Frozen Hell

By Lucas Bernard

Greenland, an ironically named frozen hellhole. While not exactly a hot button issue today, in the earliest part of the 20th century, Greenland’s ownership was a constant argument between the United States and Denmark. Teams of explorers from each nation went to chart the territory, often meeting gruesome and miserable deaths in the process. What was so important about planting your flag in a barren wasteland? Because there wasn’t a flag fully planted there yet, and the rest of the world had been pretty well sorted. A unique brand of exploratory warfare developed between the two nations, with men braving water and ice to map out terra incognita. As long as there’s undiscovered country, there will be intrepid men to seek it out for God and Fatherland.

Denmark asserted ownership of Greenland due to their historical forays into the territory. America held claim due to the Monroe Doctrine. A major point of contention was the Peary Channel, a hypothetical channel running horizontally in the northernmost part of the island. Surveying this area became critically important in demarcating who had what. A reconnaissance mission into this area—which came to be known as the “Denmark Expedition”—ended in disaster for its leaders, leaving unfinished business. Enter Ejnar Mikkelsen, the Dane who was to finish the job, come hell or high water.

Ejnar was described in a period scientific journal as “resolute and persevering, he is painstaking and endowed with inexhaustible patience. His sunny good nature and kindness of heart are combined with sufficient firmness and insight into character. Mikkelsen was an ideal Arctic commander.” And boy, would he need that praise to carry him through the ordeal he was to endure. Setting out in 1909, his team was met with immediate hardship. Of the 50 dogs they had bought to run the sleds they intended to traverse the icy wastes with, 23 had died, and the rest were in such poor shape they were “scarcely worth a charge of shot.” Regardless, Mikkelsen and his men gave the beasts their eternal reprieve, inundating the ship’s deck with blood and making their hearts heavier with each and every mercy. To replace these critical creatures, they had to venture into the land of what was then called the Eskimo.

An advance guard was there to meet them, heralding their arrival at every village with the proclamation of “White men coming to buy dogs, will pay two big moneys each.” Mikkelsen’s men bartered while the natives bragged, showing off their finery and their kayak skills. With their overland transport secured, the expedition went on, dodging the icebergs leading to their destination. As they left their ship and started overland, sourcing sustenance for both themselves and the dogs became a constant concern, leading to a hunting story without compare. In the Arctic, the most significant source of protein is more often predator than prey: the polar bear.

In the hour of need, Mikkelsen saw his expedition’s salvation, a thousand pounds of she-bear and some succulent cubs. Rifles were retrieved and the hunt was on. Tracking the bear through the ice and snow, they soon found it had disappeared into a hole under an iceberg. A deep growl confirmed their suspicions, and the bear’s protest was met with the clacking of rifles being cocked. Suddenly, a flash of white teeth and angry visage greeted the Danes from inside the hole. In the midst of the shock a shot rang out, a rivulet of blood parting the dulling eyes. Not exactly the most sporting kill but braving the arctic is arguably sporting enough in itself. After the bear was retrieved, the beast was found to not be the she-bear initially seen, for it had no milk. Murmured growling still emanated from the depths of the ice. Polar bear cub meat, the veal of the Arctic. The men slithered like snakes into the smothering bowels of the iceberg, three with a rifle and the last with a flickering candle. Mikkelsen found himself in a concerning situation, an angry momma polar bear to the front of him and two hungry riflemen behind. Luckily, the cavern of ice opened up to enough space for the hunters to form a single rank. The cavern air hung eerily quiet, the candle’s light shimmering across the icy walls like a panoply of gems. The men laid tense, stifled breaths anticipating ringing the frozen palace with ear shattering belches of fire and smoke. Yet none came. No she-bear, no cubs. The team shimmied back out into the wastes, shamed at their fruitless spelunking. No matter, their initial kill was meat enough. Both man and dog satiated their ravenous hunger with copious bear steaks, bloodying their paws and gnashing their teeth.

This remained a high point of the expedition, as expediencies of the trip forced only Mikkelsen and an engineer to take the trek to find the remains of the “Denmark Expedition.” Traveling from cache to cache of rusty canned food, and fighting desperately to not become frozen in time themselves, they eventually found the remains of their forebears. Their records gave the final proof of which they risked so much to gain; the Peary Channel did not exist. Returning to their ship, they discovered their crew mates had hitched home on a passing whaler. Fashioning a small cottage from the remains of their ship, they spent two winters in an unforgiving wasteland, finally being rescued in 1912 by a passing whaler of their own. Moral of the story? Fuck Greenland, let the Danes have it.

From the FE Films Archive

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