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The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle
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The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle

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by Sara Wheeler

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A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title

More than a decade ago, Sara Wheeler traveled to Antarctica to understand a continent nearly lost to myth and lore. In the widely acclaimed, bestselling Terra Incognita, she chronicled her quest to find a hidden history buried in Antarctica's extreme surroundings. Now, Wheeler journeys to the


A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title

More than a decade ago, Sara Wheeler traveled to Antarctica to understand a continent nearly lost to myth and lore. In the widely acclaimed, bestselling Terra Incognita, she chronicled her quest to find a hidden history buried in Antarctica's extreme surroundings. Now, Wheeler journeys to the opposite pole to create a definitive picture of life on the fringes. In The Magnetic North, she takes full measure of the Arctic: at once the most pristine place on earth and the locus of global warming.

Inspired by the spiraling shape of a reindeer-horn bangle, she travels counterclockwise around the North Pole through the territories belonging to Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, marking the transformations of what once seemed an unchangeable landscape. As she witnesses the mounting pollution concentrated at the pole, Wheeler reckons with the illness of the whole organism of the earth.

Smashing through the Arctic Ocean with the crew of a Russian icebreaker, shadowing the endless Trans-Alaska Pipeline with a tough Idaho-born outdoorswoman, herding reindeer with the Lapps, and visiting the haunting, deceptively peaceful lands of the Gulag, Wheeler brings the Arctic's many contradictions to life. The Magnetic North is an urgent, beautiful book, rich in dramatic description and vivid reporting. It is a singular, deeply personal portrait of a region growing daily in global importance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Magnetic North offers a fascinating tour of a disappearing world. Sara Wheeler is an eloquent and intrepid guide.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE

“A wise, provoking and zestful chronicle, poetic, often tragic and always engaging. Wheeler, a prolific raconteur of distant places, has created the finest book on the Arctic since Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden . . . She has mapped a remarkable journey.” —Rory MacLean, The Sunday Times (London)

The Magnetic North proved irresistibly attractive. I loved . . . Terra Incognita, and this was an equally coddling hoosh of personal travelogue, historical anecdotage and speculative thinking--all the better because Wheeler began her series of Arctic travels, if not a climate change sceptic, then unconvinced about its anthropic cause, and ended up unable to deny the meltwater on the ground.” —Will Self, New Statesman

“A book that deserves to stand alongside Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez's classic account of life above the tree line. Indeed, more than once I made the comparison in Wheeler's favour. She's funnier, and her writing, while brilliantly evocative, is never overblown . . . If you are lucky you might get to travel in the Arctic yourself; if you don't, this book is the next best thing.” —Erica Wagner, The Times (London)

“Fantastic . . . Readers are whisked away on an incredible, multifaceted tour of a region still unknown . . . This fact-filled narrative is nearly impossible to put down . . . By chronicling what the Arctic tells us about our past, Wheeler vividly reveals what it tells us about our collective future.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With wry humor and extensive research, Wheeler captures a swiftly transforming region with which we all have a symbiotic relationship . . . Wheeler's sense of place, science, self and story is exceptional.” —Holly Morris, The New York Times Book Review

