See the North
The persistent allure of a mysterious region
In September 2017, I stepped out of a Zodiac into ankle-deep salt water, gravel rasping at its rubberized hull. I set an anchor into the beached pack ice and turned to offer my arm to the ten passengers who had endured the wind and waves that dogged our passage through the Foulk Fjord, in northern Greenland. Red-faced, clutching cameras and iPads, they made their way to some higher ground beyond the shoreline. Having seen them safely to dry land, I stripped off my Gore‑Tex outer layers, activated my GPS watch, and began to run.
Like many runners, I am fastidious when it comes to data. I have never seen the satellites that communicate, second by second, with the device on my wrist, but I trust that they are there, tracking me with geospatial precision. What I like most about GPS data is that it cannot be faked: You either ran a route, or you didn’t. You either achieved a certain pace, or you fell short. As your watch collects the satellite pings, it captures a set of invisible footprints.
That afternoon, I was particularly excited about my digital footprints. At 78°19′ N, this would be my northernmost run — by a long shot. As I loped along through loamy tundra, past the rotting huts of a long-abandoned outpost, the cold air filled my lungs and stung my fingertips. My pace flagged at a stream, where frigid runoff tumbled down from the surrounding peaks. A herd of muskoxen lumbered by on the horizon, and a quick white flash told of an Arctic hare. After about three kilometres, I stopped and laid my palm against the icy terminus of Brother John Glacier. I was, in my own way, etching my name among those of the many who have felt the call and laboured northward.
In North Pole: Nature and Culture, his exhaustively researched new book, Michael Bravo delves into the history of that northward obsession. Bravo, a member of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, specializes in circumpolar history and public policy research. With North Pole, he contributes the latest volume to Reaktion’s aptly named Earth series, which “traces the historical significance and cultural history of natural phenomena.” The mysterious region north of 80° offers a wealth of both.
Sitting atop the globe, the North Pole is both a guiding myth and a reality through which we can measure human history. Bravo shows how this most remote and inhospitable place has been vital to several cultures and played a role in the scientific revolution of early modern Europe. The book is sweeping in scope and not tied to the Eurocentric narratives that tend to plague Arctic scholarship. Indeed, Bravo explores representations of the North Pole from many peoples and times, including contemporary Inuit and ancient Greeks. They are more alike, and more different, than one might think.
Like so many of humanity’s imaginings, Bravo suggests, our understanding of the North Pole begins in the stars. Throughout history, the star closest to the celestial pole has been called the North Pole Star or, more often, the Pole Star. This is where Bravo begins his analysis, by unpacking two different cultural interpretations of the celestial body.
“Across most societies,” he writes, “the ability to align and organize oneself spatially is what binds peoples and cultures to the night sky.” For people of the northern hemisphere, at least, the constellations we see have given shape and meaning to culture-defining narratives. The wheeling panoply of allegory and legend that plays out in the heavens forms a complex and profound dance, replete with meaning to those who know how to read the signs. But the Pole Star is unique — in that it’s fixed.
As a people whose lives are dictated by the ebb and flow of seasonal ice, Inuit conceived of an impermanent sky that helped them understand an impermanent terrestrial world. Navigating across vast expanses of shifting sea ice requires knowledge that cannot, by definition, be fixed or static. The matrix of connected trails and routes between Northern communities relies on precise orientation to a shifting horizon — recorded in a series of powerful stories. Inuit who navigate by the stars often do so when a close reading of those stories can mean the difference between life and death. Fixed high in the sky, the Pole Star, or Nuutuittuq, is beyond a qamutiq or Ski‑Doo driver’s immediate field of vision. While that makes it “impractical for navigation and orientation,” Bravo explains, those stars that endlessly rotate around the polar axis are vital.
Two of the most important wayfinding stars are Arcturus and Vega (Kingulliq). Their movements are learned, and taught, through a legend that explains an important spiritual-spatial relationship. Bravo describes the version told at Igloolik, Nunavut, as one that “reveals how the interplay between murder and vengeance reduces a vast landscape or night sky to a tightly knitted trail or pathway.”
As the story goes, a boy confronts an old man who has killed another. The old man chases the child around and around an igloo, vowing to kill him too. The boy’s grandmother comes to his aid, but too late. Man and boy have ascended to the sky in their chase, so the grandmother follows, still hoping to rescue him. Together, the three play out their chase endlessly in the sky. It’s an instructive tale of betrayal and feud, one that illustrates what Bravo calls a key feature of Inuit cosmology: “The morality of violence and revenge that keeps these stars locked in perpetual motion enables their track and position across the night sky to be used as a clock.” The clock is especially important during long periods of darkness.
If the stillness of the Pole Star holds no special metaphysical significance for Inuit, that same defining characteristic held paramount importance for the ancient Greeks, medieval Arabs, and Renaissance astronomers, who all “celebrated the celestial pole for its position on the central axis of the universe, with all heavenly bodies rotating around it.” Even after it was proven that the Earth orbited the sun, and not the other way around, the Pole Star continued to hold particular meaning for those who read the sky.
