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Into the Void

December 26, 2020  | 

The cold, hoary legacy of polar exploration depends on outsize characters—and good books. Some chronicle legendary survivors. Ernest Shackleton found fame in 1917 by bringing his crew safely back from Antarctica, yielding one of the best adventure stories ever written: Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance.” Other explorers made their way into print by dying. John Franklin, who was lost in 1847 trying to find the Northwest Passage, inspired such titles as “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” The Norwegian Roald Amundsen both survived and disappeared. He forced the Northwest Passage in 1905 and then led the first expedition to the South Pole, recounting his adventures in several bestsellers. Amundsen later perished in an Arctic rescue mission. Conquest and tragedy fused to form the ideal polar hero.

The template for the romantic Arctic explorer was set 300 years earlier. As Andrea Pitzer writes in “Icebound,” William Barents of the Netherlands became the first European to journey into the icy void. “He was the patron saint of devoted error,” Ms. Pitzer asserts, attempting three times to find a northeast passage by sea over Russia to China in the late 16th century. Barents died in the effort while most of his crew survived. His crewmate Gerrit de Veer published a book telling the story. “Barents’s failures came from the immense adversity he faced,” Ms. Pitzer explains. “In time, that adversity itself would become the source of his fame.”

“Icebound” is a fascinating modern telling of Barents’s expeditions. The book faces limitations due to its very old source material: there is a dearth of known facts about Barents himself. Much of the extant record of his three voyages comes from de Veer’s contemporary account. Certain basic details have been lost, including the name of Barents’s ship and the man’s personality. As a result, “Icebound,” while fluid in its telling and thorough in its research, necessarily lacks the human element of the greatest adventure tales.

This is not to gainsay the book’s drama. Ms. Pitzer presents a compelling narrative situated in the context of Dutch imperial ambition. She writes vividly about the “unnerving isolation” of venturing north and east of Scandinavia into uncharted waters. “Going to sea can be challenging enough with a plotted course and an endpoint in mind,” she writes. “Sailing day after day without a map into unknown territory is a completely different experience. It’s impossible to know which kinds of shores, or what animals, wind, and weather may appear next. Any given tomorrow might have brought Barents or his men within sight of an open sea beckoning them to China.”

The open sea was a mirage—like so much else in the Arctic. A common theory since the time of the ancient Greeks posited that a warm polar ocean lay beyond the ice. It was said that crops could grow on land in its temperate climate, and that ships might sail freely over the north pole. Barents, who served as navigator, subscribed to this view. If he could prove it, then the Dutch, recently liberated from Spain, could achieve parity with other European powers by opening a faster trade route to the East.

The first voyage, in 1594, entailed a convoy of three ships. It succeeded insofar as it reached the frozen island of Nova Zembla and no souls were lost. A tongue barren rock jutting due north from central Russia, Nova Zembla (now called Severny Island) separated what would come to be known as the Barents Sea from the Kara Sea. The party battled icebergs and faced a constant threat of becoming moored in the freezing ocean. They also recorded eerie signs of otherworldly civilizations in the gothic waste. On one coastline, they spotted “hundreds of wooden idols of all sizes on a stretch of beach choked with reindeer antlers. The idols were male and female, adult and child, and all had their carved faces turned to the east.”

Their appetites whetted, Dutch investors underwrote a second attempt the following year. This time seven ships loaded with goods for trade set sail. (66) Bad luck and harsh weather assailed the caravan from the beginning. Although the party departed in midsummer, it encountered ice earlier than the previous year, and a fatal polar bear attack claimed two members of the crew. They lost half a dozen men to drowning, abandonment, and the savage practice of keelhauling, whereby a sailor was dragged underneath the ship as punishment for theft. Mutiny ensued and was met with executions. Barents alone wanted to press on and winter on the ice. The admiral in charge of the fleet denied his request and returned home.

Surprisingly, despite this fiasco the city of Amsterdam sponsored a third voyage into the north, but this time of smaller scope. Two ships sailed in 1596. When their pilots disagreed over the route, they split up. Barents’s crew of seventeen men (97) once more made for Nova Zembla, but became hopelessly stuck in ice near the island’s northeastern tip. As the ship’s hull cracked and groaned against the frozen sea, the men began offloading their supplies onto land and building a shelter. Then their carpenter died. De Veer wrote that the crew prepared to winter on Nova Zembla “in great cold, poverty, misery, and griefe.”

The story of their survival—most of them, for a dozen returned alive—involves resourcefulness, determination, and above all, pain. They had to disassemble parts of their ship for lumber to build a cabin, with hopes of repairing the vessel the following spring. Inside the shelter, it grew so cold that their shins scorched upon the fire while their backs frosted over. Sanitary conditions were beyond description. Snow overtook the small structure and threatened to bury the crew alive. They faced the ever-present menace of polar bears. Time lost all meaning in the dark of winter as starvation and scurvy ravaged the men’s bodies. Their only source of vitamin C came from the flesh of the Arctic fox.

Once the ice in the harbor began to break up in June 1597, the survivors put to sea in two skiffs, abandoning their ship and its crushed hull. Their return voyage is a story of near misses with icebergs and lucky-chance encounters with Russian vessels. Barents died before the boats could reach Amsterdam. Yet glory awaited, thanks to de Veer’s golden pen. Ms. Pitzker writes that Barents would help create the archetype of “the beleaguered polar hero,” whose appeal lay less in achievement than in “unfathomable suffering and endurance.” For centuries to come, other adventurers would join his ranks, journeying to the ends of the Earth to seek, to toil, and often, to perish. Barents did not reach China, but in this at least, he was first.

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