Tuesday, August 3, 2010
How I got through, am getting through, this heat wave
I started with the Siberian Arctic and Valerian Albanov’s 1914 trek across the frozen seas. Then I went back a couple of centuries and read David Roberts’ Four Against the Arctic, about four hardy Russian walrus-hunters whose ship is wrecked in 1743 and they end up stranded for six years on Svalbard, way north of the Arctic Circle. Their story presents a model of how to survive in grim conditions: shooting reindeer and foxes, keeping out of the way of polar bears, and gathering scurvy grass. During the long dark & boring winter days and nights, they took turns reciting the Old Testament forward and then backward, and renamed the stars.
But since I am not going to the Siberian Arctic any time soon, I thought I should start reading about where I am heading, the Canadian north. And once you start reading about that region, it seems to be All Franklin, All the Time. To say that there is a whole industry of Franklin-driven searching and Franklin-obsessed books is not to exaggerate. Au contraire.
In that remarkable British way (think Robert Falcon Scott) of deeming him the greatest hero he-who-fails-nobly, Sir John Franklin is revered. On his first voyage to the Arctic (1819) he got lost, over half his crew died miserably, and Franklin ended up eating his boots (and maybe a few of those dead sailors). On his 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Franklin perished along with all 134 sailors and officers.
In the century and a half since the Terror and the Erebus were last sighted, dozens of expeditions have gone in search of Franklin, of the remains of Franklin and his crew, of anything at all to verify what went so terribly wrong. In the course of those searches, many more lives were lost and much of the Canadian arctic coast was mapped.
So enough of explorers.
Today I am keeping cool with Peter’s Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos, and there is nothing cooler than proper Eskimo attire. If I were an Eskimo female, this is what I would be putting on to leave my snug igloo: for undergarments, a bird skin shirt with the feathers next to the skin, hare skin stockings; then sealskin boots called kamiks that reach the crotch and are trimmed with the mane hairs of a male bear (the longest and most elegant) and short panties of fox skin. Over everything a loose fitting coat of fox fur with a sealskin hood edged with foxtails. And finally, caribou skin mittens.
Another reason all this information is useful: if this weather persists, and climate continues with its apparently inexorable slide into cauldron-hot summers, deluges at all the wrong times and tornadoes in all the wrong places, then many of us will be moving to the Arctic and it is always good to know the local culture and history.