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Finding the Arctic: History and Culture Along a 2,500-Mile Snowmobile Journey from Alaska to Hudson's Bay

Finding the Arctic: History and Culture Along a 2,500-Mile Snowmobile Journey from Alaska to Hudson's Bay

by Matthew Sturm

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The history of the Arctic is rich, filled with fascinating and heroic stories of exploration, multicultural interactions, and humans facing nature at its most extreme. In Finding the Arctic, the accomplished arctic researcher Matthew Sturm collects some of the most memorable and moving of these stories and weaves them around his own story of a 2,500-mile


The history of the Arctic is rich, filled with fascinating and heroic stories of exploration, multicultural interactions, and humans facing nature at its most extreme. In Finding the Arctic, the accomplished arctic researcher Matthew Sturm collects some of the most memorable and moving of these stories and weaves them around his own story of a 2,500-mile snowmobile expedition across arctic Alaska and Canada.
During that trip, Sturm and six companions followed a circuitous route that brought them to many of the most historic spots in the North. They stood in the footsteps of their predecessors, experienced the landscape and the weather, and gained an intimate perspective on notable historical events, all chronicled here by Sturm. Written with humor and pathos, Finding the Arctic is a classic tale of adventure travel. And throughout the book,Sturm, with his thirty-eight years of experience in the North, emerges as an excellent guide for any who wish to understand the Arctic of today and yesterday.   

Editorial Reviews


"Sturm is an Arctic climate change researcher who has made many trips to the North and can thus write with authority and depth about the history, culture, and environment of the region. . . . The book is handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs. . . a must read for anyone interested in the North."
Daily News-Miner - David A. James
"[Finding the Arctic] does an outstanding job of helping [readers] understand a bit of the history of the place, as well as offer insight into its current state. More importantly, it conveys a sense of why so many people have been inexorably drawn into such a forbidding land, sometimes at the cost of their own lives." 
Arctic - Morgan E. Moffitt
"Sturm has enthusiastically brought together a charming book that is entertaining and aesthetically pleasing to the reader. . . The book is a patchwork of contemporary stories, explorations of historical sites and events, and plain-language descriptions of fauna and geography, and it includes a beautiful collection of archival images."

Product Details

University of Alaska Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Copyright © 2012 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-163-4

Chapter One


We thought our expedition would be about finding The Soul of the Arctic. What hubris! We should have known that it would end up being about practical things. How much gas do we have? Are our clothes warm enough? Did the handle fall off the camera? Can we fix it? Very soon into the trip we were forced to admit that our original goal was too vague and pompous. The soul of a place has to seep in, if it does so at all, like a marinade, unnoticed. Look for it and it's gone. So instead we agreed we would focus on getting from Point A to Point B—Point A being Fairbanks, Alaska, and Point B being Baker Lake, Nunavut.

The plan was simple: start in Fairbanks; drive snowmobiles to Hudson Bay. Our constraints along the way were equally simple: don't run out of gas or food. It turns out the limited number of towns and villages between Fairbanks and Hudson Bay provided few choices: a southerly path across Great Slave Lake or a northerly trajectory across Great Bear Lake. We chose the latter. Deciding where to end up on Hudson Bay was also easy. Tales of terribly rough moraine rock south of Baker Lake kept us well to the north. Our timing was heavily restricted, too. We needed about two months for the journey. Snow would start melting in May, but the dark and cold of midwinter would not give way to the returning sun until the beginning of March, so that's when we would leave.

AS IS SO OFTEN THE CASE, the idea for a trek across a bleak frozen wilderness surfaced in a warm place: the back room of Jon Holmgren's machine shop. Jon and I met the first summer I arrived in Fairbanks, 1981. A lanky twenty-five-year-old living at the Sandvik House, the local hangout for mountain climbers, Jon was renting the closet behind the stairs as a bedroom. I was a new graduate student looking for climbing partners and we hit it off immediately. Our first big climb together was a winter ski ascent of Mt. Sanford, a 16,237-foot glacier-covered volcano in southcentral Alaska. High on the peak, when a third member of our expedition became ill and things looked grim, I first learned that Jon was calm in a crisis and wise beyond his years. We got our sick partner down the mountain intact and went on to climb several more big Alaska mountains, cementing a thirty-year friendship.

