The best-laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft aglay
The first recorded balloon flight occurred in France in 1783, inspired by the inventiveness and bravery of Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, pioneers of the hot air balloon. Aerialists from many other countries soon rose up on the scene, among them a young Salomon August Andrée. Salo (his friends might have called him that for short, so we will, too) was born in Gränna, Sweden, Although he was raised there, Salo was born with wanderlust and eventually journeyed to Stockholm and entered the prestigious Royal Institute of Technology at the tender age of 14 (he was very bright, indeed). There, Salo became aware of his passion to explore the world.
Two years after graduating, Salo went abroad, attending the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. While working as a janitor at the exposition he met John Wise, an experienced balloonist with over 400 lift-offs and, most importantly, 400 safe landings, under his belt. The young traveler developed an instant desire to go up in one, and this chance encounter was later to prove to be his undoing, but I am getting ahead of myself. Salo was strong of mind and body, and after returning to Sweden, he decided upon the life of an adventurer. He soon joined the Swedish team for the international Arctic Expedition of 1882, working in Spitsbergen as an engineer. This gave him a taste for life in the far north and honed his skills at surviving in bitter cold conditions. Several years later, Andrée purchased an inflatable balloon of his own, and named it the Svea (that’s Swedish for Sweden). Instead of hot air, it would be filled with hydrogen, a fateful choice. In the intervening years, Salo made 9 successful assents and descents (some punctuated by narrow escapes from impending disaster) in preparation for his historic attempt at crossing the North Pole.
For the expedition, itself, Andrée assembled an able bodied team of explorers, including Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel (today’s equivalents affectionately refer to themselves as "balloonatics"), and obtained the necessary funds to support their efforts from the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences (equivalent to about $35,000 US).
After much preparation, on the morning of July 11, 1897, the three men set out from Dane Island in their new balloon, The Eagle, to try and become the first people to "discover" the North Pole. Actually, the Inuits and Aluets had most likely already been there, but they left no record; flags, monuments and such were not their thing. The North Pole was a cruel environment to contend with. Many an explorer had succumbed to the unforgiving ice packs, or were attacked and eaten by the ever-present polar bears. Incidentally, polar bears and Bengal tigers are the only two land animals that routinely stalk humans as a food source. In any case, the trio of adventurers were on their way and there was no turning back. They had brought with them the following items: lots of food, a camera, film and supplies for developing it, several rifles and ammo, a tent, a small life boat, and navigational instruments to determine their exact location. Yet, for all this, their lives would be lost due to a freakish change in the usually reliable warm July weather, of all things.
We know approximately what happened to the expedition because Andrée and Strindberg kept separate logbooks. The following account of their fate is surmised from those notes. Soon after departing, the balloon flew into a cold heavy fog and mist. The snow began to accumulate on the top half of the balloon, and caused the craft to drift downward, dangerously low over the water. Unlike a hot air balloon, there was no way to heat the hydrogen. The guide ropes that dragged behind the round craft were used to determine the direction of its progress, and they occasional became frozen in the ice, slowing the balloon down even further. Eventually they could no longer stay aloft, and 65 hours into the flight of the Eagle, they landed on an ice pack well north of their point of departure. A welcoming committee of one was there to greet them. Lucky for them their rifles were loaded and ready to fire. The three stranded explorers were thus able to fend off the aggressive, hungry animals. In fact, they shot numerous bears and ate them. Fortunately, they were able to cook, as they had ample supplies - coffee, fine wines, sugar, oatmeal, syrup, and foie gras. Foie gras?! What were they thinking, an instant celebration after conquering the North Pole? Now that’s confidence.
They wandered across the ice flows for months, heading generally south before finally arriving in early October at White Island. During that arduous three months, the party experienced occasional bouts of diarrhea (hmmmmm... one of the first symptoms of clinical trichinellosis; the one most clinicians are least likely to associate with the early enteral phase of trichinellosis). The logs of both Strindberg and Andrée stop on October 7th. No hint as to their demise is offered in them, but earlier, on September 24th, they recorded having shot a bear. They may have eaten it mostly raw, even though they still had adequate amounts of paraffin cooking fuel. Incidentally, the word Eskimo (and English moniker) means “raw meat eater” in the Inuit language, and many an Inuit or Aleut has died from eating raw polar bear meat. Andrée recounts in one of his early journal entries that the men enjoyed the taste of raw bear meat. So, a distinct possibility is that they all died of acute trichinellosis, or why else recount this fascinating story here if there weren’t a hint of a worm connection? It’s unlikely that they died in their sleep due to exposure to the extreme cold, as one Norwegian fisherman speculated. In fact, Strindberg died first (a grave was found next to the tent), then the other two passed away sometime later inside the tent. The cause of death, however, remains unsolved. It might be a not-so-clear-cut-case of men eat bear, then bear parasites eat men. The skeletons of all three explorers were found on White Island some 30 years later and returned to Norway. All were given a well deserved hero’s burial.
With just skeletons to work with, a PCR test on them would probably not yield meaningful results as to whether the men had been infected with Trichinella. Too bad that none of the polar bear meat survived, either. However, this points up an important truth of nature: nothing is wasted. Only the bones remain to tell their story, while Trichinella lives on in the Nurse cells of all scavengers of the far North. We can only imagine that if Andree was, in fact infected, the progeny of parasites from his own muscle tissue may still be telling the story of the flight of The Eagle to their newborn larvae.