From Amazon explorer Francisco Orellana, to a modern day blind man’s attempt to kayak the Grand Canyon, to what Washington State University football coach Mike Leach learned from Geronimo, Levy’s seven books have ranged across time periods but share a common theme of extraordinary accomplishment against the odds.
His latest nonfiction book, “Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition,” released this week by St. Martin’s Press, has all the ingredients for a harrowing armchair adventure. It recounts the story of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition headed by 37-year-old, Civil War veteran Lt. A.W. Greely, who led a crew of 24 scientists and explorers on an 1881 journey into the last unmarked area of the globe, the northern arctic.
“I’ve been interested in the Great White North, as it used to be called, from the early days of childhood, reading Jack London stories and growing up in the mountains of Idaho duck hunting in 30 below on Silver Creek. I really am drawn to extreme conditions, especially cold,” said Levy, who grew up in Sun Valley.
For the public, the purpose of Greely’s planned two-year expedition was to set up the most northern meteorological-observation station as part of the First International Polar Year, a worldwide effort to collect scientific data to better understand the global climate. Privately, Greely was also determined to reach the North Pole and if not that then Farthest North, the highest northern latitude, a record held by the British for 300 years.
“At the time, nobody knew what was beyond Farthest North. In fact, there was an erroneously held belief that once you broke through this ring of ice there was this tropical paradise of palm trees. I think he figured out pretty quick that wasn’t the case,” Levy said.
However, Greely did know that death awaited. Crew losses of 50 percent were the historic norm in Arctic exploration.
What happened next has everything Levy enjoys in a book: “adventure, discovery, extreme danger, wolves, a long-suffering wife back home who is trying to find her husband, incredible hardship and privation, ingenuity and then this incredible, dramatic departure.”
Unbeknownst to the party, the summer they arrived was a warm one. In the years to come, relief ships scheduled to rendezvous with the group struggled to reach them because of ice conditions.
When no one came, they persisted in their scientific endeavors in temperatures approaching negative 100 degrees. Months of total darkness drove men insane. The threat of mutiny and cannibalism hung in the air. Then there was what some called “the Devil’s symphony,” the sound of the shifting ice pack screeching, popping, grinding and moaning.
Greely and his men were so dedicated to their diaries, journals and scientific reports that the ice is a significant character, said Levy, who spent a lot of research time listening to recordings of groaning sea ice.
“They describe it in depth and really well. It’s horrifying at times. Its movement is unpredictable. They’re trying to figure out moments they can leave land and get in their boats. They need an open lead, which is like a highway of water. They can close really quickly, at any moment. The sound of the pack is an ever-present reminder to them of their perilous situation.”
When no one came, Greely faced daily life-and-death decisions. Historians have not looked kindly on some of them.
“My interpretation of Greely differs considerably from anybody else who has written about it in that I view him as a hero,” Levy said.
In comparison to other expedition leaders Levy has written about, he ranks Greely, a founding member of the National Geographic Society, among the highest. His crew took as many as 500 scientific readings a day, and scientists continue to use their data in climate change observations, Levy said. He also writes about how Greely reported on the behavior of his men in daily journals, documenting an array of conditions and syndromes psychologists now recognize. His work has helped show how to counter the effects of extreme conditions on mental health.
“I love this element of discovery he had in his character and this pride in doing something that had never been done,” Levy said. “He’s really something of a national treasure, so I look at him that way. Hopefully I make the case fairly; he’s flawed, but he’s heroic.”
The fraternity and camaraderie of the other men in the party is another compelling element of the tale, Levy said. A couple go beyond what seems humanly possible when it comes to endurance.
“It’s profoundly inspiring what people will do, not only to survive for themselves, but for one another,” he said. “Maybe people were tougher then, it’s possible.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Buddy Levy reading from “Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition.”
WHEN: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6.
WHERE: BookPeople of Moscow, 521 S. Main St.
OF NOTE: The reading will be followed by a Q&A. Books will be available for sale and signing. There will be a no-host bar and light refreshments will be served.