The Arctic Grail


Subzero Reading

When the temperature dips below 0 degrees F and I happen to be between books, it’s time for an Ice Age book.

There are only a limited amount of science fiction novels that fit that requirement — especially in an age where global warming is feared.

I’ve read Robert Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze. (Actually, along with his Revolt on Alpha C, the books that really introduced me to science fiction.) It has a group of exiles from underground New York City circa 2650 venturing to the surface to see if the glaciers are residing. It was the first time I heard of judo too.

I’ve read John Gribbin and Doug Orgill’s The Sixth Winter which may have established the new Ice Age clichés of Eskimos and wolves making appearances.  (See the execrable film The Day After Tomorrow for a recent example.) It has also the “dancers”, tornadoes of wind that instantly freeze things — thus explaining mammoths frozen with summer vegetation in their months.

I’ve read Richard Moran’s not so good The Empire of Ice and Earth WinterBesides a plucky couple who help save things with massive greenhouses and diversion of the Gulf Stream, it also has Eskimos and wolves.

I’ve read Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn’s Fallen Angels. It has attempts to stop global warming crashing the climate into an Ice Age.

I even thought about finally finishing Silverberg’s distant future New Springtime series. But I wanted to read the Bison editions and didn’t have them to hand. Also, the series didn’t really quite fit my mood since it has non-human characters. I wanted humans in the cold and under duress.

I was not, however, desperate enough to take The Great Los Angeles Blizzard off the shelf.

So, I turned to an old interest of mine: polar exploration.

When I was a kid, I read and re-read an illustrated book of polar explorations. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate the book. I suspect it was one of those history books  for young readers the 1950s and 1960s produced so many of. It was probably an American Heritage or Smithsonian title.

I suppose the pictures and maps and tales of Scott and Shackleton and the vanished Franklin expedition struck my fancy especially hard because, growing up in the Dakotas, I could relate a whole lot more to the harsh setting than I could tropical tales of exploration.

I moved on to juvenile books on Robert Scott and Earnest Shackleton, but after junior high school, other interests took over.

I still watched the occasional movie and documentary on the subject: The Last Place on EarthShackleton, The Greely Expedition, and a couple of documentaries on the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

I’d even bought books on the Shackleton expedition including a collection of remarkable photos taking during that epic tale of survival. And I had read Dan Simmons wonderful, fantastic take on the Franklin Expedition in The Terror.

I’d even purchased Berton’s book a couple of years after it came out, but, typically, it was one of those books that sat on my shelves for decades before being finally read.

Review: The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton

It is now one hundred and seven days since I have seen printed words.

So said explorer George Tyson while adrift on an ice floe for six months in Baffin Bay in the winter of 1872-73.

Being deprived of reading material is the least of the horrors in these pages. There are long winters of isolation, abandonment of ice-locked ships, murder, mutiny, madness, and, yes, cannibalism on more than one occasion.

It’s a tale of obsession Berton compares to the Crusades or the quest for the Holy Grail. Berton’s account is a magisterial mixture of biography and exploration.

The trudge through the north was mostly an English, Norwegian, and American affair, and the story is told in three acts.

First there was the quest for the North West Passage starting with John Ross in 1818.  (That attempt really began with Englishman Martin Frobisher in 1576, and independent verification of his claims of exploration was discovered in 1861 by American Charles Hall.) Ross and his subordinate William Parry inaugurate an age of elaborate explorations with big ships – with onboard theatricals and newspapers and classes, contact with Eskimos, and an almost perverse tendency to do things the hard way with sledges hauled across the ice and unsuitable clothing. It was a tradition that was to continue, despite its demonstrated unsuitability, through Robert Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition.

