Explorers have long chased after chimeras - the gold of El Dorado, the lost city of Atlantis - but the 300-year quest for the Northwest Passage was not merely the pursuit of a fantasy.
Such a route, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific via a thicket of ice-choked straights, sounds and islands off Canada's northern shores, actually did exist - it was finding a way through it that proved impossible.From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the ice tempted and defeated a procession of dogged navigators looking for a shorter route to the riches of the East.That, at least, was the theory. The reality of the Northwest Passage proved altogether more fiendish and intractable.
Journeys into the Northwest Passage were anything but short. Ships were trapped in the ice pack for years at a time, while their crews endured cold, disease, scurvy, starvation - some resorted to cannibalism - and the long ordeal of the Arctic winter. It was the British, looking to outflank their Portuguese and Spanish imperial rivals, who led the way into the ice.
Charting the passage became an idée fixe of the Royal Navy, which made expeditions in the middle decades of the 19th century with the hopes of finally solving the riddle of the Arctic seas.The ships were lavishly supplied with the innovations of the day, among them tinned meat and steam engines, while some even had primitive heating systems.
The journeys yielded many scientific and cartographic findings - much of the North American Arctic was mapped - even if the passage's commercial promise was never realised. In The Man Who Ate His Boots, Anthony Brandt beautifully evokes the foolhardiness and pathos of these voyages.
Heroes made their name braving ridiculously extreme conditions - winter temperatures could plunge to 50 below and not let up.Arctic summers, however brief, were no picnic either - mosquitoes and black flies feasted on caribou and men in equal measure.
The "man who ate his boots", Sir John Franklin, really did eat his boots. Trekking across the Canadian tundra in the 1820s on a map-making mission for the Royal Navy, Franklin, low on supplies and desperately hungry, survived on bits of lichen and shoe leather.
Two decades later, Franklin, along with the crew he commanded, suffered a far grimmer fate when he sailed into the pack ice and was never seen again.The futility of it all gives one pause. The British, it must be said, have a peculiar fascination with icy extremes - there is a line linking Franklin to Robert Falcon Scott and his botched race to the South Pole, and the ill-fated attempts of George Mallory to summit Mount Everest in the 1920s.
For Brandt, the search for the Northwest Passage was a kind of ennobling tragedy: "Men suffered and died in the Arctic in a great cause, to open an entire region of the globe to science and human traffic, however unreal it was at the time to envision sailing through water frozen to a depth of 40 feet," he observes.
"Should they have stayed home and waited for global warming to open a way through the ice? No easy answer suggests itself. To behave nobly and heroically in an obviously hopeless cause is a kind of folly, but it can also constitute a kind of greatness. Despite the wrongheadedness of the enterprise, an air of transcendence arises from their sufferings."
Brandt, editor of the National Geographic Society's Adventure Classics series and a contributor to GQ and other publications, shapes his material with the pungent brio of a magazine writer.His style can be a little overheated - for a more sober compliment to Brandt, consult Arctic Labyrinth by Glyn Williams, one of the finest scholars of Northwest Passage history - but his accounts of the voyages are models of their kind, flecked with drama and keen insight into character and motive.
From / The National