In the Kingdom of Ice; Hampton Sides; 2014; Anchor Books; 415 pgs; Notes, index
Some months ago I read The Lost City of Z (see my comments elsewhere on this site). That book was about turn-of-the-century (circa 1900) explorers going to the bowels of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city, reputed as all lost cities are, to be filled with gold. The journey took years to complete. People died and those who didn't were subject to disease, parasites, starvation, angry natives and so on.
In the Kingdom of Ice is about a similar trip circa 1880. George De Long was bitten by the Arctic bug. He had been there once before and wanted to go again to search for a reputed north pole warm sea surrounded by ice. There was not a lick of evidence for this. There were questions about certain warm water currents that were unanswered, and it was thought that a warm sea at the north pole would answer them. The speculations in this regard were very close to science fiction. But truth be told, glory was a goal in and of itself in those days. And glory can translate to power and wealth.
The ship Jeannette was well equipped by a newspaper baron and sailed on July 8th, 1879 for the Bering Straight in hope of find the warm sea. The steam-ship passed the Bering straight, and promptly got itself locked into the ice.
The story of there next years on the ice is similar to that of The Lost City of Z.
When the ice finally broke during the following summer, instead of freeing the Jeannette, it sank it. The 30+ men did what they had to do, short of cannibalism, to survive. No parasites, but plenty of disease, and of course, frost bite and gangrene. Try to imagine weeks in an open boat with 10 others. The boat is 20 feet long, being tossed about in gale force winds, only 15 degrees off the north pole. And during all of that time, you are bailing for your very life.
Not everyone made it. And virtually nothing was accomplished. It is hard to put ones mind into that of an 1800 explorer. I imagine that those types of people are today's base jumpers.
The writing is excellent. The glimpse into life on the ice, and onboard a ship stuck in the ice, is gripping. I would not last one week in that world. The whole story is true, but it reads like a novel.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.