The ice had got us, we were frozen in for the winter, ‘glued up’…
—ELISHA KENT KANE, 1850
On August 29, 1871, the Polarises run of luck ended. Geometric slabs of ice forty feet thick drifted down Robeson Channel to fill the gaps between the heavier bergs. Birthed amid overhanging ledges and wrenched from the shallows by tides and winds, these blocks cascaded into the narrowing channel. Floating slush and brash ice the ship could brush aside, and its reinforced beak could ram past inches of newly formed sea ice. This liberated land ice was another matter. Weighing tons apiece, these miniature icebergs could easily ram through the hull planking. To make matters worse, a thick fog settled over this shifting minefield just as the sun slipped below the peaks to the west.
Engineer Emil Schuman looked up from his gauges at the first clang of the ship's communicator. The lever spun to all stop with a final ring. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand and signaled to John Booth and Walter Campbell, the firemen, who were blackened from head to foot with coal dust. Their eyes shining like agate stones from their dusted faces, they wearily set their shovels aside and settled atop the piles of coal.
Spinning the bypass valves, Schuman diverted the steam from the pistons that drove the ship's screw. Warily, he watched the needles on the pressure dials rise. This was always a tense moment. Any weakness in the boiler's plating could lead to disaster. Even the tiniest pinhole might bathe them in superheated steam. Vapors that hot would boil the skin right off a person in the blink of an eye.
Boiler explosions occurred frequently. Only six years before, the paddle wheeler Sultana had exploded on the Mississippi with the loss of seventeen hundred lives. Schuman must have considered the irony of cooking to death while the temperature outside the hull remained below freezing.
The screech of ice grinding along the length of the hull filled the close chambers. With the engine quiet, every contact with the solid water reverberated through the engine room. More ice raked the sides, one block after another. If the seams split, freezing water would pour inside. Then the boilers would explode. Death by fire and iceneither one a pleasant way to die, as Robert Frost would later note.
On deck seamen cast grappling hooks to an adjacent floe and made the ship fast while they waited for an opening. The wind freshened, then backed. A gale was brewing.
By 7:30 p.m. a lead opened near the eastern shore. Like a shadow amid the shimmering ice fields, the channel challenged them. At Hall's urging Buddington reluctantly steered the ship up the gauntlet until the stem grounded against the ice. Ahead jumbled blocks and shards packed the channel amid mountainous icebergs. The way ahead was impassable.
They had gone as far as possible by ship. The ice made this decision for them; neither Hall's exuberance nor Buddington's reluctance played a part. The wind rose again, swirling down the passage and pressing heavy ice against both sides of the Polaris. Within minutes thick ice hemmed in the sides of the vessel.
Hall checked his calculations against Tyson's and got 82°29' N. They had sailed farther north than anyone before them. Still, he wanted more, if possible. Launching a whaleboat, the two men rowed to the Greenland side. From the deck of the Polaris, a notch in the land looked inviting. If the ship could winter there, Hall thought, so much the better.
What looked like a harbor turned out to be a shallow bight, nothing more than a subtle curve in the coastline, without protection from wind or icebergs sweeping along the shallow bay. Hall waded ashore and raised an American flag. With little thought that this wind-scoured spit might belong to Greenland, the explorer claimed this northern land for the United States. When the harbor proved unsuitable, he ironically named it Repulse Harbor.
Dejectedly the two men struggled with the boat back through the howling wind to find the Polaris tightly caught in the icy jaws. A full-fledged storm fell upon them now. Driven by the gale-force winds, the shore ice ground and compressed the hull like a vise. Planking groaned and seams opened until streams of water sprayed into the bilges.
The ship appeared endangered as the ice layered about its sides. Just to be sure his achievement did not die if the ship sank, Hall noted their latitude and cast the report overboard in a second brass cylinder, in accordance with his written instructions. To the sailors who beat back ice piling over the deck, that cylinder had as much chance of being found as they had of remaining afloatnext to none. They were correct; none of the brass containers cast adrift was ever seen again.
The wind veered to the east. Shifting counterclockwise as it did was a sure sign of an approaching storm. Now the floe that had provided safety threatened the ship, becoming the anvil to the rampaging ice's hammering blows. Smaller, swifter pieces of ice crashed into the ponderous ice island and rammed the side of the ship against its mooring. The bow and stern hawsers snapped, and the ship swung around like a drunken sailor. A sudden rush of twenty-foot-thick blocks drove the vessel high onto the ice shelf until it lay heeled over on its side. Crests from the froth-filled waves broke over the railings and ran along the scuppers. The Polaris creaked and groaned as ton after ton of ice squeezed its sides.
