There was good discipline while Captain Hall lived, but we put discipline along with him in his grave.
—GUSTAVUS W. LINDQUIST, TESTIMONY AT INQUEST
Captain Hall's sudden death jerked the linchpin from the Polaris expedition. For all his shortcomings, his presence had held the factions together. Even before the lichen crept across Captain Hall's fresh grave, trouble began.
His old enemies could hardly conceal their delight at Hall's passing. Typically the tactless Buddington spoke first, mere hours after the captain's death and while he lay aboard still warm in his coffin.
“Well, Henry,” he chortled to Seaman Henry Hobby, “there's a stone off my heart.”
The grieving Hobby asked, “How so?”
“Why, Captain Hall is dead.”
Startled, Hobby could only stare in disbelief. Their leader, a Christian gentleman, was dead, and the sailor could not imagine the skipper's rejoicing over the death. “How do you mean by that?” he finally asked.
Buddington rambled on. “We're all right now. We shan't be starved.”
Hobby fled down the gangway. Over his shoulder he hurled a rebuttal, knowing he teetered on the brink of insubordination. Still, his conscience made him voice the trust he had had in Captain Hall. “I never thought we would,” he said.
Unwittingly Buddington had let slip to Hobby the overpowering fear that haunted him: dying a long, protracted death on the ice by starvation. Like Columbus's sailors who feared that he might drive them off the edge of the world, Buddington must have feared that Hall's ambition would drive them beyond the limits of their provisions. Even with the tons of provisions stored on the ship, his fears were not totally unreasonable. The sudden crushing and sinking of the ship by a rogue iceberg could leave them destitute. The dark rumors of cannibalism still haunted the tales of the lost Franklin expedition. Buddington and the entire crew were well acquainted with themthose and tales of doomed ships with ghostly white crewmen frozen to the rigging washing ashore off Newfoundland.
Next Frederick Meyer let slip his inner feelings. Since Disko, when he had challenged Hall's orders with Bessel's backing, Meyer had held a grudge. His attempt at insubordination might have worked had it not been for the intervention of that stiff-backed old commander, Captain Davenport of the United States tender Congress. Facing Davenport's threat to take him back in irons, Meyer retreated and signed that humiliating statement, but he never forgot nor forgave the slight. Having to bend to the wishes of a self-made nobody from Cincinnati must have deeply galled Meyer, who had been trained as a Prussian military officer.
Strutting about the decks, Meyer griped to anyone within earshot that Hall had never followed the proper chain of command. “He consulted with the sailors and not the officers,” Meyer complained, “giving the sailors command.” That was not the Prussian way of doing things.
With the egalitarian Hall gone, things would return to their proper order, Meyer insisted. The officers would resume their positions of power, and the men would do as they were ordered without having any say. The whole ship would be better off with the chain of command once more forged into continuous links.
Strange, incongruous words for a man who had bucked his own superior officer when Hall lived. Probably the German sailors understood Meyer's position, but the meteorologist's sudden arrogance went against the grain of the Americans like Noah Hayes and Hobby. But now with the American expedition leader gone, the German element of the assembly, especially the officers and scientists, flexed their muscles.
Dr. Emil Bessel grew almost giddy with relief. Since they first laid eyes on each other, he and Hall had shared an antagonistic connection. Aristocrat and commoner, academician and self-taught man, the two had nothing in common, not even a mutual respect for the other's accomplishments. Hall's paternalism galled Bessel, while the doctor's condescension needled the explorer.
Within days of planting Hall beneath the frozen earth, Bessel skipped about his observatory lighthearted and laughing. More than once he remarked laughingly to Hayes that Hall's death was the best thing that could have happened to the expedition.
Of all the men who didn't mourn Hall's passing, Buddington is the one whose relief is most understandable. More and more the grinding, wallowing walls of moving ice frightened him. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his nerve to sail among the icebergs. Maybe he never had it. Maybe he never had the experience everyone assumed he did.
For on all his numerous voyages to hunt the whale, Buddington operated his ships in the time-honored way. He would sail as far north as necessary to take the marine mammalsbut no farther than absolutely needed. He would then seek a secure harbor, anchor, and loose his whaleboats to wreak havoc among the migrating humpbacks and California gray whales. If caught by the weather and onset of ice, he would sail closer to land and winter the ship over.
Blasting through rotten ice, dodging icebergs, and constantly endangering his ship while navigating through shifting leads were not in his repertoire.
More important, Buddington had never sailed these waters alone. Fleets of whaling ships prowled these waters during the hunting season. Most often they sailed together and anchored together. If one vessel burned or sank, others were close by to rescue the crew.
Sidney O. Buddington was no William Scoresby. He never exhibited any desire to see beyond the far horizon. Scientific discovery never enthralled him as it did that ancient mariner. He had no imagination for those things, but he did imagine all too vividly what might happen to his ship.
Regrettably the goal of the Polaris expedition demanded that Buddington now beat northward into the ice on his own, without backup, something he was not prepared to do. Were the ship to founder, only the cold, empty expanses of the Greenland coast awaited those lucky enough to reach shore. To a man used to the sea, this inhospitable land was as fearful as the ice floes. So Buddington resisted moving his ship northward like a man who fears his life is threatened, for that is what he fervently believed. Nothing awaited him on shore, he was convinced, but a slow, painful death by starvation.
In contrast, Charles Francis Hall loved the moving islands of ice and wind-scoured peaks as much as life itself. He could live on and travel across the wastelands like the Inuit. His incessant pressure on the frightened Buddington served as a constant thorn in the man's side. Not just that, but Hall's enthusiasm only underlined Budding-ton's lack of courage.
Buddington's release from C. F. Hall's mandate to push farther north meant that he could anchor in the safety of Thank God Harbor and drink himself into a stupor. After all, his work of protecting the ship was done, and Bessel appeared content to investigate from their snug winter camp. No wonder Buddington felt a stone had been lifted from his heart. With ample stores and a secure moorage, his passage back home was assured, and there was no danger of starvation. Perhaps that is what he meant when he commented to Henry Hobby about not starving to death.
But the Fates had far different plans for the new commander of the Polaris expedition.
And why was Bessel so delighted? In his constant clashes with Hall, the doctor had got what he wanted. Essentially the scientific corps acted as an autonomous unit within the Polaris group. His haughty attitude and the shadowy threat of intervention from Hall's superiors in Washington had kept the explorer at bay.
Still, by his very disposition to micromanage, Charles Hall had constantly interfered with the scientists. His practical knowledge of the far North greatly exceeded theirs, and he used every opportunity to inject his suggestions into their work. Bessel's one trip to Spitzbergen accounted for the sum total of the scientific corps's prior experience. Neither Meyer nor Bryan had ever visited the Arctic. Even George Tyson, an ardent supporter of Hall, sensed that the captain had prevented them from doing their work. If Hall had been a thorn in Buddington's side, he had been a stone in Bessel's shoe.
Yet was there more to Bessel's elation than the removal of a meddlesome opponent? The impression lingers that Bessel actively strove to keep Hall from reaching the North Pole. By his constant support of Buddington, he thwarted Hall's intention to sail farther north. Perhaps Bessel harbored ambitions beyond mere scientific discovery. Later he would offer Henry Hobby two hundred dollars to help him be the first to reach the North Pole. Perhaps Bessel's motive was more sinister. Perhaps the former Prussian officer followed orders to scuttle the trip or took it upon himself to do so. Just as the men aboard the Polaris faced a formidable foe in the natural elements that threatened their survival, they also faced a fight with their own human nature and its darker elements.
