The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818 - 1909
by Pierre Berton
I think ground zero for my decent into almost exclusively reading non-fiction was "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. Shortly afterwards, I read "Endurance" by Earnest Shackleton and thus began a long stretch of reading where I read about all the books that were on the South Pole and Antarctica. In that stretch, I did read a few books on the North Pole, one on Nansen's polar ocean drift, Amundsen's voyage of the until then, uncompleted Northwest Passage, one on the famous failed expedition by John Franklin and the failed expedition led by Charles Francis Hall to find survivors. I also picked up "The Arctic Grail" by Pierre Berton but due to its shear size, a whopping 672 pages, and due to the fact that I was starting to get burnt out reading of cold polar worlds, it has remained on my shelf for a half dozen years. A long stretch of time off with time that I would have to kill lead me to pick up the book and begin reading it. I wish I hadn't waited.
The Arctic Grail would be more appropriately entitled The Arctic Bible. It is a massive volume that contains a very good history of what it took to discover the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, the former an unpractical route between the oceans and the latter, a spot above a drifting icepack. It was so well written, that in almost two weeks, I was completely through it and wishing that Pierre Berton had just continued writing on exploration in general.
The quest for the Northwest Passage really begins with the British who in their era of exploration, sent ship after ship into the frozen channels at the top of North America looking for the then fabled passage. Time after time, their ships were destroyed, their crews racked with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, and sent packing home with their tails between their legs or buried in cold graves in the unknown land. After reading through the stories, you can't help but wonder at the sheer arrogance of the Brits who continually made the same mistakes, even after their follies were pointed out, and never learned from them. Numerous journal entries tell of their pity for the poor helpless savages who were actually native Eskimos that had lived there for hundreds of years when in reality, it should have been the other way around since many British expeditions couldn't live one year there. Due to the poor choices of food, shelter, clothing, method of travel, number of people needed, etc., the British crews many times only survived due to the help of the native Eskimo population.
The British invasion of the north really began at the loss of the Franklin Expedition which lost two boats and nearly 140 men due to Brittan's determination that they knew best when it came to living above the Arctic circle. Over the next ten years as they searched for survivors and found none, they would launch scores of ships which eventually mapped out the "way" of the Northwest Passage. Still, their ineptitude and loss of stomach from so many casualties eventually caused them to give up on the northern arctic. Enter the Americans.
The Americans, though more willing to learn from previous mistakes, didn't suffer like the British, they too had their problems and failed at both tasks culminating with the infamous Greely Expedition where like Franklin, many of the expedition died of starvation and even resorted to cannibalism.
All it took was one man, a Norwegian by the name of Roald Amundsen who was willing to read of past accounts, learn and realize that the native Eskimos were the experts and not just savages. He successfully navigated the Northwest Passage on his first attempt and his journals of the account are remarkably boring do to the lack of scurvy, starvation, ineptitude, etc. At points he wrote in his journals that he wished something would happen to them just to break up the boredom. With Amundsen, the race for the Northwest Passage was over and the race for the North Pole hit high gear.
Unlike the Northwest Passage and later the South Pole (both discovered by Amundsen), the north pole has no clear cut winner. In fact depending on how you define discovery of the pole, it has yet to be discovered.
Cook was the first person to claim that he made it to the north pole and back to safety in 1908. However, when he made his final push, he took no witnesses that could verify his story and conveniently lost and never produced records of scientific measurements that would also verify his locations. His proof that he eventually supplied was nothing more than a 16 page typed document with no scientific evidence supporting his claim and listing speeds three and four times faster than earlier witnessed parts of his journey. He was eventually discredited.
Peary was the next man to claim it in 1909 but he too failed to produce evidence, took no witnesses and obtained speeds that still haven't been matched to this day except by a modern day trip using a snowmobile. However, it would be several decades later before he was discredited, along with his purported sightings of bodies of water and land that did not exist and thus is why his name was in the history books for a long time and indeed still is the person people name when asked who discovered the north pole.
While the Arctic Grail doesn't go into who finally has been credited with the first undisputed sighting of the north pole, I happen to know the answer since I am a big Roald Amundsen fan. Amundsen flew over the north pole in a plane in 1926. This brings me back to an earlier question of how to you define discovering the north pole. If you define it as going there and back on a self supported trip, it still hasn't been discovered. All trips to date to the north pole have been one way or supported with aerial drops from helicopters.
The Arctic Grail was a very fascinating book and grabbed my attention from page one and kept it for 632 pages. I don't think I can say that about any book this size with the possible exception of Roots by Alex Haley. My only regret is that I waited for almost a decade to read this book.