“Tourists would rave over this scenery.”
-- Douglas Robertson, 1931, while visiting Ellesmere by ship
Why I don't own a copy of Edward Moss's Shores of the Polar Sea, despite its loveliness: http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=1108385903&searchurl=an%3Dmoss%26sts%3Dt%26tn%3Dshores%2Bof%2Bthe%2Bpolar%2Bsea%26x%3D0%26y%3D0
For research purposes, I've had to content myself with a digital version of the book, which I produced by photographing the copy of Shores of the PS kept at CFB Alert.
David Mech, who has been studying the wolves around Eureka for over 20 years, put a satellite collar on an alpha wolf this summer, to track the pack's movements during the Dark Season. See http://internationalwolfcenter.blogspot.com/
When I joined Mech near the wolf den site for a day about 10 years ago, the pack's numbers were way down from previous years. A few seasons after that, the wolves mostly disappeared from the Eureka area and Mech seemed to spend the next few Julys looking at arctic hare and muskoxen. Now the wolf pack is back in good numbers, and this current experiment is fascinating. Where animals go and what they do during the Polar Night is largely a blank slate.
One of Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris's canvases of Buchanan Bay on Ellesmere Island sold yesterday at a Toronto auction for $950,000.
Below, some rough ice in Buchanan Bay. The tides here are the highest on the island, and the shoreline is shallow. These combine to produce some of the wickedest ice conditions outside the Arctic Ocean. Hauling a heavy sled through the worst of this stuff proceeds at a miserable pace of about 100 meters an hour.
Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, Robert Bryce
Bryce wasn't the first to conclude what is now obvious: that neither Frederick Cook nor Robert Peary made it to the North Pole. Cook's claims have been dismissed since shortly after Peary's henchmen launched a cutthroat (but accurate) discreditation process in 1909. But Peary's claim, vigorously guarded by the National Geographic Society, has been safe until the chinks in his story began to resurface about 30 years ago. In 1973, Dennis Rawlins wrote a pretty excoriating book concluding that neither made it. In the late 1980s, Wally Herbert managed to raise doubts about Peary within the pages of National Geographic itself. But Cook and Peary stands as the definitive study of that whole North Pole hustle. It's really an exhaustive biography of Frederick Cook, but its 1,133 pages contain plenty of scholarship about Peary too.
My Ellesmere bookcase contains more about the North Pole, unfortunately, than any other subject -- about 30 books. But Bryce's is the most useful.
Ellesmere bookcase: top shelf, all North Pole
The Last Kings of Thule, Jean Malaurie
Northwest Greenland, Richard Vaughan
The settled part of northwest Greenland lies just 50 kilometers across Kane Basin from Ellesmere Island. Explorers used places like Etah and Annoatok as a base, built cairns on Littleton Island, hunted at Neqe. Relics from their shipwrecks still lie on Greenland shores. To further my Ellesmere education, I've wanted for years to spend a couple of months one summer exploring the stretch of coastline from Qaanaaq to Cape Inglefield. Apart from the Level Two and Three stuff, these are the two books I'd take with me.
The Last Kings of Thule is the classic account of a French academic's time with the Polar Inuit in the early 1950s, with a coda about his return in 1972. Speaking personally, you gotta love a guy who prefaces his modern section with a quote from Rimbaud's Illuminations. ("What sorceress will rise against the white sunset?") The author spent a lot of time on the land with the people, gathered their stories and tried to understand their society in a way that no one had before. The book's title hints at its elegiac flavor.
Northwest Greenland is more prosaic but deeply researched and full of historical tidbits that are hard to find anywhere else. Because it's fairly detailed, admittedly it's for those who want to read at the decimal point level rather than a round-to-the-nearest integer, Arctic Grail-type history.
Ellesmere Island Coastal Archaeological Sites, Norman Brice
Before I get back to more mainstream Ellesmere stuff, I wanted to give a sample of Level Three obsession for tracking explorers' routes. Level One is the explorers' popular books; Level Two, the more technical publications that usually include their unabridged sledging journals. Level Three is going to the trouble to dig up the original handwritten journals themselves, or unpublished manuscripts available only in a single archive, such as the Library of Congress, the Scott Polar Research Institute, the Norsk Polar Institute, or as in the above work, the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College.
