While reading Valerian Albanov's In the Land of White Death, David Roberts came across the mention of an old legend of four shipwrecked Russian sailors who had managed to survive six years stranded on a barren island in the high Arctic. Incredulous, Roberts -- an expert on exploration literature who had never heard of this account -- was determined to learn the truth behind this extraordinary story. Little did he know that his search would ultimately bring him closer to the experiences of these four survivors than he had imagined.
In 1743 four survivors of a Russian shipwreck in the Arctic Ocean were trapped on a tiny island with only twenty pounds of flour for food. With ingenuity and courage they endured six years of nearly unimaginable hardship, with only driftwood to fuel their life-saving fires, and the constant threat of attack from polar bears (they would kill ten with homemade lances). Roberts's quest to document their story would take him across two continents and culminate in his own expedition to the remote and desolate shores where these mysterious sailors had been marooned. Riveting and haunting, Four Against the Arctic chronicles an incredible true story.
The author of Escape from Lucania uncovers an extraordinary tale, set in the mid-18th century, about four Russian hunters stranded on a desolate Arctic isle with scant resources, who survived for six years. Initially, Roberts is so preoccupied with debunking earlier histories of the shipwreck that the drama barely comes to life. He fumes at the shortcomings of other historians such as the "pomposities" and "basic mistakes" of the writer P.L. Le Roy. But these records give the author significant information as he embarks on his own Arctic journey in order to better understand his subjects. Luckily, few things can get in the way of a good story, and when Roberts manages to get out of his own way, he captures it with precise, thoughtful prose. With each discovery and every interview, he pieces together the mystery of how the four men actually survived. Whether detailing how these men fashioned clothing from animal hides, drank the warm blood of reindeer to prevent scurvy or crafted bows and arrows from "driftwood, polar bear tendons, flattened nails, and bird feathers," Roberts succeeds in creating an inspirational survival story.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Simon & Schuster
August 28, 2005
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Excerpt from Four Against the Arctic by David Roberts
For eight days out of Russia, their small wooden ship flew northwest before a favorable wind. They passed beyond the 76th parallel; even at midnight, the sun stood above the horizon.
Then, on the ninth day, the wind changed -- and with it, for the men on the ship, the world itself changed irrevocably. An evil gale out of the southwest drove them headlong off course. Helpless to steer their craft, the men tried to ride out the storm. At last they came in sight of land: high, barren plateaus of schist and basalt, lapped by the tongues of vast, half-invisible glaciers. Yet as the ship approached this forlorn shore, sea ice engulfed it. Within hours, the vessel lay trapped in a shifting maelstrom of broken floes.
It was May 1743. The fourteen men aboard the imperiled ship were Pomori -- literally "seacoast dwellers," though the term carries the weight of an ethnographic distinction. These hardened, resourceful sailors, born and bred in the Russian north, were virtually a separate race from their more urbane countrymen in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev. At least four of the fourteen came from Mezen, a small town only fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle, situated on the east bank of the river of the same name, upstream from its delta. For centuries, Mezen sailors had launched fearlessly out in their hand-built boats onto the little known Arctic Ocean. In this wilderness of fickle ice, uncharted seas, and bleak, uninhabited islands, the Pomori were as comfortable as any men alive.
Their ship was a kotch, a vessel of indigenous design that had evolved among the boatbuilders of the Russian north since the eleventh century. Because the tides at the deltas of such rivers as the Dvina, the Mezen, and the Pechora are so extreme, the Pomori had learned to affix one plank to another not with nails or wooden pegs, but with lashings of juniper root. Somehow without leaking, these "sewn boats" flexed and warped to resist the tide rips that battered them.
On the open sea, a sturdy kotch could sail for days at a time at a steady six or seven knots. The ship's chief drawback was that it was almost impossible to steer in heavy winds. With its pair of square sails, its six thick-handled, thin-bladed oars, the ship responded poorly to efforts to tack aslant the prevailing wind. It took two men to handle the heavy rudder; in a storm, the Pomori roped the rudder in place rather than wrestle against its violent veerings.
The fourteen men were walrus hunters. It was their intention to spend the summer along the west coast of Spitsbergen, the main landmass in the Svalbard archipelago, a collection of islands lying far to the north of Norway, between 7612� and 8012�N -- one of the most northerly landscapes on earth. With muskets, lances, and axes, they would slay the great sea mammals, the ivory of whose tusks was among the most precious of substances on earth, exported as far as India.
Within a decade after its discovery (or rediscovery) by the Dutch sailor Willem Barents in 1596, Svalbard had become the most active whaling ground in the world. In the early sixteenth century, it was chiefly the Dutch and the English who chased whales there, sometimes firing upon or pirating each other's ships. The master whalers, however, were Basques, most of whom hired out as specialists on Dutch and English expeditions. The favorite resort of the hunters was the west coast of Spitsbergen, whose waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream, were usually ice-free all year round, teeming with an unfathomable multitude of whales.
So fugitive are the records, no one knows when the Pomori started coming to Svalbard. In Dutch and English chronicles, there is no mention of Russian competition before 1697. Some scholars, however -- they happen to be Russian -- argue that the Pomori reached Svalbard in the thirteenth century, and raise the possibility that the archipelago was known to these intrepid mariners as early as the eleventh. As yet, there is no hard archaeological or historical evidence for this claim.
By 1743, when the kotch with its fourteen sailors was driven off-course to the northeast, the Russians were making regular voyages to Svalbard. Their chief interest, however, was not whaling, but hunting: the Pomori went after not only the amphibious walrus, but land animals -- the polar bear, the fox, and the reindeer.