Thursday, September 21, 2023

Book Review: In the Land of White Death


In the Land of White Death, by Valerian Albanov, English translation published in 2000 by Random House, 205 pages.  Original published in Russian in 1917. 

This is the story of an ill-fated ship, as written by one of only two survivors, the officer who was the navigator of the Santa Clara. The ship went to sea ill prepared, without key provisions and trained personnel. Trapped in Arctic ice for two years, the navigator lead a group attempting to reach land over the pack ice. This is his story, a direct, first person account of survival against daunting obstacles.

The dismal fate of the Santa Clara occurred at the end of the great arctic expansion of whaling, sealing, and bear hunting by wind and man power, during the transition to steam power and diesel engines.  The Santa Clara had both sails and a steam engine which primarily ran on coal. Kerosene lamps provided light and cooking fuel.

Abanov and a party of fourteen men left the doomed Santa Clara on April 13, 1914, hauling sledges and kayaks they had build with supplies from the Santa Clara.  Four decided to go back to the ship, with one man replacing the first man to go back, and three men going back on the eleventh day. This left a party of ten men and Abanov. Near the end April, they encountered open water and were able to shoot several seals, which greatly increased their supply of food and fuel. On May 4th, one man got lost and disappeared along the way.

The party shot their first polar bear on 25 May. They ate the liver.  Two days later, they were severely ill. Polar bear liver contains toxic amounts of vitamin A. Polar bears carry trichinosis parasites which cause similar symptoms. It may be the expedition members suffered from trichinosis. Seals generally do not carry trichinosis.

 The polar bear hide, valued at 200 Rubles, had to be burned as fuel. The Russian Ruble was worth .5145 dollars in 1914, so 200 Rubles would be about $100 or about five ounces of gold. A few days later, on May 31, they shot another large polar bear. The bear was very cautious. It almost escaped from the two men armed with rifles. On June 4th, the party played hide and seek with another polar bear, but the bear ran away. 

The Russians were able to live by hunting for much of their caloric requirements. In addition to the two polar bears, they shot and ate numerous seals. They finally spotted land on June 9th. They had not been certain of their location, or of the location of land, for months. Heroic feats of celestial navigation, combined with a map and coordinates copied from a book of an arctic explorer, brought them to land.  There instruments gradually broke under the extreme difficulty of their travel.

The Russians' most valuable possessions were their guns and ammunition.  Two men deserted with two guns, most of the ammunition, and other extremely  valuable possessions on June 17. On June 25, the main party of eight survivors reached land. Between June 17 and June 28, the two deserters killed a polar bear which awakened them at night. They shot the bear in the head at very close range, killing it on the spot. When the deserters were discovered on June 28, they had the polar bear head with them.

Albanov had been ready to shoot the deserters on sight. Their extreme repentance and the fact the main party had made landfall, barely escaping death, lead him to pardon them. Thus 10 of the original party of 11, made landfall. On the first island they had abundant food in the form of geese, goose eggs and other birds.

Illness started to take an enormous toll.  One of the party died, leaving nine survivors. They split into two groups of four and five, five going overland, four in the two remaining kayaks. Supplies were running out. The group going overland failed to rendezvous with the kayaks.  By July 8, one of the four men in the kayaks was so ill as to be unable to function. The kayak group was attempting to reach a camp established a decade ago, which was supposed to have been left with supplies. They believed it to be on a nearby island.

A 10 mile gap of water separated them from their goal. When they attempted the crossing, the weather was fair. They could easily see Cape Flora.  Half way across, a fierce storm came up unexpectedly. The kayaks were separated. The one with two relatively healthy men managed to make it to an iceberg, and barely survive through the night. They were out of food. After getting completely soaked in sea water, almost drowning, they took to the ocean again. Six hours of furious paddling managed to take them back to the island they had left in the morning, nearly frozen and exhausted. They were the lone survivors of all the Santa Clara crew. 

They were able to shoot a few ducks as provisions, and attempted to make the crossing again the next morning. This time they succeeded in reaching Cape Flora. They found the remnants of a camp, with an enormous amount of tinned supplies. They stayed at the camp until July 20, recuperating and recovering strength. On July 20, 1914, another ship, the Saint Foka. appeared.  The Saint Folka had also been in the Arctic for two years. The Saint Foka was equipped with sails and a steam engine, and was desperate for fuel. The Saint Foka had problems of her own, but had plenty of food, and could sail.  The crew of the Saint Foka hoped to dismantle the Cape Flora camp and use the wood for fuel. 

The Saint Folka, with the two men from the Santa Clara, arrived at the fishing village of Rynda in Russia, on August 10, 1914, only to learn Russia was at war, allied with France in what became the First World War. 

There are many more adventures and hardships included in this first hand account, this true tale of survival.


 ©2023 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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