Grab a seat and get ready for the other story of early-1900s explorer Ernest Shackleton: that is, the adventures of the 20th-century explorer’s cohorts in what’s known — but not well known — as the Ross Sea Party.
To be sure, this was decidedly not the kind of margarita-fueled sea party Jimmy Buffet or Kenny Chesney sang about. The Ross Sea Party was tasked with laying out supplies for Shackleton and his men as they attempted to cross the continent in the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Storyteller Lawrence Howard of Portland Story Theater, who captivated Bend audiences in 2014 with the more famous aspect of Shackleton’s time in Antarctica, will make his annual journey to Bend this weekend for the latest installment of his Armchair Adventurer series, in performance Saturday at Cascades Theatre in Bend.
Odds are, Howard will have a much easier time getting here than the Ross Sea Party had just over 100 years ago.
“To cross the continent is about 1,800 miles at the narrowest. (Shackleton) knew that there was no way that his party could carry enough food and fuel with them from the outset to make it all the way across unaided,” said Howard.
During his Nimrod Expedition in 1908-09, Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier as a route to the South Pole. “Almost all the subsequent expeditions used it. (Robert Falcon) Scott used Shackleton’s route in 1911 to get to the South Pole,” Howard said. “That was a convenient place and dramatic landmark, and so Shackleton arranged for this other party to lay a series of depots, one at every degree of latitude … each degree being 60 miles.”
What the men in the party didn’t know, is that Shackleton wouldn’t reach that food and equipment.
“(While) everybody knows about Shackleton and what happened to him, and his guys and how the Endurance was crushed and they lived on the ice and then they went to Elephant Island, and then Shackleton made that heroic open-boat journey back to South Georgia Island, nobody really knows the story of the Ross Sea Party,” said Howard, who’s been fascinated by Shackleton since being a teenager.
Though rarely mentioned in the same breath as Shackleton, their ordeal is no less fascinating, said Howard. “They had a harrowing adventure of their own,” he added. “There were 28 men in the party, and while 10 of them were on shore, a gale sprung up and blew their ship away … in May of 1915. Their ship was locked up in the ice for 10 months before it was able to break free and go back to New Zealand to refit and resupply.”
The 10 were essentially marooned, “and the thing is that almost all the gear and supplies and equipment was on-board the ship, and now it’s gone. They have to improvise and scrounge,” Howard said.
Fortunately, they were able to pilfer from leftover and discarded equipment and supplies at three huts left from previous expeditions.
If you read the novel or the film version of “The Martian,” their survival efforts and ingenuity might sound a little like astronaut Mark Watney’s appropriation of old equipment from Pathfinder lander and the Sojourner rover mission.
But that’s the stuff of fiction — the Ross Sea Party’s was anything but.
“They actually do put together enough food and fuel to complete their mission and lay the depots for Shackleton,” Howard said. “They all suffer terribly from scurvy, and it’s really a race against death, which several of them lose. And of course, the heartbreaking irony of it is that Shackleton never came to get those caches of food and fuel.”
In fact, “The really heartbreaking irony is that Shackleton’s ship on the other side of the continent in the Weddell Sea, was already locked in the ice before these guys even started. Had they any way to communicate, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble because Shackleton’s not coming, so, you know, abort the mission,” Howard said.
Instead, they worked under the belief “Shackleton’s very life depended on them completing their mission at all costs. These guys are the product of a couple hundred years of English stiff upper lip, do your duty, and so forth. The effort they make to lay these depots is truly, truly heroic,” said Howard, who last year performed his whale of a tale about The Essex, the whaling ship disaster and survival story that inspired “Moby Dick.”
Howard’s return to tell his newest Armchair Adventurer story is once again being presented by Solo Speak, whose founder, Shay Knorr, plans to move to Bend this spring.
But fear not, intrepid lovers of Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series. Howard hopes to bring future shows in Bend.
“I hope so. I hope to forge a relationship with the Cascades Theatre people,” he said. “I love to come visit there. It’s just a really important event on my calendar every year and do the Armchair show.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, email@example.com