It looked as if the ship might be crushed. Hall ordered provisions placed on a wide floe wedged against the ship. Blankets, tents, medicines, and tins of salted pemmican piled on the ice. Rifles, cartridges, and two suits of dry clothing for each man joined the supplies. If the ship rolled or sank suddenly, these provisions would prove lifesaving.
Around the Polaris hummocks, pressure ridges, and open leads rose and fell, twisting and buckling under the wind and water like land rippled by an incessant earthquake. Snow fell, slanting horizontally through the fog to sting the men's faces like nettles. As the landscape shifted and buckled, Hall ordered the emergency stores divided and half moved to another hummock as an extra precaution. While the world about them bucked under their feet, the frightened and exhausted sailors struggled through the clouds of swirling snow to move their precious goods.
Schuman kept the boilers fired to run the steam pumps, but the leaks remained minimal. The shipyard repairs were proving sound. By morning the storm abated, and the supplies were returned to the deck but kept ready if the situation worsened.
On September 1 the temperature plummeted well below freezing. Ice covered the topsides and formed over the open leads. Hall ordered the propeller unshipped. Raised through the special slot in the hull, the shaft and bronze screw reposed out of harm's way.
The storm alternated its attack among ice, wind, and snow. While the ice rested, heavy snow showers filled the air. First gales, then charging ice vied with periods of eerie calm and fog until the men's nerves frayed like the overtaut hawsers. The pressing need to move supplies onto the ice, then back aboard, disrupted the normal ship's routine of four-hour watches, adding to their disorientation.
Men prayed in earnest. Hall held his usual Sunday service and exhorted the crew to pray even harder for the ship's safety. The captain's zealousness and religious fervor led him to assume even the role of chaplain. Herman Sieman wrote in German in his diary: “Ship and crew appear to be ready prey to the ice. But there is a God who aids and saves from death; to Him I trust between these icebergs and ice-fields, although I do not deserve all the good he grants me.” The Lutheran Sieman found good need to pray for everything. Before the Polaris departed New York, he penned a prayer in his journal: “Then, even if the icebergs cover our mortal part, or the fierce polar bear tears it, we shall have Thee, Savior, and the best guide of our heart's ship.”
Lacking Sieman's faith, Captain Buddington was battered all the harder by the storm. He fretted about the harbor at Port Foulke they had passed up.
The day after the propeller had been raised, a fresh northeastern wind opened a tantalizing new channel along the eastern coast. Immediately Hall called a conference. George Tyson recorded it word for word in his diary. In his small cabin Hall expressed his desire to press northward once the storm ended. His zeal infected Mr. Chester this time. Both the first mate and Tyson supported the notion. But the ice rasping along their wooden walls was too much for Buddington.
“We'll never get back again,” he protested. “We have no business to go!” Before Hall could reply, Buddington ended the meeting. “I'll be damned if I'll move this ship from here!” he swore. With that oath ringing in the others' ears, he stomped off.
Chester and Tyson looked at Buddington's receding bulk before turning back to Captain Hall. They had to follow Buddington's orders, but Hall held overall command of the expedition. He could overrule Buddington, and the officers must obey.
But the rent in the fabric of command started earlier at Disko made that unlikely. Hall hurried after Buddington like a chastened schoolboy. The two talked animatedly out of earshot. For awkward minutes Chester and Tyson waited. But the council had ended. There was to be no further attempt to sail the ship farther north. Nothing more was left but to find the best spot to winter the vessel.
That evening Hall unburdened his fears to Tyson, admitting, “I'm worried.”
Tyson shook his head. “Well, I've got nothing to gain, but it would be a great credit to you if we made another two or three degrees north.”
Hall nodded slowly and backed away. For the first time Tyson sensed that his commander feared offending someone in the party. Who could that be? Tyson wondered. Buddington or Dr. Bessel? What hold over the captain did they have that he feared more than the ice itself? Bessel seemed a dark shadow as he moved about the ship, his presence like the breath of cold air off an iceberg. He was rarely overtly defiant but was never supportive of the captain, and that sufficed to produce a chilling effect.
