Modern history


We heard a crash, and looking out the window, we saw the ice coming in on us.


The sudden snap of the hawsers and the explosion of the ice propelled the Polaris into the mouth of the storm. The lurch that followed those breaking ropes sent Captain Buddington sprawling across the quarterdeck, sliding over the ice-covered planks until he careened into the raised cabin. Even as the ship danced wildly through the clouds of snow, he scrambled to his feet and shouted, “All hands to muster!”

He did not know how many of the crew remained behind on the ice. For a fleeting moment, he feared he might be alone. Quickly he calmed his fears. The engineers at least were still aboardthem and the tiresome Dr. Bessel. Throughout the entire storm, the physician had not stirred from his cabin.

White-faced men raced to his side, and a roll call was hurriedly taken. Anxiously Buddington counted the bodies while he searched each bundled face in recognition. The mad carpenter, Nathan Coffin, grinned lopsidedly at him. Resenting every minute he had to stand in the cold, Emil Bessel glared back sullenly. Beside him stood the gentle Bryan, his face placid as he prepared to meet his Maker. There, too, were the stolid features of old William Morton, the second mate, and Hubbard Chester, the first mate.

Half the crew was missing. Sieman, Hayes, Mauch, and Hobby were the only able hands left to man the ship. Four such men could not handle the sails in a strong blow, Buddington realized. He cursed his bad luck in ordering so many men onto the ice. He cursed Tyson, too, ever the thorn in his side, for having both the whaleboa :s with him.

The door to the companionway swung open, and four coal-blackened faces gazed up at the group. Schuman, Odell, Booth, and Campbell all the engineers and firemen were still aboard.

“Schuman?” Buddington asked.

The engineer shook his head, answering the unspoken question that burned in the mind of each and every one. “Water still rising.”

“And the engines?”

Schuman wiped an oily hand across his mouth. “The fires are lit in the boilers, but there's not enough steam yet to run the engines. If the water in the bilges reaches the fire plates, it'll put out the fires.”

Buddington looked up to watch an iceberg half the length of the ship scrape along the ribs of the vessel. Chips of ice and snow showered onto the deck as the danger floated past. Even with their sails furled, the force of the storm pushed the Polaris along on bare poles. Wich the rudder and screw damaged and no steam, the ship drifted among the floating ice like a lamb among wolves. Without anchors, without ice hawsers, and with no lifeboats, the men were helpless.

Worst; than that, they could not even jump onto the ice should the ship s nk. The current and blasting wind had cleared their channel of everything but “brash” ice mixed with swiftly passing icebergs. The slush filling the space between would not hold a man's weight. Thick enough to impede swimming, the slush would keep even the strongest swimmer from reaching an iceberg. To the Inuit this was ihe treacherous qinuq, the rotten snow and slush floating on the sea, which could trap an unwary kayak.

Their only hope lay in holding back the flood until enough steam was raised to run the engines and the larger pumps.

Budd ngton pointed to the hand pumps. “Now, work for your lives, boys,” he again exhorted his diminished crew, ironically using the same phrase that had sent most of his men onto the ice. The threat of a watery grave prodded the crew to extraordinary efforts. Pails, cups, and buckets supplemented the hand pumps. An hour passed with the water gaining on the desperate men. A bucket of precious hot water siphoned from the engine boiler melted the ice from the steam donkey. After a few coughing starts, that engine caught and began to pump water overboard.

Men ran about kicking ice that blocked the scuppers and bailing with cooking pots. Officers worked frantically alongside seamen. Anything that could burn was fed into the boilers. Schuman threw broken furniture, repair lumber, and even slabs of seal blubber retrieved from the aft deck into the firebox.

One hour and ten minutes passed in frenzied activity. Seawater reached the door to the engine room, and the ship's rocking set the water to lapping over the doorjamb. An anxious Schuman watched the pressure gauge slowly approach the needed level. With not a minute to spare, he spun the valves and the steam engine hissed into life. The greased piston arms clanked slowly back and forth, picking up steam until the pumps coughed out their trapped air. Salty water gushed over the side as the powerful pump tackled the leaks. Gradually the level in the bilges and holds receded.

