Today’s guest blogger is Laura Waterman, author of Starvation Shore, a compelling tale based on a true story of polar explorers fighting for their lives.
My novel, Starvation Shore, is based on the Greely Arctic Expedition of 1881–1884. Also known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, this three-year saga of a little known American Arctic expedition can be equated with the Franklin Expedition for daring and horrific disaster.
This is the story of 25 men who find that surviving in the Arctic requires cooperation to the point of selflessness. But as darkness, vicious wind, and gelid cold confines them to what feels like a prison sentence, what gets laid bare are the fatal flaws and staggering misjudgments.
I began work on this novel in 2008. Researching and writing it has been an epic journey itself. I was drawn to this story because of the hardships that bring us face to face with our true selves. I was curious to join with these men, to see how I would react in a setting that made such physical demands, that required moral, ethical, and spiritual courage.
This expedition grew out of a desire to counter the enormous loss of men and ships in the Arctic over the last three centuries. In 1881 the United States was part of the International Polar Year that established stations around the icecap. Lt. Greely’s men were there to take meteorological observations and so learn about the Arctic. They were expected to set a new Farthest North, long held by the British. The U.S. Army was in charge. The equivalent today would be a manned trip to Mars.
I used the men’s diaries, particularly Sgt. David Brainard’s, the portion he wrote at Cape Sabine after the men had left the fort they had built at Discovery Harbor, farther north and only 500 miles from the North Pole. The promised resupply by ship had failed because of pack ice. The men had spent a second winter, and as the third winter drew near, Lt. Greely ordered the men into the open boats, a controversial move. They had had supplies enough to make it through a third winter, if they had stayed.
That this was an unhappy expedition from the start fascinated me. What was going to happen? Dr. Pavy and Lt. Greely were a mismatch of temperaments. Lt. Kislingbury wished he’d never come. His senseless acts of insubordination caused Lt. Greely to break him. Sgt. Brainard was sure they had a murderer along, namely Pvt. Charles Henry. Lt. Lockwood, brave, strong, a gifted leader of men—he set the Farthest North record—was prone to depression.
On the other hand, Pvt. Shorty Frederick was there when you needed him. Their young astronomer, Ned Israel, took infectious delight in the mystery of an Arctic night. Photographer George Rice’s glass plates showed a frigid black and white beauty not seen before. Eskimo Jens Edwards died in his boat catching seals for them.
When the rescue party arrived in 1884, two thirds of the men were dead. What George Rice had feared, and Sgt. Brainard had tried to prevent, had happened: cannibalism.
I grew up reading about adventure; most children do: Doctor Doolittle, Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons. When I read Annapurna, Maurice Herzog’s account of the first 8000-meter peak to be climbed, I wondered, had I been along, could I have made it to the top? I began climbing on my homeground. The White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Range in winter, and learned about winds that can knock you down, visibility so compromised you’re relying on all your senses and your internal compass, and frightening subzero cold. I drew on this experience for writing Starvation Shore. I learned, as Greely’s men did, that we are often capable of more than we had thought possible.
is an author, environmentalist, and outdoor enthusiast. Her books include The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping, A Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True, and Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage.