Friday, September 9, 2011

This ill-fated Arctic expedition had my name on it, but it had nothing to do with me

Recently, I read Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North, a book about his sea voyage/scramble over the ice towards the North Pole that lasted from 1893 to 1896. Everyone got home safely in the end; an anomaly for Arctic trips at the time. Nansen designed his ship specifically to freeze into the ice. Based on a theory that the ice would drift taking the ship with it. The evidence he used to come up with this idea came from the disastrous, 1879-1881, Jeannette Arctic Expedition.

The Jeannette was a privately owned wooden steamship, originally the HMS Pandora (isn't re-naming a ship an invitation for bad luck?), that set sail from San Fransisco in 1879 and was commanded by Lieutenant DeLong of the US Navy. Sailing through Bering Strait and into the Arctic, the ship was frozen into the ice. Its ultimate destination was the North Pole – the belief at that time was that open water existed past the ice. In the summer of 1881, the ship was crushed by ice and the crew was forced to abandon it in three small boats. One boat was lost long before they reached the Siberian coast. The other two boats made it the coast, but were separated.

One boat's crew of eleven, including the Chief Engineer George Melville, were found by locals and saved. In the other boat was thirteen people, including Lieutenant DeLong. His last journal entry was dated 30 October 1881 and it is assumed he died shortly thereafter. Melville put together a search party for the others and by 1882, some of the bodies were discovered and sent back to the United States.

The Jeannette was crushed by ice in the area north of Siberia (77 degrees 15' north, 154 degrees 59' east). Three years later bits of paperwork and clothing from the ship were found on the southwest coast of Greenland – on the opposite side of the Arctic. This discovery led to the theory that these items had drifted right over the North Pole in the ice – the theory that inspired Nansen's voyage. There is more info on the voyage here  

The photo is a picture of a picture which I took in the museum in Iqaluit - there was no caption about what ship it is. Photos of the Jeannette can be found here.

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