Buddington, on the other hand, clearly feared what lay ahead and showed it. While he might sneak around the pantry to steal sugar, he wore his emotions plainly on his sleeve. The ice and the storms frightened him to death. The steward and cook saw his fear, and the word quickly spread, adding to the men's unease. A worried ship's captain inevitably leads to a worried crew.
Tyson half expected the whaling captain to voice concern that they would sail off the edge of a flat world like the sailors of old. To Tyson, Buddington's actions recalled Sir Edward Belcher's words:
If they entered the Polar Sea on the range of these islands, with comparatively open waters for one hundred miles, they might drift to and fro for years, or until they experienced one of those northern nips which would form a mound above them in a few seconds! The more I see of the actions of the icethe partially open water and the deceitful leads into poolsthe more satisfied I am that the man who once ventures off the land is in all probability sacrificed!
Obviously Buddington feared the same things.
Men with those feelings ought to stay at home, Tyson snorted.
Locked in the ice and without propulsion, the Polaris now drifted backward with the ice floe. The relentless blows of the northeastern gale forced the ship to relinquish each precious mile for which it had struggled so hard. Over the next seven days, the vessel found itself carried down inside Polaris Bay, almost fifty miles south of its highest sail.
As if to mock their timidity, the ice opened again the next day. This time the open lead ran along the eastern side of the bay. Quickly the propeller was lowered. The bay rang with the sounds of hammers chipping ice from the frozen shaft as the men worked feverishly to free it. By evening the Polaris steamed into a small bite. After midnight Hall and five others rowed out to take soundings. The spot proved sufficiently deep to support the draft of the Polaris, and the whaleboat landed. Ever the explorer, Hall murmured a brief prayer and planted another American flag on this land he had discovered. The Polaris steamed closer and dropped anchor. For better or worse, this barren cove flanked by steep cliffs would be home for the winter.
Perhaps satisfied that its secrets were still guarded, the Arctic weather relaxed its hold on the expedition. The clouds parted, and the sun shone brightly. The fresh snow melted to expose the stunted willow and lichen battling for a grip on the shale and gravel beach. Lemmings and voles scurried about stocking their burrows while musk oxen grazed warily along the far plateau. In spite of the sun, the cold bite remained in the air, so the denizens of this site continued their preparations for winter. This far north summer could end any day. During this relentless freeze-thaw cycle, the scientists began their routine of measuring the hourly temperatures with specially coated “black-bulb” thermometers designed to reduce radiated warmth from the ground along with the usual “naked-bulb” mercury thermometers.
Four days passed while the ship maneuvered for better shelter inside the bay. Each reanchoring brought the vessel closer to land. But the holding ground was poor. The rough gravel and shale proved not sticky enough for the anchor. Another gale and the anchor would drag.
However, within sixty yards of the shore, a large iceberg lay grounded in about thirteen fathoms of water. Rising roughly 60 feet above the waterline, the iceberg offered a shelter 450 feet long and 300 feet wide. Many times the weight of the Polaris, it could provide the needed protection, especially against sea ice sweeping along the shallow curve of the harbor. In a land where ice is the predominant feature, a berg thus grounded appeared ideal as a mooring platform. Slipping inside the shadow of this frozen wharf, the ship dropped anchor. Here Buddington declared the ship would stay. Other storms would rock the ship until the men finally secured the vessel to the iceberg with ice anchors and screws driven into the ice and connected to hawsers and cables.
After the next Sunday services, Captain Hall named their new home Thank God Harbor and their frozen guardian Providence Berg. Besides sheltering the beleaguered ship, the iceberg proved providential in another way. During the terror of the storm, moving the emergency supplies had engaged all hands, and the firemen neglected their touchy machines. The small boilers nearly ran dry and hovered on the verge of exploding. Luckily the problem was noticed before another disaster occurred. The firemen hastily fed freshwater ice from their mooring into the tanks, thus cooling as well as replenishing the boilers.
Any thoughts of leaving their secure harbor vanished by September 11. Winter arrived. A cold snap descended upon the harbor. By morning ice inches thick encased the hull of the Polaris. In the cold, metal turned into a common enemy that burned the unwary at the slightest touch like a hot poker, freezing the skin hard and producing blood-filled blisters when the frozen part thawed.
