FAIRBANKS — The north in general and the Arctic in particular have long beckoned to adventurers of every stripe. Modern technology has made this once formidable destination far easier to traverse than anyone would have imagined a century ago, but it nonetheless remains a difficult and challenging landscape that will test anyone venturing out into it.
With these realities in mind, Fairbanks resident Matthew Sturm and several companions set out in 2007 on a snowmachine journey from the Golden Heart City to the shores of Hudson’s Bay, retracing the paths of earlier explorers and hoping along the way to “get closer to something unique and elusive — call it the soul of the Arctic.”
The resultant book, “Finding the Arctic,” may not deliver that soul to readers (no book possibly could), but it does do an outstanding job of helping them understand a bit of the history of the place, as well as offer insight into its current state. More importantly, it conveys a sense of why so many people have been inexorably drawn into such a forbidding land, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.
Sturm begins by introducing readers to his fellow voyagers and giving a brief but lively account of their departure from Fairbanks. They got no further than Rosebud Summit along the Yukon Quest trail before they ran into their first difficulties. Soon, however, he takes us into the heart of the land and starts introducing us to those who preceded him into it. As the chapters progress, the story of the group’s own journey is interspersed with accounts of some of the famous — and not so famous — people who left their mark on northern history. And since tragedy almost invariably makes for a better tale than triumph, many of Sturm’s narratives end badly.
One of the most famous figures we meet along the path is Albert Johnson, the notorious Mad Trapper of Rat River, who spent 52 days in 1932 outracing Canadian Mounties in a bloody game of pursuit before being gunned down. In keeping with a theme that he repeatedly returns to throughout the book, Sturm notes how the then new technologies of aviation and radio played key roles in Johnson’s eventual entrapment and demise. These technologies, Sturm maintains, forever changed life in the far north.
The true identity of the Mad Trapper remains a mystery to this day, but what remains unquestioned is that he came north to lose himself, a common goal of many who have ventured into the country. Late in the book, Sturm tells us of the Englishman John Hornby who spent several years in the Canadian Barrenlands, seeking a life he could not have had he stayed in his comfortable upper-class British home. He was far more skilled than many others who lived off the hardscrabble land. Yet despite his talents he starved to death in 1927, along with his 18-year-old nephew and another young man.
One can’t help but notice that Sturm holds a strong attachment to Hornby. The man’s desire to escape modern society and live by his own means was admirable, and had he lived in a place of more abundant resources, he probably would have reached old age. But the Arctic is bleak and unforgiving, a place where even the skilled can find themselves beyond their abilities. Sturm recognizes this, and hence, unlike what is found in accounts of a more famous and recent victim of self-inflicted starvation in the north, doesn’t overlook the errors in judgment that brought three men to their deaths.
Other historical narratives touch on such luminaries as Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Hudson, and Sir John Franklin (Sturm focusses on his 1821 overland journey that left more than half his party dead, rather than his more renowned 1845 search for the Northwest Passage in which his men vanished into history). Not all of those Sturm writes about came to a bad end; George Mellis Douglas enjoyed a grand adventure in the Mackenzie District over the winter of 1911-1912, emerged alive, healthy, and widely respected, and would return to the north again.
Along with the string of consistently gripping summaries of northern adventure and misadventure, we also get a photographic and narrative account of Sturm’s own travels, which he repeatedly reminds us were far easier than the journeys of those whose footsteps he and his companions followed. They still had their difficulties, though, with assorted snowmachine mishaps, extreme weather conditions and at least one broken rib. Technology may have eased overland travel in the far north, but it hasn’t made it easy.
In contrast to what earlier travelers encountered, Sturm’s party stops for a visit to the lucrative Diavik diamond mine on Lac de Gras, where a fortune is being hauled out of the Barrenlands and the face of the New North is emerging. Here and in other towns and outposts they visit, they find that the spirit and hospitality of northern life lives on. And while he is fascinated by the privations earlier northerners endured, Sturm acknowledges that, like virtually all northerners, he wouldn’t give up the creature comforts that make living here easier. He’s looking for that elusive but crucial balance that allows people to live in the place they love without destroying it in the process.
“We are a pragmatic people,” he writes. “Perhaps that pragmatism lies at the center of success for Arctic people ... Evermore technology and change is likely to come to the region ... the people are going to need to be clever and wise about how they adapt ... embracing what is good and useful, but protecting what they love about the Arctic and what attracts them and keeps them living there.”
Finding the Arctic
Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.