The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness

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9780385665322: The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness
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A thrilling account of suffering and survival, The Ice Passage charts an epic quest from desire to destiny.

It begins as a mission of mercy. Four and a half years after the disappearance of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and his two ships, HMS Investigator sets sail in search of them. Instead of rescuing lost comrades, the Investigator’s officers and crew soon find themselves trapped in their own ordeal, facing starvation, madness, and death on the unknown Polar Sea. If only they can save themselves, they will bring back news of perhaps the greatest maritime achievement of the age: their discovery of the elusive Northwest Passage between Europe and the Orient.

In addition to their Great Success, the “Investigators” are the first Europeans to contact the Inuit of the western Arctic archipelago, and the first to record sustained observations of the local wildlife and climate. But the cost of hubris, ignorance, daring, and deceit is soon laid bare. In the face of catastrophe, a desperate rescue plan is made to send away the weakest men to meet their fate on the ice.

In a narrative rich with insight and grace, Brian Payton reconstructs the final voyage of the Investigator and the trials of her officers and crew. Drawing on long-forgotten journals, transcripts, and correspondence — some never before published — Payton weaves an astonishing tale of endurance. Along the way, he vividly evokes an Arctic wilderness we now stand to lose.

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About the Author:

Brian Payton has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and The Globe and Mail. He is the author of the novel Hail Mary Corner and the non-fiction narrative Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness. Payton lives with his wife in Vancouver.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