In 1975, Norman Brice, a Maryland banker whose hobby was archaeology, dogsledded from Qaanaaq to Grise Fiord, with the help of Inughuit guides. En route, he inventoried, described and sketched every archaeological site he found on the east coast of Ellesmere. He missed a few, such as the one at Wade Point that Greely's men briefly used, but in general he was remarkably thorough. I brought my photocopy of his 68-page typewritten manuscript when Bob Cochran and I skied that coast ourselves in 2007.
There is actually a Level Four, which many scholars employ but where I have limited experience. That's finding original manuscripts or journals which no one else has uncovered, usually by connecting with one of the explorers' descendants. (Is it Markham or Aldrich whose family is still guarding his unseen journal from the Nares expedition?) Cool, but more important to advance the historical record than as a traveler's tool.
Journals and Proceedings of the Arctic Expedition, 1875-6
Report on the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land, Adolphus Greely
Tracking explorers' routes to improve the travel experience has three levels, depending on degree of obsession. The Nares, Sverdrup and Greely titles below are Level One. They were, for their era, mass-market products: helpful but often vague. The Nares and Greely Proceedings, above, go one step further, to Level Two.
These are not books, in the Amazon.com sense of the word. They were government publications put out afterward as a record/summary of what the expeditions accomplished and more to the point, as an analysis of the screw-ups. Sverdrup's expedition has technical volumes too, but they are mainly wearisome inventories of fossils, fauna, flora, rocks, etc. Comparatively little went wrong with his Second Fram expedition -- only two deaths, one pneumonia, one suicide -- so no excuses were necessary.
Both Greely & Nares Proceedings are of interest mainly for the detailed sledging journals. Before a trip, I reread them line by line with a topo map at hand, marking locations recognizable by their descriptions. Usually I also carry dozens of pages of photocopies, because then I can read the journals in situ and better recognize the hills or bays described.
The Greely Proceedings aren't hard to obtain, but the Nares volume vies with Moss's Shores of the Polar Sea for the most expensive Ellesmere book -- $3,000 is a typical price, last I heard -- and is much harder to find. One sometimes comes up for auction at Christie's. But arctic travelers have patience, and figuring out how to photocopy a 500-page library book that can't be taken out of the rare book room is part of the game.
Narrative of a Voyage to the Polar Sea, volumes 1 and 2, George Nares
New Land, volumes 1 and 2, Otto Sverdrup
Three Years of Arctic Service, volumes 1 and 2, Adolphus Greely
A serious Ellesmereophile unfortunately can't avoid these plodding dual-volumed tomes by the island's three most important explorers. Of these, I've read Sverdrup the most often, because he covered much more ground than the other two, and his area of exploration tends to be more accessible. Greely and Nares spent much of their time from Fort Conger north -- the most remote part of the island -- whereas the entire coast of Axel Heiberg, the west and south coasts of Ellesmere and the area around Alexandra Fiord fall within Sverdrup's domain.
Why read these original volumes anyway? Because if you're a traveler curious about history and want to track down their camps to connect with these explorers in some ethereal way, their books are your starting point. Often you can figure out exactly where they were by scrutinizing their descriptions. Their books are treasure maps, not literature. Note that the treasure lies in finding, not in disturbing those old camps.
Greely's book is a bit of an exception because of the tragedy at Camp Clay. It was such a horrific and eventful eight months that even the dullest prose in the world can't entirely muffle the drama. For the general reader, Len Guttridge's Ghosts of Cape Sabine is far more interesting than Greely's original tale. However, modern retellings can't tantalize a traveler in the way that the originals do.
