When it came to Polar exploration, writes Lawrence Millman in an introduction, the Scandinavians “make their British and American counterparts seem like Boy Scouts.”
The kind of character Millman had in mind was Mikkelsen (1880–1971), who chronicles here just one of his numerous exploits in the far, far north country. He’d gone to northeast Greenland in 1910 to recover the diary and any surviving papers that might document the 1908 Mylius-Erichsen Expedition’s attempts to refute Peary’s claim of having mapped the east Greenland coast. Mikkelsen’s account is a delight in misery, start to finish, though not of the heroic vein; it’s just that there’s little else to expect from such a land. The only thing eastern Greenland doesn’t have a dearth of is weather and wilds, both of which ring Mikkelsen and his companion Iver P. Iversen—“A stout fellow, Iversen!”—as if they were gongs. Food is the greatest privation when there’s nothing to eat but ice and rocks, the cold wind meanwhile ever present, but the two soldier on, gobbling the dogs when necessary, sampling rotten caches—“Isn’t mold a kind of vegetable?” Iversen asks—enduring scurvy and slush, and, without food or sleeping bags, “walking till we could no longer set one foot before another, then [sinking] down behind a stone until the cold woke us, and then [walking] on again.” But it was worth it, for they found the diaries that disproved Peary’s work—and a gratifying poke in Peary’s eye that is for Mikkelsen. And at least Mikkelsen was where he wanted to be, a land always willing to drop “a little gall in our cup,” yet also an elemental place of rare beauty that demands attentiveness and perhaps even becomes vitally sustaining as it tries to kill you.
Mikkelsen is an artisan of cold places, and if his labors are mighty and consuming, they are also of love. (Photographs)