July 1, 1850
He emerges as if from a shallow, anxious dream. After 150 days at sea, the brother bounds ashore on the island of Oahu. The air, redolent of tropical flora, a sultry 86 degrees. This stroll through Honolulu is his temporary release.
Johann August Miertsching, missionary of the Moravian Brotherhood, has had difficulty adjusting to his latest orders. At the urging of his superiors, the thirty-three-year-old native of Saxony committed to serving as interpreter for the Royal Navy aboard HMS Enterprise in the dual search for the lost Franklin expedition and the elusive Northwest Passage. Although he speaks several languages fluently, English is not yet among them. The voyage itself began with a fateful switch: he has not been travelling aboard the ship his superiors intended. Instead, the brother found himself temporarily assigned to HMS Investigator, consort of the Enterprise, amid rough and unruly men whose words he could scarcely comprehend. Since the Investigator's departure from Plymouth on January 20, he has spent most of his days alone in his tiny cabin, devoting himself to the study of the English and Esquimaux languages, the discipline of private prayer, the avoidance of contact with the crew.
The brother is a robust and sturdy man whose broad, earnest face belies his fundamental empathy. His eyes are dark and intelligent; his hands, thick and workmanlike—ready to build the kingdom of God. His value to this expedition, however, is not as spiritual guide. He was chosen solely for his five years' experience among the natives at the Moravian mission on the coast of Labrador. There, he mastered the Esquimaux tongue, a skill in short supply. He undertook this study to make Christ known in one of the world's most desolate places. Whether this knowledge will serve as a foundation for communication with unknown Arctic peoples more than three thousand miles to the west is at best a matter of faith. Should contact be established, however, it might lead to the rescue of Franklin and his men and, eventually, the salvation of untold ignorant flocks. But these are challenges to be met in the coming months, in the distant Polar Sea. Now is the time to revel in a world of bright sensations: the fragrance of frangipani and sandalwood, the flavour of mango and coconut, the freedom and room to roam.
This liberty culminates in a pot of tea and the company of a local missionary. This Christian fellowship is long overdue. For Miertsching, the crude ways and words of British seamen give deep and frequent offence. One exception is the ship's assistant surgeon, Henry Piers, who travels with the brother this day. Less interested in devout conversation, Piers spends the afternoon in the garden of the mission house in pursuit of dazzling butterflies.
Back in the shade, Miertsching confirms the rumours he has heard. Although government is vested in King Kamehamea III and his ministers, it is the missionaries who wield true power. Honolulu is a city of over thirty thousand Europeans, Asians, and Polynesians. Here, the natives—once famous for seemingly boundless sexual freedom—are now clad in a reasonable facsimile of European dress and more or less submit to the evangelists. To the brother, it appears as a promising example of what can be attained through the moderating influence of religion. He is, however, aware of the missionaries' reputation. They are hated by many in this port city—especially his ship's officers and crew.
As a Christian who does not deny himself the occasional drink, Miertsching wonders if the zeal of local missionaries has overwhelmed their judgment. Their prohibition of every kind of alcoholic beverage is so extreme that they refuse to baptize the child of an otherwise upright man in the habit of taking a glass of wine at luncheon. Still, Miertsching listens politely to his host, basking in the glow of conviction and certainty. In two short weeks, the Investigator will again set sail and he will be met by those same impious faces for untold months to come. In the ice and desolation of the unexplored western Arctic, he will be left to keep the fire of faith for himself, his comrades, and any Esquimaux they might encounter. But to everything there is a time, and a time to every purpose. Now is the moment to breathe deeply, to gather in the fertile green, the warming sun, the call of tropical birds.
The passage from Plymouth to Honolulu was at once isolating and fraught with incident. As far as Brother Miertsching is concerned, these memories are best forgotten. But this will never be. For even as they shadow the present, they threaten to haunt the future.
Although he had previously made the crossing from Europe to Labrador and back again, the brother is no mariner. His lack of experience, his ignorance of English, his moral rectitude all serve to separate him from the officers and crew. He found his world reduced to a cabin of seven by seven feet—a berth, washstand, desk, and chair. It was there he confessed to his God and his journal that he felt acutely alone, trapped in a floating house full of strangers.
These strangers include fifty-seven British sailors, eight officers, and their captain—the ambitious Irishman Robert John Le Mesurier McClure. Their "house" is the 422-ton Investigator, an inelegant three-masted, copper-bottomed barque measuring 118 feet in length and 28 feet in breadth. Before departing on this, her second Arctic mission, the Investigator had recently been refurbished and provisioned for three full years. Rounded at both ends to aid in ice navigation, her hull is double-thick with English oak, Canadian elm, African teak. Still more timber and iron have been bolted over her bow and stern, resulting in upwards of twenty-nine solid inches. Stripped of ornament, she is painted a solemn coat of black.
Most of her officers and crew are hardened seamen caught up in the promise of a great and noble adventure. Many are specialists in their trades—from the ice master and surgeons, down to the caulker, blacksmith, and cook. A few have prior Arctic experience. Each officer has been assigned a servant to look after his washing, and Miertsching, a civilian, was granted this status. In order to converse with the Scottish seaman assigned to him, the brother found himself reduced to gestures. The few words of German to be found among the crew came from the lips of Able Seaman Charles Anderson, a Canadian Negro who had spent time working the immigrant ships between Europe and North America.
Although Miertsching's grip on English is tenuous, there was no mistaking the nature and tenor of the heated exchanges that flew amid the creaks and groans of the heavily laden ship. After five men were thrown overboard in a storm (but quickly retrieved), a bitter, open argument erupted between the officers and captain. The brother found this insolence remarkable.
Two weeks into the voyage, everything was soaked. Throughout the ship hung a powerful, fetid stench. To fight the damp, glowing hot cannonballs were placed in the living quarters, resulting in a fire. Although quickly extinguished, several sails were burned. The following night, the men threw the first of a series of raucous parties that aggravated the brother with their singing, dancing, and laughter. Occasionally, the officers would join in the revelry with the crew. In the privacy of his cabin, Miertsching would attempt to drown out the arguments and disorder, the thump and whine of the revellers, by playing his guitar and singing German hymns. Sundays offered the only respite. Then, the fiddle was set aside, the dancers took their rest, and the uproar would subside. Paradoxically, it was on the Lord's Day that he felt most alone.
Although a majority of the men aboard claim allegiance to the Church of England, the style of religion they practise on the high seas is far below the Moravian standard. The Moravian Brotherhood—the first global, large-scale Protestant missionary effort—espouses a life of self-denial and quick obedience. Moravians place great value on personal piety, the singing of hymns, and blessed unity. Unity is fostered at religious gatherings known as lovefeasts: services of Christian fraternity that seek to strengthen the bonds of goodwill and the forgiveness of past disputes.
The deteriorating order aboard the Investigator entered a new phase with the crossing of the equator and the attendant Festival of Neptune, Sovereign of the Sea. The pious brother had never seen nor heard of anything to compare. For him, it was a cause of serious offence. Those who had yet to "cross the line" were submitted to a humiliating hazing ritual in which men's bodies were smeared with tar—which was then scraped from their skin with a rusty barrel hoop. To Miertsching, the rough, bawdy nature of the spectacle seemed positively pagan, and the indignities to which these initiates were subjected horrific. In his prior work and experience, he had been confronted with godless and insolent men. But these were angels compared to the brazen sinners surrounding him aboard the Investigator.
The disputes between the officers and captain grew more frequent and sharper in tone. Incidents of insubordination increased. One day, four men were placed under arrest, with one singled out for four dozen lashes with the cat-o'-ninetails, a whip of braided rope with nine thongs designed to inflict intense pain. A common punishment in the Royal Navy, the whippings were to ensure public humiliation and the ceremonial enforcement of authority. Some seamen have a cross tattooed on their backs to prevent them from being wantonly flogged. Although Miertsching deplores seeing a fellow human flayed, it seems the harsh rules of naval discipline are barely enough to keep them under control. In the first ten weeks since departing England...

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9780385665339: The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness

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ISBN 10:  0385665334 ISBN 13:  9780385665339
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Brian Payton
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