Geographical Discovery and Exploration in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Andrew Taylor
With a zingy title like that, and brought out 45 years ago by that publishing hotbed, the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, your eyes can be forgiven for glazing over. But if I wanted a portable overview of Ellesmere Island (and High Arctic) history, this is the one to get. It lists dozens of explorers and summarizes the routes they covered. Maps are included for all the major figures. It's very hard to figure out on your own exactly what routes these guys followed, but Taylor has done most of that work. This book also gave me my first glimpse of little-known but fascinating figures like Robert Stein, Bjorling, Bernier and Kruger.
Its detailed scholarly bibliography opens the door to lots of other obscure writings on that area, although in the true spirit of this modest little masterpiece, most of the papers cited won't exactly keep you up nights. eg. "Collembola from the Crocker Land Expedition".
Continuing the book jag from the Expeditions page, let me list some of my favorite resource material for Ellesmere Island. You'll notice I don't say "best books". These are simply useful volumes for the traveler. Reading them tends to be a fairly painful experience.
Of course, I'd hope that others would want to include The Horizontal Everest on their lists, but here I'll cover, in no particular order, some of the ones that have helped me.
Shores of the Polar Sea, Edward Moss.
The only lovely historical book, not for its writing but for its watercolors and illustrations. Moss was assistant surgeon on George Nares's expedition of 1875-6, and was the first artist to render Ellesmere on canvas. I've done my best to duplicate the scenes from a few of his watercolors. (see below) Shores of the Polar Sea is also perhaps the most expensive book on the area, and one of the few I don't have. I have, however, photographed each page of the book, so I can still refer to it.
Quick aside: Another favorite arctic artist is Maurice Haycock: check out the beautiful limited edition prints, including several from Ellesmere, at mhaycock.com. Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson also visited Alexandra Fiord, and if I recall, swam in the icy sea off Devon Island while Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, looked on.
For those looking to order a copy of The Horizontal Everest, it's available through blurb.com. Include the "The" in the title when you search.
In 1898-9, the great Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup wintered not far from Alexandra Fiord, in a little bay he called Fram Havn. If Sverdrup was so great, you ask, why have you never heard of him? Because he was also a dull or, at least, understated man. "You had to pry the words out of him with a fork," according to his biographer.
So in a profession -- if exploration can be so-called -- where incompetent pr types have always had a lot of air time, Sverdrup toiled in relative obscurity. His ship, the Fram, was far more famous than he was, because of its association with two flamboyant Norwegian explorers, Nansen and Amundsen.
It didn't help that Sverdrup's expedition had no iconic goals that the public could grasp easily. He wanted to explore and do scientific work in the Ellesmere Island area, which is a non-starter in the immortality department, unless someone dies. Actually, two men did die on Sverdrup's expedition, one from pneumonia and one by suicide, but pneumonia has no romance to it and Sverdrup swept the very interesting suicide story under the rug, as he did most good stories.
Today, Fram Haven has changed little from Sverdrup's day, although the glacier at the head of the fiord has receded dramatically from when he photographed it, showing that even High Arctic glaciers are feeling the pinch of a warming climate. A cross commemorating Johan Svendsen, the expedition doctor who killed himself when the morphine to which he was addicted ran out, overlooks the north end of Rice Strait from the brow of a hill. Signs of the expedition are otherwise subtle: small trigonometric cairns for mapmaking, an eyebolt in one of the rocks to which the Fram may have been moored.
About 50 km northwest, in Alexandra Fiord, lies Skraeling Island, where in the late 1970s archaeologist Peter Schledermann found Norse artifacts in old Thule sites -- the first sign, perhaps, that the peripatetic Norse had come this far north. (The artifacts might also have been trade goods conveyed here by the Thule themselves from further south.) Skraeling is a derogatory Norse term for Inuit, and it was this name -- given in 1898 by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup because of all its archaeological sites -- that prompted Schledermann to investigate the island.
Sverdrup actually goofed in naming the island -- it already had a name, albeit an inaccurate one. In 1875, the British explorer George Nares steamed into Alexandra Fiord and called the lumpy island at its mouth Three Sisters Island. From the east, it does look like it has three distinct peaks. However, one of those peaks belongs to an island a few kilometers west of Skraeling.
