The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound. …
—SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE,
”THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER”
They wouldn't have long to wait. Late in the day on October 15, the sky grew threatening. Dark clouds gathered to the northwest and steadily advanced in a glowering mass of molten lead until the edge of the storm hung over the ship like a black pall. Ominously the wind died down. An oppressive stillness pressed down upon the ship. The nervous banter of the deckhands trailed off until the only sound heard was the creak of the ice-encrusted deck as the men moved warily about.
As if spurred on by the coming gale, the stretch of ice that encompassed the Polarises world surged forward, dragging the ship along. Out of the icy mists, two ghostly mountains rose directly ahead. Shimmering and sliding silently through the water, these icebergs loomed like twin giants, drawing ever closer to the ship.
Men standing their watch gasped as their drift drew them inexorably toward their doom. The ship was trapped in the floe, and there was no possibility of escape. Within minutes the floe bearing its puny vessel would crash into the frozen giants. If the ship did not hit one of them directly, the pileup of the oncoming ice pack into the icebergs would surely shatter the expanse of ice surrounding them and crush the hull like a paper cup.
Just then the gale struck from the northwest. Snow, mist, and ice crystals swirled about the air. Visibility dropped to mere inches in front cf the men's faces, punctuated by fleeting glimpses of the ice and w iter when the wind scattered the snow.
The ice field swung around with the storm and drove between the two towering mountains. The floe shuddered to a halt upon impact. High-pitched screams emanated from the icebergs as slabs weighing tons sheared from their sides to tumble onto the floe.
Resembling an earthquake opening fissures, the impact buckled the floe and sent spidery cracks racing outward from the point of impact. Close behind these widening fissures, the ice rose and heaved like falling dominoes. The crumpled ridge rushed toward the trapped ship like an ivory tidal wave.
Then it struck the ship. Crumpling, cracking, and twisting, the enormous sheet of frozen water encasing the Polaris exploded into fragments. The force lifted the Polaris bodily and drove it onto its port side. Shuddering and trembling from the pressure, the vessel wrenched out of its frozen bed and rode up onto the ice. A cleat securing ore of the ice anchors pulled free with a sharp crack and vanished over the side with the hawser. Heavy oak timbers groaned and snapped, mostly abaft the beam. The stern section appeared to split in two.
A tortured groan wrenched George Tyson from his deep sleep and caused him to sit bolt upright in his narrow bunk. Flakes of frost from condensed moisture on the walls rained down on him as the ship's sides trembled. The cold flakes stung his face like needles and brought him fully awake.
Grop ng within the blackness of the cabin, his fingers touched the rough oak walls of the ship, an act of reassurance every mariner performs when frightened. No sounds of rushing water reached his ears; no streams of freezing water met his touch. The solid sides were still intact. Tyson murmured a prayer, and he calmed himself.
Tyson cocked his ear, uncertain of what exactly was happening. As assistant navigator of the expedition, his twenty years sailing the Arctic ha d prepared him for the creaks and sounds each ship makes as it lives uneasily among the ice. No vessel ever masters the Arctic seas. Ratier, the massive bergs and blocks of ice permit a ship to exist. Already cracked and leaking, the Polaris had plenty of reason to protest the pressure of the ice, but these sounds were different more intense, more … painful.
Tyson blinked in the dark. He must get topside, he realized. A feeble shaft of light marked the forward ladder. Another, lesser moan followed the first, this one issuing from the ribs of the ship itself. It was as if the Polaris were being tortured, crying out in pain with each blow to its sides.
Suddenly the vessel lurched violently to port, throwing Tyson from his bunk.
“We are sinking!” The shout came from the deck. Another roll followed close on the cry, and a sharp grinding shook the keel. Above his head running feet thudded across the deck, mixing with the scrape of sliding crates.
A voice he recognized as belonging to Campbell, the fireman, screamed down the hatch: “The ice has driven through the side!”
