Ninety Degrees North

“Ninety degrees north” is the geographic designation of the North Pole, and so not surprisingly, Fergus Fleming’s Ninety Degrees North covers explorers from Franklin to Cook and Peary, in the period between 1845 and 1926 during which men1 attempted multiple times to find the North Pole, the NorthWest Passage, the remains of people who preceded them in these efforts or some combination of the three. This book is the second of a pair by the same author, the first being “Barrow’s Boys”, which covers British expeditions to various parts of the world2 prior to the mid-nineteenth century…and taken in aggregate all I can say is “Good deity, those men were crazy.”

All too often, the expeditions seemed designed by incurable optimists. The earlier explorers not only didn’t have a map, they had no idea whatsoever of the land mass they were exploring. In fairness, most expedition members went on only one expedition before returning permanently to more hospitable climes. However, more than a few would return to civilization, starving, delirious and missing appendages lost to frostbite, from months-long grueling treks across a land hostile even to the locals and remain in temperate populated lands only long enough to grub up the funding for another trip north. While it’s true that returning explorers candy-coated their travels, for their financial backers if not for their own copy in the popular media, so therefore it’s a bit more understandable for newbie explorers to miscalculate necessary equipment based on previous explorers’ vetted descriptions of Arctic conditions. This doesn’t explain (for me) the willingness of those who HAD done it before to return, repeating actions which produced disastrous results every single time.

And there were a number of predictable problems. For starters, making one’s way across in the (to Europeans) trackless wilds was, of course, always a problem, as was the inevitable getting frozen in pack ice and juggling what remained of your ship when the ice broke up in what passed for spring. Equipment is primitive by modern standards (either Inuit or European). Admittedly, the majority of the expeditions in this book were conducted prior to modern conveniences and necessities, such as reliable scientific equipment, radio, motorized transport, nutritionally complete easily portable travel rations and windproof waterproof lightweight equipment (tents, sleeping bags) capable of withstanding…well, Arctic temperatures. There were also the issues of how to bring enough supplies with you in the absence of reliable transportation, much less determining how much was enough in the first place, and of course how to keep amused when it’s dark for several weeks straight and far too cold to go outdoors for more than a few moments.

Few of the early British and American expeditions brought anything resembling appropriate gear or supplies; the Norwegians and Swedes were a bit better prepared as they lived in a region similar to that which they were exploring. And they could ski. Later explorers had started taking a page out of the British naval book and included anti-scorbutics in their food supplies, but guessing how much food to bring without any way of guessing how long you’d be stuck in the area (and most expeditions were stranded) was impossible. Some of the problems they faced were ignorance but some of the expeditions strike me as being ill equipped by the standards of their day. Pinning your hopes on hunting for game as you go or upon trading with the locals for necessary supplies, may make sense in kinder warmer climes. Unfortunately, the Arctic locals themselves were already living on a knife’s edge and had little to give, aside from their reluctance to give anything to aliens whom they often rightly regarded as invaders. Even if the food and fuel held out, keeping amused in the weeks long Arctic night was also a very real issue; bad enough to be stuck in a miniscule hut with men for whom one does not particularly care, but to do so in the dark and cold for so long did on occasion drive strong men mad.

While Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North aren’t the most scholarly works available on Arctic explorations, they’re enjoyable introductions to world explorations for people who’ve finished all of Bryson’s and Theroux’s works. The author does take a more than slightly mocking tone towards the expeditions and their planners; at one point he describes the scientists of one as “Koldewey’s scientists performed their usual observatory rituals with pendulums, magnets and –ometers of every description. All they discovered was that polar bears became very hungry in winter.” Enjoy this book, and its predecessor to be sure, but I’ll be reading them both in front of a blazing fire, wrapped in a comfy blanket after dinner with a stiff (and hot) drink in my hand. Arctic exploration of the nineteenth century reminds me of the twentieth century “space race”, a battle between countries for dominance of a region and individuals’ defense of their honor.

1and yes, it was almost exclusively a male domain. I’d like to think that women had better sense…but women didn’t do nearly as much in the way of adventure as men in those days
2not least the Arctic, but some much more hospitably warm, in terms of climate

1 thought on “Ninety Degrees North

  1. Pingback: The Terror by Dan Simmons | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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