One of my few specific hopes for the trip to Antarctica – separate from from general experiences that I figured I’d have almost no matter what, like seeing icebergs or being close to penguins – was to visit the British facility at Port Lockroy, which had been a military post called “Base A” during World War II, a scientific research station till 1962, and since then, the southernmost post office in the world. I even brought addressed postcards to mail from Port Lockroy! Alas, the place was closed due to the goddamn pandemic, so this is as close as we could get:
For a better look at Port Lockroy, check out some photos of the place. I love the color scheme of the structures themselves, and the neighbors seem nice.
Honestly, I didn’t even know till after the trip that we had sailed past Port Lockroy, so taken I had been by the scenery that day, during which we’d had to stay on the ship due to high winds. And by then, we’d already visited another old British base on Deception Island, “Base B,” which was located on the same beach as an old Norwegian whaling facility, the Hektor factory – the beach where many of us had had our polar plunges.
Base B is now a decrepit old building that we couldn’t even enter, but which the skuas and terns had long ago colonized. One of the ship’s naturalists told us all about “Operation Tabarin,” a slightly bonkers effort by the United Kingdom:
Its primary objective was to strengthen British claims to sovereignty of the British territory of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, to which Argentina and Chile had made counter claims since the outbreak of war. This was done by establishing permanently occupied bases, carrying out administrative activities such as postal services and undertaking scientific research.
According to our guide, Tabarin was also an effort to secure the whale oil that was stored on Deception Island – truly, a disgusting military objective, but one which speaks to the ecocidal nature of man’s relations to Antarctica. Deception Island was among other things a place where thousands of seals and whales were slaughtered and processed for… pretty much nothing – some fuel and lubricants and soap and margarine. What a heinous waste of life. We also saw the oil tanks and the carcass of the Hektor whaling factory, which was falling down and overgrown with lichens.
Up the beach were a few more buildings, and even an old aircraft hangar, but I didn’t go that far. I had polar plunging to do, and honestly I wasn’t relishing the ugly, obscene history of man’s exploitation of Deception Island. Far better to enjoy the place’s insistent, uncompromised nature, like the outcrops that Minerva sailed past as we left the island’s harbor and its fading traces of humankind.
It’s apparently pretty easy to title books on Antarctica. On the other hand, if a book has “end of the earth” in the title, it’s probably pretty good.
The Sancton book is a gripping account of a near-disastrous 1897-1899 expedition led by Adrien Gerlache to the Antarctic Peninsula — discovering many of the places I’ll see next month, but also getting trapped in the ice and barely surviving.
The Matthiessen book comprises two long, beautifully written essays on eco-tourism cruises that Matthiessen took in the 1990s, one to the Ross Sea south of New Zealand, the other to the Antarctic Peninsula. I hope my experiences there are more like Matthiessen’s than Gerlache’s!
Finally, the Mulvaney book is, uh, a history of the polar regions. I haven’t finished it yet, but the sections on Antarctica look to cover both exploration and subsequent use of the continent for science, whaling and sealing, etc. Should be good!
Few men are more famous as explorers of Antarctica than Ernest Shackleton – perhaps only Amundsen and Scott. Shackleton died exactly 100 years ago ago today, succumbing to a heart attack on the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia at the start of what would have been his third major expedition to Antarctica. He was just 47 years old, a young man, but then many of the explorers died early – Scott at 44, Amundsen at 56.)
Reading on Shackleton, I’m struck by the fact that he is so famous despite, or maybe, indirectly, because, he never actually reached the South Pole. That failure somehow magnifies his stature as a leader of men. On his first expedition, the Discovery expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in 1901-1904, Shackleton, Scott, and another man went as far south as 82º – a record for the time – but Scott then dismissed Shackleton for ill health.
A few years later, in January 1909, Shackleton’s own Nimrod expedition brought him and three others to 88º S, less than 100 miles from the pole and a new Furthest South. Though Shackleton longed to win the “race to the pole,” instead Amundsen did, in 1911, and Shackleton instead aimed at what would have been an even more impressive feat than merely attaining the pole: crossing Antarctica from the Weddell Sea on the South American side of the continent (the north, ha!) to the Ross Sea on the New Zealand side (the north again!) – and, naturally, crossing the pole on the way.
This was the famous, or infamous, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 which ended prematurely when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance (surely one of the most ironic names ever), was trapped in pack ice in January 1915. They had not even gotten close to Antarctica proper, and in fact had been caught in the same region where a German expedition had been trapped in 1912.
Shackleton and his crew lived, barely, for the entire summer, fall, and winter of 1915 on the ship itself, hoping that warmer temperatures in the spring would allow them to free the ship and sail either home (which was in the throes of the Great War), or amazingly, deeper into the sea, toward the continent, to try the crossing after all. A separate group had already laid supplies on the other side of the continent, fueling Shackleton’s hope to lead the third party to the pole – and only the second to return successfully from it.
