At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff *** (of 4)
To ferry supplies, munitions, and personnel to the European front in WW II required skipping across allied airfields in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. The major impediment was the weather in Greenland makes for some of the worst flying conditions in the world: violent winds, spontaneous storms, and viciously cold weather. Frozen in Time is primarily the story of a transport plane that went down in one of those storms. A rescue plane with nine crewmen is sent out to search, but it too crashes in bad weather, destroying the plane and damaging, but not killing any of its crew. Over the course of days, then weeks, then months additional rescue attempts are launched, and a third plane disappears, yet the crew from the second plane, battling frostbite, gangrene, broken bones, and depleted spirits survives for months buried in a hand-hacked ice cave on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Zuckoff does a brilliant job of keeping us on the edge of our seats. He is a little less successful in holding the tension of his secondary story: the contemporary search for the plane and men in the third plane, now buried somewhere beneath three dozen feet of ice.
No Man’s River, by Farley Mowat **** (of 4)
Fifty years after the events that brought him from the horrors of WW II to a small hut on the edge of Hudson’s Bay near the Arctic Circle, Farley Mowat reexamines the people he met and the places he visited. With understatement and power he describes La Foule, the great torrents of caribou that migrate across the barrenlands and the last days of the Ihalimiut Eskimos, suffering through the disease-ridden transition to modernity. His story telling and descriptions of places I’ll never get to are incomparable. He travels a lot by canoe through dozens of rapids and in a feat of remarkable writing makes each set of cataracts fresh and daunting. His analysis of the half-breed he lives and travels with and his two adopted Eskimo children is riveting. December 2004.
Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat ** (of 4)
The book is a biography of a tough iron-clad tugboat that makes its way from the coast of Newfoundland into the deadly winter storms of the North Atlantic to rescue sinking ships and their crews. It starts slowly as we are introduced to the ship and the company that wants to use it, but after 35 pages gets onto the difficult task of fighting unrelenting elements. Mowat at his best makes you clench your teeth in fear as you listen to the wind and feel icy water drenching your underclothes. But after the tenth or twelfth rescue the stories get repetitive. That’s all the boat does: rescue people and there are still 150 pages to go.
Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley ** (of 4)
The life story of a native Inupiaq from the early 40s when native Alaskans were virtually untouched by Westerners, except missionaries, through statehood and the battle for native rights to the land. Alas, not many surprises: life was hard, but pure in the early days, but the introduction of alcohol, Christianity, disease, and, well, you know, all the rest of the problems that decimate native populations play out in the narrative. May 2009.
The Endurance by Caroline Alexander ** (of 4)
About explorers trapped on the ice of Antarctica. Outstanding photos, OK read.