A Note from Cottonwood Corners

South Dakotans reading their morning newspaper in early March of this year learned that the wreckage of the Endurance, the lost vessel of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton had been located at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. It was located 9,842 feet below the surface of the sea at the South Pole.

Searchers located it on March 5, 2022, after it became trapped in a sea of ice and sank off the coast of Antarctica.  It was found about four miles south of the position originally recorded by the ship’s captain, when it sank on November 21, 1915.

Shackleton had a long history of interest in Antarctica and had already made two trips to the area before 1914.  After the Norwegian Amundsen (December 1911) and British Naval Officer Robert Scott (January 1912) had reached the South Pole, Shackleton planned to cross the Antarctic continent from the one coast to the other via the South Pole.  This 2,000 mile trek would have taken them from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea at McMurdo Sound.

“Sir,” Shackleton wrote in a letter to the London Times in the middle of 1913, “It has been an open secret for some time past that I have been desirous of leading another expedition to the South Polar regions.  I am glad now to be able to state that, through the generosity of a friend, I can announce that an expedition will start next year with the object of crossing the South Polar continent from sea to sea.”

He sailed from England to the South Pole on August 8, 1914.  The Endurance carried Shackleton and 27 men (plus one stowaway who became the ship’s steward), 69 dogs, and a tomcat erroneously dubbed “Mrs. Chippy.”

They arrived at South Georgia Island on November 5, 1914 where a Norwegian whaling station was located.  They learned from the whalers that it was a particularly heavy ice year to the south.  “It is the worst ever” was the comment from the oldest captains at the base and the Weddell Sea was known to be particularly ice bound at the best of times.

They left South Georgia on the 5th of December 1914.  Extra clothing and supplies were taken from the island in the event that the Endurance might have to winter in the frozen ice, unable to reach the continent.

The explorers entered the pack ice near the South Sandwich Island in the Atlantic Ocean on December 7, 1914.  As they got closer to Antarctica, for forty-two days they drifted with the pack ice until they became trapped and unable to move on January 18, 1915.  They were stopped in the ice off the Caird coast and it was forty-two days since they had left the whaling station at South Georgia Island.  Five months and ten days earlier they were still at home in England with their family and friends.

On October 27, 1915, the pressure from the pack ice and the unpredictable sea crushed the ship and it was abandoned.  The Endurance was a 360 ton, three-mast vessel with auxiliary engines which gave her a ten-knot speed.  Built in Norway with “wooden walls” two feet thick of solid oak, it slipped below the icy surface on November 21st.

Before the ship sank, three lifeboats, clothing, dogs and the cat, food, and supplies had been removed.  Between November 21, 1915 and April 9, 1916 the three small boats stuck in the ice floe along the coast became their home.  After the ship sank, Shackleton’s efforts to save and rescue his crew is one of the greatest examples of grit, leadership, and determination in the annals of exploration.

First, the crew survived for five harrowing days at sea to eventually land their three boats at Elephant Island.  During that time, those in their boat were often unable to see and know the location of their colleagues in the other boats.  It is a miracle that all three boats reached their destination under the most unfavorable conditions possible.

They finally arrived at Elephant Island on April 19th and established a makeshift camp.  Then, Shackleton and five others in a small boat navigated a treacherous 800-mile journey to reach help on South Georgia Island.  This open-sea journey, navigated by Capt. Frank Worsley, is considered “one of the epic small boat voyages ever undertaken across some of the steepest, harshest seas in the world.”

After leading four separate rescue expeditions, Shackleton succeeded in delivering his crew from Elephant Island to Chile.  They all survived their two year and 22 day hardship.

What could have been one of the greatest adventure stories in the history of exploration was a dismal failure.  Endurance never reached its destination; however, it was not because of anything those men did or didn’t do.  Their enemy was nature and the elements which they could not control.  Still, the story of Shackleton and his men survives today as a stirring inspiration for all of us and for all time.

Perhaps the discovery of the Endurance has a symbolic message for us today in a world which is mired down in lies, mediocrity, complacency, selfishness, materialism, and greed.  It is important that we all remember that the human soul can never be satisfied with a mediocre existence and life without a purpose or challenge.  The Endurance was discovered on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s funeral.

An examination of South Dakota newspapers during those 1914 – 1916 years reveal that South Dakotans were well aware of the unexplainable courage of these explorers.  Even the smallest weeklies regularly placed it in a prominent place on their front page.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on April 13, 2022