Skraeling Island, from the vantage that prompted Nares to call it the Three Sisters. The leftmost peak belongs to another island.
The Ellesmere side of Kane Basin is equally rich in history, though a little less in wildlife. Only Greenland has dovekies. Most of the walrus hang on the Greenland side, including all winter. But a good number migrate to Ellesmere for the summer, as the ice begins to melt and the polynyas expand. Ellesmere, on the other hand, has muskoxen and far more polar bears, which have savvily learned that there are no hunters here.
Greenland is only 50 km away and clearly visible. Below, a view of Greenland from Payer Harbour, one of the least-visited sites on the Canadian side. Robert Peary spent one winter here. A sad, would-be explorer named Robert Stein (whose story I cover in The Horizontal Everest) spent two years at the same site, in a hut insulated with, of all things, magnesium. The Greely expedition left caches nearby. The Nares expedition built a humongous cairn in 1875 whose remnants still lie scattered atop nearby Brevoort Island.
North of Qaanaaq, the most interesting part of the Greenland coast begins -- at least, if you like exploration history. Etah, Littleton Island, Lifeboat Cove, Rensellaer Bay, Annoatok, Cape Alexander, Neqe...all music to my ears. Many expeditions were based here. At Rensellaer Bay, an arrow engraved into a rock indicates the former position of Kane’s ship, which was frozen in in 1853. Elsewhere, timbers from Hall's ship, the Polaris, may still exist. Littleton Island was a signpost island; at one point 50 cairns bristled on the tiny outcrop. Thousands of eiders make their nests here. Frederick Cook and his two Inuit companions finished their 750km trek from Devon Island at Annoatok. Foulke Fiord has the grave of August Sonntag, who died mysteriously in 1860 while working for explorer Isaac Israel Hayes.
Few topo maps exist of northwest Greenland; the usual ones end around Qaanaaq. Luckily for travelers, old declassified 1:200,000 maps from the Soviet Union cover that strategic coastline, and they're the ones I use. It takes a little practice to realize at a glance what Littleton Island looks like in Cyrillic (I've traveled Russia a lot & have learned Russian, so that's not a bother for me). But these topos are the best way to navigate in northwest Greenland. Digital maps are available for $14 each at http://www.cartographic.com/index.asp
Qaanaaq, Greenland is the largest town in northwest Greenland, with 616 people, according to the very fallible Wikipedia. Every other community in NW Greenland is hamlet or outpost camp, not town. When I was there some years ago, I took an informal population census. The other inhabited spots included 61 at Siorapaluk, 2 on Herbert Island, 23 at Qeqertat and 83 at Savigsivig, on Meteorite Island. Of Qaanaaq's 600 inhabitants, about 400 seemed to be under the age of ten. Anyway, the population of Northwest Greenland has merely tripled since John Ross discovered this isolated people on the edge of the world in 1818. By contrast, the population of the United States has increased 30-fold in the same period.
Qaanaaq means "eroded slope to the sea". It has fairly high tides, like the Ellesmere side of Kane Basin, so landings tend to occur around high tide, because that eroded slope extends pretty far out. Despite the town's somewhat modern look, glimmerings of the old way of life still exist. The day I took the above photo, men were hauling their boats ashore on a slipway of iceberg pieces, to preserve them from an approaching storm. Chunks of iceberg sat on doorstoops for drinking water.
The best-known contemporary book on this part of Greenland is, unfortunately, This Cold Heaven, by Gretel Ehrlich. I say unfortunately with reluctance, because I loved her earlier book about Wyoming, The Solace of Open Spaces. But This Cold Heaven was superficial and error-ridden. Using my own Canadian Rockies as an analogy, it was as if someone hung around Canmore for a while, then Banff, then Field, then Canmore again, took a few day hikes, then wrote a book about the Rockies. Better to stick with the classic, The Last Kings of Thule, by Jean Malaurie.
More worthwhile reference books:
Ghosts of Cape Sabine, by Leonard Guttridge retells the tragic saga of the Greely expedition of 1881-4: the strife at Fort Conger, the long and hair-raising retreat to Pim Island, a mere 50 kilometers from Greenland. Here, within low walls of red granite rocks topped with their whaleboat and covered with sailcloth, they tried to survive for eight months on 40 days of supplies. In the end, all but six of the 25 perished.
