Arctic Explorer Mystery
1,800 Miles On Ice
After a harsh winter, the thick ice that encased the Polaris persisted through the spring and summer of 1872, and it became clear that the Polaris would spend another winter locked in the same spot -- the fate of the doomed British Northwest Passage expedition that drew Charles Hall into Arctic exploration.
But on the night of October 15, a fierce blizzard began cracking the ice around the Polaris. The crew feared a nearby iceberg would break free and ram the ship, so they began throwing overboard boats and various provisions for an emergency evacuation.
When some of the precious foodstuffs began slipping through cracks in the ice, about half the crew climbed off the ship to try to save them. Navigator Tyson wrote in his journal:
"I decided I had better get overboard, calling some of the men to help me and try to carry whatever I could away from the ship so that it would not get crushed and lost...Very shortly afterward, the ice exploded under our feet and broke in many places, and the ship broke away in the darkness and we lost sight of her in a moment."
The next morning Tyson took stock.
His contingent was stranded on a huge ice floe about 4 miles in circumference. The Polaris was nowhere in sight.
There were 18 people in all on the ice, including all eight Eskimos -- four adults and four children. They had a small scow, two sealskin kayaks and two whaleboats. Their supplies amounted to 14 45-pound cans of pemmican, 11 bags of bread, one can of dried apples and 14 canned hams.
Later that day, they spotted the Polaris well across the bay, perhaps 10 miles away. The marooned group fired guns and signaled the boat in every manner possible, but the ship plodded on, finally disappearing behind an island hill near the distant shore.
The castaways piled into a whaling boat and tried to row to the ship, but they were pushed back by the wind, waves and ice. They retreated to their floe.
Tyson concluded, "Either, I thought, the Polaris is disabled and cannot come for us or else...Captain Buddington does not mean to help us."
The group built igloos and hunkered down in the 24-hour Arctic darkness. Tyson worked out a food ration that allotted 11 ounces of bread and meat per day per adult. He planned for the food to last a couple of months, by which time they surely would be rescued by a passing ship. But October, November and December came and went without sight of one.
As supplies dwindled and finally expired, the castaways avoided starvation only through the hunting skills of the two Eskimo men, known as Hans and Joe. Each time it appeared that death was at head, the Eskimos would miraculously return from a hunting excursion with a freshly killed seal.
Tyson wrote in his journal, "No doubt many of my friends who read this will exclaim, `I would rather die than eat such stuff!' You think so, no doubt. But people can't die when they want to, and when one is in full life and vigor and only suffering from hunger he doesn't want to die. Neither would you."
Yet he didn't pretend to enjoy the diet. He recorded the details of his New Year's Day meal: "I have dined today on about two feet of frozen seal's entrails and a small piece of congealed blubber."
On January 20, the sun returned for the first time since late October, and as the floe continued ever southward, the Eskimos began to find more abundant game, including sea lions, dolphin-like narwhals, migratory birds and even the occasional polar bear.
On March 12, the floe shattered during a storm, and the group took refuge on a much smaller piece of ice, roughly 100 yards square. They ice-hopped for the next seven weeks and finally found themselves, in late April, in commercial shipping lanes off
Two ships passed without noticing the group. Finally, on April 30, they were rescued by a Canadian seal-hunting vessel. The seal hunters were flabbergasted; in seven months, this remnant of the Hall polar expedition had traveled 1,800 miles on a cake of ice.