arctic trivia roundup

Crisp autumn days are here, and snowbound wintry nights are soon to come. The frozen tundra, katabatic winds, and arctic circle await. But don’t be an arctic square: strap on your snow shoes and snow goggles, hop on an ice floe, get on board an ice breaker, grab your toboggan and saucer sled, or step aboard a dog sledge and mush for a roundup of the trivial.

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1. Sometime in 1931 a man named Albert Johnson built a small log cabin in the remote reaches of the Northwest Territories. Brusque with the few locals who met him, Johnson was merely an anonymous loner until natives complained their traps were being tampered with. Mounties visited Johnson’s cabin to question him, but he refused to open the door, then shot at them when they returned with a search warrant. Figuring that the third time and also dynamite was the charm, the cops came back with a posse—comprised, in classic extraneously-detailed wikipedia fashion, of “20 men, 42 dogs, and 20 pounds of dynamite.”

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file photo: Johnson posse

Johnson once more instigated a gunfight, firing at officers from specially-built gunports in his cabin. After 15 hours of gunplay and the mounties waiting for their dynamite to warm to an effective temperature, the troopers leveled the cabin with a TNT blast. But instead of finding a dismembered body, Johnson jumped out of a handmade underground bunker and began shooting once more. Apparently weary of the routine, officers left again, intending to come back with a still larger posse. This, by the way, is a problem-solving strategy that applies to all walks of life: First, form a posse. If step 1 does not work, form a larger posse. Repeat as needed.

The group waited out a blizzard and returned two weeks later. Johnson was gone, thus sparking a manhunt through the northern Canadian mountains in the dead of winter. They first caught up to him a few weeks later, but he shot a mountie and managed to escape…on foot. With no snowshoes. In the middle of complete wilderness. Assuming he was heading for the Yukon, they blocked off the two main escape routes, and waited. And waited. And waited. Then a bush pilot spotted his tracks behind the roadblocks; Johnson had simply climbed directly over a 7,000 foot peak and disappeared. Soon even the tracks were gone. Eventually he was spotted walking down the middle of the river, following in the packed-down snow of caribou tracks. Nearly 10 weeks after first knocking on his door, they finally caught up to him. He was killed in the ensuing firefight. When his body was searched, he was found to be carrying only some gold, a dead bird, a dead squirrel, and some Beecham’s Pills (for constipation; roundup-poet-laureate William McGonagall once waxed rhapsodic on them).

Over ~10 weeks, Johnson had five separate encounters with police, shot at them multiple times, but never said a word. Further still, the only thing anyone knows about him is that he called himself Albert Johnson (now nicknamed The Mad Trapper of Rat River). Pictures were distributed across the US and Canada, but no family or acquaintances ever identified him. No one knows where he was born, if that was his real name, where he came from, and for that matter no one even knows that it was him messing with those traps in the first place. Sure, he was probably just some proto-Kaczynski without a typewriter, but was he possibly a time traveler or something? Where did he come from?

Two movies have been made about Johnson, both somehow manage to turn him into a sympathetic character. In one, he’s played by Charles Bronson. I have no idea what to make of this story.

•     •     •

2. Johnson is just the most criminal of countless cold-weather survival stories of the early 20th century, most of which sound made up:

  • While leading an exploratory team in the remote reaches of Antarctica, one of Douglas Mawson’s crew was swallowed by a crevasse. Naturally, it was the guy carrying most of the supplies, which is a rather literal example of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Three hundred miles from home base, Mawson and his remaining crew member suffered exposure, malnutrition, and vitamin A overdoses after consuming fresh liver of sacrificed sled dogs. Mawson’s other colleague eventually succumbed, and if you believe a recent book it’s because Mawson starved him then cannibalized him. Jesus christ! Mawson himself once fell into a crevasse, dangling from a rope attached to a sledge and only barely making it back to level ground. At one point he was forced to cut the sledge in half with a pocket knife. When he finally made it back to camp, his return ship had left five hours previously, meaning he and the search party had to wait TEN MONTHS IN ANTARCTICA to hitch a ride back to civilization. Meanwhile, I am annoyed when there are two people in front of me in line at Chipotle.