Holly Morris
Whether she's on migration with the Sami reindeer herders, interviewing scientists on the Greenland ice sheet or white-knuckling it on the highway that runs along the Alaskan pipeline, she aims for the sweet, deep spot, "to see," as Wheeler says, quoting T. S. Eliot, "beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory"—an ambition this region too infrequently receives, but sorely deserves, from a documentarian…Wheeler doesn't trade in sentiment or noble savagery…With wry humor and extensive research, Wheeler captures a swiftly transforming region with which we all have a symbiotic relationship.
—The New York Times
Dennis Drabelle
Deploying an inquisitive mind and a crisp, witty prose style, Wheeler takes the reader on an informative and ultimately tragic tour of a region in the throes of drastic change…Wherever she goes, Wheeler exhibits a knack for summing up people, places and things memorably.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In her previous book, on Antarctica (Terra Incognita), Wheeler dismissively labeled the Arctic Circle as "the complicated, life-infested North." She changed her stance in 2002, following a trip during which she towed her infant son on a sled while traveling with the Sámi reindeer herders in the Arctic Circle. Readers are whisked away on an incredible, multifaceted tour of a region still unknown and mysterious. Her journeys, spread over a two-year period, begin in Siberia, nine time zones east of Moscow, in a region closed to foreigners and where there is no soil for anything to grow in a quarter of a million square miles. Traveling in a clockwise direction Wheeler's circuit includes Alaska; Canada; Greenland; Spitsbergen, Norway; Lapland; and back to the White Sea in Russia, weaving together fantastic stories of the North all the while. Wheeler admits this isn't a comprehensive history, but that makes little difference. This fact-filled narrative is nearly impossible to put down. Her theme is heroic individual struggle, such as pioneering polar aviation, heroism of the Norwegian resistance during WWII, and life in the Soviet gulag. By chronicling what the Arctic tells us about our past, Wheeler vividly reveals what it tells us about our collective future. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Some people can't stay away from cold places. Wheeler here recounts her travels to the Arctic Circle, the polar opposite of the Antarctic trek recorded in her best-selling Terra Incognita. The Arctic Circle crops Canada, Alaska, regions of Siberia, Scandinavia, Greenland, and assorted islands. It is an area of fragile life, where native peoples survived in close balance with the land long before the disruption of shoe-eating explorers, missionaries, the Gulag, and geologists. The Arctic has been a last frontier, land of mythmaking, and victim of greed for the gas, oil, diamonds, and gold of the land and the blubber beneath the shrinking ice. Wheeler visits scientists doggedly studying the history of the ice and the impact of climate change and describes the isolation and beauty of their barren open laboratories. Remains of human travel and habitation, the imposition of nationhood, and the degradation of the landscape as well as less visible radioactive and chemical contamination all affect this landscape. VERDICT An eloquent, important book. Recommended for all readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.]—Melissa Stearns, Franklin Pierce Univ., Rindge, NH
Kirkus Reviews

An engrossing account of the people and cultures living—if not thriving—in high polar regions.

In Terra Incognita (1998), Wheeler (Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, 2007, etc.) chronicled her tour of Earth's opposite end, Antarctica, but that was a vacant continent surrounded by an ocean. The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by continents with five populous nations bordering its coast: the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway. All are showing increasing interest in their long-suffering northern inhabitants and competing to prove that their continental shelves—and the resulting mineral rights—extend to the Pole. The author begins in far northeastern Russia, a backwater even in Soviet times where nomadic reindeer herders were devastated by Stalin's collectivization and further impoverished by the Soviet Union's collapse. In a theme that recurs throughout Wheeler's travels, the inhabitants yearn for more government attention (if only subsidies) but also more independence and more development. After a drive up the long highway parallel to the Alaska pipeline to visit the North Slope and scientists studying the area, the author moves on to North Canada, Greenland, Norway and northwest Russia. Living and sharing the discomfort of visiting researchers, Wheeler describes the dazzling environment, the frequently horrendous history of exploration and the struggles and depredations of emigrants from lower latitudes who today usually form the majority. She also delivers an unsentimental account of the indigenous people, whose life before the arrival of whites was often short and brutal.

A vivid, sympathetic portrait of what are essentially frontier regions where existence remains perilous and the major changes of global warming may or may not improve matters.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Magnetic North

Notes From the Artic Circle

By Sara Wheeler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Sara Wheeler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9194-0



The place of greatest dignitie

— John Davis, mariner, 1550?-1605

Herds of reindeer moved across ice and snow. Slim-shouldered Lapps squatting on Ski-Doos nosed their animals toward an arc of stockades. A man in a corral held a pair of velvet antlers while another jabbed a needle into a damp haunch. I made my way toward the outer palisades, where Lapps beyond working age stoked beechwood fires and gulped from bowls of reindeer broth, their faces masked in musky steam. The first new snow had fallen, and the Harrå Sámi were herding reindeer down to the winter grazing. A livid sun hung on the horizon. Sámi, or Lapps, were the last nomadic people in Europe, and until recently they castrated reindeer at this place by biting off their balls. In the stockade I took my baby son from his wooden sledge, prowed like a miniature Viking ship, and wrapped him closer in his calf pelts.

The Lapps divided the corralled herd, each smaller group husbanded by an association of families (sijdda) in pastures close to home. Down at the end of summer, up at the end of winter — the cycle of life above the Arctic Circle. At half past three the sun vanished. It was the season between white nights and darkness at noon, the period in which the Arctic turns inside out. The thunderous pounding stopped. Below the corral, people who had come to recover stray reindeer struggled to load them into stumpy horse boxes. In the distance, the lights of Harrå shimmered through a dark haze. The silence of the winter forest settled over the corral, fractured only by the cry of a nightjar. When I came to unwrap Reggie from his pelt, the soft green and orange beams of the northern lights swept the sky.

