New Arctic atlas wonderful to explore

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

The high Arctic is a bleak place, but its history is certainly colorful. Now Canadian author Derek Hayes has created a marvelous book that literally puts that color on the page.

His "Historical Atlas of the Arctic" is a big book in many ways. Lavishly illustrated and large enough to adorn a coffee table, it covers about 500 years of human adventures and misadventures. Hayes includes a plethora of detail, swashbuckling anecdotes and analytical overviews, all written so well that the atlas is a real page-turner.

"This book is really about the exploration of the Arctic, and thus tends to concentrate on expeditions that added knowledge of some kind," he writes in the introduction. "... Five hundred years ago, the Arctic was a complete unknown to Western man, a huge blank on the map supporting nothing but theories as to what was there."

The heart of the book is a collection of 303 maps ranging from a 15th century recreation of Roman geographical fantasies to 21st-century charts based on satellite and sonar data, enhanced by computers and distributed on the Internet. Drawn from archives and private collections around the world, these maps include sketches drawn by Inuit guides and autographed charts from famous explorers as well as the gamut of published maps through the centuries. Their captions are as useful as the main text, and they are full of nuances such as calligraphy, etchings of "Esquimaux" and polyglot place names that invite the reader to linger.

Hayes deftly uses the maps to illustrate the advance of Western knowledge of the region. The earliest ones, which he characterizes as "superbly bizarre," proposed such things as a mysterious continent, giant mountain or warm sea at the top of the world. Through generations, conjecture gave way to tentative dotted lines and blank areas, which in turn gradually yielded to the certainty of coastal surveys, bearings and soundings.

Yet these lines on maps came at a high cost in lives. Those who sought new lands and seas ventured into a region hostile to human survival. The quest attracted more than its share of heroes, hucksters and extreme personalities. The author conveys their exploits with a sense of drama, irony and even wry humor.

Hayes peoples his narrative with the larger-than-life men. Among others, we meet Martin Frobisher, whose rumors of New World gold bamboozled his Elizabethan colleagues into laboriously mining and shipping more than 1,000 tons of worthless rocks from Baffin Island; the famously tragic Sir John Franklin and Roald Amundsen, whom the author praises as "arguably the most successful and certainly the most versatile polar explorer of all time."

Europeans ventured north looking for fame, fortune, adventure or new knowledge. A recurring impetus was the search for a traders' shortcut between Europe and the Far East.

"In the mid-18th century there was a brief burst of activity from new seekers of the Northwest Passage. The concept was so appealing that unless conclusively shown to be impossible, it was bound to resurface from time to time. It was one of the 'get-rich-quick' schemes of the Age otherwise of Reason," Hayes writes.

Exploring the far north presented unique challenges. Persistent sea ice perplexed early explorers, many of whom clung to the idea that warm currents and round-the-clock summer sunlight ensured seasonal open water at the pole. Mirages convinced them of phantom islands or open waters. Icepack drift prevented retrieval of stranded ships or cached supplies. And in the Canadian archipelago, the gap between the earth's axis and its magnetic pole rendered compasses useless.

Strange notions hampered the earliest efforts to locate Alaska. Before Bering, influential geographers championed the notion of a polar continent, attributing to it Chukchi Natives' reports of a great land off Siberia.

"Certainly the ideas of land to the east where there is land (Alaska) and land to the north where there is almost none became confused," Hayes writes.

Even after locating Alaska, many Europeans believed it was connected to Greenland. One delightful map from 1821 shows a gulf piercing this great northern land, putting modern Fairbanks under the waters of something called "Lake Valasco."

The Russians were the best situated to move into the Arctic as they explored across Siberia. Hayes gives them ample credit for stunning achievements. Their 18th-century Great Northern Expedition, funded by the tsars, mapped nearly the entire northern coast of Eurasia. In later centuries, they pioneered the first arctic flights, the first ice breakers and the use of ice-based drifting science stations.

Adventurers moving between Greenland and Canada had an even harder time, picking their way through an ice-choked maze of islands. Some voyages degenerated into Gothic episodes of madness and mystery. In this region the last documented land was not discovered until 1948.

The book brings the story into the present, as well. After treating the controversies about who actually reached the North Pole first, Hayes talks about the 2000 brouhaha over the sighting of open water at the pole, global warming research and modern adventurers. "It is now possible to take a trip as a tourist aboard a Russian icebreaker to the North Pole," he says.

He ends the book with a list of sources, a bibliography and index as meticulous as the rest of his work.

The only odd thing about the atlas is the arrangement of its chapters. These range from one to 28 pages long and at least one is omitted from the contents. Also, a pocket reference map to put alongside the pages would have been handy. Hayes attempts to fill that gap by recommending on the back of the title page several reference maps within the volume. But those are tiny quibbles with an excellent work.

"Historical Atlas of the Arctic" is an impressive book, delivering both content and aesthetics. Anyone interested in maps or the Arctic will find it well worth its price.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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