Adventures in Error, by arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Stefansson liked to debunk popular misconceptions about the Arctic -- the bloodthirstiness of wolves, the mortal perils of eating snow, and so on. This book tries to set the record straight about a few of those myths. Stefansson was the best writer among arctic explorers, and his books are opinionated, clever and engaging. He was also a somewhat unscrupulous ally of whatever or whoever best served his own interests.
A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic, by E. C. Pielou is one of the two books (along with Lopez's Arctic Dreams) that many first-time northern visitors carry with them. Although the guide is heavy on plants, it includes a lot of other natural history, including clear explanations of arctic mirages and the 24-hour moon. Yeah, the arctic moon stays above the horizon like the sun -- but just for a few days each month rather than all summer.
Some favorite High Arctic references:
Northwest Greenland, by Richard Vaughan gives the best historical overview of that part of the Arctic. Published in 1991, it may still be in print; in any case, second-hand copies are easy to find through an online consortium like abebooks.com.
Arctic Canada from the Air, by Moira Dunbar and Keith Greenaway. Serious arctic travelers all stumble on this old classic eventually. It immediately appeals for its black-and-white aerial photos, which inspire a lifetime of route ideas. It's like drooling over a topo map, only better. A few paragraphs richly summarize the topography and the history of exploration of each island and arctic region.
Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, by Robert Bryce. If you have to read one book about the Peary/Cook North Pole controversy, it should be this one. Some dislike the book because its conclusions do not jive with what they would like to believe, but the author obsessively and fairly builds his case over 1,100 pages. By the end of it, it's pretty hard to deny that neither Peary nor Cook got anywhere near the North Pole.
The Other Side of Eden, by Hugh Brody, is a beautiful book about the ascent of the farmer at the expense of the hunter, told from a largely arctic perspective. As an aside, the Inuit man hopping the ice pans in the book's cover photo is a guy from Grise Fiord. He told me of sweating half to death wearing caribou skins and polar bear skin pants in early summer, while the photographers did take after take, as photographers are wont to do.
Most books on the High Arctic aren't exactly good reading, but a few are worth looking up in libraries or buying second-hand. These days, I'm even finding more and more of those old explorers' works -- which used to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars from rare book shops -- have been scanned and may be downloaded free from sites like archive.org. Of course, only works old enough to be in the public domain are available, but those are the hard ones to get. Years ago, for example, Sverdrup's New Land cost me $300 for the cheapest, rattiest ex-library copy I could find. For an Ellesmere traveler, this dull work is unfortunately essential. Now you can download a pdf copy gratis and carry the entire text with you. Farthest North, Godfrey's Narrative of the Last Grinnell Arctic Exploring Expedition, The Friendly Arctic, even Greenland by Bernard O'Reilly and Harry Whitney's obscure but interesting Hunting with the Eskimos, are all available online.
In the next few days, I'll list some of my favorite (non-digitized) High Arctic reference books.
Some 100 km northeast of Thule Air Base lie the Carey Islands. Bjorling Island is the easternmost of the group and the site of one of those intriguing arctic mystery-tragedies. In 1892, a 21-year-old Swedish botany student named Johan Alfred Bjorling and his equally young partner, Ewald Kallstenius, embarked on an expedition that became shipwrecked here. For a full account of this story, see my book The Horizontal Everest.
After being stranded there for some time, Bjorling left a note in a cairn at the top of the island saying that one of his crew was dying, for reasons he did not make clear. The survivors, he went on, were going to attempt to row to Clarence Head on Ellesmere Island and spend the winter with Inuit whom they believed lived over there. In fact, none did. Clarence Head was also much farther away than Bjorling had calculated, and there is little doubt that they perished in their little rowboat during the 150-km crossing over what becomes in autumn one of the stormiest seas on earth.