As if the ship were entering a cocoon, her shape changed, and she began to merge into her surroundings. Canvas tenting housed the deck, blocking the wind that howled through the rigging with each new gale. Hans and Ebierbing showed the men how to cut blocks from the wind-packed snow to bank against the sides of the ship. Slowly, inexorably, the ship's dark wooden sides vanished behind the mounting blocks of snow. With a constant temperature of 32°F, the snow offered excellent insulating properties against the cold.
Internally the Polaris contracted on itself like a cat curling up for warmth. The Inuit families moved below decks to warmer quarters, for their staterooms on the upper deck had little insulation. The location of the galley on the forward deck proved even more troublesome. William Jackson, the black cook, and John Herron, the steward, risked their lives daily to bring food aft to the dining salon. Chained along the narrow deck were sixty hungry sled dogs. These dogs were bred for their stamina and ability to pull a sled not for their manners. Anyone passing close by with food risked loss of limb or worse. While the ship battled northward, the diminutive Herron beat his own treacherous course through snapping jaws and lunging brutes. Several times the animals robbed him of food and tore his clothing.
Once Polaris anchored for good, the dogs were brought ashore. But another problem arose: the deepening cold. Jackson struggled hourly to keep the stoves going as the mercury dropped, and no amount of sprinting across the icy deck by Herron could keep the grub from growing cold before it reached the crew.
To solve this problem, Captain Hall gave up his own stateroom. His generous move increased the size of the galley, moving it closer to the mess hall, and further aided the passage of warm air into the crew's quarters. His action thrust him into the lion's den. He moved into a cramped cabin with Bryan, Meyer, Bessel, Schu-man, and the mess crew. Now Bessel and his Teutonic brethren surrounded the commander. Hall slept beside the three hostile Germans. Only the cook, William Jackson, and Herron, the steward,remained friendly besides young Bryan. Fresh from the seminary, the ship's chaplain and astronomer overflowed with Christian charity toward everyone and everything. Wandering about like Percival after the Holy Grail, the undiscriminating Bryan remained well liked by all factions. The galley crew, not being officers, largely kept out of sight.
While the men prepared the ship, an unnerving pattern recurred in the surrounding ice. Existing leads and open pools froze solidly enough to support men and loaded sleds during wintry snaps. Clear, cold nights, lit by sinuous northern lights and eye-burning stars, accompanied these drops in the thermometer. Then, with little warning, fierce gales and blinding snowstorms raked through the bay. The ice buckled and cracked as the underlying waves roiled their frozen covers. Treacherous crevasses, fissures, and pressure ridges reappeared, while massive blocks of ice broke and cascaded about like tumbling dominoes. More cold air followed, and blown snow soon concealed these openings. Then the ice would thicken once more to await the next storm.
As a consequence, the bay surrounding Providence Berg and the Polaris took on the characteristics of a lunatic's garden. Like everything in the North, Buddington's secure anchorage was proving dangerous in itself.
Under Hall's direction supplies were moved ashore, again as a precaution. A small, prefabricated shed manufactured in New York was dragged the three hundred yards over the dangerous ice onto land. Bolted together and anchored to the ground, the wooden hut became Emil Bessel's scientific observatory.
Extending back from the bay, a flat, windswept plain climbed gradually until it collided with mountains bordering the north, south, and east. Eroded by wind and water, the sides of these surrounding peaks were steep while the tops remained flattened. Deep ravines and fissures scarred the face of the slopes where melting runoff and glacial streams had cut into the rock. Water creeping into the cracks of dislodged boulders split these stones into flinty shards as the water froze and expanded. The debris from this incessant war between the earth and the elements littered the beach, carried there by wind, water, and gravity.
Powdery glacial flour, silt, pebbles, and coarse shale filled the basin. Furrows cut by glacial streams raced from the headlands to the restless sea. Clumps of lichen and moss battled for every toehold with spidery roots of stunted willow. A tree in its own right in more hospitable climes, the willow here was reduced to twisted scrub. Minute blue and red flowers, killed by the first frost, littered the beach like fallen soldiers. On viewing this depressing sight, Herman Sieman wrote in his diary: “But, why should we fear the darkness around us, if light remains only in our hearts? Yes, my Lord, if I have only Thee, I do not care for heaven or earth.”