Fifteen years earlier I had spent some time in Antarctica. Its geographical unity and unownedness attracted the younger me, as did the lack of an indigenous human presence, and the inability to sustain terrestrial life. It was a metaphor for a terra incognita, an image of an alternate and better world. I was prejudiced against the complicated, life-infested North. Time passed, and in 2002 I traveled briefly with the Sámi and their reindeer. I started thinking about the collar of lands around the Arctic Ocean. Fragmentation, disputed ownership, indigenous populations immobilized on the threshold of change — those very things Antarctica lacked appealed to the older me. Especially fragmentation. When I thought about the Arctic, in my mind's eye I glimpsed an elegy for the uncertainties and doubts that are the chaperones of age. Was the Arctic a counterweight to the Antarctic? (The Greeks called it arktos, the Great Bear, or northern pole star, and the Antarctic was the antiarktos — the opposite.) Or was it just a frozen mirror image, and I who had changed?

The Arctic is our neighbor, part of us. What could be less romantic? And the world seems a wearier place than it did a decade and a half ago. It is the Arctic that captures the spirit of the times. The Arctic is the lead player in the drama of climate change, and polar bears are its poster boys. So I went. On a speck of land in the northern reaches of the Arctic Ocean, the encircling water chaotic with floes, I heard a snow bunting sing. Not a single songbird breeds on the Antarctic continent. The sweet trill of the small black-and-white bird brought the Arctic to life.

Where is the Arctic? An ocean surrounded by continents, and an indistinct geographical zone. The top part — the High Arctic — is a dazzling hinterland where myth and history fuse, a white Mars. The Haughton Crater on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic hosts camps of Martian aficionados testing potential housing in preparation for man's arrival on the red planet ("This is as close to Mars as we can get," one of them told me). The southern limits of the Arctic are movable feasts. Some people — such as the farmers in northern Sweden and Finland who wish to claim EU Arctic farming subsidies — consider that the Arctic Circle at 66°33' constitutes the frontier. In Canada the definition fails, as swaths of typical Arctic territory (permafrost, permanent ice cover, absence of topsoil and significant vegetation, polar bears, all of these) lie well south of the Arctic Circle. Sixty-six degrees simply marks the point at which the sun fails to set at the summer solstice (June 21) or to rise at the winter solstice (December 21); climatological and other factors produce divergent conditions at different points on the Circle. The Gulf Stream warms the oceans and the surrounding air to create clement conditions for the subsidy-claiming Scandinavian farmers, and in Finland the viviparous lizard thrives north of the Arctic Circle, whereas parts of the sub-Arctic are colder than anywhere else on earth. The residents of Oymyakon in the Sakha Republic three degrees outside the Arctic Circle once recorded a temperature of -97.8°F, a level at which trees explode with a sound like gunfire and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a tinkle of crystals. In addition, some cartographers and politicians use the isothermal line to define the Arctic, thus including all the places where the long-term mean temperature of the warmest month is below 14°F. And in the biggest gerrymandered constituency on the planet, there are four North Poles.

I think the southern boundary of the Arctic is most appropriately defined by a combination of the tree line and the southern limit of continuous permafrost on land, and by the average extent of winter pack ice at sea.

Since 1900 the mean global temperature has risen by 1.08°F. In the Arctic, the figure is 3.6-5.4°. But there is still a lot of ice. In July 2008 I took a Russian icebreaker across the Arctic Ocean and stood day after day on the bridge with the captain (a saturnine figure who talked too fast, like so many natives of Vladivostok) and we watched the cutaway prow smashing through thousands of tons of it. The extent of the ice is not the only critical issue. Unlike the Southern Ocean, which swirls around the Antarctic, the Arctic Ocean is more or less enclosed — what marine geographers call a mediterranean sea. Most of the water that leaves flows through a deep channel southwest of the Faroe Islands (it carves through a row of transatlantic sills). In this gap, cold, salty water from the Arctic moves south beneath warm, fresher water traveling north from the tropics. Various "pump" sites in the Greenland Sea shift these warm and cold currents around the planet. As glaciers melt and water flowing from the Arctic becomes less salty, the pumps could lose power, and a growing body of data indicates that they will turn off altogether. Or will the Siberian permafrost break down first and release tides of carbon dioxide and methane as well as baby mammoths still sporting their ginger hair? Either way, the survival of civilization as we know it hangs on what happens in the Arctic. Anxiety, panic, concern, and skepticism have inflamed the public imagination. As we powered through the ice, I asked the captain what he thought about the Big Melt. He looked out over the splitting white, took a deep drag on his Troika cigarette, and yelled over the racket of six engines, "I not know."