Instantly Tyson leaped to his feet and bounded up the ladder. A wall of frigid air struck his lungs as he skidded onto the ice-rimmed deck. His bare fingers caught the rigging to keep his balance. The frozen cordage burned like molten iron.
The perpetual gloom of the Arctic winter provided scarcely more light than his darkened room, but he could see the faint outlines of the forecastle rising like a dark wedge into the inky sky. Snow and sleet peppered his face, blinding him at times. Squinting through the mist, he forced his eyelids to remain open. What he managed to see chilled his heart.
Surrounding the ship, ice floes and jumbled pack ice hovered in the blowing snow like ghostly specters. Two monstrous icebergs threatened the ship from both sides. At first Tyson thought the bergs had struck the ship, but a swirl of the snow revealed that not to be the case. The bergs had struck the ice floe instead, he realized.
A body tumbled past Tyson, striking his left leg on the way by. The tilt of the deck had slid the crew against the port railings, clustering them in a bunch like ninepins near the waist of the vessel. Those who could stand peered over the railing. Tyson slipped and skated to them and followed their gaze over the side.
Razor ridges of ice pressed against the ship's sides, compressing the timbers and forcing the Polaris upward until the scarred iron and copper sheeting lay exposed to the frigid air. Clusters of barnacles and patches of sea grass, the ship's watery beard, coated the edges of jce that had sheared them from the hull. Ironically, the cracked timbers that had eluded repair rode high above the water.
Quickly Tyson skated to the starboard rail.
Solid ice gripped that side as well. The blowing wind and waves had forced frozen hummocks and knife-sharp sastrugi against the floe to which the Polaris was moored. Adding to this, the massive weight of the two icebergs leaned against the crumpled edge of the ice field. Thousands of tons of frozen water now pressed against the trapped ship. Between these jaws the Polaris was being crushed.
A well-founded vessel, designed for such a contingency, would wriggle free of the closing jaws and rise above the crushing forces. Thus, resiing on top of the ice, it would lie safely while the vast pack of ic e shifted and moved inexorably north or south with the ocean's current. Now the navy's decision to cut costs by reusing the unsuitably shaped narrow hull of the old Periwinkle would threaten the lives of all aboard.
To Tyson's alarm the starboard side of the vessel still lay within the frozer jaws, while the port side obediently rode above the danger. Each gust of wind drew protests from the groaning hull as the ice tightened.
Just then Schuman, the engineer, burst from the aft companion-way, shouting in German as he flailed his arms. His feet slipped on the ic> deck, and he bowled into the crew clustered by the railing. Tysoi grasped the officer by his collar and dragged him to his feet.
“Speak English!” he ordered. “What is it? What's the matter?”
“We're sinking!” Schuman stuttered. “The ice has opened the seams. Many new leaks,” he gasped.
A terrified moan arose from the deckhands. Their widened eyes, glowing white even in the darkness, signaled they were close to panic. If the ship sank, all were lost. Not only were there no other ships within hundreds of miles, but the nearest settlements were also hundreds of miles south. Those who made it to an island of ice were doomed to a drawn-out death from frostbite and starvation. With the seawater temperature at 28°F, no man would last longer th.m fifteen minutes. Anyone who fell into the sea would drown as the cold robbed his muscles of any strength. More than a few minutes in the water so stiffened the small muscles of the hands that a man could not grasp a rescue line.
“The pumps, man,” Tyson said as he shook the engineer, “start the pumps!”
Schuman shook his head. “We are pumping, but it does no good. The water is gaining on the pumps. It rushes into the hold. We are lost!”
Tyson released his grip on his fellow officer as a shaft of light flashed in the doorway of the master's cabin. It was Captain Buddington.
Hauling himself along the lifelines, Tyson slid to the sailing master. “The ship is being strongly nipped, sir,” he yelled over the howl of the wind. “Schuman says the seams have opened and the pumps cannot keep up.”
