a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 1

a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 1

San Francisco, California
October 31, 2012
224 days until the Arctic Circle journey

A note before we dive headfirst into this fascinating subject, particularly fascinating because at the moment I type these words, I know as much about arctic exploration as would fit in a bat’s teacup.  I come from a long line of storytellers, all of whom favor the Melvillian style. If you haven’t read Moby Dick, you’ll have no idea what that means, but I bet you have an uncle or an aunt who, when you were a child, told stories in that frustratingly meandering fashion where, just as you thought you might find out what was going to happen to the guy hanging by a nosehair off the 250-story buliding, they were suddenly reminded of a rooster that used to attack them every time they were sent out to collect eggs in the chicken coop, and of course that story led to another, and on and on. I would hazard to suggest that this is, though infinitely frustrating when you are young, the best sort of storytelling, as it connects all experience together, and eventually, like stoned people listening to Pink Floyd, lets us discover that far-flung conversations that seem to lead away and away and away from each other eventually find their orbits, and come back to us to close their loops.

I promise you that this little history I’m about to embark upon will be the same- like the whaling journeys that inspired Melville to write his stories, we will cast about together for clues of our quarry- in this case, not just exploration of the arctic, but exploration in general. How do we do it? What drives us to do it? How do we keep from getting lost, what side-stories and adventures happen along the way, and how do these discoveries relate back to what we already know about ourselves? Storytelling is how we watch ourselves change.

All right, here we go.

I have a very good sense of direction, and navigate both by maps and by landmarks. But I also possess this other sense I would describe as an internal wayfinder: there is some magnetic, peripheral pull inside me that is telling me where I am in relationship to my surroundings at all times.  I have experienced losing this internal mechanism twice: the first time I was ascending from a deep SCUBA dive on a wreck off Catalina Island. I was coming up from about 95-100 feet down, and when I reached about 35 feet, my air bubbles suddenly bent to the left and began to travel sideways. It was one of the most disorienting experiences I’ve ever had, because all of the visual cues- bubbles, light penetrating the surface- appeared to be turned 90 degrees from where they “should” be. I was experiencing vertigo, something I had read about when studying for my diving license, along with nitrogen narcosis and the bends.  The description of vertigo was very little like the actual experience of it. Nothing can prepare you for your sense of up/down/left/right to suddenly change places 90 degrees. I imagine this might be what a flounder feels like when its eyes begin to roll sideways and migrate toward the same side of its body.

All I knew to do was trust the laws of physics, and follow those bubbles to the surface, though I could have sworn I was twisted sideways and swimming horizontally. As I passed through 20 feet and reached my decompression stop, I could actually see the surface, which appeared to me like a vertical wall on my left side. When I started the final ascent, my up/down/left/right lurched, then fell back into place, and I was clearly headed up.

The second instance of losing my internal wayfinding sense happens almost every time I go South of Market Street in San Francisco, where all the roads suddenly shift 45 degrees. Market Street cuts diagonally across all of the streets on its way East toward the bay. The result is that the streets, which in their higher numbers run West-East, begin to swing North at 13th. By the time Market reaches the Embarcadero, the streets are running North-South, paralleling the avenues to the West. Did I lose you? That’s what the city does to me every freaking time I venture into SoMA. Here’s a map, so you can see what I mean. (And just note that 3rd street and Columbus Avenue are a total outliers… they do what they want.)

Anyway, all of this is to say that the internal mechanism that keeps me righted in space can, at times, utterly break down. Then I have to rely on landmarks. I know that a certain street or lane or boulevard ends up in a certain place, so if I walk to a corner and find a cross-street, I can visualize myself on the the map of SF to the left, and know where I am, even if my wayfinder is telling me something different.

I’ve even been able to use this combination of wayfinding and an internal map in a place I once worked that had no visibly named roads, and only one settlement for miles in every direction. That summer I worked as a beefinder (yes, a beefinder) on Santa Cruz Island. I used pig trails to find my way through gullies and narrow canyons. At first, this was terrifying, but it took only a few days for this new style of orienting to settle into place. I had rocks I recognized, certain trees, geologic formations, forks in roads, even sounds: if I could hear water running I knew I had to be near a certain stream. If I could hear waves breaking I not only knew I was near a beach, but depending on whether the waves were crashing against rocks, pebbles, or sand, I knew exactly what beach.

Every couple of weeks, to get on and off Santa Cruz Island, I took a Navy boat that ran from Port Hueneme. It was about a 90 minute ride between the California Coast and Santa Cruz, one of the channel islands. If it was a clear day, I could spot the mainland (or the island, depeding which way I was headed), about halfway into the trip. On a foggy or hazy day? I could see nothing. No directions.  In enough fog, all the light became ambient so there was no way to track it to judge East and West. That Navy boat had a compass, and radar, and sonar, and radio communication, so of course the skipper knew where we were at all times.

But, and now I begin to loop back to my original thread– when exploration of the Arctic began,which goes back at least to the 3rd century BCE, there was no radio, no sonar, and no magnetic compasses. So how in the heck, when you are sailing in open sea in uncharted waters, do you know where you are?

Next time, we go into methods and tools of navigation by sea, some invented 1700 years before Pytheas navigated the amniotic sea.

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