Monday, December 19, 2016

Book Review: In the Lena Delta

In the Lena Delta, George Melville's account of the U.S.S. Jeanette's 1879 doomed voyage of exploration in the Arctic Ocean, is an amazing book. When the Jeannette was crushed by ice on June 13, 1881, and the crew forced to use sleds and boats to reach the Siberian mainland, Melville found himself leading the only group that survived. As I told the S.O., it's hard to imagine anyone surviving the ordeals Melville did while still maintaining a detailed formal record of their trials and having a sense of humor about it all. Every so often Melville expresses some righteous anger, but overall he remains unruffled by whatever diasters befall them.

The crew of the Jeannette had been trapped by the ice for over a year but, just as other Arctic expeditions that suffered similar experiences optimistically hoped, they believed that as the seasons changed, the ice would eventually open enough for their ship to be freed. Either that, or the ice would carry them close enough to either North America, Asia, or Europe that they would be able to easily make their way to land. That didn't happen. Instead the Jeannette drifted with ice for hundreds of miles in basically the middle of the ocean until the inevitable happened: the ice crushed it. They had known this was a possibility so had prepared for it. The expedition had four boats, sledges on which to haul the boats over the ice, and 48 sled dogs. They had routinely been using the dogs and sleighs for hunting on the ice (they shot both seals and bears) and for taking scientific observations so were used to working with them. Captain George W. De Long calcuated their position and from it determined how many days were required to reach help. He ordered rations packed into the boats that he believed were sufficient provisions to reach the Lena delta in Russian Siberia.

The Lena River flows for hundreds of miles in Siberia and is deep enough for steamship traffic. Captain De Long had charts showing the delta region and knew the native Yakut people had villages along the different branches of the river. He was confident that if they made their way to the delta, they could quickly find a settlement, contact representatives of the Russian government, and arrange  for transport of themselves and the expedition's records back to the United States.  

After abandoning the sinking Jeannette, the men traveled hundreds of miles across the Arctic Ocean, alternating between dragging the boats over the ice and sailing when open channels were available. The Jeannette sank at what was probably the worst time of year:  the beginning of the Arctic summer. Ice floes were rotten, there was standing water and slush to drag the sledges through, the men had to repeatedly alternate between trying to walk through slush and standing water that left their clothing soaked or to sail through open leads that turned into dead ends. Melville describes men sinking past their waists in the slushy water. It was impossible to ever totally dry their clothing. Provisions such as pemmican stayed edible only because they were sealed in watertight containers.

They began with four boats, but wound up abandoning one because being dragged caused enough damage that it was no longer seaworthy. Provisions and the crew from the 4th boat were divided among the remaining three, one commanded by Capt. De Long, one by Lt. Charles Chipp, and one commanded by Engineer Melville. This resulted in the three remaining boats being overloaded. Fresh water was hard to obtain; many of the men were unable to resist the temptation to drink sea water and became ill. Covered with sores from their wet clothing chafing, their boots and moccasins totally worn out, the men nonetheless persisted.

One of the tragedies of the Jeannette survivors is that the crew managed to make it to open water where it was possible to sail the remaining distance to Siberia and then encountered a ferocious gale. During the storm, the three ships were separated. The last sight Melville had of the cutter commanded by Lt. Chipp was of it being swamped by a huge wave, rolling over, and sinking. Melville wrote that he hoped he was wrong, but he was certain Lt. Chipp and the men with him had drowned. The seas were simply too rough for either of the remaining boats to attempt a rescue; they had barely enough control over their own boats to prevent them from being swamped, too.

De Long had instructed Melville and Chipp on where to meet him if they were separated before reaching the delta. After Melville and his men made landfall, Melville managed to make contact with the local people. He tried to communicate to them that they needed to find Captain De Long and the other survivors from the Jeannette, but language differences meant nothing happened quickly. Because he and his men had survived, Melville hoped that De Long had been equally fortunate in being able to make contact with the Yakuts before provisions ran out. The Jeannette sank in June, but it was September by the time the survivors reached the Delta and winter was quickly setting in. Without local help, any survivors would quite likely starve to death.

