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Notes on High Latitudes

July, 2008
By John Huckans

When I sold most of my polar collection to a specialist dealer from Vancouver more than twenty years ago, I kept a few books thinking I might someday build another collection. I've added to it since, but good books at reasonable prices being a lot harder to find, I have long way to go.

The book that got me started was Nellis Crouse's The Search for the Northwest Passage (New York, Columbia University Press, 1934). It's a fascinating account of the various sea voyages (Ross, Parry, Lyon and Franklin) and overland journeys (Franklin, Back, Simpson and Dease, Richardson, Rae et al.) that were sponsored, mostly by the British, to find a shortcut to the East Indies.

Polar literature offers enough interest for all but the most jaded of armchair travelers—for me it was the reconstructed account of Franklin's ill-fated last voyage, as morbidly fascinating as watching a train wreck in slow motion, that caught my attention in the late '60s.  John Franklin was a naval officer by training, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar and the War of 1812, and his first overland expedition (1819) was a successful enterprise in that he and his party explored and charted a lot of territory in northern Canada and returned home to write about it.  Some years later, in 1845, Franklin pushed his luck and started out on what would be his last journey in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific.  The many rescue expeditions that were sent out to find the lost explorers produced their own narratives and finally, nearly fifteen years later, members of Captain M'Clintock's party began discovering body parts and other relics of Franklin's crew near King William Island and the mouth of the Great Fish River.

In reading accounts of polar exploration one is struck by the difference in approach between the British and the Norwegians.  Among the bits and pieces found among the remains of the Franklin expedition were silver plate and flatware and instead of Eskimo-style parkas the men were outfitted with heavy, woolen greatcoats, suitable for a blustery January day in England, but not highly practical for arctic travel.

When some years later Roald Amundsen became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage, he used a shallow-draft boat that was designed to be pushed up and out of the way by the ice, to avoid becoming trapped or crushed as would often happen with deeper draft vessels. After what amounted to his Arctic tune-up, Amundsen set out for the Antarctic where he beat Scott to the South Pole by a matter of days, relying on dog teams that went over the snow a lot easier and faster than Scott's Manchurian ponies.  The inability to travel fast and light certainly contributed to the tragic end of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Evans and Bowers on the last leg of their return journey, not to mention the supreme bad luck of the near white-out conditions that made travel impossible.

I think my continuing interest in polar literature now has less to do with the early explorers and is more about life in more northerly latitudes, especially in areas where a relatively mild winter climate and long summer days exist in ideal combination.  Ever since I can remember, my favorite time of year has been when days stretch into late evening and traces of sunlight linger past 10:00 o'clock. (How dull it must be to live near the equator, where the sun rises and sets at about the same time year round)  But the long winter evenings that begin in late afternoon also have their compensations, allowing more time for reading and finishing those indoor projects that tend to get neglected during the summer.

Some of my more romantic notions of life in high latitudes were stoked by the writings of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Canadian-born anthropologist, almost-Unitarian-minister and explorer of Icelandic descent, who staked and nearly lost his reputation in an attempt to prove that almost anyone could learn to survive in the arctic (as he did) by living off the land.  In The Friendly Arctic (NY, Macmillan, 1921), he writes about learning to adjust to one's surroundings.

I was born and brought up on the prairie (Manitoba), so I am always at home there. I have spent eleven years in close contact with the polar ice and shall always be at home there whenever I am able to get back to it. I am at home also in the big cities, for I got to them before I was yet mature and have lived in them for ten or fifteen years. But so far I have been unable to feel at home either in a forest or a mountainous country, for my experience with them has never been long enough for me to become acclimated....

Like some scholars and ideologically-motivated policy wonks, Stefansson sometimes cherry-picks anecdotes and facts to help make his case.  Many years ago it may have been news to some people that Reykjavik's climate in mid-winter can be as mild or even milder than Philadelphia or Milan and what the Gulf Steam does for the North Atlantic, the Japan Current, to a lesser degree, does for the coastal regions of British Columbia and Alaska.  And for people who don't mind the extremes of a more continental climate, Stefansson points out that the prolonged winter cold of the Canadian sub-arctic prairie is balanced by stretches of up to six weeks in the summer when day-time temperature seldom drops below 90° F.