The heaven and earth surrounding Sieman were hardly inviting. Unfortunately for him and all the others, the heaven and earth he viewed cared even less for them. All too soon they would demonstrate that fact.
The ice thickened and snow fell until only the windswept bluffs retained their dull gray color. Unleashed to do what they did best, Hans and Ebierbing and their dog teams spread out across the basin to hunt. Returning with a seal and four geese, the hunters demonstrated their skill and another fact about the Arctic: animals grow large where the climate is cold. Being bigger reduces their surface area in proportion to their volume, notably cutting their heat loss. One day the two Eskimo returned with an Arctic hare weighing eighty-one pounds.
Encouraged by the seeming ease with which the Natives moved about, Frederick Meyer decided to survey the mountains to the south. He enlisted the help of Mr. Bryan and Joseph Mauch. Captain Hall warned Meyer that the mountains were close to twenty miles away and not an easy trek. The experienced explorer knew that distances can be deceiving in the clear Arctic air. Meyer disregarded the warning. The hike would take only a few hours, he reasoned. The survey party set off at eight the next morning.
Nine hours later the party had only just reached the foothills. Exhausted, with night fast approaching, they turned back. Now they discovered what many a climber knows: going down a mountain is often harder than going up.
By the time they had descended to the inlet, a storm struck. The wind rose, howling through the darkness like a lost soul. Blowing snow blinded them, stinging their eyes until they watered constantly. Their lashes froze together, and white patches of frostbite speckled their cheeks. Ice covering the bay shifted and split with resounding cracks like rifle shots as swells and waves rolled into the harbor. Fissures opened and closed, and blowing snow disguised these dangers.
Struggling through snowdrifts and crawling over ice hummocks, the three men lost sight of the ship. Stumbling about in drunken arcs, they used the glowering mountains behind them for reference. Hour after hour they pressed desperately onward, but each time they turned back to gauge their progress, the dark mountains seemed just as close.
Exploiting every weakness, the Arctic had turned a simple excursion into a life-threatening rout. Like men before them, they had underestimated the power of the Arctic. Any such error exposes the maker to severe punishment.
Crossing the quivering ice, all three men fell into open cracks. Meyer was the first, sinking up to his knees before he pulled himself to safety. Next Bryan leaped across a crevasse only to break through where he landed. Mauch fell through twice.
The icy water that soaked them to the skin chilled the men to the bone and robbed their clothing of its vital insulating properties. They were already dehydrated from their efforts, and now their body temperatures began the deadly slide into hypothermia.
With each dropping degree in core temperature, the body fights desperately to keep the heart warm. Over eons the human organism has learned to make hard choices to survive. Without a beating heart, life ceases. What are a few fingers or toes compared to the pumping heart? Chill the heart below 90°F and it fibrillates. Death quickly follows. So when faced with its temperature dropping, the body begins to circulate its warming blood in an ever-tightening circle close to the heart, shunting the warmth away from areas of lesser importance to survival and those sites most likely to lose that vital heat.
The skin, fingers, limbsall have their circulation drastically curtailed. The cerebral cortex, a comparatively new addition to the brain, is also on the hit list. That regionwhich is responsible for thought, judgment, and reason and separates man from animalranks below the brain stem, which processes vital functions. With hypothermia blood shunts away from the cortex, impairing clear thought.
Panic set in. Tantalizingly, the clouds of snow parted just enough to offer them a glimpse of their ship. Befuddled and robbed of clear thought, the men broke into a terrified run. Stumbling, falling, slipping, they stampeded toward the Polaris.
The fortunate Meyer and Bryan wore Inuit mukluks, light and designed for the ice. Tough oogrik hide lined the soles of these boots. On some the natives sew a strip of sealskin along the bottom with the hairs facing backward. With each step the hairs grip the ice and resist sliding backward yet easily slip on the forward motionthe precursor of modern waxless cross-country skis. A skilled hunter can skim across the ice using his mukluks like skates.
Unfortunately the two men had neglected to tighten the drawstrings at the tops of their knee-high boots. When they fell through the ice, seawater rushed inside. Being waterproof works both ways. While the mukluks kept the water inside from freezing and prevented frostbite, the weight of several pounds of water sloshing around with each step added to the men's exhaustion.
Joseph Mauch wore heavy leather boots, which had become soaked through. Ice encrusted the tops and soles, adding pounds to the already cumbersome boots and making the smooth leather bottoms slick as polished glass.