If Emil Bessel thought he was the one chosen to reach the top of the world, the Arctic soon demonstrated its reluctance to award that prize.
Within days of Hall's demise, the mechanism to devolve the Polaris command took effect. The Navy Department, so lax in so many other ways, had spelled out what to do if Hall died:
You will give special written directions to the sailing master and ice master of the expedition, Mr. S. O. Buddington, and the chief of the Scientific Department, Dr. E. Bessel, that in case of your death or disabilitya contingency we sincerely trust may not arisethey shall consult as to the propriety and manner of carrying into further effect the foregoing instructions, which I here urge must, if possible, be done. In any event, however, Mr. Buddington shall in the case of your death or disability, continue as the sailing and ice master, and control and direct the movements of the vessel; and Dr. Bessel shall, in such case, continue as chief of the Scientific Department, directing all sledge journeys and scientific operations. In the possible contingency of their non-agreement as to the course to be pursued, then Mr. Buddi igton shall assume sole charge and command, and return with the expedition to the United States with all possible dispatch.
Navy Secretary Robeson's orders were quite specific. Control of the vessel fell to Buddington, and Bessel assumed complete control of all scientific studies and journeys overland. If they disagreed, the whaling captain was to sail home immediately. Dutifully the two men issued a written notice to that effect. There it was: both men got just what they wanted. Officially the Polaris expedition now had two heads. It would be only a matter of time before this two-headed chimera quarreled with itself.
Mean while strange happenings continued to occur.
One cold midnight, cries from the forward compartment drew the men to Nathan Coffin's bunk. Since he had fashioned Captain Hall's coffin, the carpenter showed increasing signs of instability. Described as “sensitive,” Coffin had taken the captain's death hard. That night they found the carpenter cowering beneath his blankets in the corner of his berth. Wide-eyed and shaking with terror, Coffin babbled that voices were calling to him from the adjacent storage locker. The sailors unlocked the room and searched it to pacify Coffin, but to no avail. He continued to hear the voices. A rapid bedside consultation diagnosed the man's problem to be related to the isolated and exposed nature of his bunk, which was far forward of the main sleeping quarters, cold and damp. A change of sleeping arrangements was prescribed. Showing an astonishing lack of sensitivity, Caotain Buddington moved the unbalanced Coffin into the dead Captain Hall's old bed. As might be expected, Coffin recalled Hall's ravings about murder and naturally assumed he was next on the list. Within days the carpenter began to fear that unknown persons aboard ship would kill him.
Then Noah Hayes fell down the gangway and twisted his knee so badly that he could not perform his duties for an entire week. Three da^s later an old frostbite injury on William Morton's heel reopened. During one trip with Dr. Kane, Morton had frozen his heel. The wound remained closed in temperate climates. Now the parchmentlike scar split apart, forcing the man to remain in bed until it healed. As a precaution against scurvy, lime juice joined the daily rations.
For some time now, Arctic explorers had understood that the lack of fresh vegetables and sunlight fostered scurvy. Plants and most animals can synthesize vitamin C from glucose, but humans cannot. The lack of vitamins C and D prevents the production of collagenthe main component in fibrous and elastic tissues. Teeth loosen and fall out, and healed scars break down. Bleeding into the skin and muscle follows as the walls of the blood vessels weaken. Since the Inuit ate fresh meat that contained vitamin C and never suffered from scurvy, except during periods of starvation, the Western explorers adopted their practice. Lime juice helped as well. James Lind, a Scottish surgeon serving in the Royal Navy, first discovered this association in 1753. Forced to drink a mix of lime juice and sauerkraut, the British tar soon acquired the moniker of “Limey.”
With each passing hour, the days and nights merged more tightly into one black, faceless event. The thermometer sank incessantly, and the wind grew dangerously sharp. The sinuous winding of greenish-purple and rose-colored auroras appeared with increasing frequency in the skies overhead, confirming the Inuit's feelings that evil forces were at work.
The galley stove broke down. A constant wind raking across the deck and rattling the ice-rimed rigging now forced downdrafts through the chimney. Clouds of smoke, sparks, and burning cinders drove Jackson and his helpers out of the galley. The small stoves in the forecastle and below decks replaced the galley. Each mess therefore cooked their own meals. This solution further conspired to divide the crew. Buddington unwittingly aggravated the problem when he canceled the daily services that Hall had held. No longer would the various watches and teams on the Polariscome together in one place.
A series of gales raked across the bay beginning on November 18. Winds increased to almost fifty knots. The wind instruments tore apart under the impact. Herman Sieman, a stout figure,left the ship to measure the tidal change through the fire hole, an opening kept from freezing over in case seawater should be needed to fight a fire on board the ship. A gust blew his feet from under him. Crashing onto his back, Sieman shot across the ice in freezing water tha: had overflowed from fresh cracks in the ice. Each new blast pushed him farther from the ship. Using his ice ax, he barely made it back to the safety of the ship.
The fury of the storm trapped Emil Bessel in his flimsy observatory. Each hammering of the wind threatened to rip the prefabricated shac k apart. By nine o'clock the next morning, Bessel had not returned. Since the observatory had a small coal stove, his tardiness caused liti le alarm.
As tine passed, concern mounted until Meyer volunteered to reach the house. Each attempt he made, the storm foiled. Struggling through a milky white world where he could not even see his hand, he never found the building. The force of the storm drove him back with mounting savagery. One of his eyelids froze solid during his struggle. Finally Hans and Ebierbing joined the attempt. The swirling snow taxed even their expertise. Creeping along on hands and knees, the three finally reached the observatory.
Inside they found Emil Bessel on the verge of freezing to death. He had burned his last lump of coal more than eight hours before and then luddled inside the rattling building while his ear froze. As they battled back to the ship with the petrified doctor, Ebierbing's right cheek turned white from frostbite. Only Hans escaped unharmed. With the temperature reaching minus 20°F and the wind howling 2t fifty knots, exposed skin froze within fifteen seconds.
All diy the men huddled inside while the ship creaked and groaned with the buckling ice. Far out to sea, the thinner sea ice shattered as the ocean's fetch allowed waves and swells to grow under the ir creasing pressure of the wind. The rolling sea jacked the thicker b;iy ice until leads and fissures crisscrossed the harbor. By afternoor the Polaris rocked inside her frozen cradle as the walls around her splintered and shattered to the accompanying rifle-shot cracks of breaking ice.
At two-thirty in the morning, a convulsive jerk rippled throughout the ship. All hands rushed topside to find the vessel surrounded by a frothy well of black water. Its icy cradle had shattered to pieces. Freed of its constraints, the ship rocked wildly with each wave. The open water quickly swallowed the ice wall that the men had spent days banking against the ship's sides. In an instant all their work vanished.
Blinded by the swirling clouds of snow, the men waited like sightless creatures as block after block of bay ice rammed against the sides of the ship. Soundings with a lead line confirmed an even worse fear: The Polaris had dragged her anchor and was drifting. The soundings read deeper water under the keel with each throw. With the bay ice broken, the entire pack was drifting out to sea carrying the Polaris along with it.
Even more frightening was the presence of Providence Berg. Once a shelter from the wind and seas, the massive iceberg now threatened the ship. All the turmoil of waves and wind had not dislodged the iceberg. Firmly grounded in the bottom of the bay, the frozen mountain still straddled Thank God Harbor.
