In this moving account of reporting her book Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World at Outside, Andrea Pitzer traces the journey of William Barents, a polar explorer who died in 1597 on his third voyage to the Arctic along with five members of his crew, in an attempt to find passage to China.
When her journey is unexpectedly lengthened, Andrea experiences both the natural wonders of the North and the shock and sadness of returning from her voyage to learn that her cousin has died, the memorial service already complete. “Joe is gone, with his PTSD, his alcoholism, his terrible jokes, and his love for so many people. He’s already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration.”
Now, 423 years later, we see the long timbers that formed the base of the shelter where Barents and his men spent months praying not to die. Blizzard after blizzard came, until more than an inch of ice built up in the cabin’s interior.
Pacing out its dimensions—roughly 36 feet long by 22 feet wide—I walk through the space where the crew huddled in fear as a polar bear rampaged on their roof, trying to claw its way in. I stand on the site of the fireplace that couldn’t keep them warm, at one point nearly killing them with toxic fumes from ship’s coal they burned. I wander along the beach where the men dragged makeshift sleds over ice and snow for miles, scavenging firewood.
Wonders keep coming, day by day. A bird lands on Sasha’s head while he’s at the wheel. We spot a polar bear running on the beach. The Arctic makes itself known to us, though not always on our terms.
The trash-studying biologists have the most worthwhile mission of anyone on the boat: by scanning the ocean and exploring shorelines on foot, they’re using equipment to map where washed-up litter is and isn’t found in the Arctic. But ultimately, the sea and sky decide what they will allow. Plans for exploratory landings can blow up at the last minute. A bear sighting or fog can kill any chance to gather data from a particular spot. It becomes apparent that my ghost-chasing forays, Alexey’s meditation, and the natural challenges thrown up by the sea will make it harder for the scientists to get their work done.
Sasha appears on deck with his accordion and begins the same Doga waltz he played before. Dozens of walruses swim to where he perches near the gunwale, on the port side of the boat. They listen, watching him. Occasionally, a small mosh pit forms, then dissolves. Mostly his audience floats before him, snorting and hawing with rapt intensity while we look back.