Sunday, February 07, 2021

Icebound by Andrea Pitzer

 Icebound by Andrea Pitzer is subtitled Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World and tells the story of sixteenth-century Dutch explorer William Barents and sixteen other men who on Barents' third polar exploration, lost their ship off the frozen coast of Nova Zembla, in what's now known as the Barents Sea. They spent the winter stranded and then the following summer set our to return to civilization, not on their still-stuck-in-the-ice vessel, but two small boats that would have to navigate icy and often frozen waters. 

The first trip taken by Barents north from Amsterdam was in 1594, with subsequent journeys each of the next two years. The idea behind the voyages was to discover a northern trade route to China, one hopefully via the "open polar sea" that many believed at the top of the world. On Barents' first trip, the boat he was on sailed north from Amsterdam and followed the Norwegian coastline to Russia, reaching the island of Nova Zembla hundreds of miles above the Russian mainland and farther north than any ship had ever reached from Europe. This initial voyage gave optimism for sailing past Nova Zembla and continuing on to the Far East. The second trip was designed to actually make it to China and establish trade. They ran into ice and turned back, believing they simply needed to time their departure better. It's remarkable that the ice he encountered on the first two voyages didn't make Barents more inclined to think about or prepare for ice on the third. 

The fateful voyage left in May 1596, with Barents the navigator and Jacob van Heemskerck the captain. They first went to Spitsbergen Island before continuing on to Nova Zembla, going over top of the island, reaching the Kara Sea. The boat got pinned in the ice late August, and remained stuck there, with little in the way of provisions for a winter stay. The men started framing a cabin on Nova Zembla, contending with the elements, polar bears, a lack of food, and crucially, a lack of vitamin C to head off scurvy. They moved into the cabin in mid-October, suffering terribly and surviving from trapping foxes, which not only provided food but amounts of the vitamin C the men desperately needed. Over the winter they had no sunlight at all, save for a false sunlight in late January, which came as the result of something that came to be known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, an inversion layer in polar regions that causes the sunlight to bend and refract above the horizon the sun actually sits below. The sun finally came out in late April and after having several crewmembers die on Nova Zembla, the men left on two small boats in mid-June 1957, leaving their ship behind.

They went back over top of Nova Zembla, staying close to the shore and going down to Vaigach Island just off the coast of Russia and Barents, who was one of the older members of the voyage, died shortly after they started back. The crew had many harrowing episodes working their way through ice, often having to bring the boats up onto solid ground to avoid being crushed in the ice. They also had to deal with polar bears stalking them and in late July came across their first encounter with civilization, in the form of two ships with Russian sailors. The Russians gave them some food and then after they separated, the two boats came across the spoon-wart plant, high in vitamin C and a tremendous help in combating their rampant scurvy. It was still very rough going as they continued on, but they came across additional Russian sailors, trading gold coins they had for provisions. They sailed across 160 miles of open water, landing at Kanin Nos, then reached Kildin Island late August and were told that Dutch ships were at Kola (near Murmansk, Russia). There they reunited with someone who had set out with them on his own ship the prior year, and who brought the remaining crew back to Amsterdam, where they recounted their remarkable tale of survival.