Buddington stared uncomprehendingly at Tyson. The captain's breath reeked of alcohol. His eyes blinked rapidly while his lips moved, but no words came out. Now more than ever, Tyson wished for the solid, sturdy face of Captain Hall. Unflappable in any emergency, the late captain was sorely needed.
“We are sinking!” Schuman screamed through the blowing snow. “Sinking!”
As if responding to the engineer's cries, the Polaris lurched farther to one side and rose by the bow as the ice pack shifted.
Schuman's words and the ship's movement galvanized Buddington. He rushed forward to the crew, waving both arms at the pile of supplies lashed to the center of the deck. Heavier supplies like the bags of coal were stacked forward, while ammunition, rifles, and lighter boxes had been collected aft.
Buddington threw his arms up in the air and yelled: “Throw everything onto the ice!”
Gustavus Lindquist and Peter Johnson spun about at these startling words. Other sailors stopped and cast nervous glances at one another. Had they misunderstood the captain? Was the ship really sinking? During previous threats of swamping, calm orders were issued and goods transferred safely onto the ice until the danger passed. Surely all was not lost?
Buddington answered their unspoken questions. “Work for your lives boys!” he bellowed.
Panic erupted. Terror-stricken, the crew rushed about cutting the lashings and flinging whatever they snatched over the railings on both sides. Boxes and crates flew into the darkness and the swirling snow. All the while the Polaris rose and fell with the rolling ice and roiling waves from the growing storm. The sway of the hull and the force of the storm opened wide gaps in the ice that moments before had encased the ship. Level floors of ice cracked and drew apa^t like broken china. Other sections tumbled and overturned as the supporting sea roiled beneath its frozen roof. Blinded by their fears as well as the pelting snow, the men worked feverishly and foolishly. Superhuman strength imbued many and galvanized those who saw their impending death.
One man single-handedly pushed a sled through the gangway and hefte« 1 it over the side. Not waiting to see where it landed, he rushed aft to help empty the deck of the goods stacked there. Boxes of ammunition, stacks of rifles and revolvers, tins of preserved fruit cascaded off the ship and rained into the darkness.
Over :he roar of the wind, Tyson heard a splash. He leaned far over the port railing. To his horror he saw the results of the hurried evacuatio i.
Most of the supplies were falling into the sea.
The navigator's heart sank as he watched box after box vanish beneath the dark waters or shatter as the roll of the ship against the ice crushed and splintered the crates. Cans and crates bobbed in the open gaps. From the corner of his eye, Tyson saw Joe and Hans, the two E >kimo hunters, slip over the railing onto a crust of solid ice and begin to drag what they could onto the ice floe. The Natives had kept their heads while the “educated and civilized” crew lost theirs.
A crash caught Tyson's attention. The last remaining whaleboat thudded to the ice as the desperate men cut the lines to its davits. It slid back off the ice, coming to rest half in the water. The oars and sails for the boat rattled against its plank sides. Floating against the churning dull, the longboat risked being instantly crushed.
“The provisions are sinking!” Tyson shouted to his befuddled skipper.
“Move them back!” Buddington ordered.
The assistant navigator jumped down and snatched a box from certain doom. He struggled with the whaleboat until more hands joined him. When he looked up, he could see a dozen others working on the ice. He wondered briefly whether Buddington had sent them down or whether the men had come on their own.
Gathering a working party, Tyson followed the Eskimo onto the jumbled ice away from the ship. In their wisdom the Natives were moving their possessions toward the pitched tent, where the ice appeared the thickest.
Aboard the ship Tookoolito watched Hans's wife leading her daughter toward the canvas tent. On her back the woman's newborn son, Charlie Polaris, slept contentedly. Tookoolito watched them vanish in the swirling snow before turning back to the companion-way. More of her possessions remained in their cabin. Extra furs, two seal-oil lamps, and her sewing kit were still below. Quickly she gathered these precious things up in her arms.