The great second act opens with John Franklin’s legendary and doomed 1845 expedition. It wasn’t the sixty year old’s first time in the Arctic. One of his earlier expeditions had seen cannibalism though not by him personally. Indeed, the public knew him as “the man who ate his shoes”. A man who would not kill a fly ended up leading an expedition which killed all its 129 members. Their disappearances, the need to know their ultimate fate, pulled 16 other expeditions into the Arctic between 1848 and 1860, many provoked and inspired by Franklin’s wife, the formidable Lady Jane Franklin.

After hope was lost of saving any of Franklin’s men, the goal shifted toward the largely symbolic prize of the Pole.

The explorers here run the gamut from a naïve romantic who abandoned his family for the North to scientists to modern knights on a quest for Lady Franklin to consummate professionals to con men. Sometimes one man combined multiple categories. Roald Amundsen, first navigator of the North West Passage and eventual conqueror of the South Pole and a man who made it all look easy, was motivated by the “romance” of the sufferings Franklin told of his earlier expeditions. Adolphus Greely, leader of an American expedition that saw mutiny and cannibalism (the perpetrator still unknown) and the death of 18 of its 24 members, transformed from a martinet to a compassionate nurturer of his men. Frederick Cook survived a winter in Stone Age conditions, called a “masterpiece of Arctic survival” by Berton, but it was an accomplishment overshadowed by his lie of reaching the North Pole almost simultaneously with Robert Peary.

Not that Peary reached it either as Berton convincingly argues. A desperate seeking of fame and fortune led to Peary’s lie. But Peary’s accomplishments, even without his claim to the Pole, were extensive and almost as professional in execution as Amundsen. (The latter actually made significant scientific observations during his travels.) The years since this book’s publication have led to even further reasons to doubt Peary, but I have to admire a man who said, to a subordinate astonished to see five of Peary’s frostbitten toes come off with his boots, “There’s no time to pamper sick men on the trail.”

These were, of course, all white explorers. But, as Berton makes very clear, Eskimos are part of this story from the very beginning. Without the material aid of the Eskimos, many more of these expeditions would have fared horribly. It was only by adapting the techniques of the Eskimos that Amundsen and Peary were so successful.

Berton organizes his book very well. The index is extensive and detailed. There is a chronology which helps during those times when multiple expedition are in the Arctic at the same time. The maps are especially good with both large and small scale ones. Many expeditions get their own map, and we see not only the actual lay of the land but what was known by the explorers of the time. My only complaint is that, in the paperback edition, the large Arctic map at the beginning has some detail lost in the crease of the spine. There are also line drawings of most of the explorers and some photos.

A very useful book for the northern district of polar explorations.

Afterthoughts and Findings

Before reading this book, I vaguely remembered a controversy over Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole, but I thought it had been settled in the late 1980s with some analysis of photos taken on his expedition. Berton shows the questioning of Peary’s claim begin almost immediately with Congressional hearings in 1910, and it was not just by Cook partisans.

Au contraire. As Peary’s wiki shows, the 1989 photogrammetric analysis of shadows of photos from the expedition was inconclusive due to no certain knowledge of the type of lens Peary’s camera used. Nor did a comparison of depth soundings of the Arctic ocean as taken by Peary and others settle things.

Indeed, as covered here, nobody actually went to the North Pole and back via dog sled until 1995.

Surprisingly, the feud between the Cook and Peary contingents still goes on. This site stridently attacks — justifiably — Cook and supports Peary’s claim. Cook, though, still has his supporters in the Frederick A. Cook Society.  The binary logic of supporting one man, denigrating the other, is entirely unnecessary, of course. Both lied.

The matter of who committed cannibalism on the Greeley Expedition still seems unresolved, so the suspect Berton names, the sinister naturalist-surgeon Dr. Pavy, still seems credible.

Finally, bringing this back to my childhood, I was amused that the mutineer shot dead during the Greeley Expedition, one Charles B. Henry aka Charles Henry Buck, was a forger and thief who once served jail time for a murder committed in Deadwood, South Dakota, one of my home towns.

An index exists listing all reviewed titles on polar exploration.

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