Books about arctic/antarctic exploration
January 12, 2021 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I just finished "Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition" and would like to read more about (Ant)Arctic exploration. Any suggestions?

I'd prefer something not about the Franklin expedition (I am familiar with "The Terror" both series and book). Fiction or nonfiction is fine -- just looking for something that is riveting and captures the wonder and horror of the region. I'm very interested in the exploration aspect, but I'd really be just as happy to read something about the Inuit.
posted by so fucking future to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My dad made me read Endurance and it’s amazing.
posted by victoriab at 9:12 AM on January 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Barrow's Boys is personally my favourite Arctic exploration book (and one of my favourite non-fiction books in general).
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:16 AM on January 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You're in luck. I went down the rabbit hole on this a few years ago, and wrote this reading list up in another context.

The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford
Shackleton by Roland Huntford
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Captain Scott's Last Expedition by RF Scott
South by Ernest Shackleton
The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram by Captain Roald Amundsen
In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Valerian Albanov
The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival by Douglas Mawson
Farthest North by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen
Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure by Richard E. Byrd
True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole by Bruce Henderson
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven
The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven
Ghost Ship Of The Pole: The Incredible Story Of The Dirigible 'Italia' by Wilbur Cross
Abandoned: The Story of the Greely Arctic Expedition 1881-1884 by Alden Todd
The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration by Alec Wilkinson
Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane by Ken McGoogan
A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier by David Welky
The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton

I also know there were interesting books I read about the Belgian Arctic Expedition (notable mostly for being where Cook and Amundsen both earned their stripes), and the Shackleton's Ross Sea Party (a harrowing tale of polar survival totally eclipsed by the other harrowing tale of survival their colleagues on the other side continent were going through), but I can't find the titles.

To call out some specific favorites:
Most interesting forgotten historical character: Elisha Kent Kane
Most deluded: French balloonist SA Andree
Craziest story no one remembers: The crash of the dirigible "Italia"
Most epic survival outside of the "Endurance": Nansen's farthest north
posted by Shellybeans at 9:19 AM on January 12, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Oh yeah...I read South too during the same period and now want to read The Lost Men which is about his ill-fated resupply party.
posted by victoriab at 9:20 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's been awhile, but I remember enjoying Douglas Mawson's first hand account, which seems to be called The Home of the Blizzard. (On preview, I see I'm not the first to mention it. Sorry.)
posted by eotvos at 9:22 AM on January 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I should clarify that Barrow's Boys does cover the Franklin expeditions (the first (overland) one was a real doozy), but also all of the other British attempts to navigate the Northwest Passage as well as their (repeated, almost entirely disastrous) expeditions in search of the source of the Nile.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:25 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might enjoy Blair Braverman's Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is about her journey leaving her home in California as teenager, moving to arctic Norway to learn about sled dogs, and finding work as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska—the goddamn ice cube."

I really loved her recent NYTimes piece "What My Sled Dogs Taught Me About Planning for the Unknown."
posted by natabat at 9:38 AM on January 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This question from last month kind of asks the opposite of what you’re asking, but still might be helpful.

(I’m reading Barrow’s Boys right now.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:43 AM on January 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The White Darkness, by David Grann. Nonfiction, about a 2016 expedition.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:59 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few books I've read in the last year or two about the arctic and antarctic:

About a physician on the Scott expedition who studied penguins: A Polar Affair: Antarctica's Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins.

Biographies of Amundsen and Knud Rasmussen:

White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic

The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen

About the Greenland ice: The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future
posted by rpn at 10:11 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Fiction book that still haunts me 10-15 years after I read it: The Rope Eater
posted by chiefthe at 10:15 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

you can even drink Shackleton Whisky while you read. Even the story behind that is pretty fascinating--I enjoyed some while watching Ice Station Zebra, which is a arctic espionage thriller.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:35 AM on January 12, 2021

The correct answer is Worst Journey In The World (already recommended), but I would also recommend Big Dead Place for a look at modern (corporate, weird) exploration.
posted by caek at 10:42 AM on January 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Elisha Kent Kane is a distant ancestor; if you get into him, you can pick up the compendium of secret love letters he and his scandalous spiritualist lover wrote back and forth to each other, The Love Life of Dr. Kane. More traditionally, I really like Endurance and, if you're OK with fiction, Under a Pole Star.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:46 AM on January 12, 2021

