There have been many explorers throughout history, and while their exploits and adventures are often well-documented, there are often cracks and lost gaps in their stories. One area where this can be seen quite often is with their ends. Explorers back in older eras would often go missing or turn up dead in the middle of nowhere, with little to tell us of how they spent their desolate final days or moments. These are blanks in history we will never fill, yet sometimes there are interesting hints that turn up. One of these was the diary of a brave Artic explorer who died alone, but left behind a mysterious artifact that faintly illuminated his final hours.
One explorer who has remained rather obscure outside of his native land was the Greenland-born Inuit polar explorer Jørgen Brønlund. While his is not a name many will be familiar with, he was a key part of Greenland history, and in 1906 he found himself a part of the historical Danish Expedition to Northeast Greenland. Led by the Danish ethnologist Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and including the cartographer Niels Peter Høeg Hagen, the aim of the planned 3-year expedition was to venture out into the uncharted frozen wildlands of Greenland's Northeast Coast in an effort to map it out to determine whether a vast 19,000-square-mile swath of land called Peary Land, named after American explorer Robert E. Peary, who explored it for the first time around 1892, was an island or a peninsula. This was very important to Denmark at the time, as if it was an island it would go to the Americans, but if it was a peninsula would fall under Danish jurisdiction.
Brønlund’s job on the three-man sled team was to act as an Inuit interpreter, keep a diary of their travels, and drive and care for the sled dogs. Venturing out over the perpetually frozen rugged landscape, they managed to reach Independence Fjord, the head of which had been discovered by Peary. The team endured the perilous terrain, freezing cold, and the constant specter of exhaustion and starvation, ultimately able to map the entire fjord to show that Peary land was indeed a peninsula. It was a win for Denmark, but for Brønlund’s team dark days were ahead.
The team attempted to return to their base camp in Danmarkshavn, but encroaching summer weather caused a thaw that stranded them and their dog sleds at a fjord to await the return of colder weather and ice. However, by this point their supplies were stretched thin, and there was nothing at all to eat out in the bleak landscape around them. By the time fall came around and there was enough ice to push off once again, they were on the verge of starvation, battered by the elements and exhaustion, barely even able to stand as they set out once more on their sleds in November of 1907. They wouldn’t make it far before in quick succession both Niels Peter Høeg Hagen and expedition leader Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen died of a mix of exposure, hunger, and exhaustion within days of each other, leaving Brønlund to fend for himself. He would also find himself slowly succumbing to the elements, hunger, and frostbite, making his way to a cave near their depot in Lambert Land, where he would sit in the dank gloom to pen his final diary entry, which eerily reads:
I perished in 77° N lat., under the hardships of the return journey over the inland ice in November. I reached this place under a waning moon, and cannot go on, because of my frozen feet and the darkness. No food, no foot gear, and several hundred miles to the ship. The bodies of the others are in the middle of the fjord. Hagen died on November 15, Mylius-Erichsen some ten days later.
His body would not be found until the spring of following year, with the location of his fallen teammates a mystery as they were never found. The 172-page diary, which also contained the cartographical information which proved that Peary Land was a peninsula, was added to the collection at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, where it was found to contain a rather curious mystery. On the last page, beneath Brønlund’s last entry and signature, was found an anomalous “adhered black spot” appearing as a smeared splotch or smudge having a “fine fibrous and twined structure.” It was very mysterious, but for years there were no real efforts to figure out why that black spot was there, as it was thought that to do so would damage the priceless diary. One unnamed researcher who was very curious about it couldn’t stand it anymore, removing it with a pocket knife without permission in 1993 and sending it to the National Museum of Denmark for proper analysis.
At the time, researchers were unable to discover the chemical makeup of the strange spot, leaving its mystery to linger for decades before another crack was taken at it. In 2018, researchers used more advanced techniques and high-powered machinery at CERN in Switzerland to analyze the tiny sample at an atomic level. They found that the spot was composed of carbon, and the minerals calcite, rutile and zincite, which were often used as fillers in rubber production, as well as traces of vegetable oil, animal fat, and fish or whale oil, petroleum and human fecal matter. The research team came to the conclusion that Brønlund has likely tried to concoct a fuel with anything he at hand, including his own feces, in order to light a kerosene stove or burner, which in his freezing state he had spilled as he tried to desperately light it with trembling hands in the absence of metabolized alcohol to preheat the burner, and probably failed. Rather impressively, there are no pages missing from the diary, suggesting that he refused to use the paper as kindling for a fire. One of the researchers would say of this:
I think the diary was something he knew other people would read, so he would preserve that by all means. Just think of it: He realized he would die very soon, and he really protected his diary and the information they had gathered. You could say that the acts of Brønlund meant the expedition was fulfilled in a way, because the information got back.
We will never know what happened to this intrepid explorer in his last hours. This is a secret that only he and the vast expanse of ice around him knows. Nor will we ever likely know what happened to his companions, their bodies never found and lost to the wilderness without any last burial or goodbye to their families. However, the seemingly solved mystery of the black spot on the diary gives us a peek into Brønlund's frantic final hours upon this earth, lost and alone within that dank cave, his warmth ebbing, and it is a testament to the dangers these early explorers faced.