A Yankee Notebook: A tip of the cap to a legendary adventurer

By WILLEM LANGE

For the Valley News

Published: 02-21-2024 4:36 PM

During the excitement of Valentine’s Day and the nocturnal activities of the characters who covered the windows of downtown Montpelier with hundreds of red hearts, a significant birthday passed almost unnoticed.

While here in the north country of New England a mediocre winter defies the prodding of the strengthening sunbeams, far to our south a lonely grave on South Georgia Island endures similar weather under the weakening beams of a retreating sun. Tourists from cruise ships — about 10,000 a year; the grave isn’t all that lonely — stop to pay their respects to the man buried there, and traditionally share their whiskey toasts with him by pouring a tot onto the grave. The gravel over the coffin below (soil is in short supply there) ensures that the decedent has shared many a toast over the years

But back to the birthday. Ernest Shackleton was born on Feb. 15, 1874, just 150 years ago, in County Kildare. Though his family was of English origin, he often called himself an Irishman. A disinclined student, he was nevertheless a voracious reader at an early age, and like many of us early readers, was drawn strongly to stories of epic voyages and explorations.

Shackleton left school at 16, joined the merchant marine, and spent the next four years as an apprentice on a square-rigged sailing vessel. He earned his master mariner’s ticket at 24, which qualified him to command any British ship.

A chance encounter and friendship with the son of an English financier and backer of polar expeditions led to inclusion in the crew of Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition. It was an eye-opening experience for Shackleton and the beginning of a cooling between the two men. Scott maintained traditional Royal Navy discipline, somewhat different from the more laid-back merchant marine practice. During a sledging trip toward the pole that established a new farthest-south record, Shackleton “broke down” (probably an early warning sign of the heart disease that eventually killed him) and couldn’t hold up his end of the work. Back at base, Scott “invalided” him back to England on the supply ship. There is suspicion that this reflected Scott’s dislike of his subordinate’s greater popularity among the crew. Shackleton was a popular, charming fellow.

Most of us are familiar with his most famous expedition, whose goal was a trans-Antarctic trek, but whose outcome, after its ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed in the ice, was a laborious wait for open water, a hazardous and freezing trip in the lifeboats through ice floes to desolate Elephant Island, a 700-mile voyage in a tiny ship’s boat across the Drake Passage, and finally a pioneering mountain trek across South Georgia Island to a whaling station. The return of the expedition without a single man lost was a marvel for which Shackleton (called “the Boss” by his crew) will be forever remembered.

This week, two friends of mine are headed for South Georgia and Elephant islands. I was supposed to be with them, but years of cancellations and apparent financial difficulties with the outfitter made me nervous; so I asked for my money back and will have to be with them in spirit.

Speaking of which, they located two bottles of Shackleton Scotch, the Boss’s personally designed blend, which is still available, and they sent me one. So on the day I know they’re scheduled to visit the grave, I’ll ceremoniously open it and gravely (sorry; I couldn’t resist), but cheerfully toast the memory of a truly great leader of men and an inspiration to us all. Cheers, Sir Ernest!

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