Now the current and wind carried the ship directly toward the stationary iceberg. Drawn like a floating leaf, within minutes the Polaris would be smashed against the iceberg. Once the hull began sliding along the underwater portion of Providence Berg, the contact would be fatal. The underwater spur of the iceberg, frozen water polished to a slick surface, would act like a deadly ramp, flipping the ship onto its side while wind and waves cascaded over the opposite railings. The Polaris would roll over until water rushed over the leeward rail, overwhelmed her pumps, and she sank.
Frantically the sailors broke open chain lockers and bent on heavy chain to bow and stern anchors. Ice coating the lockers had to be chipped off to free the chains. If anchors could be set in the powdery bottom, the hopeless drift of the ship toward the iceberg could be slowed or stopped. Fore and aft anchors splashed into the waterwith no relief. The anchors continued to drag across the poor holding ground.
The men braced themselves for the grinding crash. But none came. Almost docilely Polaris sidled under the protective shoulder of Providence Berg. The following ice floes parted and flowed past the ship on their way out to sea. Soberly the sailors realized their respite might not last more than an hour unless the ship was secured. Since the anchors refused to bite into the soft bottom, mooring the sh p to the grounded iceberg remained the only option.
William Lindermann stripped off his fur clothing and squeezed through fie forward porthole on the starboard side. Just beneath him, the ship's prow jutted across part of Providence Berg. From there he grasped a projecting spur of the iceberg and dragged himself onto the ice. Ebierbing followed close behind him. Using knife and hatchet, the Inuit cut footsteps so they could ascend to the flat saddle of he iceberg.
Under the light of a burning kerosene-soaked hawser set in a pan, the two men drove an ice anchor into the berg and secured the bowline. Three more men scampered across and placed two more anchors. Secured fore and aft, the Polaris nestled beneath the protective shoulder of the frozen giant while the men aboard listened to the thumping and crashing of waves and floating ice hammering against the outer side.
By la:e afternoon the storm blew itself out. When the air cleared sufficiently for the men to look about, they took stock. The change was remarkable. The bayonce frozen solidly with two-foot-thick sections of icenow lay open. Black water lapped against the ship's hull and stretched as far as the eyes could see.
The sudden breakup of the surrounding ice had cost the party dearly. Two sleds vanished into the dark sea, and two dogs were missing along with numerous parcels. The wind and snow wreaked havoc with the instruments left on the bank. The declinometer lay on its side, half buried in snowdrifts. Several small igloos were blown do wn, and Dr. Bessel's prefabricated observatory was totally buried b) snow. Burrowing a six-foot-long tunnel to the door proved the only way to enter the laboratory.
Satisfied that it had demonstrated its power, the Arctic abruptly ceased its savagery and started to preen. The sky cleared to expose a dazzling, display of northern lights. Electric clouds, as the seamen called them, floated above their heads. Coiling and snaking, the bands of ale blue and violet danced from one horizon to the next. Folding and writhing like a living thing, the lighted curtains arced across tha clear air, appearing to hover just outside of fingers' reach, although they actually waved more than two hundred miles overhead. Using the latest instruments available, the scientists measured the mysterious sight. Their magnetic instruments showed no effect, probably because they were not sensitive enough, and the black paddles of the electroscope remained still. To the men on the Polaris expedition, the aurora borealis remained an unexplained phenomenon.
It would take another hundred years for men of science like Sun Akasofu of the University of Alaska to unravel most of the mysteries of the northern lights. Still not completely understood, the dazzling display results from charged electrons and protons reaching the earth in the solar wind emanating from the sun. The magnetic fields surrounding the earth pour out from the north and south magnetic poles like unseen fountains and draw the charged particles toward the top and bottom of the earth. During intense periods of solar activity, gust after gust of solar particles blow out from the sun to concentrate at the poles and bombard the earth's upper atmosphere. Slamming into the atmosphere, these charged particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, split off their electrons, and knock those electrons into excited states. As the electrons drop back into their normal state, they emit characteristic light waves of violet, green-blue, and red. At the exact moment a display of northern lights flares over the North Pole, an identical displaythe aurora australis, or southern lightsdances over the South Pole. In some ways the magnetized air over the poles acts like one enormous fluorescent bulb lighting up the heavens.
Magnetic fields do accompany the aurora borealis. Intense light displays will send power surges along high-tension electric lines running between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, and magnetic fields do flow down the Alaska oil pipeline. So why the scientists of the Polaris failed to detect magnetic changes is uncertain. However, the pipeline and power wires act as giant conductors, concentrating the aurora's magnetism.
That the Polaris escaped major damage from the storm amazed all hands. The ship narrowly missed being dragged out to sea with the ice pack. Without a full head of steam, the ship would have drifted without power until crushed amid the jostling ice. If divine intervention had played any part in the ship's salvation, the idea was lost 3n Captain Buddington. The following Sunday, over the objection; of Mr. Bryan, the captain announced that attending Sunday services was no longer required.
Two days later an eerie sight greeted all the men. A strangely shaped full moon rose and shone brightly across the covered decks. Refractio i of moonlight on ice crystals suspended in the air, aided by the density of the cold air, produced an optical illusion called a paraselene. Three identical images of the full moon hovered in the dark sky, surrounding the real one, one on each side and one above. A fourth image, the lowest one, was hidden by the mountains. The four visible images connected by the rays of light from the real moon, aided by the mind's eye, formed a cross. The Inuit took this to be another omen of bad things to come.
They didn't have long to wait. Providence Berg, once the protector, turned on the ship it sheltered. Another storm struckthis time from the south. Heavy snow fell, adding to that blown by the wind, and soon the visibility dropped to a few feet. Wind and waves attacked both ship and iceberg from their unprotected side.
Unde r constant pressure from the ice floe, Providence Berg split in two. The advancing ice floe wedged the halves apart until more than eight feet separated them. The half that sheltered Polaris swung or its grounded foot while the smaller island of ice rammed into the ship's side. Every man held his breath as the Polaris creaked and groaned against the point of this frozen lance.
Buddington rushed back and forth along the covered deck, peering over the side with each protest from the straining oak planks. Was the side cut through? he wondered. Were the ribs staved in? Miraculously the wood withstood the pressure. Seams opened, but the ship's flanks remained intact.
However, another, more dangerous, event occurred. What the ice could not break, it sought to overturn. A shelf of ice protruded from Providence Berg below the waterline, close beside the ship's nose. Slowly the force of the storm drove the Polaris onto the underwater projection, lifting her keel until the bow rose into the air, exposing the copper sheathing and barnacle-encrusted iron plate of the prow. Shaking and quivering like a whipped dog, the ship advanced with each blow from the thundering waves.
In time the Polaris keeled to one side, coming to lie nearly on its beam end. Men slid down the icy deck to crash into the aft cabins. The deck canted so steeply that walking proved difficult without using the lifelines. When the Polaris finally came to rest, the stem jutted two and one-half feet above the sea. Here the ship remained, careened to one side like a trader run on a reef. When the tide ran out, the ship's stern dropped and the bow rose four feet in the air. On the flood tide the stern rose again, lowering the stem to two and one-half feet once more. All the while this teeter-tottering worked its damage on the keel. The pitch and yaw of the ship so frightened the Inuit that they moved from the ship to the observatory. There they took up residence, scattering their skins and oil lamps among the crates of brass instruments.
