The search for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has generated far more print in the English language than the equally perilous search for a northeast passage between the two bodies of water. For this reason and for its richly descriptive contribution to the literature of harrowing expeditions, Andrea Pitzer's deeply researched "Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World" is most welcome.
At the book's center is William Barents, Dutch cartographer and navigator who made three voyages in the late 16th century in search of a northern sea route from Europe to China.
The first expedition set out in May 1594, with Barents entertaining the happy conceit that warmer, open water lay beyond the frozen seas of the Arctic Circle. Blocked by ice and unable to get farther than the northern tip of Nova Zembla (Russia's Novaya Zemlya), the ships turned back after three months. Still, Barents had discovered that the land was an island, not part of a continental mass and that an eastern water route to China was possible.
With lucrative trade in mind, Barents and a total of seven ships set out the next year bearing goods for trade — only to fail once more. Yet, the next year saw him heading north again, this time his ship getting no farther than the upper part of Nova Zembla, where it was trapped by ice squeezing it in a death grip.
The men were forced to abandon the vessel and build a rudimentary cabin on land from bits of the ship and flotsam scavenged from the shore.
That is a mere sketch of the voyages; the real grip of the book lies in the horrendous dangers and hardships endured by Barents and his shipmates, and the determination with which they met them. Icebergs were a constant threat, closing off passages and occasionally exploding to hurl deadly ice missiles at the ship.
Scurvy, too, was a killer, dispatching some and weakening everyone. But of all the trials, the most terrifying were polar bear attacks. The beasts climbed aboard ship, stalked the men over land, and attempted to break into their little cabin. The crew managed to kill a few, but then almost killed themselves from eating the bear's liver.
Finally, with their ship forever immured in ice, the men set off for home with two small boats, sometimes over water, sometimes dragging them with their meager supplies and sick men over ice, hacking their way around towering ice castles. After dreadful privations, the majority of the men made it home; Barents did not. He died on the way, though his name lives on in the Barents Sea.
For these explorers, it was as if they had visited another planet, a hostile place of alien creatures and otherworldly horrors. Sitting in my warm, secure house, even I was utterly (and agreeably) terrified and marveled as I always do at the courage and stamina of early explorers.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
By: Andrea Pitzer.
Publisher: Scribner, 320 pages, $29.