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The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the…

The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole,… (1988)

by Pierre Berton

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“It is now one hundred and seven days since I have seen printed words.”

So said explorer George Tyson while adrift on an ice floe for six months in Baffin Bay in the winter of 1872-73.

Being deprived of reading material is the least of the horrors in these pages. There are long winters of isolation, abandonment of ice-locked ships, murder, mutiny, madness, and, yes, cannibalism on more than one occasion.

It’s a tale of obsession Berton compares to the Crusades or the quest for the Holy Grail. Berton’s account is a magisterial mixture of biography and exploration.

The trudge through the north was mostly an English, Norwegian, and American affair, and the story is told in three acts.

First there was the quest for the North West Passage starting with John Ross in 1818. (That attempt really began with Englishman Martin Frobisher in 1576, and independent verification of his claims of exploration was discovered in 1861 by American Charles Hall.) Ross and his subordinate William Parry inaugurate an age of elaborate explorations with big ships – with onboard theatricals and newspapers and classes, contact with Eskimos, and an almost perverse tendency to do things the hard way with sledges hauled across the ice and unsuitable clothing. It was a tradition that was to continue, despite its demonstrated unsuitability, through Robert Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition.

The great second act opens with John Franklin’s legendary and doomed 1845 expedition. It wasn’t the sixty year old’s first time in the Arctic. One of his earlier expeditions had seen cannibalism though not by him personally. Indeed, the public knew him as “the man who ate his shoes”. A man who would not kill a fly ended up leading an expedition which killed all its 129 members. Their disappearances, the need to know their ultimate fate, pulled 16 other expeditions into the Arctic between 1848 and 1860, many provoked and inspired by Franklin’s wife, the formidable Lady Jane Franklin.

After hope was lost of saving any of Franklin’s men, the goal shifted toward the largely symbolic prize of the Pole.

The explorers here run the gamut from a naïve romantic who abandoned his family for the North to scientists to modern knights on a quest for Lady Franklin to consummate professionals to con men. Sometimes one man combined multiple categories. Roald Amundsen, first navigator of the North West Passage and eventual conqueror of the South Pole and a man who made it all look easy, was motivated by the “romance” of the sufferings Franklin told of his earlier expeditions. Adolphus Greely, leader of an American expedition that saw mutiny and cannibalism (the perpetrator still unknown) and the death of 18 of its 24 members, transformed from a martinet to a compassionate, nurturer of his men. Frederick Cook survived a winter in Stone Age conditions, called a “masterpiece of Arctic survival” by Berton, but it was an accomplishment overshadowed by his lie of reaching the North Pole almost simultaneously with Robert Peary.

Not that Peary reached it either as Berton convincingly argues. A desperate seeking of fame and fortune led to Peary’s lie. But Peary’s accomplishments, even without his claim to the Pole, were extensive and almost as professional in execution as Amundsen. (The latter actually made significant scientific observations during his travels.) The years since this book’s publication have led to even further reasons to doubt Peary, but I have to admire a man who said, to a subordinate astonished to see five of Peary’s frostbitten toes come off with his boots, “There’s no time to pamper sick men on the trail.”

These were, of course, all white explorers. But, as Berton makes very clear, Eskimos are part of this story from the very beginning. Without the material aid of the Eskimos, many more of these expeditions would have fared horribly. It was only by adapting the techniques of the Eskimos that Amundsen and Peary were so successful.

Berton organizes his book very well. The index is extensive and detailed. There is a chronology which helps during those times when multiple expedition are in the Arctic at the same time. The maps are especially good with both large and small scale ones. Many expeditions get their own map, and we see not only the actual lay of the land but what was known by the explorers of the time. My only complaint is that, in the paperback edition, the large Arctic map at the beginning has some detail lost in the crease of the spine. There are also line drawings of most of the explorers and some photos.

A very useful book for the northern district of polar explorations. ( )
2 vote RandyStafford | Feb 5, 2014 |
I have always been fascinated by polar exploration. Fortunately, there has been no dearth of excellent books on the subject, not to mention film documentaries. Dr. Mosher was kind enough to loan me a tape of the British series The Last Place on Earth, which dramatizes Roland Huntford's book about the Scott and Amundsen race to the South Pole. (If you get a chance, this is a must film -- especially during July.)
Pierre Berton has written an absorbing chronicle of the obsession the 19th century civilized (?) world had with the North Pole and the Northwest Passage. By 1817, some 90% of British naval officers were unemployed, and the government needed projects to keep them busy. The Northwest Passage and the vast uncharted territory north of Canada presented an unknown begging to be conquered. Unfortunately, stupidity and negligence caused needless deaths over the next century.

The Eskimos had the knowledge and skills to survive in this hostile environment. The British viewed them as inferior beings but the Eskimos knew otherwise. The term "Kabloona" was an expression of disgust; it was also a synonym for white man. British officers insisted on regulation woolen uniforms and cloth sleeping bags. Because they were tight-fitting, the wool would absorb sweat and then freeze. The same happened to sleeping bags. One party reported it took over one-half hour to thaw out their sleeping bags with body heat.

Eskimos didn't use sleeping bags. They wore loose fitting garments made of deer skin. They didn't sleep in tents but snow houses which had the advantage of not needing to be dismantled. They could also be used on the return trip. They slept together as a group to share body heat, rather than in separate bags.

The English diet consisted of hard tack and salted meat, so naturally they suffered from scurvy. Even after Rae discovered that adopting the fresh meat diet of the natives would prevent scurvy (fresh meat is antiscorbutic) the British insisted on traditional remedies which did not work in the Arctic environment.They refused to use dogs. Scott was forced to pull enormously heavy sledges over terrible terrain by hand after his pathetic disaster with ponies; and his team was still using the ridiculously heavy tents which continuously froze and added weight to the sledges. The Norwegians and some Americans learned the value of dogs from the natives.

