Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Arctic Grail

Credit: Jacket cover photo by Amazon
I don’t know how this book made it onto a paddlers’ reading list. There is little paddling involved. In the first few trips into the North, the expeditions were indeed equipped with canoes because they had been used by fur traders further south, but therein lies one of a thousand follies. None of the members of the expeditions had any experience with canoes or how to use them. However, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, (by Pierre Berton, 630 pp., Viking Press, 1988) is a fascinating and thorough book. The book is held in high enough regard that it was picked up by Franklin Press and published in a leather-bound 22-karat gold gilded edition for the collector series. It could easily serve as a text for a semester-long course in Northern geography, Arctic exploration, survival in the frigid North, and the men that ventured into areas where many failed to ever return. Paddling book or not, I’m glad I had the chance to read it, and you most likely would be too.

Here are a few peeks into the book that may excite your interest in reading it yourself.

(1) Water in the Arctic us as scarce as in the desert. To eat snow was forbidden by both Eskimos and explorers alike. It would lower the body temperature and prove fatal. Fuel to melt snow or ice was too scarce. Extreme thirst and water shortage was common.

(2) One of the biggest killers, whether at sea or on an Arctic exploration, was scurvy. When Edward Perry provisioned for the expedition of 1819, canning had just been invented, so Parry loaded the ship with canned vegetables and fruit. Canning was so new that the can opener hadn’t been invented yet. The ships’ cooks used axes to open the cans.

(3) Maps had remained blank much above Hudson Bay for hundreds of years. Why the sudden rush of exploration? The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars all ended in 1815. Great Britain had one of the largest fighting forces on earth, and was suddenly plagued with peace. Most soldiers and sailors were paid off and were suddenly unemployed, but to keep the upper class and officers on the payrolls, voyages of exploration were devised to map, survey, and seek the fabled Northwest Passage.

(4) Navigation was both difficult and often heartbreaking. The ice is in constant motion. It rotates west around the top of the earth at the same time that it is constantly driven south. Traveling is like walking the wrong way on an airport moving sidewalk. On one day a team spent the entire day making their way north over eleven miles of ice only to find at day’s end that they were three miles south of where they started. Tremendous forces would drive the ice vertically, stacking huge blocks of ice one on top of another, until they would rise up to a hundred or more feet high. When the ice encountered a land mass, it would be driven a half-mile inland. These pressure ridges would have to be attacked with picks to break a way through, or long distances would have to be traveled to circumvent them. In addition to trying to gain miles, a lot of time was spent shuttling fuel, food, and supplies to sustain life itself. The statistics of one party was enough to break their spirit---they had clocked 978 miles over the ice, but had only made good 178 miles from their starting point.

In short, you may really want to read this. You may be shocked at what you never knew.

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