Thanksgiving arrived with no special services to celebrate their deliverance from another near disaster. As George Tyson wrote acerbically in his diary, “Thanksgiving was remembered at the table, but in no other way.” Opened cans of lobster, turkey, oyster soup, pec ins, walnuts, plum duff, cherry pie, and wine punch made up for the lack of spirituality. While the men feasted, no one considered the extra fuel they were using. Ominously, 6,334 pounds of coal were burned during November, 1,596 pounds more than the previous month.
December brought deepening cold. The men amused themselves by playing cards and racing sleds on the refrozen bay. Captain Buddington wrote in his journal: “All possible preparations are being made to succeed with our sledge parties next spring.” His notes mu >t have been for public consumption. Already the skipper was doin^ his best to paint the brightest picture possible for the men in Washington. No other journals mention such preparations. Tookoolito's sewing of new skin anoraks and pants appears to be the only measure taken.
Chester wrote glowing praise of the men, describing them like cheerful Boy Scouts, always industrious and especially neat: “They are all good men. They keep clean and take good care of themselves. Everything about their quarters looks clean and neat. There is not much danger of such men being troubled with scurvy.”
His rose-colored glasses are impressive. First, soap cannot prevent scurvy. Second, stability aboard the Polaris had all but vanished. Inc reasingly Captain Buddington was drunk, and the men, taking their cue from the captain, pilfered the ship's alcohol stores. Gallons of ethanol intended to preserve scientific specimens simply vanished. Duplicate keys to the storage lockers sprang up throughout the ship. Boisterous, drunken parties reigned nightly.
Orde and discipline suffered. Day and night became the same. One long, ongoing period of darkness engulfed the crew. Day and night activities bled slowly into each other. Now when the need was greatest t3 establish regular routines to prevent the malaise that follows the loss of these normal cycles, there were none. Buddington had no siomach for order, preferring to drink in his cabin. Tyson, Hayes, and Hobby regularly visited Hall's grave and lamented his absence. “Captain Hall did not always act with the clearest judgement,” George Tyson wrote, “but it was heaven to this.”
Tyson saw things quite differently from Chester. “There is so little regularity observed,” he lamented. “There is no stated time for putting out lights; the men are allowed to do as they please; and, consequently, they often make nights hideous by their carousing, playing cards to all hours.” He took to walking on the ice in the darkness “longing for a moment's quiet.” But the heartless isolation and oppressive darkness weighed heavily on him. “The gloom and silence of every thing around settles down on one like a pall,” he wrote.
Nathan Coffin turned worse. When he was sane, he worked diligently repairing sleds in the aft-galley space, which had become the carpentry workshop. During those times he appeared normal. At other times a black mood fell over him. His deranged mind remained convinced that someone on board intended to murder him.
Their method for doing him in was bizarre by any standards. Coffin imagined that after boring a hole in the bulkhead where he slept, they would insert a nozzle through the opening and spray him with carbolic acid, thus freezing him to death. Such a death would be ascribed to the Arctic cold rather than to a murderer, he reasoned, and would go unpunished. The open questions about Captain Hall's recent demise gave credence to his theory. Hall's ravings about poison still remained fresh in everyone's mind. Many still wondered if their commander had been murdered.
Many nights Coffin lay awake, cowering in fear from that anticipated sound of a wood bore. He changed sleeping places nightly, hiding in lockers and behind bulkheads. Other times he would pretend to sleep in one place only to move to another site while the others slept. Gaunt and hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, the carpenter stalked about below decks like a wraith. His madness served as a constant reminder to the crew of Captain Hall's sudden, suspicious death.
In the face of the ship's crumbling discipline, Captain Budding-ton did a curious and unexplained thing: he issued revolvers and rifles to the crew. What purpose this served is unknown. No external threat from Natives or animals existed. Hunting parties had need of firearms, and armed guards could be posted against the occasional marauding polar bear, but arming the crew during peacetime is unusual. Tyson would later surmise in his diary that Buddington armed the crew to curry their favor, intimating that Buddington might have feared that Tyson would snatch command away from him. But Tyson was no great favorite of the men either.
On December 6 the Arctic almost snatched Emil Bessel. Showing the same general contempt for the North Country that he had showered upon Captain Hall nearly cost him his life. Without carefully checking the weather one night, he departed the ship for his observatory. Normally the walk over the ice took half an hour, with the hut always within sight. The distance was a mere 1,307 feet, roughly a quarter of a mile. The onset of a sudden storm caught the doctor in the open. Pressing onward instead of turning back in the whiteout conditions, he missed the shack. Disoriented in the blowing snow, he could neither find the house nor locate the Polaris,
Forced to shelter behind an outcropping of ice, Bessel spent the night trying to keep warm. Undoubtedly his Inuit clothing and boots kept him from freezing in temperatures close to 30° below zero. Duiing that time he no doubt realized that a guide rope from ship to shore would have prevented his problem. Four hours later the snow diminished enough for him to find the observatory. Alarmed when he heard he had almost lost his chief scientist and ally, Buddington ordered a hastily constructed line of rubber-coated wire struig between the two points.
The lemainder of December passed with little note. “Nothing occurring that is pleasant or profitable to record,” Tyson wrote. The oppiessive darkness continued to exert increasing pressure on all, and the North showed its total disregard for these interlopers. Alternating periods of misery and elation washed over the crew like irregular waves. The northern lights flashed brighter and clearer with each passing day, taunting the men, while frost and ice infested the sleeping quarters.
When the Polaris broke free and drifted against Providence Berg, the ship had lost the insulating layers of snow so carefully banked along its sides. With the ship rocking up and down on its keel with each rise and fall of the tide, no amount of work could keep a new layer of snow in place. Without proper insulation, frost and cold crept quickly through the wooden walls. The dark interiors of the berths soon sported crystal layers of hoarfrost and ice. Water vapor from the stoves and human breath condensed everywhere. Showers of snow and icy crystal flakes fluttered down with every movement when the stoves were unlit. Lighting the heaters made matters only worse. The heat melted the rime and filled the quarters with a dripping, soggy haze of fog and dew that penetrated wool clothing and chilled everyone. When the stoves died out, the frost reformed, and the cycle repeated itself.
Christmas arrived to elaborate preparations but once again without any religious services being held. As at Thanksgiving, the table groaned under the weight of food and drink.
The divisiveness that set the crew at odds with one another raised its head briefly over the celebration. Since Christmas Eve was on a Sunday, some of the crew objected to celebrating on the Sabbath, preferring to have the party on Christmas night. The Germans absolutely refused to go along with that idea, wanting their party. Being the majority, they flexed their muscle. Rear Adm. C. H. Davis, in his Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, wrote of this incident that “the others cheerfully yielded.” That they did seems unlikely. One does not usually give up religious preferences “cheerfully.” Davis's work under the direction of Navy Secretary Robeson paints a rosy picture of every aspect of the expedition.
A drawing distributed Christmas packages to the crew, and everyone opened theirs at exactly ten o'clock. The presents turned out to be toys and trinkets bought by Captain Hall as gifts for any Eskimo children they might encounter. In a macabre twist, the dead explorer's specter rose over the occasion. Few noticed, and most were too drunk to care.