In the twentieth century, those who attempted to reach the North Pole continued to rely on the steady star. Robert Edwin Peary, for example, established Camp Jesup in 1909, using it to claim his base was within eight kilometres of the North Pole. It was a problematic claim — likely an impossible one to make before the advent of precise geographical measurements. Even at the time, there were those who questioned it: “The idea to which Peary was beholden, that the celestial Pole Star and its terrestrial correlate possessed a quality of absolute purity and divine authority, would have been philosophically absurd to Inuit ways of thinking.”
American and European navigators, like their Inuit counterparts, ascribed great significance to Arcturus and Vega for their brightness in the sky. But where Inuit legend likened their pursuit to the tale of a murderous abductor, a kidnapped child, and a pursuing grandmother, Peary saw fit to imagine the constellations in his own image — that of Herakles, “whose feet are planted in the night sky, forever encircling the Pole Star.” In identifying himself with the mythological hero, Peary extended a tradition of navigation that stretched from Ptolemy and Pytheas to Columbus, de Gama, and Magellan — one that held the Pole Star was “indispensable for making cosmography understandable.”
The mouldering ruins that I passed while running at 78°19′ N are all that’s left of Etah — at one point the northernmost permanent settlement in the world. Etah was the staging base for a number of early attempts to reach the North Pole, perhaps most famously by Robert Peary. What struck me as I passed them and planted my personal flag on Brother John Glacier was just how out of reach the top of the world still feels.
That said, the trip got quite a bit easier, at least symbolically, fifty years ago this August, when SS Manhattan became the first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage. Its voyage ushered in passionate policy discussions on Arctic sovereignty that dominated the first Trudeau era. Today, in the second, debates continue about how best to behave in polar space.
With his coda, Bravo turns his attention to the contemporary expeditions that have followed the Manhattan. He does not mention, however, the extent to which the modern polar regions are increasingly inundated with smaller ships carrying tourists (and Zodiac drivers) eager to carve off their own piece of the polar myth.
Take, for example, the recently identified wrecks of the Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, found near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Though the locations of these ships had been suspected for years by Inuit historians and scholars, their discovery in 2014 and 2016, respectively, by Parks Canada underwater archaeology teams has prompted renewed tourism in the polar region — and particularly the Northwest Passage. While the fabled passage is sublime by any measure, it is also characterized by vast swaths of featureless sea. The grandeur of the Arctic beckons us, and I was cowed by its power in 2017. But there is something utterly baffling, I thought at the time, about our national preoccupation with a tiny square of ocean. When I sailed through it, we needed a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to bail us out.
Far too often, those who most ardently express a yearning to plumb the depths of this region and applaud Inuit who call it home do so with a Stan Rogers refrain of the “wild and savage” Northwest Passage on their lips. Bravo is among those who seek to explore polar space with respect and dignity (he co-directed the interactive Pan Inuit Trails Atlas, for example, which privileges Indigenous cartography).
A willingness to embrace Indigenous knowledge also distinguished the nineteenth-century Scottish explorer John Rae. This past April, the Arctic Return Expedition set out from Naujaat on skis to retrace Rae’s storied 1854 trip. In twenty-nine days, the team covered 650 kilometres in temperatures as low as –50 C, hauling their gear on sleds. Their achievement shines a light on the timeless aspects — and challenges — of Arctic exploration. That two of four members had to withdraw from this year’s attempt, because of weather-related injuries, underscores the limitations of technological advances.
Throughout North Pole, Bravo is at pains to show how a Western understanding of the Arctic and the North Pole as barren wastelands is patently false, quoting Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a veteran explorer and ethnologist who sought to “restore the tradition that beyond the geographical North Pole was a sacrosanct inner space.” As he drolly put it in 1921:
The arctic sea is lifeless except that it contains as much life to the cubic mile of water as any other sea, [just as] the arctic land is lifeless except for millions of caribou and of foxes, tens of thousands of wolves and of musk oxen, thousands of polar bears, billions of insects and millions of birds.
Stefansson’s idealism of an Inuit-led polar utopia — where local resourcefulness was the order of the day and noble huskies were the “ultimate explorers,” pulling sledges and feeding on fresh seal meat — was, for Bravo, quashed by the advent of industrialization. (He wryly notes that the first dog to actually reach the North Pole was a twelve-pound fox terrier named Titina, which arrived by dirigible, in 1926, with an Italian Fascist.)
Today it’s more than industrialization that prompts us to revisit our assumptions of polar exploration and navigation. Climate change and shifting sea ice levels, Bravo reminds us in the final chapter of North Pole, are dramatically altering the status quo. He notes, in particular, the Dutch adventurer and journalist Bernice Notenboom, who, along with the filmmaker Sarah Robertson, documented her journey skiing away from the North Pole. In doing so “she emphasized the relationship with the North Pole as one of moving away and receding, rather than the centuries-old tradition of moving towards and beyond.”
Perhaps nothing better illustrates this toward-and-away, beyond-and-near dialectic than the annual North Pole Marathon, run every year since 2002. No visas are required to visit the Pole, Bravo notes, and competitors join hands in a show of “cooperative transnationalism.” Then they set out on ten extended laps. In 2007, the ice literally drifted beneath their feet as they covered 42.2 kilometres: the course they ran moved almost a kilometre to the south during the race.
It’s an apt metaphor, and not just because I too have run in the region. When we’re in the North, we continue to work in a realm of, at best, known unknowns. The climate is changing. The magnetic North Pole is migrating. But, as Bravo reminds us, our fascination with the North Pole remains fixed.