These plans disintegrated in October 1915 when the spring breakup crushed the Endurance, driving the men onto the ice. They tried to march north, but found the going too slow, so they camped on the ice until Shackleton decided to make another march, which also failed, just a few miles further along. They returned to the shipwreck to salvage supplies and lifeboats in the hope that they could find open water and sail to one of a few relatively nearby outposts of civilization, then camped for months.
All the while, the ice floes were drifting and splitting, drifting and splitting, and the men were starving, losing their wits, fighting and mutinying. They shot all their sled dogs and ate some of them, a complement to endless seal meat. Finally, in April 1916, with another winter approaching, conditions deteriorated enough that Shackleton ordered a desperate effort to sail the open lifeboats – now renamed, almost ludicrously, for the expedition’s main financial backers – to any of several islands they knew were nearby. A brutal five-day voyage brought them, without the loss of anyone, to Elephant Island, just off the tip of the Antarctica Peninsula.
Resting on the barren island, Shackleton determined that he and five other men would sail one of the boats through the rough seas of the Drake Passage to South Georgia, from which they’d departed about sixteen months earlier. This was an unimaginably harrowing trip that depended entirely on the ability of Shackleton’s captain, Frank Worsley, to navigate without proper instruments, maps and charts, or even, you know, a stable deck.
Worsley did it. After two weeks at sea, the tiny boat made it to South Georgia on May 10 – but on the uninhabited side of the island. After a couple days of recuperation, Shackleton, Worsley, and another crewman made a two-day trek through the wilderness to the whaling station at Stromness, the port from which the Endurance had left in December 1914.
I nearly weep to think of the relief they must have felt to see ships, houses, and other people after so long a time, and so much an ordeal – but also to think of the need they felt to rescue the rest of the Endurance’s crew.
After retrieving the three other lifeboaters who’d stayed on the far side of South Georgia, Shackleton made four successive efforts to sail back to Elephant to rescue everyone else – not even knowing if they were still alive, three months after he had left in the lifeboat. The damn sea ice defeated the first three attempts over three months until finally Shackleton reached Elephant Island in August to find the entire party still alive, though they had suffered horribly through another austral winter – starvation, depression, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene, amputation. Again, I can hardly imagine the mixture of feelings they must have felt, sailing back to Chile and then home to Great Britain: elation and relief, certainly, but probably also sadness and frustration. All that effort, all that suffering, all for naught.
Shackleton was recognized as a hero, however, and after service in the British military and a period of lecturing, he organized another Antarctic expedition – partly to pay off debts from the failure of the Endurance trip. (That these insane treks required so much financing and were even seen as possible ways to make money by discovering minerals or other resources or simply by publishing newspaper and books, seems ludicrous.)
This expedition was to have conducted a wide range of scientific research during a circumnavigation of Antarctica. Shackleton fell ill on the journey south but insisted on continuing. Finally, on the morning of January 5, 1922, with the ship docked in, yes, South Georgia, a crewman discovered Shackleton in terrific pain. He cautioned “the Boss” about his hard living. Shackleton replied, “You’re always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” Moments later, Shackleton had a coronary and died. The expedition carried on, as he would have wished, but did little of the work he’d planned. Shackleton was buried in South Georgia.
110 years ago today, Roald Amundsen and four compatriots became the first people to reach the South Pole, winning the race against Briton Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen and his team had started their trek south in the middle of October, using dogsleds and their legs to cross about 700 miles of snow and ice. A experienced explorer, Amundsen treated the effort like a military campaign that included numerous supply depots, reinforcements spread over his route, some cutting-edge technology (wireless) and some ancient technology (wolfskin clothing), massive fundraising, and a truly insane amount of planning.
Amundsen and his team at the pole, December 14, 1911
In reaching the pole first, Amundsen beat Scott’s team by more than a month. He also safely led all his men back to their base on the Bay of Whales on the northern shore* of the continent. Amundsen’s dogs didn’t fare as well as his crew: they were killed and fed to each other or to the men. Scott and his men infamously all died after reaching the pole to find a letter from Roald basically saying, like the kids on Instagram, #first.
The “conquest of the poles” is a strange endeavor to think about. I need as many hands as an octopus has tentacles to decide how I feel about it. First and maybe foremost, the American efforts to reach the North Pole (though amazingly we don’t know who really made it there first!) and then Amundsen and Scott’s efforts to reach the South Pole are incredible feats of human persistence. Second, they are interesting for the way they hover on the edge of science and athletics. Pretty much everything men like Amundsen found was new, from the path to the pole to the effects on a human of prolonged exposure to the harshest temperatures on earth. Third, the races to the poles were also capstones to the rush to colonize all of the planet – but at least in the south, a sort of inversion of the “civilizing” impulse of explorers and colonizers pretty much everywhere else. Exploring the Antarctic differed from “exploration” of the Arctic in that there were no people in Antarctica. The many, many campaigns by Europeans and Americans in the far north were all, in some way, conquests – albeit failures in many cases. (Not for nothing is Alaska the state with the most natives of any U.S. state.)