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  • Bob Bartlett, in contrast, was an Arctic explorer. Do you think Arctic and Antarctic explorers don’t get along, like each side thinks they’re tougher, or if they come in contact they explode like matter and antimatter? When Bartlett’s ship became ice-bound, he and the crew unloaded it and built igloos on an ice floe; Bartlett traveled 700 miles by dog sled to find help. I include him here not for the dog sledding, but for two great quotes: 1) “It’s all right while you’re exploring. You get used to rotten meat, frozen fingers, lice, and dirt. The hard times come when you get back” and 2) “There is nothing so satisfying as the sea.” Bartlett’s expedition was the inspiration for Dan Simmons’s terrifying The Terror.
  • Ada Blackjack was an Inuit woman who went on an Arctic expedition, the goal of which was to claim a barren and uninhabited northern Siberian island for Canada. Not, I suspect, that she cared. The five-person group was stranded there in 1921, and after more than a year a group of three set off on a 700+ mile journey to find help. They were never seen again (amazingly, one of these three had previously been stranded on the same island once before, which is some real Final Destination shit). Ada’s lone companion soon died of scurvy; she waited 8 months alone before help arrived, then used her wages to treat her son’s tuberculosis. Also, Ada Blackjack is a great name.
  • Admiral Richard E. Byrd almost was the first man to spend a winter alone in Antarctica. During a violent days-long blizzard and cold snap in 1934, Byrd was faced with a dilemma: the stove that provided heat and light to keep him alive also filled the cabin with carbon monoxide. He was engaged in a balancing act and test of wills: stay warm enough to live, but sane and/or conscious enough to shut off the stove before suffocating to death. He was eventually rescued, but his diary is amazing and would make for a fabulous movie: a man in a cabin, slowly poisoning himself to stay alive, crazed from loneliness.
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byrd going crazy

3. Antarctica is the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest continent, which is probably why it’s not a tourist destination. The first confirmed sighting was in 1820 in an expedition led by the amazingly named Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. Leopard seals and Adelie penguins are among the few animals that call Antarctica home. And oh by the way, about the penguins, did you know they are complete sexual reprobates?

penguins
sexually depraved monsters

A biologist on the Scott Antarctic Expedition, George Murray Levick intended to make the first full study of the penguins at Cape Adaire. They look so cute and chubby, holding flippers and waddling around! Ah, but the cuteness belies the horrors therein, acts of utter depravity that left Levic—whose obituary called him a “perfect English gentleman”—repulsed: necrophilia, rape, infanticide, matricide, even male penguins getting it on with other male penguins. The events so disturbed Levick and his Edwardian social mores that he wrote his field notes in Greek—an assurance, he thought, that only those of sufficient education and distinction to handle the moral degeneracy within could decipher it. I adore this detail.

The report on penguin sexual degeneracy almost never reached Europe, as Levick missed his return ship and spent eight months living on blubber in an ice cave while waiting to be rescued. When he returned, all discussion of the penguins’ sexual proclivities was removed from his final report, though the information was saved for a pamphlet distributed privately amongst the cognoscenti; the pamphlet was recently rediscovered and reprinted. The penguins, for what it’s worth, apparently do not get the “birds and the bees” talk from their parents, and so their behavior is the result of sexual confusion. What a win for evolution.

penguinologist
dream job

4. Books and movies set in Antarctica include:

  • Hell Below Zero, an exciting murder-mystery starring Alan Ladd and featuring hot whaling footage
  • Nazis at the Center of the Earth, in which Mengele commands an army of soldiers below the ice of Antarctica, waiting to unleash the Fourth Reich on an unsuspecting world. Includes a disembodied Hitler head-in-a-jar.
  • Virus, an actually awesome-sounding film about a virus that depopulates the earth but cannot survive in Antarctic temperatures, and a subplot about nuclear armaments being automatically set off once everyone is dead.
  • South of Sanity, actually shot in Antarctica.

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