In October, Melville learned that two survivors from De Long's boat had made their way up the river and been found and helped by local people. Unfortunately, the same communications problems that beset Melville hampered them. They hadn't been able to communicate that there were more men in need of immediate help. In the end, with no word coming from any natives of white men being found and his own search for them unsuccessful Melville recognized that Captain De Long and the men with him were dead.

Melville then convinced the Russian authorities to provide the supplies he needed to mount a search for De Long and the crew members' bodies.. He knew they were dead, but also recognized that if the bodies and the expedition's records were not found before the Spring thaw they'd most likely be lost forever. The Lena delta was  subject to massive flooding when the snow and ice melt; anything not placed 60 or 70 feet above the river's normal level would be washed away. His search was successful, although the local people complained that his obsessive insistence on pushing both men and dogs to the verge of total exhaustion had ruined every good sled dog in the region. He had the bodies moved to the top of a hill and interred there.

After returning from burying De Long and the other bodies he'd been able to find, Melville began the long journey home. As he was leaving the Lena region, he met several journalists who were hoping for exclusives on the story of the Jeannette. Melville apparently didn't give them enough to work with. After he returned to the U.S., Melville learned to his horror that the search for sensationalism had led the reporters to open the tomb so they could prepare sketches of the deceased. And we think the tabloid reporters and paparazzi are bad today? Apparently some were totally shameless 130 years ago, too. If it bleeds, it leads, and if the blood is frozen solid, then a sketch of the corpse will do.
Admiral George Melville

As I was reading this book, I kept wondering just who was this Melville guy?! No matter what gets thrown at him, he just keeps going. He describes having his clothing freeze so solidly to his skin that when he makes the mistake of trying to remove his moccasins or leggings, big chunks of skin get peeled off, but he just re-wraps the raw areas and harangues the other men to keep moving, too. His feet and legs become so swollen from infection and frostbite than he can't walk, but even when he has to be carried on a sleigh he manages to intimidate the natives he's hired as helpers to keep going. Then when he's finally back in the United States, safe and solid on dry, warm land, what does he do? Insists on being assigned to the Greely rescue mission, an assignment that sends him right back to the Arctic, albeit on the eastern side of North America instead of the west. The Jeannette had sailed north through the Bering Strait; Captain Greely was assigned to a ship that sailed north between Greenland and Canada.

George Melville was a Civil War veteran as well as a talented mechanical engineer. He invented several improvements to steam engines and boilers. He established a laboratory at the Naval Academy at Annapolis for testing equipment, particularly engines, and at the time of his retirement with the rank of admiral was the Chief Engineer for the U.S. Navy. The Navy honored him for his service on the Jeannette expedition by bumping him up 15 slots on the promotion ladder, which boosted him to a commodore's rank in the 1880s. In addition to his military service, he was active in professional organizations and served as the 18th president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Melville was married and had three children. I found myself wondering just what sort of little hellions his kids were because at various points in the book he makes comments indicating he's not overly fond of little barracudas. At one point he says he'd rather sleep outside in subzero weather than share a native hut if there were children in it; at another he refers to small children as "the little rats." He also notes that nonetheless the Yakut children are better behaved than most of the ones he known back in more civilized regions. He married in 1867; twelve years and several children later he's on a boat heading off into the Arctic on what promises to be a lengthy (at least 2 years) cruise. I've known guys who were anxious to get out of the house away from the little woman and the spawn but deciding to go on a Polar expedition seems a little extreme.

In addition to the description of the Jeannette expedition, the book includes a brief report on the relief expedition to find Captain Greely and Melville's thoughts of what would be needed for a successful expedition to the North Pole. All in all, a fascinating book. There are times when Melville manages to make Shackleton seem like a slacker.

Shameless self-promotion (sort of): This book belongs to the Baraga County Historical Museum. I was about to list it on Ebay (it definitely doesn't fit into the museum's mission) when I decided to read it first. Now that I've finished it, it is going up for sale online. The book is an original first edition from 1884 and is in pretty good condition. There is shelf wear, the corners of the covers are a bit bent and I did spot a page that at one time had been dog-eared, but overall there's no significant damage. All the plates (maps and illustrations) are intact. On ABEbooks there are copies of similar vintage and varying conditions with prices ranging from $33 to $201. If you're interested in owning a first edition, make an offer. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.