Following Sara Wheeler's 1999 trek to Antarctica, chronicled in "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica," she dismissively labeled the opposite pole as "the complicated, life-infested North." She changed her stance in 2002, following a trip on which she towed her infant son on a sledge while traveling with Sami reindeer herders. The region pulled at her consciousness. "I started thinking about the collar of lands around the Arctic Ocean. Fragmentation, disputed ownership, indigenous populations immobilized on the threshold of change -- those very things Antarctica lacked appealed to the older me." The region, which once held little mystery or romance for Wheeler, had become the lead player in the global warming drama with its "polar bears as poster boys."
She begins in northeastern Siberia, nine time zones east of Moscow, in a region closed to foreigners and so locked in perpetual winter that it has "in a quarter of a million square miles no soil in which anything can grow." Yet this section of the Russian Arctic contains one-twelfth of the land mass of the Earth, and has for centuries been home to 26 ethnic peoples, herders and fishermen, who rarely appear in most stories of Russia's national past.
Traveling in a clockwise direction, Wheeler's circuit includes Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen, Lapland and then Russia's White Sea. Her journeys, taken in intervals, span two years. Stories are included for their ability to illustrate the theme of heroic individual struggle, such as the drama of polar aviation or the heroism of the Norwegian Resistance. "I included others because I liked them too much to leave them out," she writes.
Readers reap the bounty of Wheeler's intense curiosity, attention to the smallest detail and the inclusion of obscure, bizarre and astounding facts. While visiting Chukotka, Russia, and sipping bitter coffee brewed on a portable gas burner, she notes the town's 17th-century inhabitants were recognized as the most savage warriors in Russia. "They ate deer maggots, killed migrating geese by hurling balls at them, and built antler towers as seal-oil lighthouses. They milked their reindeer by sucking the udders and spitting the milk into a bowl made of seal intestine and walrus bone."
Wheeler readily admits her chronicle is not a comprehensive history, but this in no way diminishes this amazing story. Her rollicking, fact-filled narrative seamlessly blending historical and contemporary storytelling is a bewitching tale about this remarkable and compelling region.
Julie Foster is a freelance book reviewer in Sacramento, Calif.