Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Polar Regions

The Coldest Crucible: Web Simulcast

I’m at the University of Delaware this week to give some lectures related to my book, The Coldest Crucible. My Wednesday night talk will be simulcast on the web (and on Second Life, a world I have never visited). The lecture starts at 7:30 EST and goes for about an hour. I think the webcast will be archived if you have something more pressing to attend to at 7:30 like open heart surgery. For everyone else, I expect to see you there. Wish me luck!


Press account


Web Review: ExplorersWeb

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.


The Last Imaginary Place

B. Bellotto, Veduta Fantastica

Two thousand years ago, a new innovative culture emerged in the world, one which established large, wide-ranging settlements and networks of long distance trade. Between 500 and 1500 CE, this culture began to expand, developing new technologies which allowed it to move into other regions thousands of miles from its place of origin. Ultimately, these technological advancements allowed it to dominate and displace the native peoples who lived there. By 1000, it had establishing a place for itself in a new system of trans-Atlantic trade.

I speak not of Romans or Vikings but of the Inuit, who developed from the Old Bering Sea people two thousand years ago on the coast of Alaska. The Old Bering Sea people lived in large, year round settlements and established long-distance trading networks. They developed or acquired the bow and arrow as well as the means to hunt bowhead whales. Shortly thereafter, they began moving northeast, towards the Arctic shores of North America, displacing the Tuniit, an Arctic culture that predated them by hundreds of years. It is not clear what drew the Old Bering Sea people east, but evidence suggests that they were eager to acquire metal impliments brought by Norse peoples who began to occupy Greenland.

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

All of this information comes from Robert McGhee’s new book “The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.” McGhee’s Arctic is no wintery wasteland, but a dynamic place, the crossroads of many different cultures: Asian, American, and European. At 270 pages, McGhee can hardly be comprehensive. But he manages to tell his stories of Arctic history with an impressive cast of characters: Inuit, Tuniit, European, and Siberian.

One of the goals of McGhee’s analysis is to destroy the myths that still haunt our image of the Arctic and its peoples. For centuries, Europeans described the Inuit as the primitive children of nature, a timeless people who scratched out a living in the same manner as their stone-age ancestors did thousands of years before. In truth they had much in common with their European counterparts. They were expansionist, adaptive, and quick to exploit the resources of their environment.

McGhee also manages to link his broader points to personal experience. On the Inuit for example he states:

The realization that the Inuit are not a peripheral people was forced on my mind one night on the coast of Chukotka, as I climbed by myself over the remains of the ancient community at Ekven. A few kilometers up the coast, the low night-time sun was throwing an orange glow on the rocks of Cape Dezhneva, the most easterly point of Asia, and on Great Diomede Island halfway across the Bering Strait to Alaska. In the bright calm night I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was not standing at the distant margin of a world, the end of the earth, as far as one could travel from Europe. Instead I was standing at the very heart of another world, a nexus that for millenia had linked the peoples and cultures of Asia and America. It was a world in which many nations and cultures had flourished, among them the Inuit and their way of life.

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

This is a terrific book. I’ll be writing a more formal review of it soon for The Historian.

A Place to Plant the Flag

Thanksgiving, that magical day, a time of gathering, fellowship, and unrestrained serial eating. Like all holidays, Thanksgiving unfolds in the present, tethered in complicated ways to the past. “Tradition” probably best describes these personal, historical, links. Consider turkey. We eat turkey in our house because we like it, it keeps well, and can be transmuted into any number of post-Thanksgiving dishes: turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey fricasse. But turkey remains on the menu every year not only because of its tastiness and longevity, but because it’s always been on the menu, seared as it is into the mystic chords of turkey memory. I cannot think of a time when we considered having something else for Thanksgiving. Such is the power of tradition.

Exploration has its own traditions, ways that link current endeavors to historical precedents. Some of these traditions are obvious enough, such as the naming of vessels, probes, etc. in honor of previous people or ventures: Galileo, Cassini, Enterprise, and Challenger. But others are more difficult to detect without hindsight. Many explorers prided themselves on being careful empiricists, objective observers of the regions they described. Reading these works now, however, its hard to miss the imprint of culture on their narratives, the martial descriptions of exploration as a “war on nature” and the kindly, patronizing descriptions of native peoples as “children of nature.” These tropes were also traditions of a sort.

