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Author Hampton Sides on the call of the wild

September 22, 2014


For two years, the crew of the USS Jeannette was trapped in ice north of the Bering Sea. The sailors staged musicals, played football, ate seal meat (which they dubbed "arctic turkey") and even performed surgery on the eye of a crew member afflicted with syphilis.

Then, in June 1881, the real adventure began: The Jeannette sank. The men loaded their provisions onto dog sleds and began the trek to Siberia, some 1,000 miles away.

Journalist Hampton Sides tells the story of the Jeannetteís star-crossed expedition in his latest book, "In the Kingdom of Ice."

Sides spent more than three years poring over thousands of pages of records kept by the shipís captain, letters, diary entries and testimony from the 13 men who survived the brutal journey. The book weaves together tales of the opulent newspaper owner who conceived of the journey, the shipís brave and methodical captain, George Washington De Long, and letters from De Longís increasingly despondent young wife.

We asked Sides to discuss "In the Kingdom of Ice."

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Q: How did you learn about George Washington De Long and the voyage of the Jeannette?

A: I got an assignment (for National Geographic) to write about a Norwegian explorer who had tried to reach the North Pole by duplicating the voyage of the Jeannette, but doing it in a differently designed ship. When I came home, I realized that the Jeannette was a huge story in its day, very well-known, but completely forgotten in the United States.

Q: Why was there a fascination with the North Pole during this time?

A: A lot of people didnít think it was inhospitable. It was one of the few places left where no man had ever been ó this mythic place at the top of the world. And there was a commercial aspect. For the United States, we had recently purchased Alaska from the Russians, and people wanted to know what was north of Alaska. Also, these guys like De Long wanted some personal glory. If you could become the first person to teach the top of the world, you would be famous forever.

Q: How did you go about researching the book?

A: I spent about 3 1/2 years on it. De Longís journals were an important source; he wrote religiously every day, no matter what the conditions were like. (George) Melville (the shipís engineer) wrote a big fat anvil of a book. All of the survivors gave testimony before Congress and before a naval inquiry. Several of the other survivors kept journals, and several of the people who died kept journals.

Q: Which places did you visit?

A: They end up making landfall at the Arctic coast of central Siberia at a place called the Lena River Delta. I wanted to go there because I had heard about a monument to the Jeannette expedition that was there called America Mountain. Itís in the middle of nowhere, 400 miles above the Arctic Circle in a completely uninhabited, restricted area. I wanted to see some of the villages as well that figured into the story. I also went to the Bering Strait and to Wrangel Island, an island off the northeast coast of Siberia in the Chukchi Sea. I went on a Russian ice breaker, smashed through a bunch of ice and finally got to this island, which was almost impossible to get to. I spent about a week exploring that place. I thought it was important to see at least some of the Arctic and try to understand why these people are so addicted to it. Those who seem to love it keep coming back for more.

Q: What is it like there?

A: I donít need to go back to it repeatedly, but there is something about the atmosphere, the weird tricks of light, all the mist and fog and the sound of the ice constantly talking to you. Itís screaming and screeching and laughing and sighing. I had this sense that the ice was a big monolithic slab and just sitting there silently, but it is moving constantly and crashing into each other. It was really one of the most alien environments Iíve ever been in.

Q: How did the crew bear being stuck in the ice for two years?

A: They really didnít suffer that much during those two years. They had a lot of food, plus they supplemented it with a lot of hunting ó they had plenty of polar bear and walrus and seal. De Long was smart enough to know that they would go crazy if they didnít have a lot to do. He gave them a regimen, daily exercise on the ice, football and other sports. They had to take hourly measurements of the ice and fill the log books with meteorological data. They had plays and musicals and entertainment of various sorts. They had an organ and a printing press. But they were going slowly crazy from boredom and monotony.

Q: Did they get sick of each other?

A: There was a meteorologist who had this terrible propensity for making puns, bad puns usually, and after two years, as you can imagine, the whole crew wants to wring his neck.

Q: What was the reaction to the story at the time?

A: Everyone in America knew about the Jeannette. It was a national endeavor. When they left from San Francisco, more than 10,000 people came to see them off. There was such expectation and hope ó this young aspiring nation trying to compete with the European powers and show what we can do. (Thomas) Edisonís lights were on board and (Alexander Graham) Bellís telephones. Two years later, when the news begins to trickle out of Siberia that something terrible had happened, the nation was equally fascinated and saddened. The survivors came home as heroes, and those who didnít make it were brought home and described as martyrs to science.

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