), had vanished seeking the Northwest Passage in 1845. Lady Franklin sponsored numerous expeditions to find him.
But everyone knew the current voyage was in fact the Greely Expedition, and A. W. Greely was in charge.
The Proteus—christened and launched new in 1874 out of Dundee, Scotland—was a 467-ton, iron-prowed steamer designed for the sealing trade. It was built to last a half century or longer if well maintained. The ship was commanded by Capt. Richard Pike, one of the most experienced ice navigators in Newfoundland. Pike coursed northward with unusual speed for the season, clipping through the normally ice-choked waters of the Davis Strait. Cutting through dense fog and wave chop, the sturdy steamship made land at the windswept western shores of Greenland at Godhavn (now Qeqertarsuaq), Disko Island. Through lifting fog, Greely and his men saw mountains rising up from the sea some three thousand feet, and along a secure, landlocked harbor and tranquil cove sat a native settlement under Danish control. As the Proteus anchored, Greely heard a cannon fire a salute signaling their arrival, and soon afterward Sophus Krarup-Smith, the Danish royal inspector of North Greenland, came aboard.
Inspector Krarup-Smith had been about to depart for his annual assessment of Upernavik to the north, but out of courtesy he delayed leaving to host Greely and his men and to offer any provisions, intelligence, and assistance that the expedition required. Krarup-Smith welcomed the men into his home, which was surprisingly elaborate given its remoteness: There was a grand piano, a small billiard table, “a well-filled book-case, carpets, pictures, and many other evidences of civilization and even elegance.” Krarup-Smith and his wife served Greely and two of his lieutenants—Kislingbury and Lockwood—an elaborate welcome dinner that included fresh salmon, larded eider ducks, and delicate Arctic ptarmigan, all served with excellent European wines. They also sampled seal meat, which some of the men found unpalatable because of its coarse, dark, and oily appearance. Greely relished it as juicy and tender, “with a slight sweetish taste.”
They remained in Godhavn for five days. Greely observed that the Inuit houses were built of stone and turf, lined with wood, so low that he could hardly stand up inside. He was impressed by their ingenuity in using stretched seal intestines for windows. Greely scouted the area, characterizing it as “all mountains and sea,” the cliffs thrusting a few thousand feet straight up from the water. Though he found breaks in the cliffs that gave way to low, sloping valleys and brooks lined with vegetation, mostly he was awed by the region’s “grandeur and desolation.”
There was also expedition business to attend to. Greely purchased a team of twelve Greenlandic sled dogs, the pack snarling and vicious. He would need these animals, as well as Greenlandic sled drivers he still had to enlist, for his intended sorties toward the North Pole. Greely also bartered for a large quantity of mattak—the skin of the white whale—which he’d learned from reading previous expedition logs was “antiscorbutic”2—important in helping to prevent scurvy.
On July 20 a Louisiana-born Frenchman, Dr. Octave Pavy, arrived from nearby Ritenbenck, where he’d spent the preceding year serving as naturalist in an ambitious colonization attempt organized by U.S. Army captain Henry Howgate. But funding for that mission had failed to make it through Congress, and now Greely was free to hire Pavy as a contract surgeon. He was experienced in treating ailments typical of the severe northern region. Greely oversaw his signing of the oath of service that very day. Pavy was also to serve as chief naturalist and taxidermist in charge of preserving and recording all specimens procured.
They sailed north once more, stopping at Upernavik, at the time the most northerly settlement in the world. There Greely purchased ten suits of sealskin clothing fashioned for Arctic expeditionary work. He also hired two sturdy and able Greenlandic sledge drivers from a small nearby coastal settlement. They were said to be skilled hunters and kayakers. One was named Thorlip Frederik Christiansen; his mother was a Greenlandic Inuit,3 his father a Dane. Greely’s men quickly nicknamed him “Eskimo Fred.” His full-blooded Greenlander friend was named Jens Edward. Though neither of them could speak English, Pavy, who’d been on Greenland for the last year, helped translate at the beginning. They loaded their kayaks and hunting gear and climbed aboard.
