Siberia and U-2
The nose of the Aeroflot TU-154 aircraft parted long feathery white strands of stratus clouds that whorled past the cockpit, the captain continued his descent, and suddenly, the whole world opened below. An ancient Siberian taiga, a forest dark and dense with fir, spruce, larch, and pine, rose on craggy hilltops and descended deep into shadowed valleys.
Strong shafts of sunlight focused by the clouds lit the groves of Berioska—white birch—and transformed them to yellow flames. The world below suddenly changed, and all the forest was gone; just stumps remained, and death, and naked brown earth, for miles. The earth was eroding quickly into rivers and streams, turning them from clear blue to muddy brown. But on the horizon another evergreen taiga appeared and a sliver of deep lapis blue: Lake Baikal—the deepest lake in the world, four hundred miles long, an average fifty miles wide, one- quarter of the world’s fresh water. This was the blue jewel of Siberia. It was 1988, a year after my Bering Strait swim, which had opened the border between the United States and the Soviet Union. I wanted to swim Lake Baikal. I had no idea how much the Soviets appreciated my Bering Strait crossing or the upcoming Lake Baikal swim until we landed in Moscow and later in Siberia. There were crowds and press everywhere, and people recognized us on the streets. We were told when we reached Irkutsk that the Siberians had been waiting for a group of famous Americans to visit them ever since the time of President Eisenhower. They had constructed new roads for his visit, and a new hotel, but when the U-2 incident occurred, when the U.S. spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, President Eisenhower was no longer welcome. The relations between the United States and the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the cold war grew colder and grimmer. But our Soviet hosts told us things had changed. We were the group of Americans that the Siberians had long been waiting for.
Our Siberian officials arranged tours of cities, took us to basketball games and other special events, and fêted us at dinners and church celebrations. After flying through thirteen time zones, and two days of constant motion, we were weary, and my focus needed to be on the upcoming swim: planning it out, figuring out the currents, and talking to the local pilot so we could work together. I would be swimming in three days. That wasn’t much time to recover or figure out the course of a swim.
Early one morning, before anyone was awake, I slipped out a back door, and went for a long walk along Lake Baikal’s shores. I climbed down some boulders, to the Angara River. This was the only river that flowed out of the lake, and here the currents were strong, the water flowed fast, probably three or four knots. I studied the movement of the water as it flowed along the shore. It was like one massive drain out of a swimming pool. If we got caught in that, we’d move out with the river. We would need to keep a distance of a mile or two, or I’d never make it across the lake.
A Siberian woman with high Slavic cheekbones and tanned skin, probably in her seventies, wearing a bright scarf on her head, a blue jacket, and a skirt well below her knees, scrambled across a quarter mile of river rocks. She stood up excitedly and waved. Holding her hand was a young man who looked like her son. He was taller and leaner, but he had the same blue eyes, the same nose, and the same-shaped smile.
When they reached me, she was barely out of breath. She immediately said that she had been waiting for me. Her son translated my English for her. He had studied it in school as a child, and he had never used it before to speak to an American. He was very excited. The elderly woman said she had a dream the night before that we would meet on the Angara River. She was so excited. Her blue eyes were full of light. She told me that I was welcome there. And then she said something I didn’t understand. She said that I was like George Washington De Long, an American hero to all of Siberia.
I had never heard of George Washington De Long before. I was perplexed. Maybe I misunderstood. Did she maybe mean to say George Washington? I asked.
No, Captain George Washington De Long. Hadn’t I heard of him? The man translated. He seemed very disappointed. But his mother put on a smile and said that I was welcome there, and welcome to join them anytime at their home.
With all that happened during the next days, and all the political challenges, and the swim across Lake Baikal, which was moved up a day and was completely successful, I forgot this conversation. It faded deep into memory, but one day when I was reading about Roald Amundsen, drawing inspiration from his life, and from the lives of other polar explorers, I kept seeing references to a ship called Jeannette. Finally I decided I needed to know more about the ship and saw that the ship’s captain was George Washington De Long. He was Amundsen’s inspiration and was one of the very first polar explorers. I had to find out about Captain George Washington De Long to understand Amundsen’s path and to gain inspiration and direction for
On the soft foggy gray horizon of San Francisco Bay, a brown dot bounced on navy blue waters. The dot grew in size and became the form of a ship—the USS Jeannette. She plied through the rough, salty, white- capped waters on an epic journey.
