Alaska Day Book Review: Remembering an Extraordinary Arctic Rescue

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure
by Martin W. Sandler

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In March of 1867, after a long and arduous debate resulting in what was then labeled “Seward’s Folly,” the United States acquired by purchase from Russia the Alaska Territory. Later that year, on October 18, the formal transfer occurred in Sitka: with the lowering of Russian flag and raising of American, an area twice the size of Texas now belonged to the United States for the bargain price of $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre. Less than 20 years later many of those who had openly mocked the purchase would be flocking to Alaska, seeking gold and creating boomtowns.

Whaling at this time was also a lucrative occupation, albeit uncomfortable and dangerous. In so entering the territory of this trade, including coastal northern Alaska in the Arctic Circle, sailors submitted to what historical author Martin W. Sandler refers to as “the harshest and most dangerous environment in the world, an immense region of ice and snow with temperatures that fell to as low as sixty degrees below zero, a place where a person’s every step might very well be his last.”

These are the conditions we find in Sandler’s The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure, children’s non-fiction that commemorates a type of endurance hardly imaginable in its scope and requirements. Consider: Several whaling ships caught in Arctic pack ice in September 1897; one manages to escape and make its way to San Francisco, where her captain informs the world what has happened. About three hundred men are trapped in the northern reaches with no way of knowing how much of their story has or will reach the outside world, let alone whether they can be rescued.

In a state where even today only 20% of the land is accessible by road, people still marvel at this story, this attempt to rescue those trapped in a place too frozen to sail away from, with too little food and shelter, unbearably cold and cramped quarters and conditions rife with the makings of disease and despair. In 1897 it was a rare person who believed it could happen, but how? Flight was not yet a reality and shipping was out of the question. The remaining option, if it could be called such, was an overland rescue effort. Owing to Alaskan conditions—mountainous, frozen, uneven and unforgiving terrain—this type of trek even today would consist of grueling marches through a country known for storms so severe they destroyed sleds and blinded one from seeing just ahead; even minor injury to dog or human would devastate the entire enterprise.

The wonder of it all is not only that the above-mentioned conditions and frightening possibilities are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of what must be endured in such a colossal effort, but also that three men actually did it. First Lieutenant David Jarvis, Commander of the Overland Relief Expedition, Dr. Samuel Call and Second Lieutenant Ellsworth Bertholf together and separately journeyed 1,500 miles, working alone and with others along the way to secure the relief and freedom of 300 in peril of their lives. The conditions horrific and possibilities for failure endless, the three men nevertheless move forward to a simply impossible rescue that for them could only end one way.

For this reason today’s post is as much a celebration of the human spirit as it is book review. An Alaskan story on this, the day Alaskans celebrate their land, we remember those who lived these stories as they unfolded. Indeed they are multiple stories, as Sandler points out, for the three rescuers could not under any circumstances have completed this mission of their own accord. Along the way they had help from a multitude of sources, not least of which were the Native peoples living in the regions through which they passed. Two major figures in Alaskan lore and history, Charlie Artisarlook and Tom Lopp, whose reindeer herds lay along the route the men followed, allowed the rescuers use of the animals as transportation and later, sustenance for the trapped and hungry men freezing in the cold and dark north. A multitude of others contributed in ways small and grand to make the mission a success, providing materials as well as instruction and understanding of the ways of living amongst various Native tribes. All would prove invaluable to the daring operation.

Occurring some 50 years after the advent of photography, the story is told in large part by the images of Dr. Call, who recorded the trio’s odyssey in pictures. Nearly every page of this coffee-table styled book contains a fascinating visual, including those of the wrecked ships, the creaking groans of which had been described as “a frightful sound” and certainly worse to escape. Conditions, too, were noted in his images as well as the words of reports, diaries, journals, letters and memories.

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“[O]ne who has not spent a winter in the Arctic can scarcely conceive the terrible conditions which exist. . . The snow falls dry and flakey, and even after it has lain for many months it does not pack sufficiently hard to support a man’s weight much of the time. . .Upon the steep slopes and in the jagged mountains the same conditions exist, but even worse, for here large, jagged rocks and deep crevices make most of the country impassible.” Indeed Jarvis, Call and Bertholf for most of the mileage they covered with dogs had to break trail and run alongside the animals to fight tipover. Sledding with reindeer, though faster, had its own challenges.

Classified as a children’s book, it will appeal to readers of all ages with interest in the Arctic (or even Antarctic, as a precursor to the Shackleton expedition), adventure, history, Alaskana, Native cultures, survivor stories or photography. The story is told mostly in a linear fashion, which research suggests boys—a demographic whose readership percentages lessen as they approach the middle-school years—tend to prefer. Almost like a journal itself, the work’s layout also consists of images of such historical significance as promissory notes, official orders and lists of provisions.

Sandler wastes no time in the story’s telling, and the book’s pace reflects the speed with which serious concerns develop and need to be addressed. Periodically he returns the reader to scenes at the top of Alaska, including via a lone traveller unaware of the approaching rescuers but determined to get out and tell the world of their plight. It is a technique that magnifies the uncertainty faced by each of the major parties—rescuers and trapped—and their isolation from one another, for there was absolutely no communication between the two.

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Sailing the Bear, built in Scotland in 1874 and especially constructed to withstand heavy ice, the rescue party initially make their way past St. Lawrence Island and aim to put in on the south side of Cape Prince of Wales peninsula in the morning of December 13, over three months after the whalers were stranded. “In the afternoon, however,” writes captain Tuttle, “considerable drift ice began to make its appearance. Knowing that as soon as the wind died out the sea would go down and the [drift] ice would form into a solid mass which it would be impossible to get through. . . I went. . . full speed [south].” As the skipper gets his ship safely away, his men see the ice between their position and the cape had turned solid. They later land in Tununak, which adds 700 miles to the Overland Expedition’s journey.

Amongst the inevitable questions following adventures, there always seem to be those seeking to track the main players. Sandler has anticipated this and provides an aptly-named “What Happened to Them” section following the main work. Delightfully, “Reindeer” are included in the cast–for even they had an enormous role to play and without them the mission probably could not have started, let alone continued. Like so many in the Great Land, they gave their lives as a sacrifice to save others. Their human partners, as we learn, go on to triumph and tragedy, some of which readers, children as well as adult, will make connections to from previous information or knowledge.

The incredible journey undertaken by Jarvis, Call and Bertholf (et al.) is but one illuminating the spirit of a land that puts a necessary premium not only on working together, but also attempting creative solutions when none other will be found. Unforgettable stories, amasingly, are a huge part in the fabric of Alaskan life, and such tales continue to be passed down through generations because those people are who we are, no matter where they came from. This dual sentiment of history and diversity lives in the celebration of Alaska Day when we remember the historical significance of an Alaska with a new future, then as now, and the people who grew this pioneering country into what it has become–and those who shape what it shall be.

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The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        —by Martin W. Sandler

Publisher: Candlewick (September 11, 2012)

ISBN:10: 9780763650803

ISBN-13: 978-0763650803

ASIN: 0763650803