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. 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. Also, special shout out on the 146th birthday of Marie Curie.

albert johnson :: survival :: depraved penguins :: antarctic movies

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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 and off-putting to the few locals with whom he crossed paths, Johnson was merely an anonymous loner until natives complained to the Mounties that their traps were being tampered with. Officers visited Johnson’s cabin to question him, and he refused to open the door; when they returned with a search warrant, they were shot at through the door. Sufficiently chastised, they returned with a posse, consisting in classic extraneously-detailed Wikipedia fashion, of “20 men, 42 dogs, and 20 pounds of dynamite.”

file photo: Johnson posse

Johnson still refused to budge, exchanging gunfire with the officers for hours on end, firing from specially-built gunports in his cabin. After 15 hours of gunplay and waiting for their dynamite to warm to an effective temperature, the troopers leveled the cabin with a TNT blast. Instead of a dismembered body, Johnson jumped out of a hand-built underground bomb bunker and began firing at them again. So the officers left once more, intending to form a still larger posse. When you have a problem, form a posse; if that doesn’t work, form a bigger posse; repeat as necessary.

After being delayed by a blizzard, they returned two weeks later. Johnson was gone. Thus began a some two-month manhunt through the mountains of northern Canada in the dead of winter. They caught up to him a few weeks later, even surrounding him, but he shot and killed a Mountie and managed to escape…on foot, with no showshoes, in the middle of complete wilderness. Thinking he was heading for the Yukon, they blocked off the two known routes and waited…and waited…and waited, until an airplane spotted his tracks behind them; he’d simply eschewed the traverse-able routes and climbed directly over a 7,000 foot peak, from whence he once more disappeared. They could find no further tracks until an airplane spotted him walking down the middle of the river, following in the packed-down snow of caribou tracks. Which is how, nearly 8 weeks after knocking on his door, he was finally found and killed in a firefight. He was found to have some gold, a dead bird, a dead squirrel, and some Beecham’s Pills on him at the time of his death (the pills are for constipation; roundup-poet-laureate William McGonagall once waxed rhapsodic on them).

Mind you, this entire time Johnson had not said a word to any of the police. He simply exchanged gunfire, avoided capture, and may have laughed when he shot one of the officers. Further still, the only thing anyone knows is that he called himself Albert Johnson (though he’s now colloquially known as The Mad Trapper of Rat River). Despite distributing pictures in the US and Canada, no family or friends were ever identified, no one knows when or where he was born, no one knows if that was his real name, no one knows where he arrived from, and no one even knows if it was actually him messing with the traps. Sure, he was probably just a proto-Kaczynski without access to a typewriter, but, like…was he a time traveler or something? THERE’S NO EARTHLY WAY OF KNOWING. At least two movies have been made about the story, one starring—of course—Charles Bronson as Johnson; both somehow turn him into a sympathetic character. Three years of trivia roundups, this may be the most bizarre story I’ve found.

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

  • Whilst leading a three-person exploratory team in the remote reaches of Antarctica, a crevasse opened—like the one that grabbed the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer—and swallowed up one of Douglas Mawson’s team members. Naturally, the one who was carrying most of the supplies. 300 miles from home base, the undersupplied duo suffered the ravages of exposure and malnutrition and—possibly—vitamin A overdoses from consuming the fresh livers of their sled dogs. Mawson’s other colleague eventually succumbed, so he cut the remaining sledge in half with a pocket knife (a classic “are you fucking kidding me” survival story detail) and trudged off alone (worth pointing out: a recent book claims that Mawson starved Mertz to death and cannibalized him. Jesus christ!). At one point Mawson slipped into a crevasse, dangling from a rope attached to the sledge; despite his weakness he managed to make it back to level ground. In the ultimate groin kick of fate, when Mawson finally stumbled back to camp, the return ship had left five hours previously; he and the search party had to wait fucking TEN MONTHS to hitch a ride back to civilization. I’m annoyed when there are two people in line in front of me at Chipotle.


  • Bob Bartlett, in contrast, was an Arctic explorer (do you think them and Antarctic explorers don’t get along, like each side thinks they’re tougher than the other?). When Bartlett’s ship, the Karluk, became ice-bound, he and the crew unloaded it and built igloos on the ice floe. Bartlett traveled 700 miles by dog sled to find help. Mostly I include him here 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.” (total bromance), and that the Karluk 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 Ada cared). The five-person group became stranded on the island in 1921; by early 1923 a group of three set off on a 700+ mile journey to find help (they were never seen again; oddly, one of the men had previously been stranded on the same island during the ill-fated Karluk expedition—talk about tempting fate). The man left behind with Ada quickly died of scurvy, so she just chilled out alone on the island for the next 8 months until being found. Then she used the proceeds to treat her son’s tuberculosis. I love this story, and “Ada Blackjack” is an amazing name.
  • Admiral Richard E. Byrd (yes, that Admiral Byrd) alllllmost became the first man to spend a winter alone in Antarctica in 1934. During a particularly violent days-long blizzard and cold spell, Byrd was faced with a true dilemma: the stove which provided the heat and light to keep him alive also filled his cabin with carbon monoxide. Thus began a delicate balancing act and test of wills—trying to stay warm enough to live, and sane and conscious enough to know to shut off the stove before suffocating to death. Eventually he had to be rescued, but his diary from the event is amazing. I really want to see a movie of this: just a man in the cabin, slowly poisoning himself, but aware of it, all while going crazy from the loneliness.
byrd going crazy


3. Antarctica is the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest continent. It’s a real charmer! The first confirmed sighting was in 1820 in an expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (great name). Very few animals call Antarctica home, among them are leopard seals and Adelie penguins. And oh, about the penguins, did you know that they are complete sexual reprobates?

George Murray Levick was a biologist on the Scott Antarctic Expedition, where he intended to make the first full study of the Adelie penguins at Cape Adaire. They look so cute, holding flippers…adorable:

sexually depraved monsters

But the cuteness belies the horrors he witnessed, utter depravity that left Levick—whose obituary called him a “perfect English gentleman”—repulsed: necrophilia (including with animals that had been dead since the last year), rape, infanticide, matricide, even—scandal—male penguins getting it on with other male penguins. So disturbing were these events to Levick’s Edwardian mores that he began writing his field notes in Greek, in hopes that only those of sufficient education and distinction could decipher the moral degeneracy that lay within—a detail I absolutely adore.

All discussion of the penguins’ sexual proclivities was removed from his final report, though that information was saved for a non-public pamphlet distributed only amongst the cognoscenti (who could be trusted with such graphic information). That pamphlet was only recently rediscovered and reprinted. Levick, for what it’s worth, had a Mawsonian experience when his return ship could not reach his party, and was forced to spend 8 months in an ice cave, living off blubber, waiting for another chance to go back. The penguins, for what it’s worth, apparently do not get the “birds and the bees” talk from their parents, and so their “depraved” behavior represents, essentially, confusion. Way to go, evolution. A warning sign to any aspiring penguinologists in our midst…

dream job

4. Books and movies set in Antarctica include:

  • Hell Below Zero, an exciting murder-mystery starring Alan Ladd and featuring intense footage of whaling ships in action.
  • 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.
  • And, of course, The Thing.



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