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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

Polar Reaches: The History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration

by Richard Sale

The Mountaineers Books
ISBN: 0 89886 873 4
Price: US$29.95

When I was young my parents and grandparents always kept a supply of history books on our shelves: ancient history, world history, American Civil War history, and European history dominated the collection. Occasionally these books would feature some aspect of polar exploration, even the American Civil War material since the final surrender of the Confederate fleet involved a ship patrolling the Bering Sea. I always found these accounts of Arctic and Antarctic adventures among the most memorable.

I'm not certain why that would be, except that the poles seemed so wildly exotic. Having been brought up in the deep south of the United States, for me honest-to-goodness snow and ice were rare delights. Even today my ability to relate to those tales is still wholly dependent on my imagination as I have yet to see either polar region, save from the comfort of a passenger jet at 35,000 feet.

Consequently, the poles are particularly visual places for me, even if that vision is only what I have imagined. Having hoped for reams of Hurleyesque photos in Polar Reaches: The History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration, by Richard Sale, it was an immediate disappointment that most are small, the majority are monocolor lithographs or halftones, and the largest illustrations in this 225 mm by 287 mm volume are a handful of just under a half-page size and two of full-page size. (Interestingly, the best color photos were taken by the author, who has made numerous trips to the north and south polar regions.) It is not just the sweep, scope and subtle colorings of the landscapes that are missing from the photographic reproduction, but the details. Take the ghoulish photo of the exhumed body of Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, for example; the caption says his body, wrapped in a Stars and Stripes, was stained with the dye in the flag. Can you see it? You can, just, if you have a magnifying glass handy.

Though the quality of reproduction of the illustrations leaves something to be desired, Sale's choice of historical artwork is excellent: in one, just-rescued explorers stare soullessly at the reader; in another, a hundred arctic fox pelts hang on a Greenland trapper's hut; a wingless airplane, intended to serve as an Antarctic sledge tractor, appears in another; and dozens of engravings, sketches, oil paintings and photos show the might of the polar climates, with ships hopelessly frozen in the ice.

Sale's manuscript must therefore have been intended mainly for a textual volume, not a picture book. And what kind of history book is it? It's a primer for people who find polar exploration fascinating, who don't really know much about it, and who would like to learn about how Western man first entered lands which the aboriginals had occupied 10,000 years earlier.

And in that, The Mountaineers Books, a firm based in Seattle, Washington, has published a very respectable book. Anyone seeking a good, all-round, general background in polar exploration couldn't do much better than starting with Sale's account. Its mixture of hard fact and traveler's yarns compels the reader on to the next chapter. His chronological balance is enlightening to novices in polar affairs, who would never have imagined arctic exploration to have been the significant preoccupation it was for the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century trading companies. Sale effectively explains how it was not only that, but also one of the driving forces in the discovery of the New World long before the Pilgrims were dining on turkey and pumpkin pie.

The author conveys a glory to the Arctic adventurers, a glory which I suspect may have drifted largely to the Antarctic heroes over the course of the last hundred years. For those with only a basic knowledge of polar things, the names Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott come easily to mind, the name Peary less so, and Franklin, perhaps to one in two hundred. The first three were Antarctic explorers, or at least that is what they became most famous for and that is how Joe Average knows them. But Peary in the early years of the last century, and Franklin 60 years before him, were Arctic men, and they were men with characters as strong as the one with which Sir Ernest led his men to South Georgia in their little boats. Those Arctic men's experiences collected over a thousand years made it possible for others to head for the South Pole in only 50.

No surprise then, that Sale spends two-thirds of his book recalling the adventures of those who headed north, starting with the Greeks whose knowledge of geometry made them aware of the Bear's Circle (the Great Bear of the constellation was called Arktos by the Greeks, and his latitudinal circle still carries his name); Irish monks who paddled tiny hide currachs to Iceland; Vikings who sailed west not to explore but because they had been banished from their homeland; the Basque cod fishermen; and then as the first global circumnavigations neared, the Danes, English, Dutch, French and Italians who headed up the globe to find a route to Cathay, northeast as well as northwest, only to be stopped by the frozen Kara Sea. After the seaborne adventurers came the ice-dwellers, those who set up camps on the frozen ocean, hoping to drift to the pole, and the aviators who began their journeys even before the 20th century. Only then, after balloonists had tried in vain to overfly the North Pole, did Antarctic explorations begin with anything like an equal momentum.

Each one of the explorers' accounts is remarkable, and in total must amount to a warehouse of records. Sale therefore had to be brief and selective in his allotted 224 pages, and he succeeds in doing so without forfeiting the bold and often cruel nature of their polar narratives. His rendering of their tales is effective, and the necessary paring down of copy is prevented from losing its grip by peppering the text with fanciful and sometimes morbid titbits: a mascot dog's name; why cricket was played on the ice; how many calories can be obtained from chewing shoe leather; what it is like for flesh to slough off a frostbitten foot; how a Russian fought the boredom of being icebound by continually taking apart and reassembling his pistol until one day a part went missing and he went mad; and why the timbers of the British ship Resolute, left bound in the Arctic ice in 1852, figured in private 'conferences' 150 years later between a certain female White House intern and the American President.

Sadly, Sale's text is damaged by one serious omission and several flaws. The most unforgivable of these is the book's complete lack of maps - something an armchair adventurer absolutely has to have to hand. I ended up setting the book on the floor, next to a spread of old National Geographic maps. In a book about exploration it is just plain stupid not to include maps. And the publisher won't get full marks in either the proofreading department or in their choice of typeface: whatever it is, it is awful and has the ability to tire a reader's eyes faster than the glare off an ice field.

Too bad about the shortcomings: the repro (tolerable), the lack of maps (disgraceful), and the proofing (sloppy) because this is a book in which the author has done a fine job. Kind of like the Franklin expedition, in which all the detailed planning and advanced technology was scuppered by the producer of its tinned provisions: the manufacturer cut corners in preparing the food, and is thought by scientists to have given the crew a fatal case of botulism.

Review by Bob Pickens

 

 

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