There are lots of signs of their last camp on Bjorling Island, including some of Bjorling's botanical specimen bottles, and of the earlier 1875 British Arctic Expedition under George Nares that built the big cairn where the young Swede left his last note. Somewhere on the island is also the grave of their crewman.
Some years ago, Alexandra and I tried to find this grave, following a map of its location that one of the rescuers who went north in search of Bjorling had drawn. But his map was completely discomboobulated from reality, and we never found the site.
Then-and-now shot of the Nares cairn where Bjorling left his final message. A piece of broken flagpole still protrudes from the top.
Thule Air Base in Greenland ranks as one of the hardest places in the Arctic to reach, along with the Canadian Forces Base at Alert. This US military base is notorious for turning down requests from crippled ships to land. Built in the early 1950s, it is an intercontinental ballistic missile warning site. It also has warheads of its own. In 1968, a B-52 carrying four thermonuclear bombs crashed on the sea ice near Thule. Failsafe mechanisms prevented the bombs from going off. Three of them were later retrieved; the fourth still sits on the bottom of the ocean.
Royal Canadian Mounted police stationed at Alexandra Fiord on Ellesmere Island in the 1950s used to visit Thule occasionally. Cleverly, they used to unship their sergeant’s or corporal’s stripes from their scarlet dress uniforms before arriving. In such resplendent garb, they could only be taken for commissioned officers and were duly accommodated in the officers’ mess.
When the base was built, the Inughuit from the nearby village of Thule were moved north to a new village called Qaanaaq. The region around Thule Air Base had been popular with these northern people for centuries. A 1916 archaeological find called Comer's Midden, on the isthmus connecting distinctive Mt. Dundas to the mainland, was the site that gave the Thule culture its name.
Thule Air Base, with Mt. Dundas in the background
Years ago, adventure kayaker Jon Turk worked the Secret Squirrel policies of Thule Air Base in his favor. Kayaking with his girlfriend from Ellesmere Island, he showed up at Thule without permission. Their arrival caused quite a stir, and they were extradited back to the United States -- which, at the end of his expedition, is exactly what he'd hoped for.
Phone at Thule Air Base
I've devoted much of this year to finishing my latest arctic book, but on August 12, I'll be with Adventure Canada for their High Arctic cruise from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland up to Smith Sound and then down to Resolute. It's a fabulous area for history. In the next few weeks, I'll cover some of the highlights.
Melville Bay was the gauntlet that all the whaling ships and explorers had to run to get to the promised land of Smith Sound. In Melville Bay, a giant glacier calves thousands of icebergs that combine with sea ice to produce an almost impassible stew. Between 1820 and 1850, 210 ships met their doom in Melville Bay. “Even with steam power, [Melville Bay] is a place of terror to whalers,” states the Arctic Pilot. “They never feel safe until they reach the North Water at Cape York.”
Because Melville Bay was impassible to umiaks as well as larger vessels, the 200 or so "Arctic Highlanders" who lived north of Melville Bay were cut off for centuries from more southerly Greenlanders. This sprinkling of Inughuit lived in such isolated groups that by the mid-19th century, they had lost the ability to build kayaks (as well as the fish-spear and the bow and arrow). These three crucial tools were reintroduced when a group of migrants from Baffin Island, led by the great shaman Qitdlaq, reached northwest Greenland in 1862 after a journey of many years. Qitdlaq, also known as Qitdlarrsuaq (the Great Qitdlaq), was a visionary scoundrel who was fleeing vendettas on Baffin Island from the families of the men he'd killed. More about him later.
Was corresponding the other day with a reader who is a serious amateur historian. We were discussing the Greely expedition of 1881-84. Before the expedition became one of the Arctic's great disasters, the men spent two years at Fort Conger, squabbling but also doing some decent exploration and scientific work. One spring, Greely discovered Lake Hazen. Later, he and a couple of helpers returned to the lake in summer. The terrain was so flat that they were able to pull their gear on a wheeled cart behind them until it broke down and they abandoned it on the southwest shores of Lake Hazen.
