Sunday, March 24, 2013

An improbable tale of one amazing Arctic rescue

Winter came early off the coast of Point Barrow in 1897, with calamitous results for the crews aboard eight whaling ships that were still working the waters off the United States’ northernmost reach. With good weather expected to linger a few more weeks, the ships were still trolling the Arctic Ocean on Sept. 1 when sea ice suddenly rushed in and left them and the nearly 300 men they carried trapped with no hope of escape.

The ships were not stocked with rations adequate to last their occupants for a full year, nor were the men supplied with the clothing and other necessities required to survive an Arctic winter. A whaling station and a small number of Natives were on hand to provide some assistance and limited housing, but the situation was dire.

There was one glimmer of hope, however. The Alexander, skippered by Capt. Benjamin Tilton, managed to avoid capture by ice and steamed as fast as it could to San Francisco to summon help. What happened next forms the storyline of “The Impossible Rescue” by Martin W. Sandler.

Tilton sailed southward as quickly as possible, arriving in San Francisco on Oct. 26. Word of the potential tragedy spread rapidly, and in Washington DC, President William McKinley ordered a rescue attempt the likes of which had never before taken place in the Arctic.

The plan was to send a boat as far north as possible, and when conditions blocked further progress, drop three men ashore who would travel overland up the coast, contacting two well-known reindeer herders and asking them to sell their animals. From this point the deer would be driven to Barrow in the dead of winter to provide food for the trapped seamen.

It was an audacious idea in the least, given the severity of an Arctic winter. This was complicated by the fact that the owners of the reindeer wouldn’t know their herds were being requested until the rescue party arrived on their doorsteps and could refuse to cooperate.

With nothing assured a team from the Revenue Cutter Service (the precursor to the Coast Guard) was soon on its way from Seattle. The chosen trio for the overland venture was headed by David Jarvis, a cool-headed man with extensive Arctic experience, assisted by Dr. Samuel Call, a surgeon who had also spent long periods of time in the North, and Ellsworth Bertholf, untraveled but highly motivated.

After attempting to get much further north than ice conditions allowed, the Cutter ship was forced to drop the men at the village of Tununak, well south of St. Michael. From there it was a northward scramble by dogsled.

Owing to complications and necessities, the team split up early with Jarvis and Call hurrying ahead and Bertholf assigned to obtaining more dogs and moving supplies along the route. Sandler weaves the writings of the three men in and out of his narrative as he follows their progress, their observations adding greatly to the account.

As the story progresses, the men are battered about by accidents and mishaps, high winds, deep sub-zero temperatures, exceedingly rough terrain, blizzards, open sea ice, and having to learn dog mushing, and later, reindeer sled driving on the fly.

Their tenacity in the face of these obstacles was remarkable, but what helped the men along was the unwritten code of the North: Whenever they encountered others, those people rose up to help them. This included the reindeer herders, Charlie Artisarlook and Tom Lopp, both of whom not only agreed to let go of their animals for a fair price, but also signed onto the uncertain mission and helped drive them to Barrow.

While this story is nowhere near as well known as the Nome Serum Run that inspired the Iditarod, it is in many ways a far more impressive tale. There was no relay involved here, two of these men went the entire distance (over 1500 miles) hauling an enormous amount of supplies and driving hundreds of animals over terrain that makes the Iditarod route look like a city park footpath. And unlike so many Arctic tales before it, this one didn’t end in mass tragedy. A couple of the stranded men died, but most were still alive when the rescue mission arrived on March 29th, weeks earlier than even the most optimistic prediction.

Sandler is the primary narrator here, but he has made extensive use of the journals and reports of the participants to tell much of this story. It’s a wise move that brings the tale vividly to life as readers gain a first hand idea of what these men endured to accomplish their goal. He has also included dozens of photographs taken by the men that add much to the already vivid account. And he has strategically placed a series of maps throughout the text that show the progress of each part of the rescue mission up to the point where they appear, keeping readers on top of where each of the events recounted transpired. It all adds up to a very well crafted package.

Although intended primarily for younger readers (age 10 and up, according to press materials), this book shouldn’t be missed by adults who enjoy Arctic sagas and/or good survival tales. Sandler writes eloquently, telling his story with solid narrative drive. Like the best authors of children’s books, he avoids writing down to his audience. He treats his readers as intelligent young adults, which is why older adults will enjoy this book as well. Apart from an occasional over-reliance on superlatives, Sandler’s authorial voice is never intrusive on the story. He lets it tell itself. And what a story it is.

“The Impossible Rescue:

The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure”

Martin W. Sadler

Candlewick Press

176 pages • 2012 • $22.99

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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