Vacation reading: The pleasures of misery

How cannibalism, hardship and boot eating (someone else's, that is) can improve your vacation.
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Sol Duc Hot Springs: perfect place for a long soak with a good book.

How cannibalism, hardship and boot eating (someone else's, that is) can improve your vacation.

When I'm on vacation, I like to find somewhere quiet and read. Maybe a dip in Sol Duc hot springs, dinner at the lodge and a good book. A good book being one that highlights complete disaster for the protagonists.

It must be a perverse way of feeling comforted by immersing myself in others' extreme discomfort while being especially cozy. Or a reminder that the cares I'm leaving behind are nothing in comparison to some folks' troubles. I find the best vacation books pit man against nature in ways I would never consider doing myself. Thus, on a recent holiday I worked my way through "The Man Who Ate His Boots" by Anthony Brandt. (I should point out that a man who had his boots to eat was relatively lucky. Candles and lichen were other dishes on the menu when the larder was empty.)

Brandt's book is subtitled "The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage," and is an excellent account of the 19th-century effort, culminating in the disappearance of Sir John Franklin (he departed in 1845) and the many subsequent Victorian-era "rescue" voyages in search of the explorer and his missing crew. The book focuses on the Passage search after it moved northward when the more southern possibilities such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Columbia River failed to pan out. If you want a read that will help you see a silver lining in global warming, this is the one. The multiple British expeditions to the Arctic in wooden ships were an exercise in beating one's head (or prow) against a wall of ice in order to discover a passage of dubious value.

Many men and ships were sacrificed to that end. The book is a catalog of their ice-bound miseries: crews freezing, drowning, abandoned, some trapped hopelessly in ice for years. There is scurvy, lead poisoning, murder, madness and executive incompetence. There is the eating of boots, sometimes those belonging to one's companions. Some of the bones found of Franklin's lost crew show clear signs of cutting, sawing and munching. England, of course, did not like to hear such things about its heroes and Charles Dickens blamed any cannibalism on the Inuit, but the forensic evidence is to the contrary. Apparently a stiff upper lip was useful for gnawing on comrades.

Explorer John Ross was frozen in ice for four years while mapping the Boothia Peninsula, North America's northernmost tip and a place most of us still have never heard of and will likely never go. If men like Ross had only waited a century or two, the warmer Arctic would have been more welcoming and the Northwest Passage actually passable. The book is a tribute to imperial stubbornness.

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The downside of that stubbornness: Most of the British explorers refused to learn the survival techniques of the "savage" Inuit, who knew how to live in such harsh lands. If the Brits had picked up the local language, and the art of the igloo, the dogsled and traveling light they might have saved themselves decades of misery, and spoiled a good book.

The upside: The territorial claims of Canada based on these early explorations are more relevant than ever as nations jockey for a piece of an ice-free Arctic future. Each year, the Canadian government still conducts a search for Franklin's lost ships, Erebus and Terror, in the name of celebrating the country's "Arctic heritage" and, some suspect, reinforcing claims. (That's Franklin at left.)

On the less extreme end of exploration, but one still full of challenges and discomforts, my second vacation read was "Across the Mountains," Robert Wood's account of the 1889-90 Press Expedition, the first group of white explorers to cross the Olympic mountains. Who would cross the Olympics — then almost completely unmapped and unknown — in December, during one of the worst winters on record? Adventurers paid by a newspaper, that's who.

The expedition was sponsored by the Seattle Press, which later merged with another newspaper and eventually morphed into The Seattle Times. The expedition rushed into the wintry mountains to beat any potential competing group that might set out in the more sensible spring. It took the band of five heady men (a sixth member returned home early on) five months to slog their way from Port Angeles to the mouth of the Quinault. They traversed the mountains with every tool at their disposal: two mules and four dogs, handmade boats, rafts and sledges, axes for cutting the six-foot in diameter old-growth blowdowns that blocked their way, guns for hunting game and an array of fishing flies. It took them two months just to get a few miles up the Elwha, so difficult were the challenges of mounting an expedition in this terrain.

The fact that they made it is amazing, attributable to their luck, character and skill. As the Press trumpeted about its team of outdoorsmen, "All these men have endured hardship and privation at different times in their lives, and are hardy and rugged in their physical make up. They have an abundance of grit and manly vim." The group never quite got to the eating-their-boots phase, but close enough.

The Press explorers left a legacy of trails to follow and improve, some photographs, and a map full of new place names, including what must be the greatest concentration of natural landmarks named for newspapermen: Mount Dana for the editor of the New York Sun, Mt. Lawson for the editor of the Chicago News, Mount Noyes for the editor of the Evening Star of Washington, DC, the Bailey Range for the proprietor of the Seattle Press. Many other ink-stained names they bestowed on peaks, like Hearst and Pulitzer, didn't stick, but what survived surely makes the Olympics the finest memorial to print journalism on this coast.

Such reading as "Across the Mountains" has the effect of making modern hikes seem like sissy walks by comparison. As my wife and I hiked in late summer along the North Fork of the Quinault River fresh in my mind were the near-fatal hardships of the expedition trying to exit by this route in the spring of 1890. They fought their way down rapids. They almost drowned when their ill-conceived raft was wrecked on a logjam. They lost all their supplies, most of their clothes, and salvaged only their charts, journals, pictures and their bedraggled selves. That was a fairly uneventful ending to a winter's marathon march from the Elwha over the mountains to the Pacific.

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Snowcapped Olympics: No place for a wintertime trek. Cedit: RVWithTito/Flickr

For us, we had a comfortable five miles on a trail that seemed like paradise, our bellies filled with a warm lodge breakfast. Overhead were rare blue skies and towering spruce. We were accompanied by the sounds of the rushing river and the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk. Our grit and vim went largely untested. The hike made a wonderful vacation day. Thankfully, it would make lousy vacation reading.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.