Book relates harrowing Greely Expedition

Posted: Thursday, April 04, 2002

In today's world, the ground covered by the 25 volunteers of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, more commonly known as the Greely Expedition, can be flown over, skied across and kayaked around. Photos of the spectacular glaciers, snow-covered terrain and frozen waterways can be viewed from the comfortable warmth of a home office, thanks to a desktop computer and a connection to the World Wide Web.

But when Adolphus Washington Greely, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Signal Corps, and his men sailed out of the harbor at St. John's, Newfoundland, on July 8, 1881, as part of the United States' participation in the first International Polar Year, they were headed into unfamiliar territory. After establishing Fort Conger, their headquarters on Ellesmere Island, some 81-degrees north of the equator, their goal was to push beyond the 83-degree farthest-north record set by the English six years earlier.

On August 26, with 350 tons of stores unloaded, and the "Protheus," the ship that had brought them to this point, disappearing over the horizon, the crew set about constructing a sixty-by-seventeen foot building that would be their temporary

home. Less than two months later, the sun disappeared for the remainder of the winter, leaving them to explore their new surroundings in twilight.

With the help of two Eskimos that had joined the party, they learned to travel by dog sled and added to their food supplies by hunting musk ox and ducks. They skated, made record of their environment, played board games and celebrated the holidays in style.

"The Thanksgiving dinner was the grandest on record at Fort Conger, introduced with a menu listing oyster soup, salmon, eider duck, boiled ham, asparagus, deviled crab, lobster salad, peach and blueberry pie, raisin and jelly cake, vanilla ice cream, dates, Brazil nuts, figs and coffee," wrote author Todd Alden, who was born in Washington, D.C., but now lives in Anchorage. "Greely ordered an issue of twice the usual Sunday serving of rum and the jollity continued far into the night."

In a letter home, Greely reported that indoor temperatures ranged from 55- to 60-degrees, occasionally reaching as high as 75; however, he noted in his diary that "in midwinter a drop of water spilled on the floor froze where it fell."

Finally, on June 1, nearly one year after their arrival, an excited Greely wrote that Lt. James Booth Lockwood had broken the record set by the English.

"I am of course delighted beyond measure at this result, which places our expedition at the head of all others as regards the highest latitude and the discovery of the most northerly land known on the globe," he noted.

Then, it was only to wait for the ship to take them home.

But delayed governmental action, pack ice and storms kept that from happening.

Greely had prepared for delays. The expedition was equipped with supplies to last three years. But, that didn't stop him or the other men from being disappointed.

"The monotonous routine of our life is felt more keenly every day," Sgt. David L. Brainard wrote in his diary. "Everything annoys us. We give way readily in any situation with a burst of unreasonableness, rather than bolster up our will-power."

Tensions increased and concern mounted over what the future held.

In March, 1883, Greely's diary entry read, "If no vessel comes I consider our chances desperate God help us."

When no ship had arrived by August 9, the lieutenant ordered the men to abandon Fort Conger in favor of a prearranged plan. They would make their way by launch and small boats to a rendezvous point at Smith Sound. At 2:30 that afternoon, they left behind the known comforts of their headquarters and headed south, unknowingly entering a hell that only few would survive.

Efforts to reach them also went from bad to worse, as the concern of family members and the public increased and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, who was annoyed by the adverse publicity his department was receiving, issued the order, "Get to Greely and bring him back!"

But conflicting directions and inexperience turned the rescue into a nightmare as the rescue ship was crushed by ice and sent to the ocean's bottom.

Unaware of the effort's tragic end, Greely and his crew continued to press on toward the rendezvous point, fighting against currents, foul weather and the murderous ice. In the face of unavoidable danger and almost certain death, the individual personalities of the men emerged as some challenged Greely's authority, others' actions put the party at risk and still others rose to heroic proportions.

Within a pathetically inadequate shelter at Camp Clay, the men faced their final torment as a third winter tore into them and claimed its victims.

There was a stronger force at work, however, that would not let them be forgotten. And on June 22, 1984, a third rescue attempt met with success and stumbled across the small band of emaciated survivors.

Even then, the nightmare isn't over, as Greely faced a battle upon his return to the United States that left its mark on him for the rest of his life.

Thanks to considerable research and a reliance on historical documents by author Todd, who, when he was 10-years old, met Greely, new light is shed on the accusations that dogged the expedition.

"The characters in this drama speak for themselves through their letters, their diaries and such of their remarks as were written down at the time," Todd wrote in the author's preface.

His research is so thoroughly convincing that Vilhjalmur Stefansson, author of "Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic," concluded in the introduction, "Through telling more truth, more precisely, than previous Greely narratives, "Abandoned" contributes to the pride we feel in men who under the supreme test rose to moral heights. We think the better of humanity for these revelations."

Originally published by McGraw-Hill in 1961, "Abandoned" has been republished, complete with engravings taken from expedition photos, by the University of Alaska Press in Fairbanks.

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