I began composing this blog Sunday morning, sitting by the wood stove at Moon Lodge (House of Ma'ikwe) while the outside was sheathed in fresh ice—the inevitable, if treacherous, outcome of falling rain followed by falling temperatures. It was a perfect day to stay indoors, added to which I enjoyed the righteousness of having spent two hours Saturday afternoon vigorously splitting firewood and restocking Maikwe's porch ahead of the storm.
It's that time of year again—the dead of winter—when there's nothing better than positioning oneself adjacent to the wood stove with a hot beverage, curled up on the couch reading books about polar exploration. I have an unusually large collection of these, which my long-term friend Ann Shrader styles my "freezing & starving books."
While mostly this was something I did in my younger years, I've enjoyed a nostalgic week savoring Glyn Williams 2009 offering, Arctic Labyrinth, which is the distillation of the author's lifelong research (as a history professor) into the European three-century obsession with finding the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through Canada's northern archipelago.
At first this started out as a way to trim thousands of miles off the long journey from Europe to Asia, in the hopes of avoiding either: a) the western passage around the southern tip of South America, via the Straight of Magellen and the terrifying currents of the Drake Passage; or b) the long slog around Africa and through the Indian Ocean. (The Suez Canal, eliminating the trip around Cape Agulhas, wasn't opened until 1869; the Panama Canal, which obviated navigating Cape Horn, wasn't opened until 1914.)
However, even after it became apparent that the only commercial value of the Northwest Passage was the discovery of new fisheries (the ice lasts far too long each season to offer practical trade routes connecting Europe and Cathay via water), the British continued to pursue the goal as a matter of pride, finally ending in the spectacular tragedy of the Franklin Expedition of 1845-48.
As best as I can recall, my obsession with this obsession started casually enough with the random selection of a library book while visiting friends in Fort Myers Beach FL the summer I was 11. The book was a series of vignettes about polar adventures, one per chapter. The story that stuck with me most was the haunting tale of Sir John Franklin's last expedition, when he set out with 128 men aboard the reinforced bomb vessels Erebus and Terror to determine once and for all the existence of the Northwest Passage. Catastrophically, the entire expedition perished in the attempt.
As you may have guessed, they froze and/or starved to death—which results were accelerated by hypothermia, scurvy, lead poisoning, and pneumonia. In essence, Arctic Labyrinth offered me another bite of a bitter, yet compelling apple that I first tasted 52 years ago, and which I find just as fascinating today.
After wintering successfully on Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound the first year, Franklin was lucky enough to penetrate south through Peel Sound in the summer of 1846 (a passage generally thought to be impassable due to ice, but open that year) only to become locked in ice that never melted. Running out of food (and hope) the remaining crew abandoned the ships two years later in a desperate attempt to walk out via the Great Fish River, south of King William Island. They never made it. Adding further to the unfolding nightmare was evidence that the final survivors probably resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to postpone their fate.
While a plethora of would-be rescue missions eventually proved the existence of the Northwest Passage (first established by Robert McClure in 1850), it was a Pyrrhic victory.
Part of the lesson from the Franklin tragedy was the folly of the British Admiralty's insistence that their expeditions rely on heavy ships, human labor for hauling sledges, woolen clothing, and tinned meat, rather than adapting to native ways that favored light travel, dogs for moving sledges, loose layered clothing with fur next to the skin, and a winter diet that centered around fresh frozen fish and blubber. In their hubris, the Admiralty couldn't imagine there was something to be learned from such "primitive" people.
En route (it was a long drive from Minneapolis to Yellowknife, our point of departure via float plane) our crew—Ann Shrader, Kip Lilly, Tony Blodgett, and me—stopped briefly in Edmonton, where we visited the main offices of Hurtig Publishers. They had just reprinted the journals of famous Arctic explorers, and for a pittance I picked up first-hand accounts of the adventures of Samuel Hearne, John Franklin, George Back, and Francis McClintock. That singular shopping spree became the nucleus of my freezing & starving collection. (It turns out that I was fortunate to get them when I did, for Hurtig Publishers only operated for two decades, and those journals are no longer in print.)
As a measure of my obsession, I searched for years to locate a copy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson's 1921 classic, The Friendly Arctic, which celebrates Inuit wisdom about how to love the cold you're with—adapting to conditions most would find unimaginably adverse. While I was able to locate a limited edition reprint in 1971 for the fabulous sum of $54 (representing one percent of my annual gross income at the time) that was too rich for my budget as a junior bureaucrat and I started looking for a copy in used book stores. Evocative of the long view needed by pursuers of the Northwest Passage themselves, it took me more than two decades to find joy, but I ultimately located the passages I sought in the Northwest: at the Smith Family Bookstore located right around the corner from the Amtrak station in downtown Eugene OR. I chanced in there one day in the mid-90s while waiting for a train, and stumbled upon a copy for $8. Woohoo! (I think of this as a coincidence of passions, where my penchant for train travel intersected serendipitously with the allure of polar adventure).
Ever since my first taste of barren lands canoeing in 1975 I have wanted to paddle the Back River (the name ultimately given to the Great Fish River in honor of arctic explorer and Franklin contemporary, George Back). There is, for me, a compelling symmetry about that route in that it ends in Chantrey Inlet, at the approximate site where the Franklin expedition met its untimely end. However, even though that pot came up to a simmer this past week for the first time in decades, it's still winter, and for now that dream of mine will have to remain on the Back burner.