All the while the onshore wind continually stacked additional pack ice against the outside of their protective iceberg. The growing weight levered the shelter farther onto its side, and that, in turn, raised Polaris ever higher out of the water. Cracks developed in the stem and along the keel. One worrisome leak opened near the bow, where ice had staved in the planking. Located near the six-foot watermark, the shattered beam teetered tantalizingly just out of reach as the bow dipped in and out of the water.
And just as the wind and water wore away at the ship, the cold, isolation, and Arctic night worked to divide the crew. Buddington and Bessel soon quarreled over control of the dogsleds. Robeson's orders directed Bessel to conduct the sled trips, but the Prussian's lack of Arctic experience left him open to question. His frostbitten ear and recent fiasco while attempting to reach his hut highlighted his inexperience. To Buddington the haughty foreigner acted too proud to admit his ignorance. To Bessel the ship's captain, on the other hard, was no more than a drunken lout. While neither man openly confronted the other, animosity radiated out from each like light from the oil lanterns.
While Bessel and Buddington jockeyed for overall command, neither could muster a constant group of supporters to his cause. George Tvson, brooding about his lost chances for promotion under Hall, loathed them both and refused to back one or the other. Frederick Mever took the side of his fellow Prussian in arguments with Buddington but in private argued with Bessel. First Mate Hubbard Chester disliked George Tyson. Tyson returned the compliment. Buddington cared little for his chief engineer, Schuman, and all four American officers viewed Meyer and Bessel with suspicion. Only Mr. Bryan appeared above the petty differences, which steadily grew out of proportion.
Natually the attitude of the officers spilled over to the enlisted men. Mei who had prospered under Captain Hall felt they were punished for their loyalty to their dead leader. Joseph Mauch, elevated to the role of secretary to Captain Hall, found himself returned to the forecastle. Having more education than the other sailors, h-3 lavished sarcasm on his fellow shipmates. He developed a special dislike for Emil Bessel, accusing the doctor of being a “damned imposter,” of being too lazy to do his job properly, and of making up false data to cover that fact. Later, Captain Buddington reappoimed Mauch to act as his scribe.
Noah Hayes struggled under the harsh control of Walter Campbell, the fireman. Hayes had hoped Captain Hall would promote him out of the black gang, but the commander's death left the cheerful neophyte trapped in the boiler rooms with the bad-tempered Campbell and the martinet Schuman. In time Hayes's spleen would vent itself in his diary, filling page after page with invectives.
And so it went, round and round, slight piled upon slight, anger added to anger. This splintering of loyalties and introspected resentment frequently infects groups subjected to the long Arctic winter.
When the sun disappears from October 17 to February 28 and a crew lacks strong direction, the results are predictable. Loss of orientation, isolation, and constant discomfort unhinge even the best of intentions. Strong leadership, well-defined goals, and motivation are the antidotes. None of that remained in the Polaris expedition.
Add to this the physiology of light deprivation. Unknown to anyone at that time, the effects are striking on susceptible individuals. Without a certain quantity of daylight hitting the human retina, the brain stops producing melatonin. This hormone, besides stimulating pigment production, aids in sleep regulation and mood elevation. Lowered levels lead to loss of energy, listlessness, and depression in some people. Overeating and heavy drinking occur in others. Modern medicine has coined a term for the problem, seasonal affective disorder, spawning a whole line of treatments. Some people are highly sensitive to changes in sunlight, whereas others are not. Staring at light boxes emitting the same spectrum of light as daylight helps the problem. One enterprising Alaskan cured his own disorder by staring into his car's headlights for twenty minutes a day during the winter, although this treatment is not recommended. Perhaps Captain Buddington was afflicted by this disorder instead of alcoholism.
The Arctic winter is an equal-opportunity destroyer. All that affected the Polaris crew had touched those who went before them and those who would follow. Some reacted better to the stress; others reacted worse. Henry Hudson's crew mutinied. Royal Navy discipline held Sir John Franklin's expedition together until the bitter end, as it did with Robert Scott's small band in the Antarctic. Even Charles Francis Hall, who adapted well to the Arctic, had grown moody and troublesome on his previous explorations. How well or how poorly the men of the Polaris rate in dealing with the stress of the Arctic winter is open to discussion.
December ended with a whimper. Tantalizingly the sea opened a distance from the stranded ship, but three to four miles of ice still lay between them. To compound matters, a new fear arose. The status of the steering was uncertain. Encased in ice, the rudder stock and its chains could neither be examined for damage nor repaired.
Many feared that the rudder had snapped off when the Polaris heeled ov tr.
Buddington filled his personal journal with excuses, emphasizing the constant danger to the ship and lamenting that Hall had not followed his advice about a more secure anchorage. With remarkably selective recall, he forgot his desire to sail south to Port Foulke and remembered wanting to anchor in Newman Bay. There would be no drifting ice pack, no daily rocking on the ice spur, no danger from anyihing had he been listened to, he postulated.
Two days before and two days after the New Year, attempts to free the s lip ended in dismal failure. The men chiseled holes in the surround ng ice and placed four bottles of black powder. Their first effort failed to split off the spur of ice that lifted the keel. Their last attempt r early broke the ship's ribs. The four feet of solid ice entrapping he vessel remained unaffected.
Captc.in Buddington now fastened on a new excuse for failure. During E>ecember the ship had burned close to one ton of coal more than in November. Characteristically Buddington blamed Hall's previous estimate of the available coal in the coal bunkers. Only eighty tons actually remained, Buddington claimed, not the one hundred tons that Hall had estimated. “If the consumption of this fuel i > continued at the same rate, a stoppage of which, without endanger ng our health is not possible, we will hardly have enough for two winters, to say nothing of using steam on our return,” Buddington carefully noted, adding, “The idea of piloting the vessel through Smith Sound with the aid of sails is an absurdity.”
Again he carefully painted himself into a corner, limiting his options. Despite Hall's careful efforts to outfit the expedition for at least twc years, the new commander deemed there were barely enough provisions to get them to the next sailing season. And what could he do differently? His hands were tied by circumstances beyond Pis control. Surely the men in Washington would understand that he must see to the welfare of his men before that of the mission.
Drunk almost daily since Hall's death, S. O. Buddington no doubt increasingly worried about covering his failings. In his mind he had no intention of spending another dreary winter in the Arctic if he could help it. His journal writings resound with reasons he could not complete the mission. Rather than constituting a journal, his entries shifted to a preparation for his defense.
Faced with a similar decision, Captain Hall would have cut back the coal usage, perhaps looked for alternative fuels to burn. But C. F. Hall was dead, and the special boiler designed to burn whale oil or seal blubber was gone as well, mysteriously thrown over the side back at Disko.
While Bessel and Buddington languished in their separate commands, the other men moved about aimlessly. At long last, whether through boredom or through rising courage, the officers and crew began to mount dogsled forays away from the ship without the help of Hans or Ebierbing. The sailors' lack of skill in handling dogs soon became painfully apparent. While the Inuit made it look easy, controlling the fractious animals over broken ice proved tricky for the neophytes. Few of the mariners' trips achieved more than a dozen miles. Nothing new was discovered, and each team returned with conflicting reports of the sea to the west. The shifting condition of the water and ice, which appeared open to some and closed to others, stymied any coordinated plan to move the ship. Of course, that suited Buddington's strategy of inaction.