The simple lamps made by grinding a shallow depression in a flat stone would provide light and heat for her family on the ice. Filled with seal oil and regulated by a braided grass wick, the lamp was all they needed to warm an igloo. New wicks could be fashioned from sea grass stuffed inside her mukluks for insulation. Equally important was her sewing kit. With its bone needles and awls, Tookoolito could fashion new garments and repair torn ones. Those two items, the lamps and the sewing kit, ensured her family's survival. Without them they would be lost.
Coming up the steps, she encountered the oil-smudged face of Alvin Odell, the assistant engineer. The unspoken concern in her dark eyes caught his attention.
Odell stopped and laid his greasy hand on her shoulder. His gaze rested on the articles clutched tightly against her breast. The heavy hand patted her shoulder reassuringly. “Don't worry, little lady,” he chuckled. “We've got the leaks under control. We'll have you back on board before long.”
Tookoolito followed Odell up the steps to the deck. He spotted Captain Buddington and headed over to him. The Inuit woman looked about at the confusion sweeping the foredeck. Buddington now added to her consternation by ordering her onto the ice.
Through the whistle of the wind, she heard her husband, Ebierbing, call her name. The snow parted to allow her a fleeting glimpse on him beckoning from the ice. Quietly Tookoolito slipped over the s de and dropped onto the ice. She would take her chances with her husband, she decided, rather than on this ship with its bad Inuu
As she slipped onto the ice floe, Tookoolito carried one other precious thing. Gripped tightly in her arms was also a small wooden box given to her by her dying friend Charles Francis Hall. While Buddington and Bessel had collected all of Hall's papers upon his death, Tookoolito had hidden this small box of letters from them. Honoring Hall's dying wish, she protected and preserved them with her life.
Behind her Bryan and Meyer wrestled with chests filled with the expedition's scientific papers. Over the side Bryan tossed his own personal box with his private letters and notebooks. He and the meteorologist lifted case after case over the railing.
Hours passed unnoticed as the men fished floating crates from the waves, wrestled them onto solid ice, and dragged them toward the center of the floe. In the darkness time had little meaning, especially while the fury of the storm mounted.
A disheartened Tyson finally dragged himself onto the ship to report his progress. What supplies they had salvaged were now clustered iround a whaleboat dragged to the most solid part of the floe. He estimated six thousand pounds of canned pemmican had sunk along with many bags of the precious coal. The helter-skelter jettisoning had proved ruinous. The bulk of the ship's emergency provisions littered the ocean floor.
As he reached Buddington, the ship shifted to port again, just as the ice released the starboard side of the Polaris. Black open water swirled around the hull.
Both men stared at their reprieve. One side was now free. One jaw of the vise was gone. If the leaks could be contained, the ship would be saved.
“How much water is the vessel making?” Tyson asked anxiously.
Buddington grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “No more than usual,” he answered. “When the bow rose, the water in the hold rushed forth. Schuman mistook that for a new leak. But he was mistaken. The vessel is strong.” He gave a nervous laugh. Odell's second assessment had calmed his fears. “I guess we're not sinking after all. The engineer's first report was a false alarm.”
The navigator studied the pumps. The steady clank of the steam donkey reassured him that it was pumping smoothly. Two men working the hand pump motioned to their hose. Water and air gushed out the nozzle. That pump was sucking air, Tyson realized. The bilge must be almost dry.
The storm permitted them no time at all to rejoice. A stiff gust of wind rattled the rigging and howled through the cross spars and showered them with shards of ice stripped from the fittings. The deck with all its frenzied activity vanished in a blanket of stinging ice crystals and snowflakes. The surrounding ice field groaned with the accompanying storm surge.
“Look.” Tyson pointed to new cracks appearing about the ship. “The ice is breaking up even more.” The vast floor of ice resumed its rising and falling in sections like waves, with cracks and fissures opening and closing with each shift. The clouds of snow parted to expose additional crates scattered about the port side of the vessel that Tyson and the men had missed.
Buddington's attention shifted to the precious supplies. “Mr. Tyson, get everything back as far as possible on the ice,” he ordered.
