ICEBOUND : Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer.

EUROPEANS once dreamed of an open sea at the top of the world. In 1606, Gerard Mercator, arguably the most famous cartographer of his time or any other, published a top-down map of the earth as he understood it.

At the center of Mercator's North Pole stood a magnetic mountain that pulled all compasses needles northward, whirling around the mass of gray rock was a warm sea ringed by thick circle of ice.

At the time, no one had a clue what the poles looked like. Mercator based his map on a theory proposed 1,800 years earlier by Pytheas, the first Greek to to breach the Strait of Gibraltar. and check out the Atlantic for himself.

Pytheas sailed sailed up the west coast of Europe, circumnavigated the British Isles, then continued north until he hit ice, possible Iceland. Beyond that, he theorized, might be a free flowing sea.

Pytheas' travelogue was picked up by Pliny and others. Uncontested over centuries, his polar sea theory hardened into fact. Thoughts of that undiscovered ocean at the top of the world marinated in the European imagination throughout the Middle Ages until the Portuguese found they could sail around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, prompting a trade route bonanza.

By the 16th century, European ships were poking into every bay, inlet and river. If there was a navigable ocean at the pole, it could provide a shortcut to Asia. 

In 1594, Dutch investors bet big on that theory, commissioning the cartographer William Barents to lead an expedition to the northernmost tip of Norway and then east over Russia in search of that northeast route. If they were right, Barents would make the Dutch phenomenally rich.

In her new book, ''Icebound : Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,'' the journalist Andrea Pitzer chronicles Barents's three attempts to find a mythical passage to India.

As part of her research for the book, Pitzer joined three Arctic expeditions between 2018 - 2020., including two sailing trips retracing Barents's voyages. She also had access to enviable resources to reconstruct the story, including Barents's own ship log; the journals of Jan Huygen and Linschoten- 

A cartographer who published Portuguese trade route secrets he'd memorized while serving in India; and the diary of the ship's officer Gerrit de Veer, who accompanied Barents and perished on the way home during third expedition.

It was de Veer's account, published shortly after his death in 1596, that would become wildly popular at the time, prompting the release of an English edition shortly thereafter.

But then, like so many historical accounts, it vanished into obscurity. Pole fever went on a hiatus for a few hundred years while European colonizers plundered the Americas, Asia and Africa.

A fascination with all things Arctic came in the 19th century. Industrialization had vanquished most of the natural world. Technology had tamed the wilderness. Railroads were shrinking continents. Yet the earth's poles remained unconquered. The frozen frontier stood pure and defiant - nature's final challenge to man.

Images of icebergs and polar bears invaded popular culture, propelling Americans, Norwegians and the English to the poles with their ships, dogs, tin cans and compasses.

For the price of a few toes, a handful of lucky survivors would get rich off their memoirs.

De. Veer's book felt as fresh as ever when Britain's Hakluyt Society published a new translation in 1853 and again in 1876. The expedition's highlight reel included everything a polar fan could want : hand-to-hand combat with polar bears and walruses; scurvy and vitamin A poisoning; asphyxiation by carbon dioxide ; a frostbite, keelhauling and hangings; plus the sighting of a rare atmospheric optical phenomenon called a parhelion.

In the second edition of of the society's publication, lengthy introduction, in florid prose, contextualized Barents's quest while repeatedly questioning de Veer's accuracy. The editors want to discourage readers from using the book as a navigational aid.

For the. 21st-century reader  who's seen one too many photos of emaciated polar bears loping across melting permafrost, ''Icebound'' can read a little like paradise really, really lost.

The 16th-century Dutchmen didn't hesitate to shoot, maim, club, collar and impale whatever they saw.

Slaughter emerged as the instinctive Dutch response to the Arctic landscape, a new theater that would see the same performance again and again with every European wave of arrivals,'' Pitzer notes, and then she quotes the historical archeologist P.J. Capelotti's observation : ''It's amazing there's anything left alive.''

Nature got its revenge during Barent's third attempt to find a seaway to China; the ice finally won. His ship got caught in a crushing embrace.  - a la Shackleton in Antarctica and Franklin in Canada - at the Northern tip of Nova Zembla, an island at 74 degrees latitude separating -

The Kara Sea from what was then called the Murman Sea [now known as Barents, after the selfsame explorer], forcing the crew to camp out for nearly a year in a makeshift hut at Ice Harbor. Five of them would die, including Barents.

The World Students Society thanks book review author, Rachel Slade.


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