January ended much as December had. Everything submerged beneath the gray mantle of the long Arctic night. Tasks and days blurred into one protracted period of depressing darkness. The strain of taking nightly meteorology readings finally exhausted Frederick Meyer, so Mauch gratefully assumed the task. Working in the observation hut freed him from having to act as Buddington's secretary. On a positive note, the more careful burning of coal paid off, saving 798 pounds over that burned the prior month.
By February shimmering glimpses of twilight crept back into the days, increasing with each passing hour. February 28 saw the sun peek over the rim of the Greenland mountains to the east. One hundred and thirty-five days of darkness had passed. The arrival of the sun reenergized the expedition, or at least some of its members. What is interesting is that Dr. Bessel, who had frustrated Captain Hall's attempts to reach the North Pole, now seemed bent on reaching the top of the world himself. Emil Bessel sent a note to Captain Buddington:
As with the return of the sun the further operations of the e> pedition must be begun, and as, in regard to all these, a corsultation between us should take place, I forward herevv ith to you a sketch of a plan by means of which, as I think, we may best fulfill the mission upon which we are sent.
Whereupon the chief scientist enclosed five pages of detailed instructions for mounting further probes northward. March or April would be a good time to start, Bessel imagined, and the chance o:' the Polarises breaking loose from its iceberg's grip by then seerred unlikely. Therefore, exploring by small boat or sled offered the best option. Here the German physician was proceeding on faith instead of experience. If the Polaris could not break free of the ice, how did he expect his small boat teams to progress northward?
Besse] suggested that Buddington should wait until conditions permitted to steam the ship northward to Newman Bay to rendezvous with the advance party. Since the primary purpose was to discover the North Pole, a geographical goal, Bessel reasoned that land travel best suited that purpose. Bessel then outlined a plan approaching, the Normandy invasion in complexity. He has boat teams and sled groups crisscrossing north and south before meeting with ihe Polaris. Boats and shore supply depots would be left if the parties missed one anothera highly likely event given the vagaries of the Arctic weather and the difficult terrain. If the Polaris broke free before the teams returned, it was to sail north to Newman Bay and await the others. If the ice pack drifted south with the ship still entrapped, Buddington should cache “documents of the further route they intend to take” near the observatory. Presumably the men on the boats or dog teams would read the notes and race down the coast after the drifting Polaris to reunite with her.
Bessel continued to detail his attack. However, his ignorance of Arctic exploration revealed itself. He wrote:
It cannot be denied that it is a great advantage to use dogs for draught, but as we are compelled to travel over a poor country and make large distances the dogs will prove hindrances rather than help. We must, then, as the English expeditions have done, almost exclusively use man for draught.
Nothing could be more disastrous. In his inexperience Bessel intended to commit the same error that had doomed Sir John Franklin and would later lead to the deaths of Scott and his men in the Antarctic: he would substitute manpower for dogs.
If a man could do a better job pulling a sled, why did the Inuit use dogs? A thousand years of experience backed their decision to use canines. Generations of Natives had spent their lives refining sled design and breeding dogs to yield the most efficient combination for hauling goods over the ice, and the Eskimo's survival in the Arctic attested to the success of their methods. High spirits notwithstanding, a man cannot pull a two-hundred-pound sled for long in the Arctic. The expenditure of energy is just too great.
Furthermore, Bessel intended his sled journey to be a one-way affair. Expecting the ice pack to break up before the men could pull their sleds back, the Prussian planned to camp along the shoreline and wait for the Polaris to find them. “They will keep up a continued watch and signalize by flags and smoke, while the vessel fires a gun several times a day,” he proudly wrote. Somehow, the scientist believed the blinding snow squalls and smothering fog that harassed them would go away. It is not hard to imagine the ship and land parties' never connecting.
The complexity of Bessel's planning would have scattered the expedition's men and limited resources widely along the coastline of Greenland, overextending their lines of supply and communication, a further prescription for disaster. An axiom of Arctic travel is to keep needed supplies as close at hand as possible. The Hfesaving cache is always the one too far away, the one that is never reached, as Scott would later reaffirm. He and his men died less than eleven miles from all the food and supplies they would have needed.
Not content merely to trample over centuries of Inuit wisdom, Bessel went on to tell Captain Buddington how to sail his ship. “Now, a few remarks upon the operation of the vessel,” he wrote. “I: would undoubtedly be best to use as little as possible of our coal, and to proceed north by sail.” Ironically Bessel had replaced Captain Hall in attempting to micromanage Buddington.
Budd ngton must have choked when he read those lines. First, the landlubber Hall had deigned to instruct him on handling his vessel, and now the “little German dancing master” was weighing in as well.
“If it is possible for the vessel to advance along the coast of Grinnell Land it would be profitable to do so,” Bessel wrote condescendingly. One can almost see Buddington taking another drink as he read these directions. Take a running survey along the coastline, Bessel ordered, “as there certainly will be some one on board who can conduct a work of this kind.”
Besse] continued to rub salt in the wounds his words undoubtedly reop med. He proceeded to remind Buddington the sailor that the magnetic pole would affect his compass. “The determination of the local attraction of the compass before the vessel starts should not be ne glected as heretofore, because without this an able survey cannot be made.” In all the fanfare and hurry to leave Washington and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the ship's compass aboard the Polaris had nevei been swung to determine its deflection and deviationa grievous oversight, and one that Captain George Tyson used to belittle Capi ain Buddington.
“It should be considered as a matter of the highest importance to take cieep-sea soundings, or soundings in general, whenever practicable,” the doctor concluded, as if Buddington might forget to test the depth of the unknown waters into which he would be sailing. A ly prudent master always used soundings to measure the depth of the water. It was the surest way to keep from running aground.
Lost n his own self-importance, the physician neglected to close his ‘sketch” with “Respectfully yours,” the usual courteous ending, signing the letter merely “Emil Bessel.”
The obvious insults aside, Buddington readily consented to Bessel's plan. It gave him just what he wanted. He could stay aboard the Polaris with the hateful chief scientist out of his hair, dragging his two-hundred-pound sled over the knife-edged sastrugi.
If the ice the captain feared carried him south, so be it. All he had to do was leave supplies and a message of his general intent. He probably wished to leave Bessel to freeze, but he could not write that down. If the ice receded, that was all the better. He could steam up to Newman Bay, pick up the exhausted survivors of Bessel's death march, and claim his share of the glory for saving their lives. Then a speedy retreat back to Washington.
“Your suggestions as to an early trip to Cape Constitution and the inland meet with my entire approval,” Buddington wrote back. Using the opportunity afforded by Bessel's “sketch,” the captain jumped at the part that spared him from driving his ship against the ice floes. “The expedition to the north, will, in all probability, proceed by the aid of boats,” he agreed. Ever aware that his actions would be carefully scrutinized on their return, he added stoutly, “It is my decided intention, in such a case, to take command of the boat party.” Then he slyly scribbled an ending that kept him off the hook: “To come to any conclusion as yet to the details of this boat journey and the proceedings of the ship appears to be useless, inasmuch as circumstances will generally govern our actions.”
Once again Buddington had fashioned a passive role for himself. Whatever the conditions permitted, he would acquiesce to those events instead of pressing onward without regard to his safety, as Charles Francis Hall might have donea far, far different mind-set from that of the late commander.
Still, the sled forays could leave within a matter of weeks, far earlier than any whaleboat expedition, and that would get Bessel out of his hair. It would be at least June before water travel was likely. The sooner Bessel left, the happier Buddington would be. A three-month gap would separate land and water exploration, giving the ship captain a much-needed respite from the chief scientist.
