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Braving the cold (and bears) to chronicle history in ‘Icebound’

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

The Arctic has a magnetism in physics — and in history. Generations of explorers and adventurers have sought an arctic passage, and generations more have read in awe of their explorations and adventures. But while American schoolchildren are taught about the efforts of John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, and Henry Hudson to discover a Northwest Passage, the search for a Northeast Passage has been overshadowed.

Until now. Andrea Pitzer, a self-styled explorer of lost history, set out on three 21st-century arctic voyages herself to re-create, and then to relate, the heroic late-16th-century efforts of William Barents, the Dutch navigator and explorer who undertook the most northerly sea expeditions ever mounted at the time, sea odysseys into the uncharted, the unknown, and the unexpected. The result is “Icebound,” a gripping adventure tale that deserves an honored place in the long bookshelf of volumes dealing with arctic shipwrecks, winter ordeals, and survival struggles.

On the (icy) surface, the Barents voyages possessed all the virtues of romance — a sail into hostile waters on three-masted ships and on a dream of discovery. But like most stories of arctic adventure, there is a more prosaic aspect. There were commercial routes to pioneer, to be sure, and great fortunes to be realized. There also was a fresh new Dutch identity to shape; Barents would, Pitzer writes, “sail as a herald of the new Dutch nation,” only recently separated from Spain. And he would test the centuries-old but untested theory that despite its formidable and forbidding cold, there was in the Arctic a navigable open polar sea that would allow the traders of Europe to realize the riches of Asia.


But there were also brutal storms, crushing ice, and bears, bears, bears.

From our contemporary perspective — indeed from the perspective that climate change may already have created an arctic passage — Barents set sail in a political, cultural, and social environment much like the one that prevailed when the astronauts of Apollo 11 set forth for the moon. Both occurred in periods of upheaval, the Barents voyage at a time of vast migrations of people and ideas, religious strife, and geopolitical struggle.


And yet amid this tumult was opportunity. The new Dutch nation, Pitzer explains, “was filled with investors and merchants eager to find new markets for their goods,” adding, “It was a heroic convergence that brought the possibility of empire within the nation’s grasp.”

Barents was both professional and amateur. On his forecastle he stood on the shoulder of giants, including the astronomer Pythias and the voyages of other ancients, Arab as well as Greek, plus the experience of Columbus and Magellan. It was a time when scientific knowledge flowered, when the development of new navigational instruments and cartography transformed the maritime world. And this, another Apollo analogue: “Polar navigation,” Pitzer writes, “promised a foundation on which to build a nation.”

With beef and beer, spears and swords, hacksaws and halberds, Barents set sail on three missions. In his intellectual cargo was all the navigational knowledge of his time.

“But it wasn’t enough,” Pitzer cautions. “They possessed no scientific knowledge of gravity, no telescopes, and no calculus. Though they could reckon latitude, they couldn’t yet determine longitude from aboard a ship. They were centuries away from deciphering the germ theory of disease.”


Thus Pitzer sets out an ominous tone as Barents’s first mission sets out. On page after page the crew’s adventures and survival ordeals are beautifully rendered, as in this poignant sentence: “The ship sailed north in fear and wonder to pierce the veil of the unknown world,” she writes, drawing us into the story, and into the Arctic, on a journey without a plotted course but with a dramatic plot line.

These voyages are full of the usual arctic obstacles, including a near-mutiny, hunger, cold, and a sailor with “his neck clamped in the jaws of a polar bear.” It would get worse. The final voyage was fraught with challenge: “Sailing into the moist and gray weather, they could no longer tell sea, ice and sky apart.” They were besieged by attacking bears and surging ice that tightened its deadly grip as winter bore down:

“Equipment failed. The tide doesn’t cooperate. Wind shifts. Things may not go wrong any more often in the arctic than they do in other landscapes, but in the far north misfortune is far more likely to have a cascade of consequences.”

Without winter clothes they improvised, and suffered. They built a cabin, split logs, ate fox, carved wooden clogs, shoveled a tunnel through the snow, patched holes in their stockings. “Their dream of China and Cathay were gone,” Pitzer concedes. “The knees of the ship were damaged; the timbers were leaking, and most of winter still lay ahead.”

But they endured. In spring they set out on two small boats, destination home. Barents would not survive the return voyage. He died seven weeks before his crew was rescued. Yet he survives in history and geography; the sea between Greenland and Russia bears his name. But that may be the least of it. “He’d be transformed,” Pitzer writes, “into an icon whose achievements and heroics were warped into a tribute to the greatness of empire.” There, if not in the frigid Arctic, he rests in peace.


ICEBOUND: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World

By Andrea Pitzer

Scribner, 320 pp., $29

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.