When word came in to the Bering Sea branch of the United States Revenue Marine Service about the most recent tragedy on the northern coast of Alaska, the news was as grim as one of those miserable medieval fairy tales about the evil demon-witch who lives in a creepy dark forest and sustains herself entirely with a diet consisting of ground-up puppy parts and the internal organs of children who don't listen to their parents. Eight whaling ships, caught off-guard by the early onset of the miserable, soul-sucking Arctic Winter, had become inescapably wedged into the ice pack near Point Barrow and crushed beyond all recognition, and now two hundred and sixty-five men were stranded, alone, freezing, and without foot at the northernmost point in the United States – a frigid, ball-chilling place that, on a good year, is only ice-free for about two months.
It was Winter of 1897 – a miserable time when nobody had even heard of things like helicopter rescues, blowtorches, airlifts, Gore-Tek parkas, and those badass fucking heat packs you stuff in your mittens when you feel like your fingers are about to freeze into a cold, dead meatbrick. Rescuing these men would take a miracle.
Or one epically-testicled badass fucking Arctic-smashing adventurer named David H. Jarvis.
Not pictured: Actual testicles.
People like to talk a lot of shit about the United States Coast Guard – how all they really do is give hard-working taxpayers tickets every time they want to get shitfaced and smash their hooker-laden yachts into other boats, or how one of their primary responsibilities is to defend the U.S. from enemy submarines that never actually seem to ever materialize, but I can guarantee you this – when you're freezing your balls off in fifteen-foot seas clinging for life to a busted-apart chunk of fiberglass that once used to be your precious yacht, you'll be glad these dudes are out there doing their shit, hauling your ass out of the drink while simultaneously making sure a German U-Boat doesn't surface right under you and blast you into tuna chum with an 88mm deck gun.
First Lieutenant David H. Jarvis of the United States Revenue Marine Service (the organization that would later change its name to the U.S. Coast Guard so it would sound more badass and less like a tax collection agency) is one of the USCG's most revered heroes, and this wasn't a guy who was about to sit back and kick a rousing hand of tiddlywinks when he knew three hundred poor suckers were out there slowly turning into meat popsickles. An eight-year veteran of the USRMS who spoke fluent Inuit and once shot a polar bear in the face, Jarvis was serving as the Executive Officer aboard USS Bear -- the most famous ship in Coast Guard history. As the only USCG ship in the Bering Sea, his primary responsibilities were to sail around, thwart seal poachers, protect the Eskimos from unscrupulous businessmen (Steven Segal-style), fish shipwrecked sailors out of sub-freezing waters, and give tickets to drunk yacht pilots. Jarvis was damn good at his job, and on top of his success as the XO of Bear, it's also worth mentioning that during his entire career in the Coast Guard the United States was never attacked by a ballistic missile submarine.
USS Bear on a typical tour of duty.
Now, the trapped sailors were stuck way the fuck north, and while Bear was a pretty badass ship, it wasn't an icebreaker, and there was no way in hell it was going to get up there and save those men. So, Jarvis, the XO of the most famous ship in the fleet (making him basically the Coast Guard version of Commander Shepard), volunteered to go ashore, travel across the Arctic tundra of Alaska on an epic, 1,500-mile journey, and hand-deliver food and medical supplies to the trapped men. His mission was approved both by his commander, and by President McKinley, and on December 16, 1897, Lieutenant David H. Jarvis put ashore at Cape Vancouver, Alaska with nothing more than his uniform and a warm jacket.
Jarvis assembled his away team, consisting of Second Lieutenant Ellsworth P. Bertholf (the man who would go on to become the Fourth Commandant of the United States Coast Guard!) and Ship's Surgeon Samuel "Bones" Call (a man who's primary responsibility was to say, "damn it Dave, I'm a surgeon, not a paperboy!") and headed into the first dirt-poor town he could find. There, in a scene reminiscent of the first screen in The Oregon Trail for the Apple IIc, Jarvis bought 40 sled dogs, 3 sleds, skiis, snowshoes, medical supplies, and a crapload of bullets. Then he talked the local Inuit into giving him 400 reindeer, which Jarvis – who didn't know a hell of a lot about reindeer – could then somehow herd 1,500 miles across the Arctic and deliver as food for the starving, half-dead sailors at the edge of the world.
|Here's the route they chose to take. It's worth noting that if you use Google Maps to try and get walking directions from Cape Vancouver to Point Barrow, Alaska, it just redirects you to a website for a suicide hotline.