Tyson nodded wearily and crawled down onto the floe to resume directing his exhausted men. Another hour passed as the men slid and pushed the freight back from the cracking edges. In the whirling snow, visibility was cut to a few inches. The force of the blowing wind stung their faces, and the icy sleet cut the men's eyes whenever they faced into the gale. Half the time they stumbled blindly about while the ground under their feet writhed and turned like a living beast.
Lindquist manhandled an enormous barrel of molasses to the tumble home. Using his back for leverage, he pushed the cask over the side and watched with satisfaction as it crashed onto the ice and rolled away from the edge. Then he headed back into his quarters to check on his seabag. Alarmingly, his bag, containing all his clothing, was missing from his bunk.
Back on deck Lindquist spotted his bag lying on the field, bobbing atop a wedge of ice surrounded by twelve feet of floating slush. Someone had thrown it overboard. He started over the side.
Strangely Captain Buddington stopped him.
“I don't see any need for you to go there now,” Buddington advised.
Lindquist pointed to his endangered duffle bag. “I'd like to get my clothes bag,” he pleaded. Nearly all his belongings were on the ice.
Buddington let his arm drop from the sailor's shoulder. He shrugged. “Very well, go ahead.”
Lindquist climbed hand over hand down the taut bowline to the floe. He would quickly regret that move.
Above Lindquist, Meyer struggled to push the last chest of documents through the opening in the railing. Grasping both handles of the chest, Meyer leaned far over the railing to lower it carefully down to the ice.
Without warning the icy plain erupted in a plume of seawater, snow, and ice.
The Polaris lurched violently. Meyer's feet shot out from under him while the box swung into the night. The weight of the crate dragged Meyer over the side, and the two plummeted downward. Below, Lindquist dove to one side just as the massive chest crashed beside him, missing his head by inches. The startled sailor glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Mr. Meyer follow the chest onto the ice. The fall knocked the wind out of the meteorologist's lungs, and the dazed Prussian looked up to find himself flat on his back where he least wanted to beon the ice.
The cataclysm engulfed the entire expanse of ice surrounding the ship. As Tyson clambered about the relocated goods, the ice beneath his feet exploded, flinging him to the ground. He struggled to his knees just in time to see a cloud of snow billowing along the side of the Polaris. The cloud rolled the entire length of the ship like exploding gunpowder.
Mooring lines secured to the floe snapped like rifle shots, and the ice anchors ripped loose. The vessel wrenched free of the ice's grip and lurched into the darkness. In an instant it vanished within the swirl of the storm. A second later the ice floe, freed of the ship's weight, tilted precipitously and fractured into a hundred pieces. Inky water bubbled forth from the widening rents.
Through the darkness and swirling snow came the plaintive cry of John Herron, the steward. “Goodbye, Polaris …”
“Hurry! To the whaleboat, men!” Tyson shouted. To launch their small craft in search of the Polaris was impossible. But the longboat would save them from the frigid waters if their floating island disintegrated.
As his crew huddled about the boat, Tyson spotted a dark shape through the blowing snow. He shielded his eyes and looked again. A precious bundle of musk ox hides, essential for warmth, was slipping into a widening fissure in the ice. Tyson stumbled forward and snatched the corner of the disappearing hides just as they threatened to slide into oblivion. He dug his heels into the ice and pulled. The corner of the hides flipped back, exposing two frightened faces.
Shocked, Tyson realized the bundle of hides contained the Eskimo children of Hans and Tookoolito. The Inuit families had combined their offspring and placed them where they thought it was safest. However, no place on the cracking floe remained secure for long.
The navigator tugged desperately as the fissure widened. For a minute it was touch-and-go as to whether the children would slip beneath the black waters. Gradually the furs slid back from the edge with the children still inside, and Tyson bundled them back to the safety of the boat. Tookoolito, working about the whaleboat, stopped when she saw the children. She flashed Tyson a grateful smile as s le embraced her child.