One year, I looked for the cart, unsuccessfully. I didn't overlook it; it's gone. "Too bad," said the reader. "It could have been put into a museum."
It's a natural enough comment, but I must admit that the prospect appalled me. Why on earth would anyone want to subject a great historic artifact to that fate? An old broken-down cart in a museum doesn't have any magic; out on the tundra, in the very spot where it was abandoned, it does. Obviously, more people would see it in a museum, but it would not give anybody anything. It would be just another dull exhibit.
In 2006, Alexandra and I kayaked the north coast of Labrador and stopped by the remains of the weather station that a Nazi U-boat had established during World War II. Most of the big cylindrical canisters were gone, taken to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in the early 1980s. Still, the remains of the dry cell batteries, the bits of wire and washers were highly evocative.
Last year, we visited the Canadian War Museum to see the rest of the artifacts. It was tragic. Someone at the museum had had the bright idea to spray paint the cylinders a camo grey-green. (When first discovered, they had been red.) The artifacts were ruined. Just like you can read the character in a weathered human face, you can imagine all sorts of things about the history of an object from its wear and tear: scratches might have come from a polar bear; paint faded more on the north side of the canisters than the south side suggest that violent north winds had an even more erosive influence than the strong south sun. That sort of forensic mindplay can only be done with an artifact in its natural situation.
Once you've felt the magic of an artifact on the land, seeing it in a museum is like filing past an embalmed corpse rather than sharing space with the living item.
Received a letter yesterday
from Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, who did pioneering glaciology
work on Ellesmere in the 1950s and led the first ascent of
Barbeau Peak in 1967.
At 85, he remains as effortlessly witty as ever. "Maria [his wife] and I
visited Hazen and Tanquary camps and Ward Hunt Island in the 1980s,"
he wrote. "Maria was probably the farthest north Greek lady
in history, since it is unlikely that Mrs. Pytheas accompanied
her husband in c. 300 B.C."
Iceberg/glacier potpourri: When I camp near an
iceberg frozen into the sea, I chip a few pieces away with an
ice ax to melt for drinking water. It saves fuel and tastes
slightly better than snow. Some iceberg ice fizzles while it
melts, as trapped air under pressure escapes. Not every piece
Ellesmere doesn't have
many tidewater glaciers to calve icebergs. The entire west
coast only has three or four -- the Otto, Antoinette and
d'Iberville glaciers, and maybe the other little glacier dam in
Antoinette Bay. They're pretty small. All the icebergs that get
hung up in the shallows at Iceberg Point north of Eureka or in
Flat Sound on Axel Heiberg Island come from these. (I once
counted 32 small icebergs around Flat Sound.)
The most icebergs occur on the southeast
coast, because the presence of the North Water creates more
snow, which spawns more glaciers, which calve more icebergs.
These are big mothers. One glacier north of Makinson Inlet took
Bob Cochran and I two days to ski past a couple of years
ago. Nothing compared to the size of the glaciers in Antarctica
or neighboring Greenland, but substantial. In the same
area, one glacier had 12 ice caves, one after the other, like
some frozen Mesa Verde.
Flat Sound, with icebergettes
Southeastern Ellesmere: giant glaciers,
I'll be joining Adventure Canada again as a
lecturer this summer, this time on their High Arctic cruise
from Aug. 12-21. See http://www.adventurecanada.com/Explorers-and-Adventurers-Greenland-and-Nunavut-2009 . I've skied, hiked or kayaked just about the
entire Canadian side of their route; and it'll be great to
see a couple of the historic sites in northwest Greenland
that I've wanted to get to for years. So many historic
expeditions based themselves on the Greenland side, where the
winters were somewhat milder and where the Polar Inuit lived.
Although I've never seen them, except as crude aerials on
Google Earth, places like Rensellaer Bay, Annoatok, Siorapaluk,
Etah and Littleton Island feel intimately familiar. They
harbor all sorts of cool stuff: the grave of August
Sonntag, the 50 cairns that Greely noted on Littleton Island,
the arrow carved into a rock in Rensellaer Bay, indicating the
location of Elish Kent Kane's ship.