The Polaris had won another reprieve.

Long after midnight the wind died off. The Polaris drifted silently along until its bow nosed into more substantial “pash” ice. This soup of heavy blocks congregated in the still water. With a grinding crunch, the vessel drove into the field and stopped.

The moon broke through the clouds and cast its gibbous light over the depleted survivors. Soaked to the skin with salt water and sweat, the sailors shivered under damp blankets. Unfortunately the seabags of all those remaining aboard had been thrown onto the ice during the storm. Mauch, Hayes, Hobby, and Sieman possessed only the dripping garments on their backs. The officers fared little better. While they had a change of dry clothes, none of their bedding, blankets, or rugs had survived the frantic jettisoning. To keep warm, the officers huddled together in Chester's cabin and awaited the dawn.

The morning of October 16 proved clear and windless. The dazed Chester guessed the ship lay halfway between Littleton Island and Cairn Point and perhaps five miles off the head of land where Dr. Kane had taken refuge. Ironicallythrough quirks of wind, weather, and tidethe Arctic was herding this doomed expedition toward the exact spot that Kane's failed party had named Lifeboat Cove.

Schuman reported that only a few days' worth of coal remained. That was the final straw for Buddington. He'd had enough of his mis arable ship, enough of the frightening ice, and enough of the sea.

Land was in sight, and the way to shore lay open. With the fresh ice encasing the ship measuring less than twelve inches in thickness, Buddington figured the hull and coal would last just long enough to run the Polaris ashore and ground it.

For all its valiant service, the Polaris would be abandoned.

Had cooler heads prevailed, something different might have resulted. With skill and reduced canvas, the ship could have been sailed to safety. After all, Hudson and Scoresby never had steam-driven vessels. But Buddington had reached the end of his rope. He wanted off his ship. To ensure that goal, he ordered the foresail cut up into tags to hold the remaining coal and loaves of bread.

In defense of Buddington's decision, Schuman found that the sprung planking at the six-foot mark had snapped completely off in the storm Surprisingly, however, the propeller sustained no further damage, and the rudder still could steer the ship.

The arrival of a fresh wind from the northeast broke the ship free, and Buddington ordered the jib, mainsail, and staysail set. Ig-nominiously the Polaris sailed obediently to her fate and ran aground. When she struck bottom, she swung dejectedly around to lie with her starboard rail facing the beach.

The shallow, sloping bay ran for another four hundred yards before sil: and gravel rose out of the powdery water. A shallow beach appeared and vanished at the pleasure of the tide, but solid ground was at hand. Climbing over the piled ice hummocks and wading through the shallow water would bring the men beyond the clutches of the remorseless sea and its grinding battlefields of ice. At the cost cf their ship, the remnants of the first United States polar expedition had finally reached the relative safety of the Greenland coast. It was a price that Buddington was willing to pay.

But what of their companions on the ice? The dreadful night had kept all aboard the ship fighting for their lives. Battling the rising water and breaking ice from the standing rigging left no time to look for myone stranded on the ice floe. The clear, fine morning found the sailors exhausted, but no more so than Tyson's company.

Chester and Hobby claimed they had looked for their shipmates. Chester climbed to the crow's nest and scanned the horizon with his spyglass. “I was up and down the masthead all day every ten or fifteen minutes,” he later testified at the hearing, “until we got to land. I went up there to look for our lost parties, but could not see them at all.”

When he spotted something on the ice, Chester thought it might be some of the crates and boxes jettisoned in the dark. Others decided it was black ice or stones and debris, and he never argued the point.

The dark specks he did see about four miles from the ship were most likely Tyson and the others waving their rubber blanket. That was precisely where they were marooned in the middle of Smith Sound. Exactly who decided the sighting was debris was never clarified. Certainly Buddington made no extra effort to send smoke signals or study the observation further. With the exception of Meyer, all the men lost during the night had been a burden to him. Bessel, too, was strangely silent.

Chester noted lamely in the ship's log: “The large floe that our party were on must have stopped to the south of Littleton Island, and very near the east shore of the straits.” Other excuses for not seeing their shipmates ranged from the ship's drifting out of sight of the men to the vessel's being hidden by the island.