One hide remained in the crack. As Tyson looked back, the fissure ground shut with a savage groan. The lone fur vanished like a morsel in a giant's jaws. The navigator shivered. He'd almost been too late.
But there was no rest for the worn-out Tyson. A cry for help drew his mention to his left. Five men stranded on a bobbing raft of ice shouted to him. They had been working close by the Polaris when the breakup occurred. Only desperate leaps had saved them from being sucked under as the ship sprang free. Now they huddled together on a frozen chip less than eight feet square. Any movement caused the sliver of ice to tip and bob like a cork. In a minute the wind and waves would capsize their island and throw them to their deaths.
Tysor launched the ship's scow, the small, square-nosed boat that the crew affectionately called the “little donkey.” But waves swamped the craft, and the would-be rescuer scrambled back to solid ice, barely escaping a plunge into the deadly sea. Next he tried the second whaleboat, which had broken free of the Polaris and beached itself by the water's edge. Rowing by sound as much as sight, Tyson paddled through the frigid veil, guided only by the cries of the stranded men. Anxious minutes passed before he located the men and hauled them off.
More cries for help filtered through the snow and sleet. For three Ion hours, Tyson added to his boat as he ferried stranded men back to their tiny fort.
Wher morning came, the storm abruptly quit, departing as suddenly as it had struck. Low-hanging clouds persisted, but the Arctic sun rose on a painfully scoured sky and commenced its skimming along the horizon. Blackness retreated before silky purples and rose colors that bathed the sky, the water, and the shards of ice, coating them in delicate shades of pink and blue. Dark and fearsome mere hours before, the Arctic changed its face to a soothing landscape fit to rival the canvases of the finest impressionists.
Still, things looked bleak for the stranded men. No one knew the fate of their ship. Had the Polaris sunk in the storm? If not, were its engines working so it could return to rescue them? Stranded on the floe, hundreds of miles from help, the party's chances were slim.
The cause of the ship's sudden expulsion from its icy cradle glowered over the marooned sailors for anyone with the interest to see. The storm had driven the twin icebergs together like hammer and anvil, crushing the ice field that had held the Polaris. No one really cared at that point. Only Tyson remained awake. Natives and sailors alike slept under snow-covered hides and blankets. Everyone but the navigator had accepted their fate and crawled under cover to await the inevitable.
Bone-tired, Tyson counted heads and took stock of their situation. Emerging from their white cocoons, tired faces greeted his count. Ten men from the ship's company and the two Eskimo with their wives and small children, nineteen in all, resided on a circular floe of ice less than several miles around.
Pitiful as their roster was, Tyson realized their residence was far worse. Their domain consisted of a floating island of sharp hills of tumbled ice, more like massive, razor-edged crystals, interspersed with pressure ridges of snow and scattered lakes and ponds of fresh water still melted from the summer sun. Their terra firma was anything but that. Parts of the floe thinned to several inches, insufficient to support a man's weight, while other sections measured more than forty feet thick. Careless wandering would plunge the unwary into freezing water.
They were miles from land, and interwoven barricades of ice prevented their rowing ashore. Unless a dramatic change in the current dispersed the floating islands, they were trapped on a section of drifting ice that might break apart at any moment.
Rescue by their ship remained the most favorable prospect, but Tyson's heart sank as he scanned the ice-strewn horizon. No sign of the Polaris existed. The vessel must have sunk in the storm with all aboard, he concluded. They were on their own.
The p irty had two whaleboats and the nearly useless scow, half filled witr water. To feed the nineteen souls, Tyson counted fourteen cans of pemmican, fourteen salted hams, eleven and a half bags of flour, and one can of dried apples. Of the hundreds of pounds ol bread, meat, and coal, most had sunk or drifted off.
Unknown to the navigator, the marooned crewmen had taken special pains to salvage their personal belongings at the expense of saving essential gear. Whereas Tyson had only the clothing on his back, moi t of the crew had their seabags with coffee and chocolate, fresh clothing, and firearms.
