A life-threatening harrowing trip through the Northwest Passage brings a family together

 

Theothersideoftheice           It seemed like a foolhardy, dangerous, ill-considered journey. Sprague Theobald risked it all, including the lives of his children, attempting to boat through the Northwest Passage.

Lots of things went wrong on his 57-foot yacht, but the most annoying was the conflicts between Theobald, his children, and the rest of his crew. A lot of this story recounts these conflicts, sometimes in more detail than I cared to know. But in the end, the personal conflicts and crises were the story.

Sure, the ice, ferocious storms, equipment failures, isolation, and polar bears all made the trip perilous, but the stressful personal conflicts were often the most treacherous threats to the success of the mission.

The Other Side of the Ice by Sprague Theobald with Allan Kreda, published by Skyhorse Publishing, is a marvelous tale of adventure and adversity. I really did not think they’d make it. Their suffering, confusion, and sometimes even fear, were contagious. The writing puts you right onto the ship, and trust me, most of us would not have wanted to be there.

When they found the graves of a previous disastrous attempt to get through the Northwest Passage, I was sure their own graves would be filled soon. The two ships in the Franklin Expedition were stuck in frozen ice for two years, and not long after getting freed from that confinement, they disappeared.

“In the north of the bay and not far from the shore were the four headstones, grave markers which through drawings of the day or photographs brought back in the last century, marked the first of the Franklin Expedition members to die,” writes Theobald.

In 1981, Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology, exhumed the graves and performed full autopsies. “The bodies were in perfect condition, frozen in the positions they were laid more than 165 years ago,” reports Theobald. The men had died of pneumonia and tuberculosis hastened by lead poisoning (from the meat tins with lead joints).

When Theobald’s ship got caught in the ice, and his chance of progressing appeared to have come to an end, he needed a miracle.

“In the silence, I could hear the ice shifting, groaning, pressing, and slowly sliding past the hull. Far-off explosions from deep below us constantly reminded me that as I lay there, seeking answers, Mother Nature was at work and the clock was ticking,” Theobald writes.

And then he got his miracle.

An award-winning documentary filmmaker, expert sailor who competed in the America’s Cup races and sailed more than 40,000 miles, Theobald emerges in this book as a great story teller, a remarkable father, and an amazing adventurer.

Staring at the photo of Theobald, standing in the bow of his boat, staring at the sea of ice that had him trapped, I can feel the tension.  He thought he’d killed his kids.

In the book’s conclusion, Theobald writes, “One memory, a feeling I know will never need refreshing, is the feeling of being ‘allowed’ into such hallowed and historic grounds, the haunting threat of isolation which bears down on each of the few who have transited The Passage. This overwhelming feeling of drama and tragedy staggered even the least sensitive of us.

“Being brutally aware that for seemingly hundreds of miles in any direction, empty horizons lay brutally stacked up, one after the other for as far as the eye can see. I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of how frail and pitiful mankind can be when he’s in an area he has no cause to be in.”

Indeed.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.