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Together yet Poles apart

Isobel was 26 years old when Ernest Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’, crushed by sea ice at least 10 feet/3 metres thick, sank to the bottom of the Wendell Sea. It was November 1915. Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had set out to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. It will however, be remembered as neither a success nor a failure but rather a test of courage, perseverance and survival – traits well known to Isobel.

The Endurance set sail in August 1914 - the same day that Germany declared war on Russia and just a few days after the outbreak of WWI. For Isobel this was the year she would lose her elder brother Walter on a military training exercise and yet go on to volunteer with the Red Cross (and her sister Hilda) to contribute to the war effort. Courage, perseverance and survival in action.

Though their adventures took them to opposite ends of the earth, Isobel and Ernest had much in common.

Isobel joined the Council of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1936, having made her name there as the first female recipient of the Mungo Park Medal. It was an association that would span decades of her career as an explorer, culminating in her post as Vice President of the society (1958-1970).

Early in his career, Shackleton had worked as secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (from 1904). It was the lure of the Antarctic and his first journey to reach the South Pole, which ended his career there. Yet, he continued to build on his foundations with the Society throughout his adventures and they were the first to know of him getting to within 97 miles of the South Pole on the Nimrod expedition (1907-1909).

Almost as soon as Shackleton returned from his Nimrod expedition, he began planning his next trip. If he couldn’t be first to the South Pole, then he would have to better that achievement with a coast to coast overland crossing of the Antarctic continent – a trip of around 1,800 miles/2,900 kilometres. Having battled the elements for six weeks and with his quest a days sail of approximately 100 miles/161 kilometres ahead, the Endurance became trapped in the ice (January 1915), forcing Shackleton and his 22 men to abandon ship and set up camp on the ice floe, which became home for five months before the warmer weather and melting ice made lifeboats their only hope of survival.

Isobel faced a similar situation when she travelled across the top of Alaska in 1933. She became marooned in a simple one room hut, on a sandspit about a mile long by a hundred yards wide. For seven weeks, with only fur trader Gus Masik and a pack of sledge dogs for company, she braved the weather. Eventually the sea ice became thick enough for her to make the final 120 miles of her journey overland by dog sled to Herschel Island, sleeping in snow houses, empty cabins and outposts along the way. Though it wasn’t the 17-month quest to safety faced by Shackleton and his men, in a time of pre emancipation for woman, especially those who weren’t married, it would have seemed just as shocking.

Isobel travelled 120 miles overland by dog sled, sleeping in snow houses, empty cabins and outposts along the way.

The recent finding of Shackleton’s almost perfectly preserved ship, just over 100 years after his death, will no doubt provide a valuable insight into the life of an Antarctic explorer. Though Isobel’s travels favoured the Arctic region, the perils for ships and their adventurous crews would have been very similar. In an unplanned break from her Alaskan itinerary, she documents boarding the SS Baychimo, a ghost ship, spotted drifting in sea ice. “A strange spectacle the decks (of Baychimo) presented, calling up pictures of Robert Louis Stevenson, Captain Hook, and Long John Silver. The hold was open to the winds, but its half-rifled depths still contained sacks of mineral ore, caribou skins, and cargo of various descriptions. As if to lend colour to the piratical appearance of the ship, a pair of handcuffs lay upon the hatch.”

SS Baychimo - a ghost ship drifting in sea ice, boarded by Isobel from The Trader, a 70 foot schooner sitting alongside

Isobel’s was to be one of the last recorded sightings of the Baychimo, a large steel-hulled vessel which had been built in Sweden in 1914 (as Shackleton was setting sail on his ill-fated trip). The Baychimo was ceded to the British government by Germany as part of the war reparations and bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1921. It became an Arctic supply ship but like The Endurance, its fate was to be frozen into the moving ice fields and it too had to be abandoned (in 1931). As Shackleton’s men had done, the crew of the Baychimo walked to the mainland where they built a cabin using wood from the ship, in the hope of staying nearby to guard its cargo. Unfortunately by the time the crew returned from the local town, the ship had drifted out to sea and though they were later able to catch up with it enough to salvage some of the most valuable items on board, the ship was not expected to survive the winter. Presumed sunk, it joins the ranks of numerous ships now waiting to be discovered by marine archaeologists.

Isobel’s encounter with the ghost ship stayed with her and she later tracked down the details of Captain Cornwell, the retired master of the Baychimo and sent him photographs of her time onboard. His letter of thanks is a lasting reminder that although she and Shackleton had many similarities, Isobel, unlike the other explorers of her time, was focused not so much on the destination, as on the journey.

Isobel would have been 20 years old when she wrote this poem about the Shackleton Expedition, (even correcting a typo in his name) not knowing that she herself would be amongst the great explorers of the time.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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