Yet some things are still hard to see with the benefit of hindsight, even when they are staring at you in the face. Consider Dan Lester and Giulio Varsi’s article at the Space Review on the current Vision of Space Exploration. Lester and Varsi observe that NASA’s tradition, implicit (perhaps unconscious?) has been to associate exploration with solid places, rocky grounds suitable for “footprints and flags.” There are good reasons for going to the Moon and Mars, particularly for astrogeologists who want to know more about, well, the Moon and Mars.

But what about those scientists who seek to uncover more about the broader galaxy? This is a form of exploration best conducted remotely, with telescopes, rather than suited-up astronauts. For these purposes, the Moon and Mars are not ideal locations. To get the most bang for the buck, telescopically speaking, NASA would send its space telescopes to one of a number of “Lagrange points,” regions of space where telescopes could remain stationary relative to larger objects such as the Earth and Moon. Freed from planetary surfaces, these telescopes could observe broad reaches of the sky, unencumbered by planetary atmosphere or blind spots.

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

Costs and operational simplicity seem to favor by a large margin locations in free space such as the Earth-Sun Lagrange points over the lunar surface. While lunar soil may offer a record of solar activity that is valuable to heliophysicists, realtime monitoring of the Sun and the solar wind does not need to be anchored on regolith. Overall, the lunar surface presents a challenging environment, with dust and power generation problems as well as the difficulty of precision soft landing.

Relative to the push for human exploration of the Moon and Mars, “Lagrangian exploration” is a low priority for NASA. Why? Perhaps, as Lester and Varsi observe, it’s because of the historical importance of discovering land, of sinking one’s feet into the soil and then planting a flag in it.

As I read this article, it suddenly made other pieces of historical data fall into place. When Robert Peary and Frederick Cook brought back their photographs of the North Pole, why did both men choose to plant their flags in the highest hummock of pack-ice they could find? No such location would have been identifiable so precisely from astronomical calculations (if indeed either of them reached the North Pole, which I doubt). Clearly then these men had other reasons to plant the Stars and Stripes on a high hummock, rather than, say on a flat stretch of pack ice or floating on the water of a “lead.”

Peary Team Claims Attainment of the (very solid looking) North Pole
Clearly “earthiness” remains a tradition in exploration, an element that remains in the western imagination of discovery. When the nuclear ice-breaker Yamal steamed north in 2000 with its burden of high-paying tourists bound for the North Pole, it found open water there. What to do? The party could have celebrated the watery top of the world from the deck. Paddled around it in inflatable boats! Instead the Yamal steamed south far enough to reach solid pack ice. There the crew planted the “North Pole” flag around which the passengers danced, celebrating their attainment (kind of) of the top of the world.

Maybe its time to break tradition.

Let’s Get Geophysical

As some of you know, we are in the midst of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2009, a global program to coordinate research in the Arctic and Antarctic. This IPY follows three earlier ones: in 1883-1884, 1932-33, and 1957-1958 (which was, technically, the International Geophysical Year IGY). The first IPY was the brainchild of Carl Weyprecht, an Austrian explorer who had grown tired of watching explorers race into the Arctic on bids to attain “Farthest North,” lose their toes to frostbite, then return home with pockets empty.

Carl Weyprecht

The “Race for the Poles” was, Weyprecht realized, a race but little else. As such, it was at odds with the needs of polar research, which required observers to stay in one place long enough to take note of what they were seeing, record measurements, and collect data. Only in this way would scientists begin to figure out how the polar regions functioned holistically, and then, how they influenced the rest of the world, particularly global weather and climates.

For over a century, science and transnational collaboration have been the twin pillars of the IPY philosophy. In combining them, scientists hoped, they could uncover the mysteries of the polar regions, all the while avoiding the need to subject their projects to the demands of the glory-hungry explorers and jingoistic leaders.

Yes, well, it was a lovely idea. In truth none of the IPYs were free from megalomaniacs (on sledges or in political office). During the first IPY, the United States outpost at Lady Franklin Bay, under the command of Adolphus Greely, dutifully collected research.

