Tale of Arctic ordeal features leadership, scandal

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

Review of "Abandoned: The Story of the Greely Arctic Expedition 1881-1884" by Alden Todd, with introduction by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (University of Alaska Press, 323 pp., paper, $22.95, or $35.95 cloth).

The mere dates of the Greely Arctic Expedition should give those who know nothing about it a clue that something went wrong. Expeditions to cold places like to get in and get out quickly. This expedition was stalled there three years and what happened to it is considered the greatest tragedy in the history of American Arctic exploration.

Launched as part of the United States' participation in the first International Polar Year, the Greely Expedition sent 25 volunteers to what is now Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic. They were commanded by Adolphus Washington Greely, a 37-year-old lieutenant in the Army's Signal Corps.

The ship sent to resupply them in the summer of 1882 had to turn back. When the second relief ship, sent in 1883, was crushed in the pack ice, Greely led his men south. The crew spent a third and increasingly more wretched winter at Cape Sabine, where they ate lichen, sealskin boots and ptarmigan droppings. It was not until 1884 that the six survivors of the crew were finally rescued. The excitement of their return soon turned to scandal as rumors of cannibalism were substantiated.

The 1,300-page report Greely turned in remained for many years "one of the most important source books of arctic data available to the world of science in meteorology, astronomy, physics, oceanography, biology (and) anthropology," the author notes. For one thing, tide-gauge figures brought back by Greely helped establish the general tide pattern in arctic waters. For another, data convinced Greely that Greenland was an island a point in dispute when the expedition set out.

Greely recovered from his ordeal and was eventually promoted to chief signal officer. He was in command of the Presidio in San Francisco in 1906, and kept order during the great earthquake and fire of that year. In 1935, he became the second American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for peacetime service. (Charles Lindbergh received the first.)

"Abandoned" was originally published in 1961 by McGraw-Hill, and then went out of print for nearly 40 years. It has been republished by the University of Alaska Press as part of its Classic Reprint Series. Those who enjoy tales of leadership and bravery under difficult situations or tales of northern exploration and the suffering that generally accompanies it will be glued to these pages.

For other readers, the excruciating detail which Todd supplies may be a little in excess of what is needed to tell the story.


Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com

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