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In ‘Labyrinth of Ice,’ the grim fate of the Greely Polar Expedition gets a compassionate telling

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: August 2
  • Published August 1

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

By Buddy Levy, St. Martin’s Press, 400 pages, 2019. $29.99

’Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, ’ by Buddy Levy

Among the debacles of 19th century Arctic exploration, the Greely Expedition looms large. Launched in 1881 as part of the first-ever International Polar Year, it signaled, along with the equally ill-fated Jeannette Expedition commenced two years earlier, America’s full entry into the North. And like the men aboard that earlier voyage, Greely’s crew accomplished much before the realities of the Arctic overwhelmed them and claimed most of their lives. It remains to this day a controversial chapter in the opening of the High Arctic, especially due to dark accusations that have lumped it in with the disastrous Franklin Expedition of the 1840s. Just six of the 25 men assigned to the mission returned home alive.

In “Labyrinth of Ice,” a recent account of Greely’s northward trek, Washington State University associate professor of English Buddy Levy, noted for bringing a fine novelist’s sense of storytelling to his narrative histories, tells this difficult but fascinating story with a compassion and vividness often lacking in works of this nature. In the doing, he adds another essential volume to what has become an onslaught of recent literature concerning the far north.

Adolphus Washington Greely was an Army lieutenant who was tapped to lead what was officially titled the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. A veteran of the Civil War and America’s westward expansion, he came highly regarded, if not fully prepared to lead a group of men deep into the still largely unexplored Arctic. There were doubtless men better qualified, but he wasn’t lacking in merits, the most important being a talent for seeing his own errors and adjusting course as needed. He didn’t always practice this skill, but when he did he excelled. And his commitment to the safety and well-being of his men never wavered.

The mission itself was fairly straightforward. The crew was dispatched to the northwestern corner of Ellesmere Island, just to the west of Greenland, where they would spend two years gathering scientific data as part of the larger Polar Year effort, in which numerous nations sent teams to the Arctic and Antarctic to learn as much as possible about the planet’s polar extremes.

Greely and his crew enjoyed a fairly uneventful journey to Lady Franklin Bay, where they established what they named Fort Conger. Well-stocked with provisions, and in a location where game was often plentiful, they thrived for two years, during which they collected essential data and placed what was then the northernmost footprint on the planet — the North Pole was yet to be attained.

Troubles could be detected within the first year however. The summer of 1881 had seen unusually low sea ice levels in the channel between Ellesmere and Greenland, rendering the crew’s voyage relatively simple. The following two summers were different, however, and relief ships meant to resupply the men and ultimately retrieve them failed to get through.

It was in August of 1883 that Greely made the decision to evacuate and head south. This was not a brash move. His orders specified that he do this if no help arrived. An Army man to the core, he wasn’t going to disobey.

Unfortunately this removed the men from both a game-rich location as well as most of their supplies. As they moved southward, mishaps and hazardous conditions hampered their progress, and the men ultimately set up camp for the winter near Cape Sabine, where some supplies had been cached by the the relief ships, but not enough to see them through the winter.

It’s here, a little more than a hundred pages into this book, that Levy’s remarkable skills as a writer, already evident earlier in the book, fully bloom. In page after agonizing page, he details the daily lives of the men as darkness and hunger overtook them. Up until digging in for the winter, they had beaten the odds of 19th century polar exploration; they were all still alive. This would not last.

Over the coming months, starvation set in, and the men began to die. First one or two, then at an accelerating rate. Deaths also resulted from accidents. And one crewman was executed for stealing meager food supplies.

Meanwhile, in 1884, the United States government finally made a concerted commitment to rescuing them. The attempts at resupply the two previous summers had been sincere but insufficient (Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln — son of Abraham — emerges as the primary villain in this book for his unenthusiastic attitude toward the expedition’s fate). Three ships, this time under full Navy command instead of involving the Army, were sent north to do everything in their power to rescue the men.

On June 22 they somewhat did, finding seven survivors under a collapsed tent, in conditions ranging from hours to at best a couple of days from death — of the seven, one more would die en route back to the United States. They also recovered the corpses of most of the dead, some of which clearly showed signs of flesh having been carved from them with a knife.

To their final days, the six survivors adamantly denied knowledge of any acts of cannibalism. Levy himself spends only a short time on the charges. Many — but not all — historians now think the flesh was used to bait shrimp that the men subsisted on. Perhaps. We’ll never know for sure.

What Levy does here, though, is draw readers in with a deeply personalized tale. He provides much insight into the characters of the major players, including Greely’s wife, Henrietta, who rivals Lady Jane Franklin herself for her commitment to finding her husband and pulling every favor imaginable toward this end. That hers was a happier ending is but mere good fortune.

Levy demonstrates deep compassion for all the men throughout, even those who did bad things under horrible circumstances. He could have been perhaps more critical of some, but he makes up for it with his genuine empathy.

“Labyrinth of Ice” is a remarkable book. It should not be missed.

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