Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Antarctic Brotherhood

Well, once again it seems that way too much time has passed since my last post! Sorry about that, AB enthusiasts. As you may know from my last post, all the work I put into this project wound up coming to fruition in the form of a book! To those of you who've bought it - Thank you so much! With the book coming out, I started devoting my efforts to a facebook page rather than posting on here; and in the last year or so I haven't done much research on the AB. My interests have now turned southward, and I hope you won't mind if I post some of what I find here.

As I started doing some research on the history of Antarctic exploration, I decided to read primary sources first. As I'm well aware from the conundrums that came up with the primary sources relating to the AB, primary sources aren't the be-all and end-all; they're always biased, often conflicting, and rarely tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Add to that the fact that, as revealed to me in an excellent book called The Invisible Gorilla, our memories actually aren't as reliable as we think they are, and i completely understand that even primary sources have to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, I decided that I want to read about the history of south polar exploration from the point of view of those who were there, before reading the timelines and analysis written by historians. And as I began reading, the parallels between North and South have overwhelmed me.

To dispel a few common misconceptions - polar bears are at the North Pole; penguins are at the South Pole; and never the two shall meet. And before I get into the similarities, here are a few key differences. The Northern land regions, including many of the remote islands, are rife with predators and big, sometimes hostile animals - black bears, brown bears, polar bears (in some places), moose, mountain goats, caribou, and so on. The down side of this was that Northern explorers had predators to worry about; the up side was that the slaughter of one such creature could feed someone for a while (if they did it right, let's not forget McCandless' folly). Southern polar regions don't have such land predators; in fact, the animal life there is exclusively marine and avian. Men who got stranded survived by eating seal and penguin. Also worth mentioning - Alaskan pioneers had vast forests of evergreens to cut down and use to build shelters and fires. Antarctic explorers had to plan ahead in this department. Seal and penguin oil made for decent fuel, but they had to bring all their building materials down with them if they wanted wooden structures.

Another huge difference: Alaska had human natives, and Antarctica did not. This is a huge difference for a number of reasons - and that's for another post.

What the southern regions lacked in predators and territorial natives was made up for in meteorological hostility. The islands and continent of Antarctica are almost exclusively located south of the 60-degree south latitude line. The counterpart of this line in the north is essentially at the most northern part of Southeast Alaska; since the majority of Northern explorers at the time were going through Southeast, what they encountered there wasn't near as isolated and forbidding as what most Southern explorers encountered. Furthermore, the bulk of mainland Antarctica lies south of the Antarctic Circle. The corresponding Arctic Circle was barely crossed by explorers and gold seekers during the same time period. Anyway, in Antarctica, the winds were worse, the temperatures were lower, and the terrain was more difficult. Nearly all of what the southern explorers walked on was sea ice, glaciers, or snow.

Nordenskjold points out in his memoir that, at the time he and his crew were exploring, the southern explorations hadn't claimed nearly as many casualties as had northern ones; unfortunately, this was a premature assessment.

The first noticeable link that I found between northern and southern expeditions was the most obvious - Captain Cook. I recalled from my research on early encounters of Europeans with Natives of Southeast Alaska that Cook's name had come up; I was hardly shocked to learn that his name came up again in reading about early discoveries of south polar lands.

Cook isn't the only character to overlap, nor even the only boat; but there'll be more on all of that at a later post. What I really want to point out here are all the similarities between the types of people involved and the types of activities they participated in.

Bear in mind a few dates, just so you know when all this is happening: The Klondike Gold Rush, which was the second big migration of people up to the northwestern region of North America (second only to the initial migration across the Bering Strait of what would become Natives) took place between 1897-1898. The Arctic Brotherhood formed in 1899. Several more gold rushes in Alaska, Yukon, and BC continued to lure people northward right up til about 1910. The accounts of southern expeditions I've been reading take place in that period between 1900 and 1910; so these histories largely run parallel. At the same time that many men and women were hauling goods up Chilkoot Pass or rafting them down the Yukon River, there were people sledging across the sea ice of Antarctica.

The two books I've been reading so far are accounts of Nordenskjold and his entourage, a Norwegian group who went south between 1901-1903; and Robert Scott's second (and final) expedition seeking the South Pole between 1911-1914, written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the men on the expedition. Throughout, I've caught snippets about Shackleton, whose memoir will be the next that I read; he was there in between these two expeditions.

The first noticeable similarity is the style in which these memoirs and diaries are written. Writing style at that time seems to be pretty consistent across international borders, and as I read Nordenskjold's account I immediately felt as though I was reading the diary of an Arctic Brother again because of this.

Another obvious similarity, given the time period, involved the type of gear that these guys had. (Yeah - in the Antarctic expeditions at the time it was just men.) As Nordenskjold's and Scott's expedition logs detail the specific amounts of goods that they brought with them in various capacities - whether it was a list of what went on the boat south with them, what came off the boat to build their camp, or what went from the camp to another camp on a sledge-journey - the meticulous attention to detail in listing the quantities and weights reminded me automatically of the "ton of goods" required to enter Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush. ( What a Ton Of Goods meant)

The means used to haul these goods didn't vary much, either. In the Klondike Gold Rush, the White Pass Trail became known as the "Dead Horse Trail" because of the horses who were treated poorly and expected to haul that ton of goods over the pass. Similarly, in Scott's second expedition a group of seventeen ponies was transported south to be used for hauling goods. The stories of how some of these ponies died are both horrifying and mind-blowing. Another common form of transport in both places was dogsled. Both Nordenskjold and Scott brought dogs with them, though it seems Scott's crew had much better foresight in that department.

One of my favorite similarities, pointed out by Cherry-Garrard of Scott's crew: "There has been a sort of freemasonry among Polar voyagers to keep up the credit they have acquired..." I nearly jumped for joy when I read this! Of course, there was no Antarctic Brotherhood to correspond to the AB; but the fact that Cherry-Garrard used fraternal language in referring to keeping secrets from outsiders was particularly intriguing to me. Apparently, though, when a ship crossed the equator in those days, there was an initiation of sorts for men who hadn't been on a ship crossing the equator before. The depictions of this ritual made me giggle just like the details of AB initiations have always done.

There are a lot more similarities, big and small. Just like the Chilkoot crossers had carved stairs into the snow at the Pass, members of Scott's crew carved steps into snowdrifts to navigate. The diets of the people involved were limited and unbalanced. But for me, the most important similarity that I intend to study thoroughly, is that spirit of adventure that I so love about the men of the Arctic Brotherhood. As Cherry-Garrard and Nordenskjold write about the character of each of the men with them, the archetype of diligent and determined adventurer really is solidified. These were people who faced deadly peril every single day, and yet death was not something they seemed to fear.

It's a hard concept to grasp, reading about these expeditions on my Kindle Fire in a house with a furnace, a telephone, and the Internet. Cherry-Garrard, one of the youngest in Scott's expedition, points out:

"Generally the risks were taken, for, on the whole, it is better to be a little over-bold than a little over-cautious, while always there was a something inside urging you to do it just because there was a certain risk, and you hardly liked not to do it. It is so easy to be afraid of being afraid!"

As we go through our day-to-day lives here in modern civilizations, the fears we have are so much less than what these men dealt with on a daily basis for years on end; yet we seem to treat such fears as though they are, in themselves, just as serious. I think that if these guys- many of whom were not born wealthy, were slight of build, and didn't have much social support back home - could approach their daily grind of traversing crevasses and navigating thinning sea-ice with this boldness, we can approach our own daily worries with the same. And we should.