Russian rescue expedition to Bennett island

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In 1900-1902, Eduard Baron von Toll, a Baltic German geologist and Arctic explorer, headed an expedition of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences to the New Siberian Islands, the Russian Polar Expedition on Zarya. Zarya was 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 Farm. Equipment and provisions were abundant, and the staff was competent, including one of the key members, an oceanographer Lieutenant Alexander Kolchak.

Toll’s expedition essentially aimed for further and more extensive exploration of the New Siberian Islands, more particularly of Sannikov Land, which he believed to form part of an unknown archipelago in the Polar Sea. During this voyage and particularly during the wintering close the northwestern part of the Taymyr Peninsula and the western part of the Kotelny Island, Eduard Toll conducted extensive hydrographical, geological, and geographical research. Due to extreme ice conditions the expedition had to spend two winters in the region of the bleak New Siberian Archipelago. After considerable hardship, Kolchak returned to Saint Petersburg in December 1902 while Eduard Toll with three other members went further north. The attempts to reach Sannikov Land continued while Zarya was trapped in fast ice. In the end, Eduard von Toll traveled to Bennett Island by sledge and kayak along with three expedition members. They vanished forever while travelling away from Bennett Island towards the south on loose ice floes. No advance traces of the four men have ever been found.

On 9 December 1902, Alexander Kolchak and two other key members of the previous expedition, Fyodor Matisen and Konstantin Vollosovich, were invited to the Academy Meeting devoted to the organization of a rescue expedition. Kolchak proposed to reach Bennett Island on boats and then use dogsleds. His plan was deemed equally dangerous to the decision of Toll to split from the previous expedition; yet it was approved by the Academician, with Kolchak being appointed as the expedition head. To recruit men for his dangerous expedition, Kolchak hired six Pomors. In Arkhangelsk, he received the news that one group to be rescued managed to reach the mainland from New Siberia; however, the fate of Toll was still unknown.

Kolchak was joined by two members of the previous expedition, boatswain Nikifor Begichev and helmsman Vasily Zheleznyakov. Begichev criticized the plan of Kolchak to bring rescue boats from Mezen and convinced him to use the whaleboat left on Zarya, the ship of the previous expedition that was abandoned at Tiksi Bay. On 9 February Kolchak arrived in Irkutsk, and on 8 March all 17 expedition members gathered in Yakutsk. From there they went down the river Aldan and its tributary Nera and reached Verhojansk. After crossing the Kular Ridge, on 10 April they arrived in the village Kazachy on the Yana River.

In early may, the expedition reached Adzhergaydahe, the northernmost settlement of the continent, and on 5 May began its journey to the New Siberian Islands. The expedition was equipped with 10 sleds, each dragged by 13 dogs. The boat was transported by two sledges and 30 dogs, who were helped by people, yet they refused to pull for longer than six hours. On 23 May the expedition members reached Kotelny Island, where they engaged in hunting and fitting of the boat while waiting for the ice to melt for navigation. By 18 July, the waters were cleared from ice, and the team split in two groups: seven men sailed ahead on the whaleboat and helped the others to find a path through the ice fields.

On 26 July, the expedition met Sergei Tolstov, a sailor from the 1900–1902 expedition who was left on Faddeyevsky Peninsula to wait for Toll. Further on Cape Vysoky they met Brusnev, who was also left by the previous expedition to assist Toll, and rested at his camp for a day. From Cape Vysoky, the team traveled through open waters, using sail and oars, and on 4 August reached the Bennett Island. There, on Cape Emma, Kolchak found a bottle with a note from Toll and map of the island. Using the map, Kolchak, Begichev and Inkov went to the other side of the island, where Toll made a camp. In the camp, Kolchak found samples collected by Toll, some of his geodesic instruments, and a diary, which contained a summary of his exploration of the island. Toll wrote that the island has an area of about 230 square kilometers and is elevated 457 meters above mean sea level. He described its fauna and geological structure and noted the presence of bones of mammoth and other quaternary animals. The fauna included bears, walruses, and a herd of 30 reindeer, with bird flocks flying over from north to south. Toll concluded that they are heading south, all are healthy, and provision will suffice for 14–20 days.

Kolchak spent three days searching for traces of Toll all over the island. Its north-eastern tip was named after Emmeline Toll, and south-eastern tip after Academician Chernyshev. Two hills were named as De Long Mountain and Mount Toll, and glaciers on their top were called after Frederick Seeberg, astronomer and magnetologist who joined Toll in his last voyage. Kolchak wanted to measure the height of the glaciers, but his aneroid was damaged by his fall in icy water. Kolchak’s expedition also surveyed all New Siberian Islands, but still found no traces of Toll and decided that he vanished while navigating in between them.

With the autumn approaching, Kolchak decided to return to the continent with the first favorable wind. On 7 August, the whaleboat departed from Bennett, and by 14 August reached the camp of Brusnev on New Siberia, where Kolchak made a three-day stop. On 27 August, the expedition landed on Kotelnikov Island, where it spent two months waiting for the waters to freeze to continue on sleds.

On 26 January Kolchak reached Yakutsk, from where he sent a telegram to the Academy of Sciences. The telegram said that Toll explored the Bennett Island between 21 July and 26 October 1902, and then left it and disappeared without a trace; it was published by many contemporary newspapers.

Kolchak’s expedition completed its task and returned without loss. In addition to providing plausible evidence to the fate of Toll, it provided valuable data to the geography and ice formation in the region. In recognition of his achievements, in 1906 Kolchak was elected a member of the Russian Geographical Society and bestowed with its highest award, the Constantine Medal, “for taking part in the expedition of Baron Toll and for the journey to the island of Bennett”.

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