Relations between Bessel and Buddington remained strained. Not only did each man openly despise the other, but Bessel used every opportunity to humiliate the captain. One such opportunity presented itself over the scientific corps's specimen alcohol.
Having consumed all the rum and wine he had secreted in nooks and corners of the storerooms, Captain Buddington increasingly turned to raiding the alcohol used by Dr. Bessel for his scientific specimens. In fact, he remained drunk almost daily.
Otheis stole a drink or two, using their unauthorized duplicate keys, but the captain proved the most frequent and serious offender, and he had an official key with unlimited access to the stores. Lickily for all concerned, the scientific corps preserved its finds in pure grain alcohol, following the accepted methods of preservation. Had it used wood alcohol or methanol, Buddington and his fellow drinkers would quickly have gone blind.
The rapidly diminishing supply of his preservative alarmed Bessel. Besides, he relished the chance to exercise his authority over his troublesome captain. The physician soon discovered that Buddington was stealing bottles of alcohol and hiding them in the pantry. From there it was only a leisurely stroll from the captain's cabin to t le pantry for a quick drink.
The doctor set his trap. Quietly he crept below and hid himself behind the crates and barrels. He had not long to wait. Buddington slipped down the ladder and went straight to his hidden supply. The instant the captain retrieved the specimen bottle and brought it to his lips Emil Bessel sprang out and seized him by the collar.
Caught red-handed, Buddington could only stare open-mouthed as the litt e Prussian berated him like a child with his hand in the cookie jar. For a man “built on rather too small a scale,” Bessel with his sidden attack succeeded in cowing the larger man. Seeing this terrie- shaking the heavyset mariner must have been amusing to those o f the galley crew who witnessed it. However, the event did nothing to bolster what little confidence the sailors still retained in their officers.
So it was decided: sled expeditions would be mounted at the first opportunity. Coffin poured his energy into making small sleds for the men to pull and larger ones to haul the boats. March, however, came in like a lion. Gales lashed the ship on the first and second and threatened to drive the Polaris off her precarious perch. Temperatures plummeted to minus 50° while the wind tore through the canvas and riggings at fifty knots. The recently installed window in the observatory blew out, and stones the size of hens' eggs blew across the ice.
More ice lifted the vessel, so that the six-foot marking on the hull remained clearly out of the water. However, Buddington issued no orders co repair the visible hole in the side. The timbers groaned constantly, protesting the weight they had never been designed to hold. The tilt of the deck grew more extreme. In the officers' mess in the lower cabin, sitting down to eat proved impossible. Men took their meals standing, propped against the bulkheads for support. Cleats fastened along the deck and atop the cabin's roof aided the men in moving from bow to stern.
Sleeping became a constant nightmare, as the cracking and groaning of the timbers kept the men awake by the sheer intensity of their sounds. Besides, the incessant noise reminded those below that their ship was breaking apart. Finally the ship started its stem, springing the planks from the bowsprit and opening leaks to the icy seawater. Cracks in the beam ends and rib joints followed, adding an increasing stream of water to the bilge. Ever more worrisome was the tilting's effect on the ship's engine. Designed to rest squarely on its engine mounts, the machine strained against its fittings until they loosened. An alarmed Schuman discovered that the engine had shifted three inches to starboard.
Buddington ordered the coal-driven steam pumps started to deal with the leaks. While only a few minutes of pumping per hour would clear the holds, starting the engines and keeping them running and free of ice consumed much-needed coal. When the pumps stopped, the cast-iron parts quickly cooled, and ice formed over the engine and seized the valves. Chipping ice from the mechanism with hammers and chisels caused the sound to reverberate throughout the ship at hourly intervals like a time clock.
Despite the severity of the weather, signs of a returning spring grew increasingly apparent. The twilight brightened until reading without a candle became possible at midnight. Flocks of ptarmigans and Arctic hares invaded the basin. Since these animals were still wearing their white coats, with only their black eyes to give their position away, they provided challenges to the men who hunted them. Seals also returned to the bay, and Ebierbing and Hans eagerly hunted them.
Return of the daylight produced one unpleasant and unwanted effect. The prolonged darkness and dim oil lamps had damaged the vision of many of the men. The arrival of constant light caused their eyes to water and produced such spasms of the eyelids that the lids could not be kept open under the bright illumination. Emil Bessel especially suffered from this light sensitivity and often could not read lis instruments.
By the end of March, Bessel led an expedition south toward Cape Constitution. Here Dr. Bessel demonstrated that his abrasive nature would work no better with the Natives than it did with the officers a id crew. The party proceeded in fits and starts, first forgetting the ndia rubber blankets needed to spread under their new sleeping bags and then breaking a sled runner. From the onset Ebierbing, pointed out that the one sled was too heavily laden and asked foi Hans to drive a second one. Bessel sharply rejected that advice.
At day's end the men working around the ship looked up to see the Inuit and Mr. Bryan returning for another sled. Bessel later accused Eb erbing of deliberately dropping the sled on the end of the runner to prove his point. Whatever the cause, Ebierbing convinced Buddington that Hans and another sled were really needed, and the two Inuit returned to the advance camp.
Bessel's group headed back to the ship after one week, with little to show for their efforts. During their return the men crossed the fresh trac ks of a polar bear. This was their first sign of polar bear, and the Natives realized that the animal had left its den and was looking for food. Besides, the Polaris crew had exhausted all fresh meat and was living now on canned foods. Here was clearly a case of eat or 3e eaten. The Inuit, understanding that a best defense is always an offense, immediately loosed their dogs.
The fight that followed saw the snow spackled with gouts of blood and matted fur. Without fear the dogs rushed in and tore at the bear's flanks. The bear counterattacked the snarling, snapping hoard that annoyed him, flinging one dog high into the air with a single swipe of his paw. One large malamute named Bear attacked fearlessly, repeatedly launching himself at his adversary despite suffering se/eral blows. The yelping, growling battle came to an abrupt er d when the polar bear rose on his hind feet and Ebierbing shot him with his Sharps rifle.
The triumphant party returned to the ship with the wounded dog Bear and the dead polar bear loaded into the sled baskets. Behind they left one dog for dead where the bear's blow had flung him against an outcropping.
The fresh meat was welcome and sorely needed. Already signs of scurvy affected the crew. Teeth had loosened and old injuries returned to plague their owners. John Herron's foot swelled so badly at this time that he could not walk. First thought to be rheumatism, the problem resolved itself with fresh meat added to his diet.
For all his troubles, Emil Bessel contracted a severe case of snow blindness. The condition results from the bright Arctic sun and its reflected rays striking the unprotected eye. Hour after hour of this bombardment produces something akin to sunburn of the skin. The ultraviolet rays burn the thin layer of cells covering the cornea known as the conjunctiva. As with any burn, the cells swell, producing blistering and cloudiness of the conjunctiva. Each blink of the eyelid swipes off the damaged layer, aggravating the condition. The eyelids clamp shut involuntarily in spasm when the condition becomes severe. Anyone who has had a grain of sand beneath his or her eyelid need only multiply that feeling a thousandfold to appreciate the sensation of snow blindness. Those eyes feel as though they have been sandblasted. Involuntary tearing, cloudy vision, swollen lids, and intense pain accompany the condition.
