Halfway through, in the Kara Sea, the ship was frozen fast in pack ice that began to draw it implacably northward. The crew endured two winters at the mercy of the shifting ice. In early 1914, with the vessel apparently drifting ever closer to the North Pole, the navigator, Valerian Albanov, had had enough. With part of the crew, he embarked on a grueling march over the ice, of which he was one of only two survivors. The St. Anna itself, along with the remaining crew, disappeared.
That basic tale, recounted in Albanov's celebrated memoirs, was the source for Veniamin Kaverin's novel "Two Captains," known to every Russian child and twice adapted for the screen. "I will find the expedition!" says the novel's hero. "I don't believe that it has vanished without a trace!"
Russian explorer Evgenii Fershter felt the same way, and he started planning a search mission for the remains of the St. Anna and her crew in 2005. Another Arctic expert, Oleg Prodan, joined the effort and became the leader of this summer's expedition.
"The St. Anna is probably lost forever," Fershter says. He suspects that the pack ice carried the ship to unfrozen waters where, crushed by the floes, it sank. As a result, Prodan says, "What happened to Brusilov and his crew will probably remain a mystery. But it may be possible to discover what happened to the people who left with the navigator, Albanov, to find land."
Albanov's memoirs leave much untold, including the dangerous tensions Fershter and others believe flared on the doomed ship in the endless night of the Arctic winter of 1913-1914. Whatever the conflict between Albanov and Brusilov, the crew of the St. Anna was divided in April 1914. Albanov led 13 men on a fantastic trek over more than 250 miles of floating ice toward the archipelago of Franz Josef Land off the northern coast of Siberia. Their goal was Nortbruk Island, where they hoped to find supplies at the encampment of a British expedition led by Frederick Jackson.
For more than two months they traversed the twilit ice, hampered by ridges, crevices and shifting floes. Two of the men fled, taking with them food, guns and the group's only compass. Albanov's men staved off starvation by hunting polar bears. But on July 8, they reached Alexander Island, the farthest northwestern reach of Franz Josef Land, where they found the two runaways. Despite high emotions, Albanov allowed them to rejoin the group.
Albanov divided his men, taking three in a pair of handmade kayaks while the rest continued on foot over islands and ice crossings. Gliding over the frozen waters, the kayaks lost each other in the sea mists. Only Albanov and Alexander Konrad, a ship's hand, reached Jackson's camp.
In a wild stroke of luck, a ship from another Arctic voyage pulled into the camp for fuel and rescued Albanov and Konrad. They sailed back to find their colleagues, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Using satellite maps and other technology to evaluate the terrain, Fershter and his colleagues had charted the land party's most likely route and determined to follow in their footsteps. With modern equipment, they faced few of the travails suffered by Albanov's party, although Fershter recalls "70 mph winds that made pitching camp an adventure."
Their first find was the body of one of the lost seamen. Nearby, they found the crew's belongings: a bucket, rifle cartridges, glasses made by the ship's engineer from bottles of rum, a knife, snowshoes, a pocket watch and a spoon with the initials of one of the crewmen. "We all grew up with the story of 'Two Captains,' " Prodan says. "Grown men were overwhelmed, filled with wonder to find and touch what they read about as children."
Near the body lay something still more intriguing: a well-preserved diary page from May 1913, when the whole crew was still aboard the St. Anna. Supplies were already running low ("today we got our last brick of tobacco; the matches ran out long ago"). A polar bear that approached the ship was killed to feed the crew. Capt. Brusilov, somewhat recovered from an unspecified malady, was carried out to inspect his vessel. The diary offers a window into daily life in the most extreme conditions.
The team found three more documents, including part of a notebook whose pages they did not try to peel open, but sent back for examination by experts. "We found over 10 written pages in all," Prodan reports.
Prodan and Fershter agree that their "discoveries raise as many questions as they answer." It is unlikely, for example, that the man whose body they found froze to death a mere six miles from Cape Neale, yet the terrain there posed no dangers and the remains show no signs of a predator's teeth. It was too close to their starting point to be a camp, and yet many of the group's crucial possessions were left there.
The team raised a memorial cross for the dead crewman before returning to the mainland. In the coming weeks, the recovered documents will be read. They may provide answers to these and to haunting questions about the drama played out among the crew in their last days on the ship.
Next summer, the team hopes to return to seek the remaining crewmen and further evidence of their fate. The St. Anna's mysteries may yet be brought to light, almost a century later.