Thus provisioned, Greely ordered Captain Pike to steam the Proteus ahead toward the dreaded Melville Bay, a three-hundred-mile-wide body of turbulent water known as a “mysterious region of terror.” The bay’s churning, swirling currents were much feared by whalers, and Greely had read that in one season alone, nineteen ships were lost there, some blown off course and capsized in the howling, freezing gales, others crushed and splintered between massive bergs. They plowed through thin “pancake ice” barely an inch thick and marveled at the massive floating icebergs gleaming white and blue-green in the perpetual sunlight. But that year, one of the fairest summers in memory, the waters of Melville Bay remained remarkably open, and on July 31, lookouts sighted Cape York. Captain Pike had navigated the watery graveyard in an unheard-of thirty-six hours, the fastest crossing then on record. Greely was pleased with the speed, but he privately wondered whether such open waters were an anomaly. What if the sound was not as open when the ship to relieve him attempted to pass through?
Just past Cape York, Greely anchored at the Cary Islands, twenty miles off the Greenland coast. Winds gusted, and he clasped his records tightly. They showed that English captain Sir George Strong Nares had cached significant provisions here during his 1875–76 expedition. Greely sent Doctor Pavy and Lieutenant Kislingbury, his second in command, ashore, and sure enough, at a small cove on the southern tip of the island they found a cairn, and nearby 3,600 rations in good condition. They secured and covered these for the future, should they or other explorers need them. Nares had also left behind a sturdy whaleboat that the men wanted to take, as it was in serviceable condition, but Greely ordered them to leave the craft, reckoning it might just save some imperiled whaler’s life one day—or their own lives. They noted the location of the cache in their journals and moved on. Greely, emboldened by the open water, directed Captain Pike to take them past Cape Sabine on the coast of Grinnell Land—the central section of Ellesmere Island—where Nares had recorded having a sledging depot and had cached a few hundred pounds of canned beef.
They pressed on, easing into the Smith Sound narrows as lookouts scanned ahead for ice. They saw polar bears and flipper seals and many walruses. Eider ducks and small black-and-white arctic auks called dovekies winged along the shore. The prevalence of game seemed a good omen to Greely and his men, and they shot some animals and birds en route, increasing their considerable larder. Smith Sound had been discovered by the fabled English navigator William Baffin in 1616 and was thought to be the gateway to the “Open Polar Sea,” the hypothesized ice-free sea surrounding the North Pole. The narrows linking Baffin Bay to the Kane Basin were aptly referred to as the “Northern Pillars of Hercules,” and believed to be the most likely route to the North Pole. Where the sound bottlenecked between Littleton Island on western Greenland and Cape Sabine off eastern Grinnell Land, the gap was a mere twenty-three miles. Surveying the craggy shorelines, Greely determined that under the right conditions, it would not take much to completely clog this narrow funnel of a waterway.
The Proteus reached Cape Hawks midmorning on August 3. Dense fog descended, and they crawled forward with great caution at half speed. Greely scribbled in his journal: “We met an impenetrable icefield at 10 P.M. and the Proteus butted against it. We are at the entrance of Lady Franklin Bay.” Pike anchored the ship to the ice pack off Cape Baird, a headland of Bellot Island that guards Lady Franklin Bay. But he was forced to disengage when winds and shifting ice began to buffet the Proteus toward the south, away from their destination. For a week they were driven backward a total of about forty miles. Greely was dumbfounded by the power of the wind and the pack, amazed by how helpless they were, even in a powerful, nearly five-hundred-ton steam sealer. They were entirely at the mercy of nature.
As they retreated, Greely watched the ice and the water, mesmerized by schools of white beluga whales being chased by swordfish. The size of the beluga—between twelve and twenty feet—impressed Greely, as did their appearance. They had, he noted, a “smooth, unwrinkled hide, which is of a waxy-white color in adults, but of a light grayish brown in the young.” The larger of these creatures could yield nearly a thousand pounds each of blubber and meat. Yellowish-white narwhals—the so-called unicorns of the sea, named for their long, straight, up-to-ten-foot-long “tusk”—also swam past in great numbers.