Stefansson and other arctic historians and writers have described life as it was in Greenland about a thousand years ago when people built homes, barns and churches, kept dairy cattle and sheep and grew enough in the way of forage crops and vegetables to sustain themselves and their livestock throughout the year.  Sometime in the early 14th century a mini ice age brought an end to the colony as people became unable to grow enough food to feed themselves or their livestock. Whether the people died out through generations of climate change-caused malnutrition (as archaeological research has suggested), were absorbed by the Inuit, or a combination of both has been the subject of considerable investigation.

In recent years much evidence has shown that Greenland's climate is gradually reverting to what it was during the tenth and eleventh centuries and in an article on the Der Spiegel website, Gerald Traufetter has written an interesting piece entitled “Global Warming a Boon for Greenland's Farmers” accompanied by ten color photographs. I won't give you the URL, but poke around a bit and you'll find it easily enough. Traufetter describes Ferdinand Egede's farming operation:

Egede, a Greenland potato farmer... spends most of his days working in the fields and looking at the dramatically steep table mountains at the end of the fjord and the blue and white icebergs in the bay. But today he's more concerned about a broken water pipe. “The plants need a lot of water,” he says, explaining that the soil here is very sandy, a result of glacier activity. But he could still have a decent harvest.  He pulled 20 tons of potatoes from the earth last summer, and his harvests have been growing larger each year. “It's already staying warm until November now,” says Egede.  And if this is what faraway scientists call the greenhouse effect, it's certainly a welcome phenomenon, as far as Egede as concerned.

And also:

(He) is a pioneer and exactly the kind of man Greenland's government, which has launched an ambitious program to develop agriculture on the island, likes to see working the land.  Sheep and reindeer farmers have already been grazing their herds in southern Greenland for many years.  As part of the new program, cattle will be added to the mix on the island's rocky meadows, part of a new dairy industry officials envision for Greenland.  One day in the near future, the island's farmers could even be growing broccoli and Chinese cabbage...

Whether this is good news or bad news may depend on whether you live in Qaqortoq or Palm Beach.

But in The Friendly Arctic Stefansson has less to say about Greenland and the eastern arctic and more about his exploration of the area in and around the “zone of inaccessibility” which is roughly one third of the distance (500 miles) between the North Pole and the Alaskan north slope.  His narrative, based on notes, journals, and recollections, does little to support the premise of the book's title, and what he was thinking when he came up with it, taxes the imagination.  The loss of the Karluk along with some of the crew and the Wrangel Island controversy later on hurt Stefansson's reputation for a while, but his lasting contribution to polar studies is based on a lifetime of exploration and solid research.

He was also a serious bibliophile. In Chapter 46 he describes the library on board both the Karluk and the Alaska, the books that were lost when the former went down, and also the titles of many of the books he carried with him on earlier expeditions. When Stefansson's active exploring days were over and he returned to his home-away-from-home in Greenwich Village, he ramped up his book buying to the point that when he was haunting antiquarian book shops along Book Row and elsewhere, he was known for deliberately buying duplicates and triplicates of titles already part of his polar collection.

By the 1950s, Stefansson and his wife had moved to Hanover, New Hampshire and his library, now known as the Stefansson Collection, was purchased by a Dartmouth alumnus for their Northern Studies Center.

Many of the duplicates eventually found their way to the trade and on my book-buying trips to “booksellers' gulch” during the late '60s and '70s, I'd make a point to visit Bob Kolvoord (proprietor of the Old Settler Bookshop and one time New Hampshire chess champion who trounced me handily whenever we played) in Walpole (NH) to buy what I could of the leavings of Stefansson's library.  Pretty impressive material it was even though it had been gone over by others before me.

Along with the standard polar travel narratives, I also managed to buy books by Stefansson himself, including The Friendly Arctic. (of my two copies, one is inscribed), Compass of the World, a Symposium on Political Geography (New York, Macmillan, 1944) co-edited by and with contributions from Stefansson, the New Compass of the World... published five years later, and several other titles.

But at the moment the leading edge of a hot humid air mass is moving this way—a good sign that hot days and long summer evenings are finally coming to the northern latitudes.

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