03 June 2005

10. In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov

Another book about the Arctic fell into my lap. It's the third book I've read about surviving in the cold and isolation of the North.

This was a good book. Albanov is the navigator on a seal and walrus hunting ship that sets out looking for new hunting grounds. The ship, the Saint Anna, gets locked into the ice and drifts along with the ice pack for the winter. This is normal, apparenlty, for hunting vessels to spend the winter trapped in the ice, and then get free and continue on their way in the summer. The Saint Anna though, gets locked in for the winter, doesn't get free in the summer and is looking forward to another ice-bound winter.

Albanov's relationship with the captain, Brusilov, deteriorates to the point where Albanov wants to leave and head for home. Brusilov gives him permission to build a kayak and a sled to help him get away. It takes him 90 days to go the 235 miles back to civilization. A bunch of the other sailors go with him, I think 9 in the party, but only Albanov and another make it back alive. No trace of the Saint Anna was ever found.

(Pretty much all of that info is on the dust cover, btw, so there weren't any spoilers.)

One thing that amazed me was that Albanov complains about the men in his party having apathy and laziness on their trip. He practically has to beat them to get them to collect firewood, go hunting, wake up in the morning, sit a polar bear watch, etc. Amazing that.

A second surprise was that Albanov hardly ever complains about the cold. In the Heimo Korth book (Last Frontiersman) cold is a constant predator that one has to guard against and plan for. Even in the Krakauer book (Into the Wild) he talks about the cold and desolation that comes with living in the tundra of Alaska. Only a few times does Albanov describe dangerous cold and that was usually during a gale or when someone falls through the ice. I wonder, were the men of the early 1900s hardier, or did Albanov skip talking about it because it was so obvious that it was cold he didn't have to spend pages and pages on it?

I recommend the book if you are into stories about adventure and pluck and real people figuring out how to get out of serious jams.

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