Finally the winds shifted in Greely’s favor and blew hard to the west, the ice beginning to split and fissure, with “leads”—lanes of navigable water—opening in the frozen sea. Leads, as noted by Sergeant Brainard, who was learning to study them carefully, were “impermanent and tricky affairs. They open and they close without a sign of warning. A lead may remain open for a week, or it may close in an hour.” Leads are the Arctic navigator’s map, and often his lifeline, in a frozen sea. Now Captain Pike drove at full steam through the splintery web of leads, snaking and cutting in a northerly direction until, on August 11, 1881, as the morning fog lifted, they entered the western mouth of Lady Franklin Bay, which was for the moment relatively clear of ice.
Greely ordered Pike to make anchor and dispatched Lieutenant Lockwood ashore to ascertain the existence of a deep and productive coal seam reported by Nares in 1875. Lockwood returned from his reconnaissance to report that the coal seam was easily accessible and of excellent quality, and further, that he’d killed three musk-oxen from a large herd. Game seemed plentiful, and the nearby shores of the bay appeared suitable for establishing their station. Beyond the shore in all directions, mountains rose up to three thousand feet, gently curving at their summits like the backs of hogs. Many of the mountaintops—like those of three-mile-long Bellot Island—were covered even in summer with snow drifts. The great harbor there at the foot of the mountains, with more than twenty square miles of enormous ice floes, was named Discovery Harbor for Nares’s ship, HMS Discovery. The harbor was, Greely observed, “hemmed in at every point by precipitous walls, which ranged from hundreds to thousands of feet in height.”
In order to get close enough to unload their considerable stores—which included all the precut timber needed to build a sixty-five-foot longhouse—Pike began ramming through ice that ranged from two to ten feet thick. He would reverse the ship a few hundred yards, then throttle full steam ahead, bashing the ice with the iron bow, plowing through as far as half—and sometimes even the entire length—of the ship. As the Proteus thrust forward, Pike and Greely urged the men to run fore and then aft, causing a rocking motion to aid in breaking the ice and also to keep the ship from becoming “beset” or “nipped”—the Arctic whalers’ expression for getting trapped in the ice.
After seven hours of ramming through rotting harbor ice, the Proteus rested within one hundred yards of the shore. Beyond the ice foot, and within thirty yards of the water’s edge, was a flat, scrubby bluff scoured by wind, ice, and sea. This was the place. Greely dubbed the spot Fort Conger, after Michigan senator Omar Conger, who had supported the expedition from the start. They had made a remarkable seven hundred miles in just six days of actual steaming (discounting the week they were blown south). Here they would build their scientific station and spend the next two years collecting data, venturing forth into the unexplored northern Lincoln Sea, and attempting to reach the North Pole.
* * *
Greely stepped onshore and strode up a small hill covered with saxifrage—small, purple-blooming flowers growing in tufts between rocks. Gulls and terns soared and hovered on the wind along the shore. A freshwater brook rushed down a steep slope just past the lichen-covered plateau. The place looked promising, and they would have everything they would need. The air was cold, fresh, salty, and bracing. He paused to look back as the men began unloading the Proteus. Ice was beginning to pack and encroach in Discovery Harbor, as well as beyond, to the west in the Kennedy Channel. From somewhere out in the bunched and knuckled hills came the plaintive howl of a wolf. Adolphus Greely, adjusting his spectacles and gazing at the three tall masts of the Proteus piercing the horizon, had cause for both excitement and trepidation. For as his men lowered the whaleboats, and the twenty-eight-foot steam launch dubbed the Lady Greely, it occurred to him that they were 250 miles north of the last known Eskimo settlement, and more than 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They were, in fact, now the most northerly colony of human inhabitants in the world. They were being left, quite literally, at the far end of the earth.
Unloading the Proteus at Discovery Harbor. (G. W. Rice, photographer / Library of Congress)
Building Fort Conger. (G. W. Rice, photographer / Library of Congress)
Copyright © 2019 by Buddy Levy