As ra aking officer, he had no weaponsa distinct disadvantage, he suddenly realized. How could he impose his will over those seamen who had firearms? This detail would devil him in days to come.
Roll call revealed that the navigator's company included Frederick Meyer, the troublesome Prussian meteorologist whose collusion with his fellow Teutonic knight Dr. Bessel back at Disko had aided the undermining of Captain Hall. The unfortunate Meyer, dragged over the side by his crate of papers, represented the only member of the scientific corps. Suffering from the effects of scurvy, which drew his leg up so that only the toe could touch the ground as he hobbled about, Meyer would be of little use other than to take sighnngs. If the fog and ice mist persisted, sextant readings would be impossible, and Meyer would be of no use at all.
The able-bodied seamen were Fred Jamka, William Lindermann, Pe :er Johnson, Fred Anthing, and Gustavus Lindquist. J. W. Kruger, row called Robert by the others, completed the list of sailors. Tyson remembered several of these men as being mutinous, among them some who had broken into the ship's stores and drunk the alcohol used for the scientific specimens. None of the sailors had any expertise surviving in the Arctic.
Tired as he was, Tyson had to chuckle at the irony. His command contained most of the ship's seamen. He had the sailors but no ship to sail. Buddington, if he still lived, had only Joseph Mauch, Noah Hayes, Herman Sieman, and Henry Hobby to crew the Polar, s. William Jackson, the black cook, and John Herron, the ship's steward, represented the entire galley staff. Tyson had the galley staff without the galley, while Buddington's command was top-heavy with officers and the two scientists. Fate had split the command along the least favorable lines.
On the plus side of Tyson's party stood the stalwart Inuit, Ebierbing and Tookoolito, the faithful husband-and-wife team called “Joe” and “Hanna.” Most important, Ebierbing was an excellent pilot. Hans, the other Inuit, was a proven hunter capable of taking seal and even bear from his fragile kayak with either spear or rifle. When the food ran out, the two Inuit men would have to hunt for them all.
Tookoolito and Hans's wife, Merkut, whom the sailors called Christiana, were adept at tending the seal-oil lamps and sewing the needed clothing. Yet even the Inuit's presence had a downside: there were the extra mouths of their children to feed. Tookoolito's adopted daughter, Puney, and Hans's four childrenAugustina, Tobias, Succi, and newborn Charlie Polariswere too young to hunt or fish.
Now that the snow had stopped, Tyson checked his bearings. Six miles to the southeast rose gray, wind-scoured peaks of land, but plates of pancake ice blocked that route except for a narrow channel of open water. The ice floe where they huddled lay jammed between the two towering icebergs. As chips of ice and smaller scrabble flowed past in the current, he realized the two bergs were firmly grounded on the ocean floor with their floe wedged tightly between.
The bite of the wind rising from the northeast caused the navigator to turn his face in that direction. What he saw sent shivers up his spine. Chunks of ice, mixed with broken plates and saucers, converged on the only open lee. The shifting wind was blowing closed the only route of escape from their fragile stand. They must move quickly. If they failed to paddle through the gap before it disappeared, they would be trapped.
“Quickly, men, get up!” Tyson shouted. “Load the boats. We must launch the boats before that opening closes.” He pointed to the distant landfall. “We must reach that solid ground.”
Overcoming his fatigue, the navigator raced about, kicking and prodding the snow-covered mounds of sleeping men. Try as he might, he could not get them to obey. Instead, the half-frozen sailors stared at him blearily.
“Hungry,” Jamka mumbled. An accompanying chorus agreed with him.
Instead of preparing the boats, the men got slowly to their feet and began to search among their kits for food. To a man they ignored Tyson's entreaties.