The Greely Party in 1881

That is, until, Greely saw an opportunity to beat the record of “farthest north” held by the British. Two months of sledging and 600 miles later, Greely’s party established a new “farthest north” record of 83°24,′ exactly three nautical miles farther than the one set by the Nares Expedition in 1875. Science and latitude records were forgotten, though, with the expedition’s demise from cold and starvation. The failure of relief ships to reach Greely resulted in the deaths of most of his party. Nor did the spirit of the IPY carry on after the expedition’s rescue. The impressive pile of data collected by stations all over the Arctic could not compete with reports of Greely’s incompetence, evidence of cannibalism, and the execution of a crew member for stealing food.

The Greely Party in 1884

Fifty years later, an international meteorological congress tried to resurrect the idea of scientific collaboration with IPY-2, which took a new set of questions about magnetism, the aurora, and radio science, to the poles. Yet coming as it did in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, IPY-2 fell short when the money ran out.

The IGY of 1957-1958, conceived in the midst of the Cold War, seemed just the kind of feel-good, collaborative effort needed to reduce tensions between East and West. Unfortunately the first offspring of IGY was Sputnik. As the tiny satellite beeped its way over the Western hemisphere, it brought tears to the eyes of Russians, and visions of nuclear-tipped ICBMs to anxious Americans.

Despite talk of science and collaboration, then, the legacy of the IPYs has featured much of the vain-glorious and nationalistic pap that Weyprecht had been trying so earnestly to avoid. What then, can we hope to achieve in IPY-4? If my experience at the IPY-sponsored North By Degree conference is any indication, I think the ultimate benefit of getting people together is, well, getting people together. No one can offer a guarantee of future accomplishments. Most IPY subjects and discussions are too wonky to make good headlines. But ultimately the international IPY is a form of social communion, a way of building relationships. We had tense moments in Philadelphia – but we all stayed in the room – and continued to talk and argue about our positions for the extent of the conference. It is from this messy back and forth, I think, that real collaborative projects grow.

The Reenacted Voyage

SSV Corwith Cramer

In May 2006, I sailed out of Key West aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134 ft steel brigantine belonging to the Sea Education Association. With 7800 square feet of canvas, the Corwith Cramer looks like it sailed out of a painting by Fitz Hugh Lane. Yet it is a modern craft, fully outfitted for research, complete with bathymetric equipment, hydrographic winches, biological sampling equipment, sediment scoops, and rock dredges. Not that I would know the difference between a scoop and a dredge. In my former career in science, the mysteries of life were something best looked at indoors, preferably under a laminar flow hood where they wouldn’t infect you.

The Laminar Flow Hood

Today my research questions are different. They focus on humans rather than marine ecology or rarefied microbes. And it was the human element of the voyage that made the its greatest impression on me, namely my own halting adaptation to life aboard ship. As the Cramer’s B squad, we worked in eight hour watches, manning lookout, checking the weather, hoisting sail, and swabbing the sole. My berth was above the table in the galley, so I had to step over people eating (day and night) in order to get anywhere else in the ship. I slept three to four hours at a time, bathed in sweat. It was a breathtaking, bewildering, exhausting experience.

Crow’s Nest, Corwith Cramer

It was, nevertheless, an experience which affected my research, because it showed me, in a way I never really understood before (reading books in the archives), the profoundly exhilarating and unsettling nature of life on a ship packed with officers and crew. Suddenly it seem didn’t odd that scientific specimens disappeared or disintegrated before making it back to the metropole. It didn’t seem odd that Pacific and Polar expeditions so often ended in mutiny or violence. (Not that we had mutiny on our minds. The crew of the Corwith Cramer was friendly and professional. I’m just projecting what it would be like to be on such a vessel for years at a time, with a larger crew, smaller berths, no fresh food or refrigeration, few links to the outside world, mixed together with the occasional bout of scurvy). Nor did it seem odd that explorers sometimes stayed in touch with former shipmates forty or fifty years after the end of the expedition. While the Corwith Cramer bore no resemblance to the the Fram, the Beagle, the Endeavour, or any other famous crafts of discovery, it gave me a way of understanding some of the events that took place on these vessels long ago.

For me the reenacted voyage offered inspiration, a way of seeing, in a new light, historical events. But this is not alway the objective of such voyages. Maritime adventurists often find a different inspiration in the reenactment, principally to recreate earlier events. For example, Philip Beale, leader of the Phoenician Ship Expedition, plans to sail a 21 meter square rigged ship around Africa in hopes of showing that the Phoenicians accomplished this route in 600 BC.

