In January of 2007, my father and I drove west from Pennsylvania to Arizona together, stopping in Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas. He ate oysters, while I took walks, and together we marveled over our vast country by reading aloud billboards, commenting on the mesquite, the ugliness of strip malls, the trash by the side of the road. The one place he wanted to stop was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the upper Texas Coast. Why? To see Whooping Cranes on the bird’s wintering grounds. My father was a novelist, a bookish man, not a naturalist. But the Cranes captured his imagination and he wanted to see them. Aransas, established in 1937 to protect migrating birds and especially the Whooping Crane, is a reliable place to see the birds in winter.
The river was windy last night. Both current and wind were against me as I shoved south in my kayak on the Hudson River. To the side, I saw a lump in the water. I assumed it was a fish, and was hesitant to pull near—marinating fish is not a smell I enjoy. But the shape was not entirely fish-like, so curiosity won out. What I found floating in the water was a gull, its bill hooked through the slit-like nares, by a fishing lure, and the web of its feet hooked by the other end of the lure. It was clear what had happened: the bird had come down to the shiny object expecting a fish meal, was caught through its bill and, in trying to liberate itself with is feet, entangled itself further. The lure hooked the bird to itself, bill and feet joined to shape the bird into a circle. It then plunged into the water and drowned. Not too long ago. The body was soft in my hands, and the feathers intact.
On my last day in Longyearbyen, in the Arctic, I wanted to kayak. In a kayak you sit close to the water, and I hoped to feel more inside of this landscape that we had been floating through on a sailboat for the past two weeks. But also, at home in the Hudson Valley I kayak every day, so to be in a little boat on the water for me is to feel home.
In 1896 Nansen with his traveling companion Johansen end their three year expedition in the Arctic crossing open water in kayaks made of skins stretched over a wooden frame. The kayaks were boxy and stable and could carry a large load. At one point, walrus surround their boats, and a walrus “shot up beside [Nansen], threw itself onto the edge of the kayak, took hold farther over the deck with one fore-flipper and, as it tried to upset [him], aimed a blow at the kayak with its tusks.” At another point, a walrus punches a hole through his boat.
The Antigua docked at Pyramiden in the evening and Sascha, the guide to Pyramiden came on board. He was slender, mid-thirties, with shoulder length black hair that needed a wash. He gave a brief history of the town, without cracking a smile.
Pyramiden is a Russian ghost town of the north. It was founded by the Swedes to mine coal from the pyramidal shaped mountain in 1910. In 1927 they sold it to the Soviet Union. The town, on the Billefjorden, was officially closed in 1998 but about 20 people continue to live there, running a small tourist business.
When Sascha was done talking, someone offered him a drink.
“I don’t drink,” he said in a strong Russian accent. “I smoke weeeeeed.” We all laughed. Sascha continued with his deadpan look, eyes wide.
Reading polar literature for someone who loves the natural world is a challenge. Every journey involves a fair amount of brutality, of killing. On most expeditions the dogs are at once loved and needed but also overworked, often killed, sometimes eaten. That was the case with Amundsen heading to the South Pole. He feeds the dogs to the remaining dogs, but he also eats them: “we have now had three splendid dinners out of our good Greenland dogs,” writes one of his shipmates. Yet Amundsen loved his dogs (at times it seems more than the men) and in writing about them is at his most philosophical. Killing the dogs is a horror: “It is my only dark memory from down there, that my lovely animals were destroyed.” The treatment of the dogs is also something that Nansen feels keenly “It was undeniable cruelty to the poor animals from first to last, and one must often look back on it with horror. It is the sad part of expeditions of this kind that one systematically kills all better feelings, until only hard-hearted egoism remains.”