And so, in the dead of December, during a time where northern Alaska gets two hours of sunlight a day, Lieutenant David H. Jarvis and his two buddies herded 400 reindeer through the -45 degree temperatures of the frozen Arctic. Operating in constant darkness, these daring adventurers traveled on foot, hauling and pushing their sleds through difficult terrain, while snot-freezingly obscene wind chills whipped through them and blizzards sprung up without a second's notice. Remembering their mission, the men trudged on, through blinding snowstorms and sub-freezing Arctic wind, variously alternating between sweating their dicks off from exhausting work and having a miserable gust of air turn their sweat-soaked wool clothes into icicle jackets. Moving in temps that averaged negative-thirty, these guys herded their animals, traveling 20-30 miles a day (50 on days they didn't have to run for cover from brutal winds or storms), dragging their shit up steep inclines or sliding down 2,000-foot mountains by riding their sleds down like Shaun White approaching a badass snowboard half-pipe. For 99 days in the height of winter these three men crossed tundra and pack-ice, forded the Yukon River Delta a mere six months before the Gold Rush would hit, stopping only to avoid storms, exchange local Inuit villagers their exhausted dogs for fresh ones, and find enough vegetation to feed 400 goddamned deer.
The men traveled through December, January, February, and March – 99 days, 30 miles a day, sub-zero temperatures. Finally, in mid-March, Jarvis' team reached the stranded sailors. He still had 382 reindeer with him – plenty of food to last the winter, not to mention the medical supplies, a qualified doctor, and a hell of a lot of badass leadership experience. When he waltzed into town on a dog sled full of food, the beleaguered crews basically shit.
But, while news of Jarvis' badass adventure through the Arctic was hitting newspapers across the United States in a late-19th century version of the Chilean Miner Miracle, his work was just beginning. For starters, he'd only found one of the eight ships – the other seven were spread out along a 60-mile section of the Alaska Coast, and Jarvis only found the others by sending out daily search parties in every direction.
Even once the men were all together, fed, and healed of their most immediate medical problems, they were in bad shape, so Jarvis immediately had to go to work improving their quality of life. When this guy wasn't hunting polar bears, giving pump-up speeches, or distributing rations, Jarvis spent the next four months living in freezing temperatures, whipping his men into action cleaning up the filthy conditions of their ships, giving them advice on how not to get frostbite, and doing other Adama-style works of leadership heroism. Hell, the guy even organized an 8-ship baseball league to keep the men busy and entertained enough that they wouldn't go off and kill themselves, and he personally went in and thwarted a mutiny on one of the ships, probably with a solution that involved face-punches and/or the threat of face-punches.
In July of 1898, seven months after putting their XO ashore, the USS Bear pulled into Point Barrow. As it pulled up next to the crushed hulk of a thoroughly-obliterated whaling ship, one lone figure marched across the ice towards them. Lieutenant David H. Jarvis stopped, saluted the colors, and requested permission to come aboard.
The 265 sailors were delivered to Seattle on September 13, 1898. All but 3 had survived.
For his actions executing one of the greatest overland arctic rescue operations of all time, David Jarvis was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He would retire as a Captain in 1905, run a fish-packing company in Alaska, and become good buddies with Teddy Roosevelt. Nowadays one of the most prestigious awards in the Coast Guard is the David H. Jarvis Award for Inspirational Leadership.
USCG Page on the Overland Expedition
The Incredible Alaska Overland Rescue
Dalton, Anthony. Along Against the Arctic. Heritage House, 2011.
King, Irving H. The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915. Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Kroll, C. Douglas. Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf.. Naval Institute Press, 2002.
Taliaferro, John. In a Far Country. PublicAffairs, 2007.