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.