Many aboard the Polaris felt that the men on the ice were better off, as they had all the longboats and most of the supplies. With the whaleboats the stranded crew could reach shore and later sail down the coast, the shipboard sailors reasoned. The crippled Polaris could not look for them, so they should search for the Polaris, the consensus went. Buddington put their sentiments into words: “As, however, they had the boats, even to the little scow, we were in hopes they would possibly be able yet to make for us.” He neglected to mention that he had issued no order for continued efforts to signal the ship's location to the lost men.

All those were simply excuses that begged the true issue. Another, more pervasive thought had wormed its way into the mind of every man standing on the ship's heeling deck, a dark and selfish notion that no one would ever admit to in public: now it was every man for himself. They had lost most of their food and gear, their ship was damaged beyond repair, and no rescue was in sight. There was precious little to go around. Freezing and starvation seemed likely. With half the mouths to feed, their chances of surviving suddenly doubled.

It was the ultimate rule of the Arctic: food and fuel are always scarce. Sharing what little you have threatened both donor and recipient. Two weakened individuals would die in the far North where one strong person at least has a chance to survive. The Inuit knew this well and accepted the consequences. Starving villages could not expect help from nearby settlements if it meant endangering that community's resources. A traveling hunter with only enough food for himself would run away from another traveler whom he found starving.

During his earlier searches for the Franklin expedition survivors, Charles Francis Hall encountered two Inuit, Tukeeta and Owwer, vv ho had actually met Francis R. M. Crozier, the captain of HMS Terror, and a party of his starving men. To the unfortunate Crozier fallen the overall command of the surviving 105 men after Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847, and the two ships, Terror and Erebus, were abandoned.

These two Natives with others met the emaciated British near the southwest coast of King William Island. By careful interrogation, Hal pieced together an ugly but heart-wrenching picture. Crozier approached the party and gestured with his hands to his mouth, repeating the word seal.The natives shared some of their seal meat with him and his men. However, somewhere in the one-sided exchange, the sharing threatened the stores of the Natives. Hurriedly they packed up and departed the next morning, despite the pitiful begging and entreating of Crozier, who tried to stop them but was too weak to do so.

The fact that these Inuit had deliberately turned their backs on the starving white men made a lasting impression on Hall. His ideal of the noble Arctic savage vanished in a darkened cloud of disillusionment. Hall penned a bitter pronouncement of their actions in his diary when he learned the full truth of what had happened:

These 4 families could have saved Crozier's life & that of his ccmpany had they been so disposed. But no, though noble Crozier pleaded with them, they would not stop even a day to try & catch sealsbut early in the morning abandoned what they knew to be a large starving Company of white men.

The whites branded this a callous and selfish act; to the Inuit it was a wise and necessary move.

Blood ties, friendship, or camaraderie all will cause a man to risk his own life for that of another. Military fighting units foster such loyalty, and any combat veteran will tell you that in the grimmest of battles, he really fought for his buddies rather than for his country or high-minded principles. Such closeness would have dictated that the grounded men of the Polaris make every possible effort to locate their shipmates.

Regrettably the members of the Polaris expedition had no such unity. In reality, they couldn't even call one another shipmates. Divided by nationality, differing loyalties, and conflicting purposes, the crew of the Polaris had lost all cohesion. The rigors of the Arctic had reduced them to splintered coteries of men in league with one another.

Were Charles Francis Hall still alive, no doubt greater effort would have been made to retrieve the rest of the crew. Neither Bud-dington nor Bessel ordered anything more. Sadly none of the crew pressed to continue the search.

So one day's cursory scan of the horizon marked the sum total of all attempts to locate the men separated from the ship during the storm. Tyson and those on the floating ice were left to their own resources.

Strangely the crew did see two blue foxes scampering along the shoreline, which they duly noted in the ship's log. Their actions highlight a pitiful metamorphosis that had overtaken the expedition. Hammered incessantly by the Arctic, the members had lost their initiative, become tentative and timid, and retreated to the passive role of observers. Somehow they must have felt that recording these observations successfully fulfilled their mission and would compensate for their other failures.