Vagrant Viking by Peter Freuchen
posted by anadem at 11:38 AM on January 12, 2021

"The expedition" by Bea Uusma about an attempted balloon expedition to the north pole in 1897.
posted by abx1-se at 11:57 AM on January 12, 2021

probs already mentioned, but there is a fantastic bio out there on Ernest Shackleton that is ahmaaaazing
posted by megan_magnolia at 12:01 PM on January 12, 2021

The final chapter in Shackleton's Expedition is their crazy-ass open-boat voyage, 800 miles of the worst sea on the planet, from Elephant Is. where the crew was stranded, to South Georgia Island where they had hope of rescue, followed by an unreasonably perilous crossing of that island. The book is called "The Voyage of the James Caird" (the name of the lifeboat which was in turn named for one of the expedition's sponsors), by Shackleton. It's about half of the most uncomfortable boat journey you can imagine, followed by a hazardous crossing of South Georgia with a complete lack of appropriate equipment.

To this day, Royal Marines do trainining on South Georgia and replicate Shackleton's crossing (with 2 other men). The Marines take twice as long because to do it as Shackleton did it, even with their equipment, would inevitably result in fatalities.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:20 PM on January 12, 2021

I love reading about Arctic/Antarctic exploration. If you want to get beyond fiction/nonfiction, there is an amazing book of poetry by Elizabeth Bradfield called Approaching the Ice. It is almost all about the Arctic and Antarctic, past and present, landscape and explorers. She did her research with it and the poetry is fantastic.
posted by August Fury at 12:23 PM on January 12, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica is a gripping ecological thriller set in near future Antarctica. It's well worth a read.

I also recommend Big Dead Place mentioned above.
posted by monotreme at 12:24 PM on January 12, 2021

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez is a lovely overview of Arctic exploration, and a gorgeously-written book. It's so good.
posted by suelac at 3:00 PM on January 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World recently out, said to be good.
posted by BWA at 3:10 PM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Before he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle went to the Arctic, and he kept a diary.
posted by dizziest at 3:12 PM on January 12, 2021

Tangentially, B-29 Frozen in Time is a documentary about a project to repair and fly a B-29 bomber that crashed on the ice in Greenland during WWII.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:32 PM on January 12, 2021

Through Siberia, Land of The Future (1914 translation) by Norwegian adventurer-scientist-statesman Frijtof Nansen. Taiga and tundra, but lots of interaction with Arctic Indigenous people too. Vladivostok at the end of the roaring aughts, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was nearing completion. (Trip by boat tho.)

Not just a pretty frost-rimmed face: for example he championed the introduction of the Nansen passport, providing documentation to travel for stateless refugees after World War I, a sort of prototype for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees decades later.
posted by XMLicious at 7:33 PM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I asked a question about a specific book related to this--England's first expedition and colony in the Arctic Circle, which you might like: Unknown Shore, the Lost HIstory of England's Arctic Colony by Robert Ruby.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 9:36 PM on January 12, 2021

I want to second Alone by Richard Byrd. I picked it up years ago at a Salvation Army store book section on impulse and devoured it over the weekend. I couldn't put it down.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:19 PM on January 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

The book only spends part of the story exploring Antarctica, but the rest of this true story is utterly unbelievable. Author Nathaniel Philbrick tends to focus as much on the interpersonal battles aboard the ships as he does on the facts of the adventure, but there's no escaping the bare facts:

By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts-some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artifacts amassed by the Expedition's scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. - Preface
posted by Cris E at 10:58 PM on January 13, 2021

Modern: "Blazing Ice" by John Wright
+1 for BigDeadPlace (I'm in it! But not by name)
Older: "My Antarctic Honeymoon" by Jennie Darlington
"Igloo for the Night" by Mrs. Tom Manning [sic] (some cultural attitudes of the time)
"Mawson's Will" by Lennard Bickel
"The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition" by Susan Solomon
I grew up reading Farley Mowat on the Canadian Arctic, have heard some criticism of his adherence to actual fact vs. his own biases
If you want some Inuit perspective, "The Whales, They Give Themselves" by Harry Brower, and "Sadie Brower Neakok: An Inupiaq Woman" by Margaret Blackman are both heavy on the subjects' words although collected by others. I'll keep an eye on this topic for other indigenous voice recommendations.
posted by HaveYouTriedRebooting at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2021

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