Soon a score of pitiful fires, started with seal oil, rags, and scraps of wood, flickered uncertainly on the ice. Tinned cans of meat were pried open and used to thaw their frozen contents over the flames. After licking the tins clean, the sailors boiled snow in the cans to make coffee and chocolate. No one offered Tyson a single bite. The hungry navigator could only stand and watch in frustration. Performing his duty had placed him at a terrible disadvantage.
The Inuit, aware of the danger, ate their frozen seal meat while they waited by the boats and watched the greedy sailors. If they disapproved of the selfish behavior, they said nothing. Survival on the ice meam making hard decisions, something the Natives understood. More likely, they agreed, it might come to every man for himself.
Inexorably the pack ice tightened its noose around the open water. The channel to the land narrowed to a thin thread.
By insisting on eating, the men probably saved their lives at the cost of losing their only path to solid ground. Tyson's prowling about the floe all night using his muscles had kept him warm. The wet, tired seamen lying on the ice sank into hypothermia. The thick blanket of snow that covered them had kept them from freezing to death. Bit without some external warmth, whether a fire or hot food, their body temperatures would continue to slide to deadly lows. Th-dr fumbling, somnambulant actions and slurred speech were symptomatic of this disorder. Their minds had cooled past caring or following orders. Only a primitive instinct directed them to find warm food. Consequently for them it was the right decision.
More than an hour passed while the men boiled more coffee and tea in the empty tins. Slowly their energy returned. Next they hunted inside their oilskin seabags for a change of dry clothes. While an incredulous Tyson watched, the men changed out of their wet clothing before following his orders. Again no one offered to share his dry articles with the officer.
Well past nine in the morning, the party finally dragged and skidded the boats to the water's edge. Rowing and poling through the slush, the party struck off for the elusive shore. A low fog rolled in from the north as they got farther from their ice island. Tyson struggled to keep his bearings as the sliver of land ahead vanished and reappeared in the mist.
Halfway across, the lee ahead closed completely. Now they were on neither land nor solid ice but caught in a slurry of slush and ice that threatened to swamp them. If they could not break free, they would face the white death every Eskimo afloat feared: trapped in a rime of ice too thick to navigate through yet too thin to walk upon. Only death from starvation or freezing could follow.
Desperately the men rowed for the largest floe they could see. Hacking and chopping through the slush with their oars, they finally reached it. About a hundred yards across, the ice proved thick enough to support the boats. The men pulled the craft onto the floe to keep the whaleboats from freezing solid in the closing ice. Exhausted, the men flopped down in the shelter of the boats.
Just then Tyson spotted the Polaris.
Steaming around a point about ten miles north, the ship was under way, apparently undamaged, and making way under sail and steam. Sunlight glowed off her sails, while a dark plume of smoke streamed from her stacks. Black, open water sparkled off the bow of the ship and spread to within a mile of the stranded whaleboats. From there on only pancake ice sealed the difference. With her reinforced prow, the ship could easily smash her way to their rescue.
A signal was needed. The Polaris could not help but see them; still, Tyson was taking no chances. Light glaring off the ice and water might mask the party. There was no time for a fire, much less the wood to make a notable blaze. Dragging a sheet of India rubber from the bottom of one boat, Tyson draped it over a mound of ice. His men followed his example.
In mir utes an American flag, canvas bags, musk ox hides, and even a pair of red flannel long Johns sprouted from poles and oars stuck in the snow. While his men cheered, Tyson watched the Polaris through his telescope.
A shier ran down his spine. The Polaris looked like a ghost ship. The decks were clear. No one kept watch in the crow's nest, and the quarterdeck appeared empty. Silently, like the Flying Dutchman, the ship cruised closer with no sign of life aboard.
The Polaris steamed on, following the curve of a lump of land that Tyson assumed was Littleton Island. Inexorably the vessel bore down on them. The men jumped and yelled in celebration. They were saved. This night would see them warm and dry on their ship.
When the Polaris reached the tip of the island, it turned away. Tyson snapped his glass shut in amazement as the cheers of his men died.
The Polaris vanished behind the land and was gone.