The next morning Buddington ordered preparations for leaving the ship. He had slept in Chester's cabin along with Bessel, while Morton, Hryan, and Mauch retreated to the forecastle. Scraps of clothing and blankets were scrounged from the belongings of Captain Tyson and others not present to protest.

Low tide revealed even more extensive damage to the bow. The entire stem, the curved timber where the bow planks join together, had now completely broken away below the six-foot mark, taking with it the iron sheeting and cross planks. Of the scant pieces of lumber left, several planks on the port side were bent sharply back. Such extensive damage should have rapidly sunk the Polaris. Only the insistence of Captain Hall that the bow be double-planked and backed with a watertight bulkhead had saved their lives. Neither Buddington nor Bessel gave the dead man that credit. “I called the officer's attention to it,” Buddington noted in his journal, “who only wondered she had kept afloat so long.”

Slowly the crew dismantled the dying steamship. Being rigged as a fore topsail schooner, the ship had two yards, two booms, gaffs, and two topmasts. Pole by pole the rigging was cut down and laid on the deck. To a sailor this duty must have been painful to perform, akin to disassembling one's home or dissecting a favorite pet. Wad ng ashore at low tide, the crew carried the spars ashore along with the yards of canvas sail.

Agair the sense that Buddington had washed his hands of his long-suffering ship pervades the scene. Until its removal, the standing and running rigging of the Polaris remained sufficient to sail the ship southward. The engines still worked, and the rudder and screw could provide some assistance. With the beached ship fully exposing the damage to the keel, repairs were possible. And the ship's carpenter, Nathan Coffin, mad as he was, could have made those repairs.

Perhaps in forsaking his vessel, Buddington relied upon Arctic history. Parry, Kane, and Hayes had all abandoned their ships and survived :o tell about it. Odds favored those explorers who had retreated ir the spring, hugging the coastline until they encountered a passing whaler or reached native villagers willing to transport them to the closest white settlement.

Unlike Buddington and his crew, those survivors had their small boats. The fourteen men stacking timber, canvas, and sail bags filled with coal and bread on the beach had no means of transportation other than their feet. The dogs and sleds drifted on the ice with Tyson's group. Travel overland by foot was suicidal. No party could push or carry enough supplies by hand to survive. Sir John Franklin's expedition had proved that conclusively. Scott's Antarctic failure reconfirmed that grim fact years later.

Exactly what Buddington's plans for the future were are unclear. Enough timber existed for Coffin to build a lifeboat, even cabins on the shore. Being near Lifeboat Cove, he remembered rumors of an iron boat abandoned there by Dr. Hayes. Hayes and his men had mentioned it on their return ten years earlier. It is likely Buddington hoped that a tardy whaler might cross their path before the whaling season ended or expected that the United States Navy would come looking for them when the expedition failed to return. For the moment being on solid ground was enough for him.

The nineteenth of October dawned clear and tranquil, as so often happens following a storm. The northeast winds scoured the skies of all clouds and blew the obstructing ice from the straits. Standing on the shore Sieman and Hayes marveled at the irony. The sea before them lay clear of the ice pack as far as the eye could see. Dark water sparkled to the horizon southward and westward. Sadly there was nothing they could do about it. Reluctantly the men returned to their tasks of stacking and piling the meager collection of crates and boxes that constituted their winter supplies.

Then the yelp of barking dogs reached their ears.

Excitement gripped the working party. It had to be Tyson! Tyson with all the extra food and supplies. The sailors rushed about seeking to pinpoint the sounds echoing off the low foothills. Several men waded into the water and scanned the ocean for a floating island bearing Tyson's group into their cove. Only an empty sea greeted them. Other men rushed along the southern rim of their harbor, expecting to see their separated companions trudging along the beach.

Those who looked inland spotted tiny figures approaching from the east. Since the sixteenth the sun had skipped along the horizon well below the Greenland mountains. With the low winter's light glaring across the snow, the backlighting transmuted the approaching party into ghostly, shimmering images.

Slowly the shadows fused into two figures driving a sled.

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