This is simply one of the best-written books of Arctic history and description: This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration. In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of the horned lark, you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream. (Preface, p. xxix.)
p. 10, re the Cumbrian, whaling in the Arctic in 1823: In their own separate, spare quarters, the ship’s officers might have been reading William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions or the recently published discovery narrative of William Parry, who had opened the way to the West Water in 1818 with John Ross. They admired Parry; overall, however, they viewed the British discovery expeditions… as a pompous exercise in state politics, of little or no practical value.
p. 17: Perhaps some traveler’s story of irenic northern summers reached the Greeks and convinced them of the Hyperboreans’ salutary existence. A darker side of this distant landscape, however, was more frequently evoked. The indigenous southern cultures regarded it as a wasteland of frozen mountains, of violent winds and incipient evil. For theological writers in the seventh century it was a place of spiritual havoc, the abode of the Antichrist. During the time when the southern cultures in Europe were threatened by Goths, Vandals, and other northern tribes (including, later, the Vikings), two quintessentially malevolent figures from the Old Testament, Gog and Magog, emerged as the figurative leaders of a mythic horde poised above the civilized nations. These were the forces of darkness, arrayed against the forces of light. In English legend the northern armies are defeated and Gog and Magog captured and taken to London in chains. (Their effigies stood outside Guildhall in the central city for 500 years before being destroyed in an air raid in World War II.)
p. 311: Cartier’s famous remark about southern Labrador came to stand for the general condemnation of the whole region: it looked like “the land God gave to Cain.” “Praeter solitudinem nihil video,” wrote one early explorer—“I saw nothing but solitude.”
p. 327ff., in a chapter called “The Intent of the Monks,” Lopez deals with the work of John Davis, “perhaps the most highly skilled of all the Elizabethan navigators”, who made three Arctic voyages in the 1580s.
p. 334: Shipboard conditions slowly improved, the maps became more accurate, and better navigational instruments were developed. Books such as Davis’s The Seaman’s Secrets spread a technical knowledge of navigation. By the seventeenth century, cartographers were not so disposed to conjecture by filling in with an island or two. They left large areas like the Arctic blank now, something that would have astounded their predecessors.
p. 349, Parry in HeclaandGriper in 1819: The singular Parry, who turned twenty-nine on the voyage, had made thoughtful preparations for overwintering. Wagoncloth was brought out and run over the spars to create a completely sheltered deck for exercise. On November 5, Miss in Her Teens, or The Medley of Lovers was performed on the quarterdeck, and similar farces were produced throughout the winter—with Miss in Her Teens getting an encore at the end of the season. Sabine, at Parry’s appointment, began to edit and publish The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, which appeared on November 1 and regularly every Monday thereafter for twenty-two weeks. It contained strictly anonymous essays, poems, and articles by Peter Pry About, John Slender Brain, and others, and featured adjudication of various issues in the Court of Common Sense. A close reading indicates that several of the officers didn’t care for the production and that practical jokes were played on those who wouldn’t join in this bit of officers’ public-school amusement.
p. 357-58: To travel in the Arctic is to wait. Systems of local transportation, especially in winter and along the fogbound coasts in summer, are tenuous. A traveler may be stranded for days in the vicinity of a small airport, tethered there by the promise of a plane’s momentary arrival or by the simple tyranny of plans. In these circumstances I frequently read journals of exploration, especially those dealing with regions I was in. I read in part to understand human presence in a landscape so emphatically devoid of human life.
In all these journals, in biographies of the explorers, and in modern narrative histories, common themes of quest and defeat, of aspiration and accomplishment emerge. Seen from a certain distance, however, they nearly all share a disassociation with the actual landscape. The land, whatever its attributes, is made to fill a certain role, often that of an adversary, the bête noire of one’s dreams….
p. 360: During the years of the Franklin search the British persisted in trusting to the superiority of their terrible winter clothing. They refused to use dog sledges because they felt it demeaned human enterprise to have dogs doing work men could do. Other explorers, particularly Hudson’s Bay men like John Rae, and Samuel Hearne earlier, adopted the more serviceable clothing, more nutritious food, and more efficient travel methods of the Eskimos. Both Peary and Stefansson championed various aspects of the local intelligence as indispensable to their successes.
p. 380, re Crozier’s abandoned campsite from the Erebus on King William Island in 1845: A boat abandoned on the beach and later found by M’Clintock contained a kid glove, with measures of powder tied off in each finger; a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; a grass-weave cigar case; a pair of blue sunglasses, folded in a tin case; a pair of calf-lined bedroom slippers, bound with red ribbon; blue and white delftware teacups; and a sixpence, dated 1831.