Fourth and last and I think closely related to the third, attempts to explore Antarctica seem pure in contrast to, honestly, pretty much everything else about Euro-American “exploration” of the world. Even feats that were more purely athletic, like Norgay and Hillary being the first to reach (and return from the) summit of Chomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, were inherently tied up in colonialism of the ugliest sort. But getting to the bottom of the world? Ain’t nothing there except the point at which all the lines of longitude converge. So a tip of the fur-lined hat to Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting for reaching the South Pole before any other men, women, or beasts.
* Joke: all of Antarctica’s shoreline is northern!
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was fascinated by the fact that the U.P. had not always been part of the United States, much less part of Michigan. Visiting the reconstructed Fort Michimilimackinac at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I loved learning that this territory had been France, Britain, and Canada before it was the United States — and though nobody really dwelt on it, that the land had belonged to the Ottawa and Ojibwa before any white men showed up.
As I grew up, my interest in the U.P.’s history shifted from the 18th and early 19th centuries to the region’s industrial golden age between roughly the Civil War and World War II, when the U.P. furnished the copper and iron that the burgeoning American economy needed, and when the area’s population was as large, diverse, and affluent as it had ever been or would ever be. In those years, I lived first in Ironwood at the far western tip of the U.P., a town that had been the biggest city in the Gogebic Iron Range, and later in Hancock at the southern end of the glorious Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the Copper Country. Both Ironwood and Hancock were hollowed-out, depressed, and depressing towns that had lost half or more of their boom-time populations by the time I lived there.
That direct experience of living in busted towns colored by outlook on life, for sure, but also impelled me to study — in college and in grad school — how any why American capitalism works this way, in cycles of brief, amazing nooms that create something out of nothing, and the long, sad busts that see the something fade back almost to nothing. In pursuing those questions by focusing on World War II , my former interests in the political and social history of the the 17th/18th centuries all but faded away.
Since moving back to Minnesota, and especially since moving to Northfield, where the annual commemoration of the defeat of Jesse James’ raiding gang is literally a town holiday, I have started rediscovering these older interests, though: the efforts by whites from Lewis & Clark to Zebulon Pike to tie the Old Northwest into the new republic at the beginning of the 19th century, the subsequent “settlement” of Minnesota by whites in the middle of that century, the conversion of pre-contact forests and prairies to farmland, the Dakota Wars that coincided with the Civil War…
These revived interests matched perfectly with a new book by historian Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier, which tells the amazing and sad story of white colonization of the lands between the western end of Lake Superior and the Red River Valley – what’s now the U.P., Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. (My friend Michael Allen – a professor of history at Northwestern University – sent me the book, thinking correctly that I’d love it.)
Much of the story was generally familiar, from the ways that France, Britain, and the new U.S. drew Indians into the fur trade and then into land swindles to the competition among those three countries – empires – over the Old Northwest and the peoples in them: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Lakota nations; traders, settlers, and soldiers from each country; the mixed métis of Canada.
Some of the story was less familiar to me, such as the incredibly difficult, lucrative, and destructive fur industry; the efforts through the middle of the 19th c. to launch new colonies in Canada; and the out-of-placeness of the métis who were neither French-Canadian nor Indian. And some of the story was wholly new, such as the bizarre forms of society on the frontier (many white traders had two families: a white family back east in Montreal or Toronto and an Indian wife and family in some fort or factory deep in the interior) or the sad life of John Tanner, a white man who’d been kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up as a sort of white Indian but who was not accepted either as an American or as an Indian.
Tanner’s story is the core of Rainy Lake House, and Catton tells the story well, using Tanner’s upbringing in Ojibwa culture and maturation as a skilled hunter and trapper to show how the Indian nations adapted – or failed to adapt – to the expansion of the British in the north and the Americans to the south. Tanner was an enigma to almost everyone who met him, not least to the wife who tried to murder him. Tanner’s near-mortal injury led to his meeting the curmudgeonly, frustrated Canadian doctor and fur trader John McLoughlin and the ambitious American army officer and explorer Stephen Long. Working on opposite sides of the grand game to control the fur territories, McLoughlin and Long reflected, enacted, and created the economic, political, and cultural views on the exploitation and settlement of what was then and is still now a remote and thinly settled region.
