An “Arctic mystery” may lead to a future of food under the permafrost.
. ....MUCH MOREIn 1886, the renowned geologist, zoologist, and explorer Baron Eduard von Toll stood on the coast of the largest of the New Siberian Islands, gazing north into the Russian Arctic Ocean. He was sure he saw it in the distance: Sannikov Land, a mythic island that had bewitched and eluded explorers for a century. To his guide, he wondered aloud if he’d ever make it there. His guide’s response matched Toll’s own determination: “Once I set foot there, I can die.”In 1900, after years of persuasion, the Russian Academy of Sciences finally agreed to sponsor Toll’s expedition to find Sannikov. Aboard the ship Zarya, Toll set sail into the Arctic. But from the start, the expedition was buffeted by trouble: navigational confusion, coal shortages, scurvy, a power struggle between Toll and the captain, the death of the doctor, erratic winds, flooded decks, brutal snowstorms, starving sled dogs, and a raging polar bear. Worst of all was the constant threat of encroaching ice, which could entrap the ship and constrict around its wooden hull like a vise.
Nonetheless, Toll and his team of scientists kept busy. They mapped uncharted rivers and islands, analyzed glaciers, gathered fossils and fauna, and studied their findings in the ship’s onboard labs. During overland forays, they relied on stores of canned and dried foods, buried and preserved in the permafrost of the Taimyr Peninsula. All the while, Sannikov Land remained a phantom out of reach, beckoning Toll to the northern horizon.
19 months into the trip, the RAS ordered Toll by telegram to wrap it up. He had one final summer to find his island. In May 1902, with the Zarya’s path frozen in every direction, Toll, his navigator, and two Yakut crewmen set out by dogsled and kayak to the far-north Bennett Island. Here, they hoped to establish a base from which to venture even further north, to Sannikov.
Over three months on Bennett, the team ate their way through three bears, countless seabirds, and the island’s small herd of reindeer. Out of optimism that the Zarya would soon retrieve them, they failed to keep anything for the winter. But the Zarya remained stymied by ice for months, and by October, the window for rescue was closed. Toll realized that if they stayed on the island, they wouldn’t survive. And so, he and his team ventured south, back towards the New Siberian Islands, paddling thin-hulled kayaks into a deadly mass of rapidly freezing, razor-sharp ice. They were never seen again.
Toll’s death cemented his legendary status in Russia, which continued to sponsor searches for Sannikov into the 1930s. Toll’s widow published his diaries, and in 1959, a Russian translation meant they were devoured by a new generation of Arctic adventure-lovers.
One page detailed a food store that Toll had buried on the Taimyr Peninsula in September 1900, early in his voyage. First, he described its location: a spot five meters above sea level, marked with a wooden cross. Then he described the hole itself, dug deep through thawed clay, peat, and ice. And finally, the contents: “a box with 48 cans of cabbage soup, a sealed tin box with 15 pounds of rye rusks [dry biscuits], a sealed tin box with 15 pounds of oatmeal, a soldered box containing about four pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of chocolate, seven plates and one brick of tea.”....