Five days passed with the scientist confined to his darkened room with cold compresses protecting his inflamed eyelids. Exposure to any light burned like fire and flooded his eyes with tears. Another ten days were needed before the physician could perform any experiments in the observatory. When he did recover sufficiently, Bessel moved his camera outside to photograph the ship and, strangely enough, Captain Hall's grave. The exposures went well enough, as did developing the photographic plates. But when the fixative was washed off the plates, the emulsion separated from the glass and peeled off. No photographs would capture the lonely grave of Charles Francis Hall for another hundred years.
As soon as he was well, Emil Bessel resumed his demands to head another expedition, one using the whaleboats this time. A heated argument ensued. Control of the ship and its longboats still belonged to Buddington, and he had no intention of forfeiting this remaining shard of his authority. Already, premonitions that he would bear the brunt of any failure loomed large in his mind. Abrogating his command, especially to a landlubber, was the worst thing a ship's captain could do, and he'd be damned if he'd turn over his longboats to Bessel.
Still, fear clamped its iron hand on the sea captain's heart. Sailing amorg the icebergs and floating islands frightened him beyond all reason. What nightmares tormented him enough to souse his brain in alcohol we can only imagine. Striking an iceberg and sinking seems to have bothered him less than being trapped within the floating islands to slowly starve to death. In those frigid waters, death comes quickly from hypothermia, within minutes. But drifting, disabled, and locked in an icy embrace meant weeks of hunger and despiir and the haunting specter of cannibalism. The grisly image of men cracking the long bones of their shipmates to scavenge the last srap of marrow lurked in the minds of every whaler who sailed no th.
With a cunning born of desperation, Buddington countered hotly that he would lead the boats himself. Cleverly he appointed George Tyson and H. C. Chester to command the two whaleboats. That exempted him from leaving the Polaris. Washington would applaud his selection of two experienced sailors to direct the boats, and Washington would understand that Buddington could not be expected to place himself under one of his selected boat captains. He would be applauded for sacrificing his share of the glory to his duty to watch over the Polaris. As a final touch, Buddington named the two boats. The first would be called the U. S. Grant, after the president and the second would be the George M. Robeson, after the secretary of the navy.
Neither Tyson nor Chester really believed Buddington would leave the relative security of Thank God Harbor. To them his protesting rang hollow. Tyson even wrote in his diary, “But no one thinks he will go.” Whether by design or by chance, Buddington filled the 3oats with his detractors.
Chester's boat got Frederick Meyer, Sieman, Anthing, Kruger, and Jamlaall troublesome Germans. The Prussian Meyer especially detested Buddington. Having a drunken captain replace the egalitaria l Hall had not accomplished the military man's prediction of a retur 1 to class rule, and Sieman's tiresome piety constantly irritated the captain. What did the man expect? His shipmates were seamen, not nuns, and strong language went hand in hand with their tattoos. As for the others, they were always gathering in the forecastle and plotting in their foreign language.
To George Tyson, captain of the Robeson, went the prize: he got Emil BesseL Buddington must have smirked when he penned the second boat's list. Putting his two main detractors into the same boat had to please him. Their animosity toward each other almost equaled their dislike for him. He could picture them sniping at each other as they rowed. Finally Buddington decreed that everything must be ready to launch the waterborne expedition by the first of May.
The captain's ploy succeeded in keeping his detractors distracted. April passed with everyone occupied in outfitting the boats or trying to free the ship from the four-foot-thick ice gripping her sides. With the warming weather came a new concern. As the ice thinned and the snow melted, the ship would settle back into the water. The damaged hull would have more opportunity to leak. Partially freeing the rudder and propeller brought some relief, however. Neither appeared damaged.
At this time, Buddington, always the pessimist, penned his doubts about the ship's seaworthiness in the official log:
I think that it will be some trouble to keep the Polaris afloat when she comes down into the water again. Her sides are much open. Her main rail is broken in one place by the heavy pressure of the whole top work of the vessel listing over so much and for so long a time.
Tyson found that two planks along the six-foot mark on the starboard side of the bow were split lengthwise. Efforts to repair the damage yielded little improvement, as the bow still rocked up and down with the tide and wave action, springing the repairs open.
Yet another diversion appeared. On April 25 the two Inuit returned with their sleds loaded with fresh musk ox meat. Spring brought the annual migration of the hairy animals along the coast. The excited Natives told of seeing thick herds crossing the valley and had shot seven animals, having cached all but the three their sleds could hold.
Hunting fever swept the crew. Work on the hull stopped as hunting parties snatched their rifles and sped inland.
Hunting these creatures brought out the worst in the crew of the Polaris. Months of living in fear, boredom, and depression boiled over into a wild slaughter of these hapless creatures. Under the guise of obtaining fresh meat, the crew blasted away at every animal they encountered. Their killing spree exceeded whatever game they needed for fresh meat, leading to waste. Neither Bud-dington nor Bessel made any effort to rein in the crew's excesses.
App^ rently the slaughter finally disgusted Tyson, although from the lack of sport rather than the waste. “It is not very exciting sport,” he wrote, “for there is no [more] chance of missing them than the side of a house. When they have been checked by the dogs, and got :hemselves in a circle, there is nothing to do but walk up and shoot them.” He decried an incident where Kruger and Sieman stumblec across a family of musk oxen resting near the foothills. Their first shot wounded the female, preventing her from fleeing. To their surprise, the faithful male charged Sieman. A comedic scene ensued with Kruger and Sieman running and firing while the bull chased them. At length the three animals took up their defensive stance, allowing the two men to blast away at them.
Thres hundred shots were fired. The female eventually dropped down and died of her wounds, and only then did the injured male and his offspring abandon her and retreat. Having exhausted all their carrridges, Sieman and Kruger could only watch. A party of sailors fi lished off the rest of the family the next day and retrieved the meat of the female. The supply of fresh meat now surpassed the capacity of the ship's icebox. While Bessel oversaw the skinning of the unfortunate musk ox family so they could later be stuffed, the animals' flesh found its way into a hole cut in the side of Providence Berg.
In their blood lust the officers, scientific corps, and crew forgot all tr ought of proceeding north to discover new land and plant the flag t the North Pole. Perhaps this was what Captain Budding-ton wan :ed. His deadline of the first of May came and went withnothing happening. Chester and Jamka suffered snow blindness while hunting musk oxen that day. Sleds and men rushed about along the foothills and through the low plains behind the coastal bluffs, but always in search of animals to shoot. None of the trips made more than twenty miles or lasted longer than a week.
Ice still gripped the bay while leads of dark water opened and closed in Kennedy Channel at the whim of the currents. Despite the sealed surface of the bay, strong water forces swept below it and drove blocks of ice capable of crushing a longboat along any open channel. Hopes of launching the two whaleboats dimmed. Now was the time to explore by sled when the ice was still thick, but that window of opportunity was rapidly closing while the men hunted. Clearly inertia was bogging down the polar exploration, tying the men to the uncertain safety of their ship. All this might have been expected with the loss of Captain Hall. Only hewith Tyson, Morton, and the two Inuit menwere the land explorers. All the rest were sailors or laboratory scientists.
There was simply no one to lead. Now that Hall was dead, Tyson had no authority, since he had derived his strange position from the late commander's pleasure. Thirty years in the navy had conditioned Morton to follow commands, not give them, and the Inuit withdrew to their usual defensive posture of being passive when dealing with white men. To their credit, they had come along only for their friend Captain Hall, and he was dead. No one else aboard the Polaris had earned their friendship and respect.