As much as I enjoyed Catton’s skillful triple biography of these three men, I enjoyed even more his subtle sketching of the places where they lived, places I know a little bit now through my winter bike riding – the forests and swamps between Ely and International Falls, Minnesota or the plains along the Red River south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leaving aside the ultimately sad, if riveting, narratives about the various ways that Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long contributed to “settling” the Old Northwest, I was fascinated by the simple fact that any travel in this area required insanely arduous travel by foot or canoe. A few miles of fatbiking in January in northern Minnesota pales in comparison to the seasonal treks of the voyeageurs between what’s now far-northeastern Minnesota and Montreal, or the endless roving by the Ojibwa and Ottawa across their homelands.
I highly recommend Rainy Lake House to anyone interested in the history of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest, in the history of the early American Republic, or in the history of American Indians. The book reads like a much shorter work than its heft suggests, and any reader will come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the 19th c. frontier, a place that was both a deeply multicultural society (though not an egalitarian one) and an ecosystem transformed by political, economic, and cultural pressures.
Egan’s book is a little frustrating, though. As his (or his publisher’s) subtitle suggests, the book can’t decide if it’s the story of how Theodore Roosevelt and his forester Gifford Pinchot started the American system of forest reserves (and its guardian agency, the U.S. Forest Service) or the story of the Big Burn in and around the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana state line.
The former story (split across the book’s long and somewhat meandering first section and a shorter, quicker ending section) is interesting, and resonates now, at a moment when misguided public servants in Washington and throughout the West think it’s high time to sell off public lands to private interests – and not to the homesteaders who tried to colonize the Bitterroot forests at the turn of the last century. Roosevelt, typically, comes off as a heroic figure, right up to the point that he loses the three-way 1912 election. Pinchot is more complex – a visionary, a conservationist, a millionaire, a jerk – and more interesting for that complexity.
Neither Teddy nor G.P. figures in the story of the Big Burn, though, and it’s the fire itself – a natural disaster of Biblical proportions – that stars in the book, especially in the middle section, when Egan grippingly describes the origins and spread of the conflagration. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, some bad weather, and the inadvertent creation of an infinite amount of tinder by the Forest Service’s policy of fighting all fires, the Big Burn ironically defied the Forest Service’s efforts to fight it. Over the two days it raged, the fire laid waste to millions of acres of backcountry forest, destroyed several towns (not all of which were rebuilt), and killed 80-some people – not as many as might have been expected given the fire’s scale and scope.
All that is to say that the fire restored a massive swath of the American West. Its elemental power could not be resisted, only accepted or escaped. Some who accepted the fire did so against their will and tragically, dying in a variety of horrifying ways that Egan outlines in some of the book’s more compelling and terrifying passages. And some who accepted the fire survived, though often after suffering permanent injuries. Egan movingly describes several survivors’ unsuccessful attempts to obtain aid from the federal government. He does not, though, describe the forest’s own rejuvenation, which left me hanging. I wanted to read more about how the Bitterroot forests grew back, what they looked like ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years after the fire – a period when the USFS managed or mis-managed them for the benefit, offer, or big lumber companies whose effects on the land were apparently as bad or worse than the fire.
That the Western forests (and those in the South and East as well as in Alaska) were preserved or at least managed for the good of the country is what, I guess, the subtitle means, and so I guess that Egan does achieve that goal: showing how the calamity of the Big Burn focused conservationists’ energies on arguing, more or less successfully, that at least some of America’s lands needed to be held in common for the nation’s good. That’s a battle that we’re still fighting.
I don’t know what Muir thought of Yellowstone and the Tetons, but I bet he’d have found the Island Park area interesting: like Yellowstone, it’s got a fascinating geological history. For instance, Big Spring, near the northern end of Island Park, is indeed a big spring – one of the biggest in the world – and gives rise to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.
Of course this relates to fatbiking! The Fat Pursuit course skirts the aligned western rims of the Island Park and smaller Henry’s Fork calderas, then runs south to the spot where the Henry’s Fork river drops off the edge of the caldera, forming the two Mesa Falls on its way to the Snake River. The course winds toward the eastern side of the Henry’s Fork caldera, climbing along its edge before dropping back down away from the rim to our first checkpoint. There the course starts to run north, climbing out of the Henry’s Fork again and then out of the Island Park caldera too on the way to our second checkpoint. Later, after the third checkpoint, the course bumps up and over the the rims again, just a few miles from the finish.
I doubt I’ll have the wherewithal (or the daylight) to notice these various encounters with the race’s geology, not maybe I can pick a few of the details up on the drive to the start in Thursday. And I’ll certainly hope that the super volcano doesn’t erupt while I’m riding in the race. That would almost certainly melt my bike and prevent me from racing the way I’d like.
On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota.
As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment.
Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist…
Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.
By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.
I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?
Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.