Ice Passage

By Brian Payton

For whatever reason, the exploration in the nineteenth century of what would become the Canadian arctic, predominantly by British crews and ships, has become a big part of this country’s national mythology and collective cultural consciousness. The official goal of these efforts was the discovery of a Northwest Passage and, most famously in the case of the doomed Franklin expedition, trying to find and rescue previous expeditions that had disappeared.

Finding Franklin was what Robert McClure, captain of the Investigator, was ostensibly doing on an arctic journey that began in 1850. In reality he was aiming to discover the Passage, and reap the riches and fame that would go along with such a distinction. And though it took him several years, over the course of which he had to be rescued and was forced to abandon ship (twice), he made it. The fact that he is not exactly a household name today reflects both this sense of failure in his success as well as the practical worthlessness of the achievement. Franklin was already dead and the Passage would never be a viable route for shipping.

Ice Passage is an account of the McClure voyage based mainly on personal accounts and journals that have been translated by Brian Payton into the present-tense, giving the events and their description a novelistic immediacy. The central figure in Payton’s story is not McClure but Johann Miertsching, a missionary brother (and more or less neutral observer) included in the expedition for his ability to speak the “Esquimaux tongue.” Fans of the genre will know what to expect, and they will not be disappointed: the claustrophobia as the pack ice locks the ship’s crew into winter quarters and the sun disappears for months, the sleds being pulled by men (not dogs) in harness over the rough terrain, the gradual weakening condition of those same men as they succumb to scurvy, madness, hypothermia, and slow starvation. In addition, Payton, whose resume includes a lot of nature writing, works in frequent brief digressions on caribou, musk ox, polar bears, lemmings, and arctic fox. And finally the voyage is placed in the context of today’s vanishing cryosphere as arctic multi-year ice continues to contract due to global warming, leading to various knock-on effects for the region’s inhabitants and ironically holding forth the promise of realizing the ancient fantasy of an Open Polar Sea.

Despite Payton’s attempts to freshen things up and make the story read more like a novel, the results fall a bit short of the best work in what is now a crowded field. The real McClure was a complex, divisive figure that Payton remains frustratingly neutral about. There was much in McClure’s conduct on this voyage worthy of greater praise and blame. In addition, there is little effective building of suspense despite how close (and how frequently) the expedition came to catastrophe. Still, Payton plays well enough to his strengths to recommend the book for armchair explorers and anyone with an interest in the past, or future, of the arctic.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2009.

%d bloggers like this: