Icemen: A History of the Arctic and its Explorers is a great introduction to the topic of Arctic exploration. Originally published as a companion to a series on The History Channel, the book describes a number of incredible historical incidents in an intriguing and accessible manner. Ten chapters focus on either a particular explorer or expedition/historical incident, beginning with the lost Franklin expedition and concluding with the forced relocation of Inuit to the Arctic Circle. (I braced myself for a poor depiction of the Inuit, but Conefrey and Jordan have written respectfully about them, particularly in that final chapter.) The book could be used as a jumping off point for any number of topics you may wish to explore further. Icemen contains 29 black and white photos in the center of the book. Published in 1998, this book is a wee bit dated but there are still many fascinating tales to be found within. Here are five events that I knew nothing about before reading this book:
1) Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 (Chap. 4)
Did you know three men attempted to reach the North Pole via hot air balloon in the late 19th century? This photo was recovered from film found in the Arctic nearly 40 years later. I found the tale of what happened on their journey the most fascinating of all the stories.
2) WWII in the Arctic (Chap. 8)
Did you know that Spitsbergen, an island in the Norwegian Arctic, played a role in World War II as Germany sought to establish weather reporting stations? There was a lot more happening up there than I knew about (granted, my knowledge of WWII is pretty lacking…).
3) 5 Weeks Buried in Snow (Chap. 7)
Did you know a man can spend 5 weeks alone buried under snow in his tent, and emerge alright? That was one tiny piece of the chapter (pg. 128) on Gino Watkin’s Greenland explorations, but it’s the one that made my eyebrows jump the most, haha. Here he is shortly after emerging:
4) Peary and Cook Rivalry (Chap. 2 and 3)
I knew of their rivalry in passing (mostly because of Captain Bob Bartlett’s involvement in Peary’s journey), but I didn’t really know what the fuss was about. Now I do! Peary and Cook both claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole, resulting in a bitter rivalry between the former shipmates. Today, both of their claims are widely doubted.
5) Airship Crossing of the North Pole (Chap. 6)
Did you know an airship reached the North Pole (having spent 60 hours in flight above the Arctic on a previous outing), only to meet a disastrous end due to inclement weather on the way back? My eyes bulged as I read that part of the airship broke off on ice, depositing ten men, while six men remained trapped on the airship as it floated off again, never to be seen again.
6) The Karluk Disaster (The Luck of the Karluk)
One of my favourite tales of an Arctic expedition that Icemen does not mention (presumably due to the fact that it did nothing for exploration) is that of the Karluk. A brief summary: The Karluk was part of a poorly planned expedition to the Arctic. The ship became trapped in ice early in ts journey. The expedition leader abandoned the ship, leaving Captain Bob Bartlett in charge. The men journeyed across the ice and eventually reached a desolate island. Bartlett left the island to get help. The remaining men were rescued just over a year from when the ship was initially trapped.
The Luck of the Karluk is part of the Amazing Stories series from Heritage House, which Heritage House describes as “shorter narratives designed for younger readers, new Canadians and casual readers” [source]). That makes the book a good introduction to the Karluk if you aren’t familiar with the story. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, but it’s still a great story and this makes for an easier reread than Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master! The narrative is pretty factual (and thus less ‘biased’ than Niven’s book) – which is fine, because the facts of what happened are pretty gripping – though some authorial interjections crop up to add moments of colour to the narrative. I recommend Niven’s book for a more detailed look at the personalities of and relationships between those on board. Bartlett’s first hand account is also a must-read if the tale catches your interest.
Had you heard of any of these stories? Which event would you be interested in reading about? Would you ever like to visit the Arctic?