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BUITENHUIS: A Grand Haven doctor's 19th-century quest to the North Pole

• Dec 22, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Adventure and discovery have continuously captured the attention of humankind throughout history. Curiosity and fame drove humans across oceans, through the vast wilderness, and even to the moon.

Walter Wellman, a newsman with the Chicago Herald, viewed the North Pole as an opportunity to make his own news in the world. Wellman had made a previous attempt to reach the Pole in 1892, but, hoping he could find the missing Salomon August Andrée, made preparations for another expedition. Andrée was a Swedish engineer whose plan to fly over the pole by way of a hydrogen balloon ended in disaster in 1897.

Wellman knew that the discovery of Andrée and his team would be a highly celebrated event. This had been a driving factor for Wellman’s second polar expedition in 1898.

Soon word of Wellman’s polar expedition reached the ears of Dr. Edward Hofma. Hofma was a physician in Grand Haven, Michigan, with an adventurous spirit. Having already spent a few years traveling through Europe, Hofma wrote to Wellman to request that he join the expedition. Delighted with the enthusiasm shown by Hofma, Wellman invited him along as the group’s physician.

The team of nine sailed aboard the Frithjof from Tromsø, Norway, first across the White Sea to Arkhangelsk, Russia, on June 26, 1898, to add 83 Siberian draft dogs to the team. Before embarking north, Hofma took advantage of the warm Russian summer, as he would later recall swimming on the Fourth of July. It would only be a short time later that he would spend about four months without any sunlight in temperatures ranging from 5-16 degrees below zero.

From Russia with dogs, they sailed a difficult journey north toward the archipelago, a cluster of islands, known as Franz Josef Land. They originally anchored at Cape Flora, where stood the remains of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition headquarters from earlier in the decade. It was here that Wellman believed they would find Andrée, who knew of the shelter at this location and had last been seen headed in this direction.

To their disappointment, they did not find Andrée. The remains of Andrée and his expedition were not discovered until 1930 on Kvitøya, a western island of the Svalbard archipelago, about 250 miles east of Cape Flora.

After concluding a brief search for Andrée’s expedition, Wellman and his team salvaged what they could from the Jackson-Harmsworth house and sailed northwest to Cape Tegetthoff on Hall Island (one of the southernmost islands in the archipelago). It was here that Hofma and the others began construction for the expedition’s home base.

During this time, Wellman had sent his second in command, American meteorologist E.B. Baldwin, along with two of the Norwegians, Paul Bjørvig and Bernt Bentsen, to establish an outpost as far north as possible. This would serve as a jumping point for Wellman as he made his “dash for the pole.” Establishing this could greatly improve Wellman’s odds to reach the Pole due to the small window of opportunity.

From April to September, the archipelago experiences 24 hours of daylight, transforming the snow into a slushy, sticky mess during the summer months. The Arctic Ocean is also not completely frozen during this time. But when the ocean freezes in the winter, the region experiences about four months without daylight. This left Wellman a narrow gap in the spring, where there was enough sunlight to travel, the snow had not yet turned to slush and the ocean was still frozen. Trekking through slush, they were only able to reach Cape Heller, less than 70 miles north of Tegetthoff.

They brought with them plenty of storable food and the islands were full of wildlife, especially polar bears, which they could hunt for food. During the coldest days, temperatures were about zero Fahrenheit inside their hut. The men bathed regularly, explored the areas outside the camp and were constantly engaging themselves in various activities for entertainment.

According to Marjorie Hendricks, in her book, “The Hofmas: Edward & Elizabeth,” Hofma and another member of the group made daily observations of the aurora displays, cloud formations, wind velocities, air and water temperatures, salinity of the sea, barometric pressures, and the effect of the aurora borealis on the magnetic needle. Wellman later wrote that, “Dr. Hofma, medical officer, naturalist and zoologist of the expedition, kept a most interesting record concerning the flora and fauna of the region.”

Despite all the preparation and funding funneled in, Wellman’s expedition ended in failure. Horror greeted his arrival at Cape Heller on Feb. 27, when he discovered that Bentsen had died almost two months prior. After burying his body, the party continued, but made it only to Rudolph Island — northernmost of the archipelago.

Tragedy struck twice and the party was forced to turn back toward headquarters. Wellman suffered a compound fracture in his leg, and an “ice-quake” broke apart a large amount of pack-ice on the eastern side of Rudolph Island. Once the party had returned, Hofma tended to Wellman’s leg while Baldwin and the rest of the party spent the next few months exploring and discovering new islands in the archipelago.

When Wellman returned to the United States, he downplayed the expedition’s original ambitions, claiming his main intention was to explore the Franz Josef Land archipelago more thoroughly than had been before. But, for Hofma, upon his return to Grand Haven, it had been a grand adventure that he would gladly retell the rest of his life.

— By Chad Buitenhuis, who works in curator services for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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