Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the North

Welcome to the first instalment of my Armchair Travel series!

In this occasional series I’ll aim to bring you inspiration for your travels, and transport you away from everyday life, through some of my favourite books. Like a wee holiday, but without leaving the comforts of your home.

For me, reading has always provided so many of the things I get from travelling: being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking; an insight into an unfamiliar culture; being part of a challenging adventure; or complete and total escapism.

Books, like a sailing ship, could take you anywhere. So throw off the bowline and let yourself be transported with ten of my favourite books to take you in to the icy north…

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  • Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

I love books like this, ones that outwardly take a single topic, but are packed with everything you can think of. History, geography, science, natural history, spirituality, indigenous culture, adventure, travel; all drawn together in Lopez’ beautiful prose. To be dipped into again and again.  Find it here.

  • North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship – R. Bruce Macdonald

Sailing ships might become a bit of a theme through this blog. This is the story of the last of the ships trading in the Canadian Arctic, and a record of a way of life changed forever.  You can buy it here.

  • Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

A chilling horror story set in a scientific research base in an abandoned mining camp in Spitzbergen, just before the outbreak of WWII. The waning of the moon in the depth of the polar night plunge Jack into full-blown terror.  You can find it here.
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  • Far North and Other Dark Tales – Sara Maitland

A deliciously dark collection of short stories that draw inspiration from fairy tales, bible stories and traditional myths, with a strong focus on the female experience. The title story is a reworking of an Inuit legend.  You can get it here.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen – Stephen R. Brown

We tend to know Amundsen as “the one that got there first”, thwarting Scott’s attempt at the South Pole, but the Norwegian was the ultimate polar explorer. Inspired by Nansen and learning skills from indigenous peoples in the Arctic, he was leader of the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, navigated a route through the Northeast Passage, and crossed the North Pole in an airship. He disappeared on a mission to rescue the crew of another airship returning from the Pole. Get the book here.

  • The Long Exile – Melanie McGrath

The documentary film Nanook of the North revealed the lives of Unagava Inuit to the world. This book reveals the dark aftermath; the forced relocation of Inuit families to the barren shores of Ellesmere Island. A shameful episode of recent history, the shockwaves of which echo through the generations to today.  You can find it here.reading_for_a_cold_day_1

  • The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

The first part of the Dark Materials trilogy (also known as The Golden Compass in North America), this is the north of dreams and fantasy. Ice bears in armour made from sky-iron; lying, tale-telling Arctic foxes; ancient witches flying of sprays of cloud pine; fierce Tartars scouring the tundra with their wolf dæmons; and the mysterious and terrible aurora. Get it (and the rest of the trilogy) here.

  • To Build A Fire – Jack London

I read White Fang when I was about twelve years old, and Call of the Wild not long after. The wild and brutal Yukon setting burned into my imagination. To Build a Fire is just one of the greatest short stories ever written. Find it here.

  • Farthest North – Fritjof Nansen

I have a massive crush on Nansen; there’s no denying it. I’m fascinated by so much about him; all his adventures, his thirst for scientific knowledge, and his humanitarian work. This is the story of the Fram expedition, to take a ship through the polar sea locked in the ice, and reach the top of the world. And on the way, demonstrate excellent leadership and establish the science of oceanography. Get the book here.

  • The Blue Fox – Sjón

Fabulous, in the original sense of the word, and beautifully poetic, the atmosphere of this novella is as dark and chilling as the Icelandic winter in which it is set. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will transport you to a different world.  You can find it here.

 

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any North themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Photo Story: Greenland Tundra Hike

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s fresh water supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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