In the race to safety, Mauch fell farther and farther behind. The other two sped on without thought for their companion's safety. It was every man for himself. Soon Mauch vanished behind them.
Meyer and Bryan reached the Polaris at one-thirty in the morning. Layered in ice, the young theologian collapsed and was carried unconscious to his bunk. Heated water bottles and cloths were applied to his chest and under his arms while Hall paced about anxiously.
Modern methods of treating hypothermia use warmed intravenous fluids, heated gases from a respirator, and even warmed fluids via peritoneal dialysis. When the core temperature drops too low, external heat is essential to rewarm the body.
During the rewarming process, dangerous shifts of potassium out of the cells occur, which can lead to fatal cardiac arrhythmia.
One well-documented case involved nearly a dozen Swedish seamen rescued from the North Sea. When brought on board, all the men were talking and able to walk without assistance. They were sent below to rest. The rescuers found every single man dead an hour later.
Hall and Dr. Bessel knew nothing of potassium shifts and resorted to the usual methods. The Inuit use body heat to warm a victim, stripping naked and climbing in bed with the patient. While highly effective, this method proved too shocking for the white man.
When the party returned without Mauch, Captain Hall immediately dispatched the Inuit men to find him. They returned dragging the half-dead Mauch. When they found him, he was staggering in circles, incoherent and severely hypothermic. An hour later and they would have found him dead.
Fortunately neither of the two men developed cardiac problems. Mauch recovered under a mountain of blankets, and Bryan eventually opened his eyes. Seeing Captain Hall, the young man stammered, “Captain, traveling in this country is very discouraging. …”
After that, no party ventured far from the ship without Hans or Ebierbing as a guide.
Daylight shortened with each passing day, and the mercury slid lower as the sun departed the region. Bessel's observatory nearly blew over until cables and beams braced it against the howling gusts of wind that would sweep down from the mountains or lash inland across the bay.
Sextant readings placed the winter camp at 81°38' N, roughly forty-seven miles south of their highest sailing. Though they were still higher than any white man had placed his foot, exploring the shoreline revealed the presence of prior travelers. Circles of stones marked where Inuit hunters following the herds of musk oxen and reindeer had anchored their summer tents. Digging among the shale, the men discovered part of a broken sled, spear points carved from walrus teeth, and bone awls. Eagerly, Bessel added these to the expedition's collection. How Hall viewed this is uncertain. On all his past expeditions, he was the one who had collected artifacts. Being excluded from collecting probably strengthened his desire to press on to the Pole. While Bessel gathered artifacts, Hall renewed his zeal for geography and named the distant shores of Ellesmere Island Grinnell Land and Grant Land. The prominence marking the north tip of the bay became Cape Lupton to honor a man who had helped finance Hall's earlier expeditions.
No one gave a second thought to the fact that they were claiming and naming land where the indigenous people had traveled and lived for hundreds of years.
On the eighteenth of September, Bessel and Chester left for a weeklong hunt. Wisely, they took both Hans and Ebierbing along. Encountering a herd of musk oxen, Hans released several of his dogs. The animals attacked the musk oxen, and the valiant Arctic beasts instinctively formed a protective circle, heads outward with their young calves inside. Shooting a musk ox took little skill, although several lead bullets from the men's Sharps rifles were needed to bring down the unfortunate bull.
The party returned with three hundred pounds of fresh meat, a trophy head, and hide. While Hall had taken special pains to ensure that the expedition's tinned meat was the best available, Arctic explorers knew that only fresh meat protected against scurvy. In his living with the Inuit, Hall had adopted their custom of eating his meat raw. In fact, whenever he felt under the weather, a bloody slab of meat returned his vigor.
This addition to the crew's table provided welcome relief from the salted beef and tinned ham. Since fuel for cooking was precious, most of the meals consisted of warmed meat, bread, and soups removed from tinned cans and flavored with dried apples and other dried fruits. Box-size loaves of baked bread, stored in bags, alternated with tins of stone-hard, unleavened crackers called sailor's biscuit. On another voyage Tyson had sampled musk ox meat from the Labrador coast and found it “scarcely edible” because of the strong odor of musk. This young bull, however, tasted “very much like other beef.”