The Good Ship Phoenicia

As Beale put it in a Reuters interview:

“”The Europeans think it was Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias who did it first. But I think the Phoenicians did it 2,000 years earlier and I want to prove it.

And on his website:

“The Phoenicians obviously conquered the Mediterranean, but did they really go all the difficult and long way around Africa? That is the question.”

That is indeed the question, but one that Beale will be no closer to answering after the Phoenician Ship Expedition sets sail. Phoenicians may or may not have sailed around Africa, but Beale could never recreate the voyage with any accuracy because he knows where he’s going and how he’s going to get there, something that the first Phoenician navigators would not have known. Indeed, 14th century Venetians had a much better sense of the African coastline and Atlantic currents, but still feared passing beyond Cape Bojador (on the West Coast of Africa) because they’d be sailing against the current on the way back.

Another example: in 2005, British trekker Tom Avery sledged with to the North Pole in 36 days, a feat that he claimed “rewrote the history books” because it proved Robert Peary could have made it to the North Pole in 37 days as he claimed in 1909. While there may still be doubters, Avery hopes “that we have finally brought an end to the debate and that Peary’s name will be restored to where it belongs in the pantheon of the great polar explorers.”

Avery, channeling Peary, at the North Pole

But Avery’s expedition differed from Peary’s in significant ways. Avery was a robust 29 when he reached the North Pole. By contrast, Peary was 52, hobbled by the loss of eight toes, and suffering from a variety of ailments. Avery could afford to pack light on his trip since he didn’t have to make a return trip back to land (his party was airlifted from the North Pole shortly after he arrived). Peary, by contrast, had to slog his way back under dog power.

Beale and Avery, I’m afraid, have succumbed to Kon-Tiki Syndrome, a state of mind in which reasonable explorers start believing that they are the philosopher’s stone, agents with the power to transform reenactments into the gold of historical proof. I am a great believer in such voyages as experiential education, but they have no value in telling us what really happened in the past. Unfortunately there are no shortage of adventurers and sponsors willing to organize such expeditions. What to do. Blame Thor Heyerdahl.

North By Degree

Ernest Shackleton

If I had to guess, I’d put the current readership of books on Ernest Shackleton at about three billion. This number will surely grow to include all members of our species once the corpus of Shackletonia has been fully translated into Chinese. Those of us who have etched out a living writing about other polar explorers smile and try not to be bitter. We make do writing articles for hard-to-pronounce journals, publishing books with tiny print runs, and giving talks at libraries and retirement homes.

Waiting for the new Shackleton biography

But there are bright moments working in the shadows of Shackleton. We, the scholars of the obscure, have a keen sense of fellowship. We know the twenty or so people out there who do the same thing we do. In polar exploration, this society of scholars includes: Russell Potter, Lisa Bloom, Kenn Harper, Peter Capelotti, and Robert Bryce. I have gotten to know these writers through their work: The Fate of Franklin, Gender on Ice, Give Me My Father’s Body, By Airship to the North Pole, and Cook and Peary. As I wrote The Coldest Crucible, I spent a good deal of time figuring out how my work connected to theirs. But for all of this, I had never met any of them.

Last week they were all there, the Arctic All-Star Team, talking shop and drinking coffee at the North By Degree conference in Philadelphia. I met other members of the fellowship as well, among them: Susan Kaplan, Bob Peck, Christina Sawchuk, Karen Routledge, Rob Lukens, Patricia Erikson, Anne Witty, Chip Sheffield, Stephen Loring, Elena Glasberg, Laura Kay, Lyle Dick, Emma Bonanomi, Christyann Darwent, Erik Sundholm, Russell Gibbons, David and Deirdre Stam, Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, Genevieve Lemoine, Frederick Nelson, Helen Reddick, and modern explorer and polymath Tori Murden McClure, who gave a terrific talk on the motives of exploration.

We weren’t all cooing and nodding at each other, either. There were some good scuffles: over the Cook-Peary controversy, gender and exploration, and our different approaches to history. I’ll be featuring more tidbits from the conference over the next month or so. Maybe we can generate a good dust-up here as well.

Discussing Polar History