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High Polar Adventure and an Autopsy

Fatal North: Adventure and Survival Aboard USS Polaris, the First U S Expedition to the North Pole - Bruce Henderson

This wasn't what I expected at all, but ended up being a decent read nonetheless. It is packaged as an account of the failed 1871 U.S. Navy expedition to reach the North Pole- and it begins that way. The first 1/3 or so is dedicated to how the trip was conceived, sold to the Navy, funded, manned, and what preparations were made. Nobody had reached the North Pole yet (nor would anybody until 1909), and it was one of the few unclaimed obvious prizes to be won, in an era where only the very furthest reaches of the Earth remained to be mapped, conquered, and civilized. 

 

Charles F. Hall was Captain of the ship U.S.S. Polaris, and is the leader of the expedition. As one would expect, he is obsessive about reaching 90 degrees North; it is the culmination of an unlikely (for a kid from Brooklyn in the mid 1800's, with no maritime experience until well into his adult life) lifelong mania about it. Like Roald Amundsen would later do with the South Pole, Hall meticulously studied Eskimo survival skills, and liberally appropriated them, enhancing them only cautiously with modern technology when it seemed prudent to do so. There's quite a bit of detail about ways that Eskimo traditions are so perfectly evolved to suit their environment. 

 

The mid portion of the book details how all the careful preparations go to hell, when Hall's obsession clouds his judgment about how to handle his crew, and discipline brakes down to chaos. Carefully-rationed resources are plundered, distinctions of rank are ignored, etc... which is deadly dangerous in the unforgiving environment. So far, it is a cautionary tale about prizing personal relationships and political expediency over technical proficiency, in an environment which demands expertise from every team member. It is also a tragedy about the needless death-spiral of a poorly-constructed team which lacks discipline and leadership to overcome their internal personal difference.

 

SPOILERS:

The Captain dies under very mysterious circumstances. The ship is lost. Half the crew is set adrift on a mile-wide ice floe which drifts South for 5 months, until they are rescued by a whaling ship. Miraculously, none of this party dies, as the Eskimos among them are able to hunt seals to feed the group. The remainder of the party makes land and meets up with local Greenland Eskimos, who generously house and feed them over the winter, until they are rescued the following Spring.

 

The last third of the book details the official inquiry into how the whole thing fell apart. There is conflicting testimony, and the book suddenly becomes a possible-murder mystery. 

 

The last 20 pages details the 1968 Canadian expedition which discovers Capt Hall's burial site, digs up the body, and brings it to a medical examiner in Toronto, who solves the mystery of the good Captain's death. 

 

None of the cover blurbs really convey the whole murder mystery aspect of this book. I can't say I'm disappointed; overall it was very satisfying.