Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arctic Explorer Mystery

The Top of the World

Map, North Pole area, Baffin Bay
Map, North Pole area, Baffin Bay

On August 30, 1871, an American ship on expedition to the North Pole nimbly dodged icebergs and reached a latitude of 82 degrees, farther north than any waterborne explorer had ever recorded.

The USS Polaris was more than 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle and less than 500 miles from the pole. The leader of the expedition, a single-minded New Englander named Charles Francis Hall, was certain that it was a matter of time before he would be the first man to reach the top of the world, where he hoped to plant the American flag.

Drawing: USS Polaris, Hall expedition
Drawing: USS Polaris, Hall expedition

"Neither glory nor money has caused me to devote my very life and soul to Arctic exploration," Hall wrote. "My desire is to promote the welfare of mankind in general under this glorious ensign -- the stars and stripes."

As the brief Arctic summer ended, the Polaris became icebound, as everyone aboard had expected, at the far northern end of Baffin Bay between Greenland and the huge, uninhabited Ellesmere Island.

The crew of 27 men, two Eskimo women and their four children hunkered down for a long, sunless winter aboard the Polaris, a 140-foot steamer powered by a coal-fired boiler and specially outfitted with iron and heavy oak beams to survive the punishing ice.
They looked out on a craggy seascape. The sea ice was heaved up into irregular hummocks, and in every direction the crew could see mammoth frozen mountains, icebergs that had calved off the vast glacial icefields on Greenland and Ellesmere.

The crew had ample provisions -- canned hams, bread, sailor's biscuits, dried fruit and countless cans of pemmican, a staple food made from meat that is dried and ground, then mixed with fat and raisins. The food was supplemented by the occasional seal, musk ox, polar bear or walrus shot by the two Eskimo men hired as hunters.

Once the ice thickened, the expedition's 60 sled dogs were put out beside the ship. They were fed once every three days -- a mix of pemmican, dried fish, dried seal meat and whatever scraps and bones were at hand.

The temperature would be dangerously cold, often reaching 50 degrees below zero, but the Polaris was prepared.

The boiler kept the ship's quarters at a cozy 65 degrees. And Capt. Hall had insisted that the crew be outfitted with native-style cold weather gear, including sealskin parkas and mukluk boots -- clothing that had helped Eskimos survive the teeth-chattering cold for centuries.

With his ship iced in, Hall embarked on a series of journeys by heavy, dog-drawn sledges to plot a route north across the polar ice cap. Hall hoped to move the ship farther north once the ice broke up the following spring, then make a dash to the pole by dogsled.
But his dream would go unrealized due to an event destined to become the greatest mystery from the era of northern exploration.

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