Arctic Archive

Palin and the Victorian ship that went to the Poles

Michael Palin’s Erebus (Hutchinson), the stirring story of a Victorian ship that went to the Poles, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. You can read my review of it — which appeared at the weekend in The Daily Telegraphhere on Deskbound Traveller.

The scientist playing bear in the Arctic

Conducting scientific research in the Arctic is expensive, hard and dangerous. Studying the creatures who live there sometimes calls for a novel approach, as Tim Flannery reveals in a piece for The New York Review of Books about the work of the conservationist Joel Berger:

Berger decided to try to determine whether musk oxen fear bears, reasoning that if they did, then bears must be significant predators. So he dressed in a bear costume and approached herds of musk oxen, recording their response. Just to be sure that it was the bear costume they were responding to, he also approached the same herds dressed in a caribou outfit.

Berger discovered that the approach must be made from at least a mile away and, like that of a bear bent on attack, it must not be direct. With a wind-chill factor of–15° C and a skin of ice over the snow, on his first attempt Berger took an hour and a half to get within forty-five yards of the herd. Then a bull charged—from twenty-five yards away. Instinct kicked in, and he tossed the head of his bear costume skyward, causing the confused bull to halt. Berger then struggled through the deep snow toward his colleagues, who were approaching on their snowmobiles.

The astonishing thing is that Berger did not give up but repeated the exercise again, and again and again, over deep snow, sharp rocks, and permafrost, enduring hours of agonizing cold. At most, he got to record two encounters per day, but often only one. Over the years, he built a data set of more than one hundred encounters and got charged “seriously” by bulls four times. Always, in the back of his mind, a question lurks: What if, while dressed in his costume, he meets a real bear?

Water that flows in the veins

A beautiful intro to an excellent piece, by Peter Kujawinksi, in The New York Times about Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is much more to the locals than a body of water:

Thousands of years ago, every lake was like Great Bear Lake. So pure you could lower a cup into the water and drink it. So beautiful that people composed love songs to it. So mysterious that many believed it was alive. Today, of the 10 largest lakes in the world, it is the last one that remains essentially primeval.