Scientists, for the most part, don't know either. I spent many weeks hunched over holes in the Greenland ice sheet or hauling samples from the slimy bottom of an Alaskan lake. As far as possible, I tried to enter the minds of individual researchers to see what made them creative. My own mind was open. History reveals many periods of cooling and warming, and I learned that the science is more dramatic than media headlines indicate, as well as a million times more complicated, nuanced, and uncertain. In many respects, we do not know how ecosystems will respond to climate change. The Arctic has been the locus for Armageddon two generations in a row now. It was the front line of the Cold War, with both sides pouring money into long-range nuclear bomber installations and lone figures crouching on floes straining to hear enemy subs (or was that a ringed seal scratching its back?). Nuclear holocaust, then apocalyptic climate change: something about the region attracts millennial anxiety. I picked up a scent among the Lappish reindeer and pursued it through the journeys described here. What does the Arctic tell us about our past? What does it reveal of the future?

Besides climate panic, the emergence of the Arctic as an energy frontier has similarly shunted the region into public consciousness. The Arctic already produces about a tenth of the world's oil and a quarter of its gas. As you read this, geologists and paleontologists from many nations are chipping indicator fossils from bedrock to locate more. Hydrocarbon extraction is set to remain an economic driver across the polar regions, and issues around the exploitation of natural resources recur throughout these pages: hard-rock mining as well as oil and gas (a hard-rock mine excavates ores from which metals are extracted). Everybody wants what the Arctic has, and as a result, shortly after I started working on this book, a simmering international row about ownership boiled over onto the front pages. All five polar nations — Denmark, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the United States — set about proving that their continental shelves extend far to the north under the waters of the Arctic Ocean. This, they hope, will secure navigation rights over mineral reserves beneath the seabed. In July 2007 a Russian nuclear submarine sent a diver to drill a titanium flag into the bedrock under the North Pole itself, a gesture that made the Pole as Russian as gold teeth. The Canadian prime minister rushed up to his bit of the Arctic to express comparable views. In Chukotka, the back end of Siberia and a region the size of Turkey that Russia had forgotten, President Medvedev stepped out of his helicopter onto the tundra in 2008 to pat a reindeer and listen to some pleasant Chukchi folk songs in a local school. (I was there!) He was the first Russian head of state to bother; no czar had ever come within a thousand miles of Chukotka. Five days previously, in a speech on Arctic policy to the Security Council in Moscow, Medvedev had flagged the reason for his visit. "This region," he said, "accounts for around 20 percent of Russia's gross domestic product and 22 percent of our national exports ... Experts estimate that the Arctic continental shelf could contain around a quarter of the world's hydrocarbon resources." The main issue, Medvedev insisted, "is that of reliably protecting our national interests in the region." Like the diver who planted the flag, Mr. President was showing how very Russian it was in the North. That night's television news followed him touring the new supermarket, the first in the region, where he peered into freezers while a supervisor gave a running commentary on cylinders of Arctic Roll made in a factory on the outskirts of Petersburg.

The burst of political concern highlights the transitional state of the inhabited Arctic. In Nuuk I saw a pair of nylon panties pegged on a washing line next to a row of curing seal ribs. Something mysterious and indefinable has outlived cultural collapse. There was the twenty-year-old Inupiat woman with two children; almost everyone in her family was drunk almost all the time, she had never been out hunting, she ate Western junk food and watched The Simpsons. "I sense where I come from," she said, "when I see the milky ice on the creek split in the spring." Inuit art has expressed a spiritual connection between man and nature for three thousand years, and in the myths and beliefs of the Far North, humanity and the world give each other meaning. The Magnetic North describes the semi-inhabited fringes of the Arctic: the transition zone. "It's not about polar bears," says Mary Simon, head of the Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada's forty-five thousand Inuit. "It's about people."

Although the beauties and intractable problems of the contemporary Arctic framed my journeys, I could not ignore generations of explorers. Like the scientists who succeeded them, they went north to unlock secrets. Their adventures frequently descended into a tragic farce of shoe-eating (when they ran out of food) and poetic death, but still, heroic individual struggle is a theme of this book. Who can resist David squaring up to a Goliath army of towering bergs? In America, Arctic mania persisted from the Civil War to World War I. Even at a time when Americans were going west, the North Pole and its whaling waters cast a spell, luring Pole- seekers in little wooden ships, balloons, zeppelins, planes, icebreakers, and submarines. A hundred years ago, in 1909, two Americans on separate expeditions claimed to have stood at the North Pole. Over in the Old World, even Pope Pius XI was not immune to worldly longing. As a young priest, Achille Ratti, as he was called then, applied to join one of the Duke of Abruzzi's expeditions. Ratti was a keen alpinista, but the duke judged that a priest would be bad for morale.