One cannot help but see a strong current of racism in all this. It was important for the explorers to maintain a sense of superiority. There was a fear of "going native." Of course, the British celebrate their failures. Franklin's tragic expeditions were symbolic of all that was wrong with traditional polar exploration. His first lost 11 men, the second, all 129. He could not understand the reluctance of the natives to join his adventure. "...their caution forms a singular contrast with the ready and thoughtless [my emphasis:] manner in which an English seaman enters upon any enterprise, however hazardous, without inquiring or desiring to know where he is going, or what he is about." Franklin is still eulogized.

Contrast Franklin's remark with this characterization of the Norwegian Nansen: "daring but never rash; bold but never impulsive; fatalistic but never foolhardy; poetic but never naive." It remained for Peary and the Norwegians (among others) to adopt native skills and successfully adapt to the harsh environment. That is not to say that all became easy. They still suffered (Peary lost most of his toes on one trip), but they survived and returned.

Berton believes that neither Cook nor Peary reached the North Pole. Next to read is Herbert's biography of Peary and the controversy which still rages. (Of course, Herbert may be slightly biased, for if Peary did not reach the Pole, then Herbert was the first to do so in 1983 by dog-sled. ( )
2 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
what a great book!!! pierre berton is an excellent storyteller and it would seem he is also an impeccable researcher. that's no surprise!! shamefully, this is the first time i have read a berton book. OOPS!! he definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. weird, right??

an important video you need to watch so you understand the level of awesome of pierre berton, and one of the many reasons why he was so beloved in canada: what's the best way to roll a joint? "it's a tragedy we all want to avoid!!" YOU GUYS!!! come on!!!

but i digress....heh!!!

having studied the arctic in school, as well as having had the chance to travel to the arctic on an exchange in high school (holman, on victoria island in 1983!! though it's since been renamed to ulukhaktok), it's been a place that has always fascinated me. not to the point where i have ever felt the urge to, you know, make a dash for the north pole on skis, or anything like that, but there is a mysteriousness and intrigue about life in the high arctic. so i was thrilled to discover this book and that it was such an excellent portrayal of the lives and challenges these men faced in trying to achieve their dreams.

i was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. the british expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts and judging the inuit, while useful to them, 'savages' and 'unintelligent'. roald amundsen was one explorer who 'went native' during his time in the arctic. he valued the inuit people he brought onto his team, he adapted their ways for clothing and shelther and sustenance. he was the only explorer who actually thrived and gained weight while wintering in the arctic (locked in by ice, waiting for a thaw that would allow passage). roald amundsen is my favourite explorer (who knew?! haha!!) he was smart and patient and treated everyone the same way - all were equal. previous british expeditions were mostly led by navy men. and most insisted on living by rank and dictatorship conditions, along with british ways of life (clothing, food, expectations...). these expeditions never fared well. at all. it seemed, at one point, ridiculous to me that men were suffering scurvy, dreadfully ill, trying their best to not lose their minds...and yet there is disappointment when the last bottle of champagne was uncorked in the officers' quarters. seriously.

this book is a bit like being locked in on ice in the winter -- it's a slow read and one with which you may need a bit of patience. but this is not a complaint or a criticism. i enjoyed every moment of reading this book and i liked that it slowed me down and gave me time to imagine and consider the lives of the people berton has written about. one point i like the most, i think, was the fact that berton gave so much credit to the inuit in his book, along with some lesser-known expedition members. so many people did not get the attention they deserved.

and one last note: cook and peary were asshats, you guys! like -- possibly full-out liars, definitely exaggerators, manipulative and of dubious character. i had inklings of this before going in to the read...but mostly, i had no idea. ( )
1 vote Booktrovert | Sep 28, 2013 |
*note to self. Copy from A.
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
The Arctic Grail: the Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818 - 1909 is exactly that - an extensive and wide angled look at the explorers who took on the quest to find the North West Passage between 1818 and 1909. A variety of influential characters are detailed, starting with Ross Ross and William Edward Parry and ending with Frederick Cook and Robert Edwin Peary. Parry, probably the most unique of the group, was young (only 29), big into keeping his crew entertained with music, theater and even a newspaper, and he was deeply religious. "His greatest accomplishment was his understanding of his crew and his determination to keep them healthy in mind as well as body" (p 34). Other explorers were drawn to the Arctic despite wanting family lives. Several married just before embarking on trips that would take them away from their new brides for several years. The obsession to find the North West Passage was strong and unyielding. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Feb 12, 2013 |
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"On every side of us are men who hunt perpetually for their personal Northwest Passage, too often sacrificing health, strength, and life itself to the search; and who shall say they are not happier in their vain but hopeful quest than wiser, duller folks who sit at home, venturing nothing and, with sour laughs, deriding the seekers for that fabled thoroughfare?" - Kenneth Roberts
"The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold." - Robert W. Service
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In the published memoirs of that stubborn and often maddening Arctic explorer Sir John Ross, there is a remarkable illustration of an encounter that took place on August 10, 1818, between two British naval officers and a band of Greenland Eskimos.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670824917, Hardcover)

Covering the entire period of exploration from the expedition of William Edward Perry in 1818 to that of Robert Peary in a single volume, Pierre Berton has written a revisionist history of the search for the Northwest passage and the North Pole. 26 illustrations.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:55 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The complete saga of the pursuit for two of the world's greates geographical prizes - the elusive Passage linking the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the North Pole. Culled from extensive research of hand-written diaries and private journal The Arctic Grail is the definitive book on the age of arctic exploration and adventure.… (more)

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