Ring of Ice: True Tales of Adventure, Exploration, and Arctic Life
Edited by Peter Stark
Ever since the earliest days of Arctic exploration by Europeans, armchair travelers have outnumbered actual explorers by a considerable factor -- and indeed, for many explorers, it was their narratives of their travels which shaped and secured their fame (not to mention offering some remuneration for the expense and risk of such undertakings). The British publisher John Murray, among others, made a considerable living for himself and his explorer-authors by bringing into print the official narratives of every British expedition from Parry to Belcher. In the United States, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane helped finance his second expedition with the proceeds of his book about his service on the First Grinnell, and his book about the Second Grinnell was so popular that one of the thousands of emigrants on the Oregon Trail in the 1850's was heard to declare that folks generally bought only two books along for the journey: "the Bible and Dr. Kane." In addition to the individual accounts of explorers, anthologies of sundry tales of Arctic adventure have long been a part of the bookseller's trade; from Samuel Smucker in the 1850's through Farley Mowat's magisterial Top of the World trilogy, there has been a steady stream -- or, one might say, ice-floe -- of such books, and a ready audience eager to peruse them from the warmth and safety of their homes.
Peter Stark, a staff writer for Outside magazine and the author of Driving to Greenland, enters this tradition with the awareness that, for the most part, previous anthologies have only told part of the story. Correcting for the omission of the writings of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic is one of Stark's imperatives in assembling this collection; choosing the most gripping (and excerptable) of Arctic explorers' tales is the other. These two priorities are not always easily balanced -- after all, the explorers were quite often indifferent or hostile to the peoples of the Arctic, and brought with welcome gifts such as steel needles and knives such unwelcome cultural imports as tuberculosis, tobacco, and distilled spirits. At the same time, the stories told by the native Inuit and other Arctic peoples often cast the explorers in a rather dim light -- especially those who were disinclined to trust or learn from their traditional knowledge and survival skills.
Nevertheless, Stark sets about making the most interesting possible conglomeration of these sometimes contradictory narratives, and for the most part he succeeds admirably. The claims of sundry explorers of the "Polar" era are starkly juxtaposed with Minik Wallace's plea for the return of his father's bones, held in the Museum of Natural History in New York after Minik's father Qisuk's death while confined there after being brought to America by Peary. The encounters with the Inuit and other Arctic peoples on the part of explorers who were willing to learn, such as Rasmussen and Stefansson, provide a fascinating counterpoint to the ethnocentricity of earlier explorers. And, in the section on recent writing about the Arctic, the stories of Rachel Qitsualik and Finn Lynge make for a far richer sense of the current cultural landscapes of the North than has been seen before in books of this kind. We are, moreover, reminded throughout of the many voices which echo through the landscape western explorers have so often fantasized about as "empty" -- as Stark weaves throughout the book poems from Inuit writers, among them the people of East and West Greenland, the Copper Inuit, the Igloolik Inuit, and the Netsilik. They provide a vital counterpoint to the old Western notion that the Arctic did not exist until it was "discovered."
The one period in which balance seems missing, however, is the early era of exploration, particularly the search for the Northwest passage and the Franklin expedition. Numerous Inuit accounts of this period have survived, and it would have made for a much more engaging account had Stark included them in this section. Charles Francis Hall, the dogged and perhaps slightly mad explorer who spent more time among the Inuit than any of his nineteenth-century peers, is mysteriously absent from this anthology. Western testimony -- such as Dr. Rae's report on the last survivors of the Franklin expedition -- is often given alone, even though it is based upon, and could have been incorporated among, Inuit oral testimony.
These are, however, relatively minor flaws, and given a project of this size, it's difficult to imagine how it could have been accomplished without omitting some texts which, given infinite time and pages, might have better been included. Stark is, for the most part, a careful editor and an admirable guide, offering excellent headlinks and historical background on each of the texts selected. Given the value of these contextual materials, though, it's too bad that the book's designers opted to use two different typefaces and a crowd of horizontal lines to set off the various texts; it's visually confusing, and could have been better accomplished with the judicious use of blank space. Still, the texts themselves are clearly and elegantly presented, and offer the reader many an evening of Arctic legend and lore; the armchair traveler will not be disappointed. It is to be hoped that Stark's book heralds a new era, one in which the full story of the era of Arctic exploration may be told, with all the witnesses heard this time, and that we may learn to appreciate the North for its complex and rich histories, without donning the aurora-tinted glasses of romanticism which have in the past colored our vision of the people and places of those "regions of thick-ribb'd ice."
Russell A. Potter