Growing up in Fairbanks, Jon showed an early interest in things mechanical, but he's tried his hand at a number of professions over the years. A high school summer job crushing rocks and assaying minerals for a local mining exploration firm led to staking mining claims, then to building drill pads in the Alaska Range, and eventually to running a gold mine in western Alaska. Along the way, Jon picked up a degree in geophysics. When the two of us took physics classes together at the University of Alaska, I learned that in addition to being a solid climbing partner, he was also the smartest guy in the room.

Some years back Jon was running a car shop, fixing mostly Subarus, and after he had sufficiently beaten up his hands at that job, I was able to entice him to come to work with me as a snow scientist. He developed a radar that could measure snow depths, as well as several other specialized snow instruments. But the mind-numbing tedium of writing scientific papers and proposals was not really his thing. So he built a big shop in Fox, Alaska, and began a career as a machinist. Jon now has a worldwide reputation for making top-notch specialty scientific equipment such as permafrost drills. His shop is a magnet for some of the most interesting Alaskans I know. On a recent summer day, a pilot from Coldfoot came by needing a camera mount for his small bush plane, a miner showed up with a broken hydraulic piston, a master carpenter was building a riverboat in the back of the shop, and a constant stream of people stopped by to ask the best way to fix, build, or modify their respective cars, contraptions, and inventions.

In Jon's small office we hatched plans for the expedition. They grew from our shared desire to travel through the Arctic doing more than just measuring snow. All of our previous trips had been science-driven expeditions, with extensive data-gathering quotas that required both fast traveling and dull, repetitive work. Long before the trip we would choose equally spaced points along a route, each representative of surrounding landscape, which in most cases meant they were flat, boring spots devoid of cultural or historic interest. At each site, we would spend hours measuring the snow depth, density, and crystal properties, with our heads down in the snow rather than looking at our surroundings. I had started these studies decades earlier during my doctoral dissertation. My goal was to understand the role of snow in climate, particularly in the Arctic where it lingers on the ground for seven to ten months of the year. As the world became increasingly aware that a warming climate was altering the arctic environment, these snow studies had taken on a new sense of urgency and importance, and the results of the work made their way into computer models designed to predict global warming.

Intellectually, these working trips were satisfying but both of us were craving a richer, fuller journey. Steeped in the stories of the men and women who shaped the history of the Arctic and whose lives, in turn, were defined by the place, we wanted to understand their motivations. Jon summed it up succinctly: "This time, we need to see more than just snow. We need to stand in historic places and linger in towns and talk to the people. This trip needs to be about the Arctic, not science." I knew he was right.

That night it was decided. I would handle obtaining funding and research the route. Jon would cover the hard-core logistics, including choosing snowmobiles, figuring out where we would need gas and food caches, and how we would deal with mechanical breakdowns. It would be the longest snowmobile traverse either of us had ever done. The trip was on.

There was no question the next addition to the group would be Glen Liston. Along with Jon, Glen had been on every other snowmobile expedition I had organized. We had been in graduate school together in Alaska, though Glen was now living in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he is a research scientist. While I would love to be known as the strong silent type, hero of so many movies, I talk too much. Glen, however, is the real thing, going about expedition business without fuss or fanfare, and with very few words. Like Jon and me, Glen had come to arctic expeditions by way of mountain climbing, mostly steep ice in the Canadian Rockies. His resume also included a yearlong stint at the South Pole, where I suspect he was known as the most solid and unflappable of all the station personnel. Occasionally, in the tent on a cold night we could get Glen to tell us what it was like to work outside in real cold at 100°F below zero, or to join the elite South Pole 300° club. Membership requires enduring a sauna at more than 200°F, then running outside into –100°F weather, naked except for a single sock to be worn wherever the initiate sees fit.

