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
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.
Hampton Sides tells the story of the Jeannetteís
star-crossed expedition in his latest book, "In the
Kingdom of Ice."
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.
asked Sides to discuss "In the Kingdom of
How did you learn about George Washington De Long and
the voyage of the Jeannette?
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.
Why was there a fascination with the North Pole during
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.
How did you go about researching the book?
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.
Which places did you visit?
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.
What is it like there?
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.
How did the crew bear being stuck in the ice for two
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.
Did they get sick of each other?
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.
What was the reaction to the story at the time?
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.