The fresh meat, warm surroundings, and relative security fostered good feelings among the party. Buddington, freed of the constant fear of shipwreck, resorted to his old habits of devious raids on the pantry and closet drinking. The new observatory and the plethora of samples kept Dr. Bessel and Frederick Meyer busy collecting specimens and taking measurements. Hall and Tyson consulted over forays along the coast, while the Inuit hunted over the ice pack. Hunched patiently over the holes in the ice, which the seals used for breathing, the Inuit hunters returned almost daily with fresh meat, whereas the sailors, who chased after the animals in whaleboats, had no success at all.
During this period one of the standard methods of returning specimens to the museums for scientific study was to preserve the horns and hide and the skeleton. Salt or drying handled the hide, but removing flesh from the bony parts required great care. Scarab-type beetles proved helpful, but no such insects served aboard the Polaris. Boiling might loosen the flesh but could easily dissolve the skull sutures and spoil the result.
So an unlikely ally was put to good use in separating the uneaten parts of the trophy from its skeleton. The bay where Polaris lay at anchor teemed with hundreds of shrimp despite the frigid water. These voracious eaters would strip flesh from the bones of any animal lowered into the water. An appropriate hole in the ice already existed. Since the freezing of the bay, the crew maintained an opening in the ice as a source of water should the ship catch fire. Grateful for the free meal, the shrimp readily cleaned the bones not used in the cooking. On more than one occasion, Dr. Bessel would enlist these crustaceans in preparing musk ox skeletons for the collection.
All in all, the newness of their situation, the awesome surroundings, the preparation for winter, and the gathering of scientific material kept everyone busy. With all hands far from idle, there was little work for the devil.
Captain Hall continued his daily religious services, with special attention to Sunday's observances. The earthy seamen used profanity like a second set of clothing, much to the distress of Herman Sie-man and Noah Hayes, and Captain Hall constantly urged them to improve their speech. But his efforts to keep them whole and fit generally pleased the men.
For weeks the sailors had grumbled over a common complaint: food. The preferential treatment given to the officers by the galley irked them. Jackson, the cook, knowing which side his bread was buttered on, naturally spent more time and imagination preparing the meals for the aft mess, where the officers dined. Some of this is to be expected. Sailing vessels never were democracies.
However, as time passed, the difference between what the men ate and what the officers ate grew more and more striking. In fact, Buddington abetted the inequity by encouraging Jackson in his lavish preparation of the officers' table. He may even have ordered him to do so.
Before the ship sailed from Washington, it was Buddington who had ordered the sailors to direct all questions concerning the mess to him and not to Captain Hall. So here was the perpetrator of the injustices acting as the magistrate; naturally nothing was resolved, and the problem grew. Captain Buddington never complained, but the men did. In desperation, they spoke to Hall.
When the men brought the inequity to his attention, Captain Hall acted promptly. The change had occurred without his knowledge, he assured them. It was contrary to his wishes, and he did not approve of it. Everyone would eat the same food, he vowed. They should all live together as brothers, and Jackson would prepare identical meals for forward and aft messes.
After his gratifying sermon to that effect one Sunday, the crew wrote a letter of appreciation to Captain Hall. Herman Sieman penned the note:
The men forward desire publicly to tender their thanks to Capt. C. F. Hall for his late kindness, not, however, that we were suffering want, but for the fact that it manifests a disposition to treat [us] as reasonable men, possessing intelligence to appreciate respect and yield it only when merited; and he need never fear that it will be our greatest pleasure to so live that he can implicitly rely on our services in any duty or emergency.
Deeply touched, Hall responded in kind:
The reception of your letter of thanks to me of this date I acknowledge with a heart that deeply feels and fully appreciates the kind feeling that has prompted you to this act. I need not assure you that your commander has, and ever will have, a lively interest in your welfare. You have left your homes, friends, and country; indeed you have bid a long farewell for a time to the whole civilized world, for the purpose of aiding me in discovering the mysterious, hidden parts of the earth. I therefore must and shall care for you as a prudent father cares for his faithful children.
Your commander, C. F. HALL,
United States North Polar Expedition
In winter quarters, Thank God Harbor
Lat. 81°38' N., long. 61°44' W. Sept. 24, 1871
As is often the case, what went unstated revealed as much as what was written. Interestingly, Hall's letter dealt with the “men” and did not include the officers. Neither Captain Buddington nor Dr. Bessel considered himself among the “faithful children” to Hall's father figure.