That said, this is not a comprehensive history. I have picked out stories illustrative of themes — such as the drama of pioneering polar aviation or the heroism of the Norwegian Resistance — or so legendary it would be perverse to ignore them, such as Sir John Franklin, shoe consumer to beat them all. I included others because I liked them too much to leave them out — though in this last category a superfluity of candidates did oblige me to ditch some favorites. I was sorry that Valerian Albanov failed to make the last cut. He was a gifted navigator whose ship froze into the Kara, most dreaded of Arctic seas. Fed by four of the great Siberian rivers, the Kara is frozen for nine months of the year, an annihilating wilderness spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles. In 1912 Albanov set off from the Murman Coast on a projected seven-thousand-mile voyage to Vladivostok in search of fresh marine hunting grounds. When the Kara ice closed in, twenty-five men and one woman drifted twenty-four hundred miles in eighteen months, during which time they ran out of fuel and had to chop up the wooden walls of the cabins to keep the samovar going. In April 1914 Albanov and thirteen others set off by sledge for an uninhabited archipelago using a hopeless map and a faulty chronometer. Three men quickly returned to the vessel, but the rest marched on for ninety-two days. They were weak and dreaming of peaches, but Albanov got them there carrying an icon of Saint Nikolas under his parka. He couldn't keep them alive, though. I stood on the headland where nine of them lie in unmarked graves. A passing Russian boat rescued the other two, Albanov one of them. Those stranded on the ship were never seen again.

When I left the Sámi to their herds back in 2002, my Lappish host presented me with a bracelet made from the base of an antler. More bangle than bracelet, as the two ends didn't quite meet, it was a handsome object that I liked very much — I fancied that it smelled of smoke and beechwood — and it sat on my desk for many months as I mapped out my journeys. One day, as I fingered the bangle, I hit on the idea for a structure for my upcoming voyage. I would make a circular, counterclockwise journey — Siberia to Alaska to Canada to Greenland to Spitsbergen to Lapland and back to Russia, to the White Sea. The ends would not quite meet up. This would be a series of small journeys spread over two years, each planned to shed some dim light on the enigmas of the Arctic. Russia was a natural starting point, as it has more Arctic territory than any other country — five thousand miles of coastline that unspools from Europe to the Pacific, and a wilderness of tundra in which everything has evolved in response to cold. The southern boundary of Russian permafrost coincides with the tree line, the unguarded frontier that loops from the Finnish border, south of Murmansk, across the White Sea, and chops off the top of the Urals before proceeding through the Noril'sk nitrate fields and dipping into a U-turn on the central Siberian plateau. The coniferous forest below, a wide and monotonous sub-Arctic sash known as taiga, is the salient ecological feature of all northern Russia, a little-known region haunted by mythical spirits and gulag ghosts. Chekhov said that only migratory birds know where the taiga ends.

Twenty-six different ethnic peoples have herded and fished the Russian Arctic for centuries, yet they are invisible in most versions of the national past — unlike the dashing horsemen of the southern steppe or the turbanned anglers of Lake Baikal. Their Arctic land, like the Russian Federation itself, is split by the Urals, the mountain border separating Europe and Asia. The Asian part of Russia, one-twelfth of the landmass of the earth, consists of Siberia and the Russian Far East; and Chukotka, where Medvedev inspected the Arctic Roll, is as far as you can go without running the risk of bumping into Sarah Palin. This was to be my starting point. Nine time zones from Moscow, the region is closed to foreigners and has, in a quarter of a million square miles, no soil in which anything can grow. (As one traveler said of the mountain basins of northeastern Siberia, "twelve months of winter, and the rest is summer.") The oil tycoon Roman Abramovich chose Chukotka as his fiefdom: because of the region's low tax base it suited him to register his companies there, and while he was at it, he got himself elected governor. Small children run around wearing caps sporting the logo of Abramovich's English football club, Chelsea. Maybe the reindeer will be next to wear them.


Excerpted from The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler. Copyright © 2011 Sara Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sara Wheeler is the author of Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Evia: Travels on an Undiscovered Greek Island, Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile, and Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. She lives in London.

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The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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DB47 More than 1 year ago
good writing, but more maps and photos would make it even better
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