The last expedition of E.V. Toll: in search of a legendary land

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Sannikov Land was one of the greatest myths of Arctic geography and remaining fascinating to this day. Yakov Sannikov was the first one to report the island’s existence in 1810. Sannikov was a Russian merchant and Arctic explorer. He stated seeing a ‘bluish fog’ to the northeast of the New Siberian Islands, through the fog, he believed he could see an island of indeterminate size north of Kotelny Island.

Sannikov was not a novice sailor. In 1800, at the age of twenty, he had discovered and charted Stolbovoy Island in the Arctic; in 1805, he did the same for Faddeyevsky Island. A merchant as well as an explorer, Sannikov was familiar with the New Siberian Islands and the northern Arctic; in 1809-1810, he had been part of the Gedenschtrom expedition to further explore Faddeyevsky Island, in the course of which he discovered Bunge Land. Sannikov died before having an opportunity to return to the site of his sighting. Others searched for it on subsequent voyages to the area, but the existence of the island was not confirmed; however, under the name Sannikov Island (or Sannikov Land), it appeared on Russian maps of the Arctic for the next century.

The mustachioed Baron Eduard von Toll. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Convictions as to the existence of this area resulted in the organization of various expeditions of discovery. Among these efforts, the one mounted on the greatest scale with a view to Sannikov Land finally being discovered was the 1901-1902 expedition of Eduard Toll. Eduard Gustav von Toll, born in Reval, Esthonia, on March 24, 1858, and working at the University of Tartu – or Dorpat, as it was then called – went down in history as the most ardent hunter of Sannikov Land. Toll was convinced that during his two earlier expeditions, he had seen from afar the mythical land, the phantom island claimed to lie in the New Siberian archipelago. After years of persuasion, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) finally agreed to sponsor Toll’s expedition to find Sannikov. Aboard the ship Zarya, Toll set sail into the Arctic. Zarya is a Norwegian schooner with a displacement of 1,085 tons, which had been reinforced and adapted for sojourn in the Arctic by Colin Archer, builder of Nansen’s Fram. 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 a Turkic ethnic group who mainly live in the Republic of Sakha in the Russian Federation) crew members set out by dogsled and kayak to the far-north Bennett Island. 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 would not 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.

From the geoportal of the Society

In 1903, a search expedition led by Lieutenant Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak traveled to Bennett Island and found the place where Toll’s camp was located, as well as Toll’s diaries, sketches, and collections he had left behind. The collections, consisting of four wooden cases and a large basket of bark filled with rock specimens, were rescued in 1913 by the Taimyr expedition under Lieutenant Boris Vilkitski. The crew built a memorial to Toll on the northeastern shore of Bennett Island – a monumental cross bearing an inscription on a copper plate.

The geological discoveries of the Zarya expedition brought a confirmation of Toll’s earlier observations that the New Siberian Islands are structurally related to the adjoining continent land masses, to which they were formerly attached. Additional data concerning the geological age and the stratigraphy of the islands were furnished, and new contributions were made to the knowledge of their Tertiary and post-Tertiary flora and fauna. Toll apparently considered the New Siberian Islands an authentic museum of the pre-glacial and glacial areas, affording the widest possible scope for the study of layers of fossil ice and of fossilized animal and plant remains.

Bennett Island, Baron Eduard von Toll’s last known location. Wikimedia Commons

Toll’s death paved his legendary status in Russia, which continued to sponsor searches for Sannikov into the 1930s. Toll’s diary, according to the will, was passed on to his widow. Emmeline Toll. She then published the diary in 1909 in Berlin.

In 1938 Arctic aviation pilots proved that Sannikov Land does not exist. Some scholars hold the version that the island ghost still existed in the 19-20 centuries, but was later destroyed by the sea. Some generous commentators have suggested that the search for Sannikov Land was not entirely baseless. Perhaps, they said, Yakov Sannikov had seen a mass consisted of fossilized ice or permafrost, which was gradually melted and disappeared or subsequently destroyed and submerged by marine activity. The researchers were able to detect underwater bank, which can be seen on a topographic map. It represents a shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which is substantially less than the depth of the surrounding depths. The non-existence of Sannikov Land from the point of view of geography, however, has not prevented it from winning a permanent position for itself in pop culture, through its inspiration of books, films, and computer games. Sannikov Land survived as a Russian myth, a children’s tale, a 1926 novel by science-fiction writer Vladimir Obruchev, and a 1973 Soviet film, “The Sannikov Land”. 

The ill-fated Baron Eduard von Toll has been recognized for his numerous contributions to the field of geology and has had a Russian icebreaker named after him. Yakov Sannikov vanished from history not long after his claimed discovery, but his name lives on in the eponymous, if non-existent, island. There is also a strait near Kotelny Island known as Sannikov Strait.       

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