It was July 8, 1879, and Lieutenant Commander George Washington De Long and his crew were attempting a historic voyage to become the first expedition to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait.
De Long stood at the helm dressed in full navy uniform with Emma, his wife, beside him on the bridge. His sky blue eyes behind round eyeglasses scanned the water; the colorful escort boats ablaze with signal flags and masthead flags accompanied him as he sailed past Alcatraz Island and toward the distant headlands of San Francisco Bay. The hum of the Jeannette’s engines vibrated through the De Longs as they steamed west together.
George and Emma had met in France, and he had fallen in love with her immediately. But she had another commitment, to a young man who was dying. George wrote to her and waited for her and, when her friend passed, convinced her that he loved her. Emma’s father set up conditions. He insisted that they stay apart and out of communication for two years, and if after that time they still felt the same, he would permit them to be together. They had endured and married and now had a young daughter, Sylvie.
More than anything, Emma wanted to sail with George. She had worked alongside him lobbying the U.S. Navy and James Gordon Bennett, a New York newspaper publisher—and owner of the Jeannette—and President Rutherford Hayes to provide the support to refit the Jeannette and fund this expedition.
Lieutenant Commander De Long, and the thirty-two-man crew of the USS Jeannette, a 420-ton bark-rigged wooden steamship, were attempting to become the first American ship to reach the North Pole through the rough waters of the Bering Strait. This journey was meant to be one of exploration, of scientific research, and of discovery, for in 1879 sailing north into Arctic waters toward the North Pole was like flying to another galaxy.
Thousands of people from all over the Bay Area came to see the Jeannette off. It was a day to celebrate the possibility of solving one of the world’s great puzzles, of reaching the North Pole, and of making great discoveries. The jubilant San Franciscans lined the waterfront. They stood on wide wooden piers, along the curve of Market Street, on top of Telegraph Hill. They lifted children on their shoulders so they could see above the heads in the crowd. They stretched their necks to catch sight of the Jeannette. As she sailed past, they cheered wildly, dogs barked excitedly, and roar upon roar rose from the crowd that followed the Jeannette along with a great wave of humanity on foot, bikes, and in horse-drawn carriages, as she headed west.
The Jeannette passed what would one day become major San Francisco landmarks: Alioto’s and Capurro’s restaurants and the Argonaut Hotel. She powered by what would become the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club, and the Buena Vista Café and Ghirardelli Square. She sailed past what would become the beautiful St. Francis Yacht Club, and the exquisite Palace of Fine Arts Theater and the Exploratorium. She slipped toward what would become the majestic spans of the Golden Gate Bridge and the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
Cool moist gusts of wind funneled through brown bone-dry hills above San Francisco and pushed the bay into two-foot-high waves. Boats of all sizes—tugs, launches, fishing boats still smelling like fish from the morning catch, and yachts all decked out with brightly colored flags and banners from the San Francisco Yacht Club—steered toward the Jeannette. People on the boats sounded the ships’ horns and blasted the whistles. They clapped, waved, cheered, and shouted “Good luck” as the Jeannette sailed near the Presidio and Fort Mason, where the U.S. Army honored the captain and crew of the Jeannette by firing off a farewell salute.
Bound for the north, into unexplored waters and lands that were mostly uncharted, with almost complete uncertainty about what lay ahead, the Jeannette was loaded to the gunwales with provisions, coal, and supplies in case the worst happened and the ship was lost, and the crew had to take to shore and somehow survive.
The Jeannette sailed with her hull low in the water. She lumbered almost painfully toward the entrance to the Pacific. Her own construction made her heavy. She had been reinforced with thick oak timbers and strong iron transverse beams that were meant to protect her from the deadly pressure of the sea ice in the Arcti...