Unlike most field hands, Glen keeps his gear in immaculate condition and is perhaps the most organized person I know. Where my zippers have a piece of parachute cord tied to them so I can pull on them wearing mittens, Glen's have an intricate Turk's Head lanyard, its color chosen to complement the color of his parka. In his kit, everything has a place and is put back as soon as he is done using it. With his penchant for order, we had come to rely on Glen as the loadmaster on our past expeditions. Many a time I had packed a sled in the morning only to have Glen come along and pull another twelve inches of slack out of tie-down ropes I thought were tight. While both Jon and I must sadly own up to having lost items out of our sleds on long trips, Glen never has.

Quiet, competent, squared-away, Glen is able to stay neat in ways the rest of us cannot. On a 1997 winter expedition down the Kuparuk River, we had been out six weeks, much of the time in cold, windy weather. A television crew was planning to meet us near Prudhoe Bay on the last day of the trip for filming. That morning, as on the forty previous mornings, we got out of our tents and congregated for breakfast around the cook stove. While everyone else was wearing the same grungy and worn parkas as the day before, Glen appeared in a spotless white anorak, tastefully trimmed in fur. How he had managed to keep the garment so dazzlingly clean during the rough and tumble of the previous six weeks amazed us almost as much as the sudden appearance of the anorak itself.

The next two members we asked to join the expedition were Dan Solie and Henry Huntington. Dan had grown up in Fairbanks like Jon, one of three boys in a family that did a lot of hunting and fishing. In high school he started climbing mountains, which led to his working on glacier research projects. In 1982, we measured the flow speed of glaciers on the west flank of Mt. Wrangell, a volcano in southcentral Alaska. The following year, we returned to the mountain to sample the fumarolic gases in its active North Crater. This foray turned into a near-death experience that cemented our friendship.

Mt. Wrangell is 14,163 feet high, which makes it the seventeenth tallest mountain in Alaska. Unlike the fourteen-thousand-foot peaks in Colorado, Mt. Wrangell's upper reaches are covered by glaciers and snowfields, with a polar climate even in the middle of summer. Occasionally, the jet stream blows directly across the summit. The mountain itself is huge: eight times the bulk of Mt. Rainier in Washington state, although it's about the same height. Within the summit plateau, which is actually an ice-filled caldera four miles across, the North Crater is a vapor- and ice-filled pit, about a half mile in diameter and several hundred feet deep. Super-heated steam roars out of black holes in the bottom of this crater, filling it with poisonous chlorine gas. In the summer of 1983 Dan and I flew up to the summit of the mountain with breathing tanks, climbing ropes, ice axes, and specialized glassware designed to capture the effluent from the fumaroles for chemical analysis. Wearing the tanks and rubber face masks, we descended into the inferno. Working rapidly down to the bottom of the crater (our tanks lasted only thirty minutes) we collected our samples by capping a small fumarole with the glassware. The larger fumaroles nearby roared like jet engines. Visibility was nil, in part because steam was swirling around the bottom of the crater, and in part because our masks had fogged in the cold air. Still, I could see that Dan was gazing about like he had arrived in Hell, to which the place bore a striking resemblance. Worse, long before we were done, the timing buzzer on my breathing pack went off, indicating I had five minutes to exit the crater. Reluctant to leave, it was Dan that pushed me up the snow slope. Dan is five feet nine inches tall, not much taller than me, but he has a barrel-chest twice the size of mine, and thick powerful arms. It wasn't hard for him to hustle me up the slope.

Our real problems started once we arrived at the crater rim and called the helicopter for pick up. The pilot landed, but as we started to load our gear, he yelled over the roar of the turbine engine and the fumaroles that due to the high altitude he could only take one of us at a time. We hastily sorted gear, but when I tried to get Dan on board, he insisted I should go first. I jumped aboard. The pilot dropped down to the eight-thousand-foot level of the mountain, where I jumped out, then he headed back up to the summit. I expected them back in fifteen minutes, but no sooner had the helicopter passed over the summit than the mountain was capped over by a lenticular cloud, an evil-looking plume signifying whiteout and windy conditions.

