Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Artic Grail

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.


R. Sherman said...

Of course, when one considers that the Earth is tilted on its axis, the "top" of the world is continually changing due to the Earth's rotation. That would mean that the top exists at about 66.5 Degrees N, and each spot is the "top" once every 24 hours or so.

Call it fun with triginometry.


Ed said...

R. Sherman - I never thought about this until I read your comment but what exactly is the "top". In other words, we know the axis due to spinning but what do we use to define how far our axis is tilted. I would assume the sun and the center of our planet are two of the three points necessary to define a plane of reference but what is the third point?

R. Sherman said...

I was assuming that the earth's orbit is on the Sun's equator, i.e. the elliptic. As for "top" it's merely a convention which dates back to the finding of Magnetic North. Given that the earth's tilt points to the same place all year (Polaris, the North Star) the "top," though it is at 66.5D North, varies by both rotation of the earth and it's orbit. That is, it's never the same time every day.

Cool stuff to think about, which is why I can never get anything done.


Ed said...

R. Sherman - I forgot about the orbit making a pretty good plane of reference. On kind of a side note, I think I have read that even the earth's axis has a slow wobble on the order of ten's of thousands of years so that it might be pointing at the north star now may be as far as 23 degrees off 30,000 years from now.

Beau said...

My understanding is the plane of reference is the horizontal orbit around the sun, then with a line perpendicular to that plane, vertically through the earth. Then the earth's axial tilt at just under 23.5 degrees. Oh, I think you got it... I love how the tilt and the orbit around the sun gives us our seasonal changes. And, um, nice review by the way- I need to read that one.

Murf said...

You made it through Roots?!? I bow to you for that.

Are these previous comments English?

Ed said...

Beau - And that is just from our perspective. Until recently when Pluto was kicked out of the planet club, it was tipped 17 degrees from the plane the rest of the planets are in.

Murf - I was one of those people who wished roots would have just kept going.

They made perfect sense to me. Didn't you take physics in school?

sage said...

"his journals of the account are remarkably boring do to the lack of scurvy, starvation, ineptitude, etc."

If that's what it takes for an interesting journal, I'm praying my journals will stay boring! Interesting read. I've recently listened to "Dark Summit" which is an interesting follow up to "Into Thin Air" It turns out that the 2006 Everest season was just as bad as the 1996 one and it too makes for interesting reading.

Ed said...

Sage - I have heard of it but haven't read it. I hope my journals are painfully boring too!

PhilippinesPhil said...

I went through an arctic/antarctic "phase" back in the mid 70s. I read everything I could on the explorers you speak of. Scott, Peary and Henson, Cook, Amundsen, Shackleton, Byrd, all of them. I wasn't even 21 yet and hadn't realized until then that just because someone published stuff in a book didn't make it true. I read all the originals and kept finding all these contradictions. Fascinating epiphany for a lad.
I think I've already mentioned that I have actually been to both poles, landed at the South and flew over the North several times.
The most surreal sights I've ever seen in my life were the visions I took in at the mostly closed down Cold War base on Greenland called Thule.
During my South Pole "expeditions" I spent some time at Christchurch where I rubbed the gigantic eagle nose (shiny as gold) of your hero Amundsen at The Christchurch Museum, something everyone does since the rest of his bronze bust is a normal dull bronze color.
At McMurdo I visited the 100 yr old Scott's Hut (made of wood) many times, peering into the windows at the original canned goods, tools and hanging seal meat, still appearing as it did a century ago. Nothing deteriorates down there. Its so cool (figuratively and literally!).
Sorry I'm writing so much in comments, but your interesting post touched a personal chord with me Ed.... Sooo many memories of that year where I spent so much time at the "ends of the earth."
Oh, and as far as the pole locations, interesting observations. Its true the poles change with the wobble of the axis, but as far as navigation goes, the latitudes are marked "in stone" and so too are are the poles. Navigation was one of "my things" as an Air Force avionics troop. Ok... enough...

Ed said...

Phil - I wasn't aware that you had been to the poles. Although I would love to do so someday, it is one of those things that I probably won't go out of the way to do. Kind of like climbing Everest. Perhaps if all the cards fell the right way someday.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I was fortunate to have been involved in an Air Force project that took me on that series of awesome Arctic and Antarctic adventures. I read somewhere that the total number of us who have been to Antarctica would fit inside a small stadium.