Five long hours later, well after I had concluded that the pilot had crashed and that he and possibly Dan were dead on the summit snowfields, I heard the sound of a helicopter coming not from above, but from the valley below. It was Dan and the pilot. They were alive and I was saved: my plight had only been marginally better than theirs, for I was thirty miles of tangled spruce forest away from the nearest road, which was on the far side of the unfordable Copper River. Moreover, by the time they returned it was snowing and the only tent and stove we had were in Dan's pack.

Once safely back at the helicopter base, Dan told his tale. As he heard the helicopter coming back after dropping me off, the mountain capped over with clouds. This took less than five minutes. He could hear the helicopter getting closer, then farther away. Next he heard it shut down somewhere in the fog and blowing snow. At fourteen thousand feet restarting a helicopter is difficult, but the pilot had little choice since he was low on fuel. At the same time, the wind shifted and started blowing chlorine gas over the crater rim toward where Dan was waiting with the gear. He had to move. He started out, pulling a sled across the vast snowfields of the caldera in a virtual whiteout, not sure which direction to go. But then fortune smiled on him. The pilot came up on the same frequency as Dan's radio and asked what they should do. Dan asked the pilot to fire off his shotgun (kept in the helicopter for bear protection). Taking a compass bearing on the sound, he started post-holing through the deep snow, towing all the gear, including the precious science samples. Periodically asking the pilot to fire off another round, Dan made his way toward the helicopter over a period of about four hours, occasionally having to stop when the weather got too severe for him to move ahead.

As the helicopter emerged from the fog and whiteout in front of Dan, the lenticular cloud ripped open above them revealing a startling blue sky. The pilot yelled, "Get in!" and hit the starter switch. Miraculously, the engine sputtered then fired to life. Before Dan was even belted-in or had his headphones on, the pilot took off straight up into the blue hole overhead. Shouting, "What's north of us?" over the sound of the screaming engine, he banked north into the clouds. Fortunately, Dan knew the mountain well and directed the pilot to the northeast, where there were no peaks higher than the summit caldera and they would have a decent shot at getting clear of the mountain in the fog. Trusting to luck they flew blindly for several miles and then began to descend, very quickly dropping out of the bottom of the clouds into clear air space. Cautiously edging toward the north and west, they then circled around and made their way back to me under the cloud deck. With that experience as a bond, Dan was a natural to go on the trip, despite his being a novice at driving a snowmobile.

Henry Huntington was also a novice snowmobile driver at the start of the trip, and new to what was otherwise a group of old friends. Henry and I had collaborated on several scientific papers, attended a number of meetings together, and over a couple of years found that we shared a similar quirky sense of humor. Henry had had an impressive collegiate career, studying at Princeton, where he rowed crew (what else?), then doing his graduate work in arctic social science at Cambridge. Lest his aristocratic academic background suggest that he was unsuited for an expedition, I knew that he had traveled along much of the Alaska arctic coast in a wood and canvas canoe, a journey that sounded thoroughly cold and miserable. He had also lived in Barrow for five years. With his credentials, Henry could have chosen to locate anywhere, and study or work at just about anything, but something about the polar regions had captured his heart. From Barrow, he had moved south, but only as far as Anchorage. We would be relying on Henry to connect us to the folks in the towns and villages, and to keep us from making any social blunders while visiting people along the way.

What I did not know before this expedition was that behind Henry's educated exterior lurked a mind that seemed to run on puns, rhymes, and doggerel. After dinner we would find that he had been whiling away the long hours on his snowmobile making up and memorizing ribald poems commemorating the events of the previous day. Lying back on his sleeping bag in the tent, Henry would reel off his poem with great solemnity, leaving us all in stitches. Sadly, his skill in tying down sled loads was not as impressive. The few times he managed to get underway in the morning without Glen redoing his load, he invariably ended the day by reporting the loss of some strategic piece of gear: a large propane bottle, a component of our cook kit, the better part of five gallons of much needed gasoline. In the last case, he did retain the gas jug itself, which we found empty and trailing behind his sled at the end of a forty-foot rope.


Excerpted from FINDING THE ARCTIC by MATTHEW STURM Copyright © 2012 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Matthew Sturm is a leader in the Arctic climate change research community and has led over twenty-five expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. He is the author of Apun: The Arctic Snow, also published by the University of Alaska Press.

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