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February 2005 Letter from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

Sunrise on February 1 at Windwalker – my property and cabin sitting at 8,500 feet along the eastern base of Colorado’s Continental Divide – is at 7:08 AM Mountain Standard Time. Sunset on Feb. 1 is at 5:19 PM.

Sunrise on February 28 at Windwalker is at 6:35 AM. Sunset that day will be at 5:51 PM. Temperatures this month will average a high of 36 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 15 degrees, but this, of course, means very little. The lowest temperature officially recorded up here in February was –32 degrees but it often hovers around zero – on days when it doesn’t leap up into the 50’s – and with constant wind speeds clocked over 100 mph, that can be one heck of a chill factor. (They don’t call it “Windwalker” for nothing. The first owner named the place, but the name is perfect so I let it stick. The cabin is on a leeward side of a hill – small mountain, really – just at the base of the easternmost extension of the Divide, and when the jet stream decides to follow the high peaks down through Wild Basin and out, it’s rather like sitting in a jet exhaust – if a jet could exhaust freezing cold air.)

February isn’t usually the snowiest month at Windwalker – March has that distinction – but it may be the longest month despite its fewer days. (I just read a quote by the late cartoonist Jeff MacNelly who called February “that four-month period between January and March”) The days do get visibly longer, but a particular foothill right to the southwest of Windwalker (this foothill rising only to 11,000-some feet) tends to block the low sun and sunsets for an extra twenty minutes during much of the month so one has trouble using the really high peaks as a sundial until March.

The first year I “wintered over” at the cabin, I kept a sketch journal and it’s mildly illuminating to look at the graphite and pen-and-ink drawings I did that spring: – February included a pine tree with heaps of snow on the branches; March included a Jeep-shaped heap of snow in the drive and snow up to my office window; April featured table-, bench-, and wooden chair-shaped heaps of snow on the deck; more snow up to the top railing of the deck rail; May – more heaps of snow. I set aside the sketchbook for a while.

This doesn’t give an accurate picture of winter and spring at Windwalker, of course. This being Colorado, many of the winter days – most, actually – have brilliant sunshine and bright blue skies. Going out for a walk in the morning after a snow means encountering scores of interesting tracks, many right next to the cabin – fox, coyote, bobcat, ferret, deer, elk, even the rare mountain lion pug print. One gets used to the little dramas written in the snow – fox prints further apart as it runs, for instance, ending in an explosion of scattered crimson and bird feathers, but it’s sobering to be a mile from the cabin and to find a scattering of hair and vertebrae that is all that’s left of an entire coyote that has been run down and devoured overnight.

Which leads me to the real topic for this letter.

What does this particular author do in his cabin in January and February while the snow piles up outside? Besides proofing and reproofing the huge megillah of OLYMPOS (the page proofs should arrive tomorrow) the answer is obvious – try to decide what his next book will be.

I am close to deciding, I’ve done a bit of reading and research since Christmas, and for the curious among you, perhaps you can guess at my subject matter by looking at the stack of recently read (i.e. over the last three weeks) and annotated books sitting on the table next to me right now. In no particular order they include (but are not restricted to, as publisher’s contracts always like to say) –

The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford (an interesting piece of rather malicious revisionist history), The Crystal Desert by David G. Campbell, North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic by Alvah Simon (love, peace, grok), the wonderful and frequently droll Ninety Degrees North by Fergus Fleming, the self-important and underwhelming End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica by Peter Mathiessen (which reads like intrepid expeditions but are actually accounts of tourist cruises), the fascinating Race to the Pole by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (who’s actually been there himself, sledging across the width of Antarctica, retracing Scott and Amundsen’s paths, and transiting the northern Arctic as well), Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger (autopsy notes and photographs, but of three men who were buried in 1846 and autopsied in 1984 and 1987), The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Gerard (one of the great classics in polar exploration literature and always worth reading again), Weird and Tragic Shores by Chauncy Loomis, the classic and erudite The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, Ice Master by Jennifer Niven, Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan, The Last Voyage of the Karluck by William Laird McKinlay, In the Land of the White Death (An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic) by Valerian Albanov, and Iceblink by Scott Cookman.

Those are the books on the table next to me, but there are a lot more scattered around, including various biographies of Ernest Shackleton (always a hero of mine) and his own book South. I also have my eye on a first-edition of Elisha Kent Kane’s Polar Expeditions, copyright 1858 (although the two volumes cost $900) and his Arctic Expeditions in Search of Sir John Franklin (1898).

Do you see a trend here? A central theme?

Truth be told, I’ve been fascinated by the Antarctic and the race to the South Pole since I was a not-quite-sentient tadpole, I am determined to visit Antarctica in person before I kick, and have considered writing a novel about the place. My love of Antarctica is, of course, the reason I’ve shifted away from it and am researching various disastrous expeditions at the other end of the planet, in the polar north. (Why change poles, you ask? Simple. I would like a dangerous predator-adversary in my possible novel – a killer other than cold, starvation, exhaustion, scurvy, dehydration, madness, botulism, poor planning, and lead poisoning, although these certainly did for more than a few polar explorers – but try as I might, I couldn’t convince my editor and agent that a suspense novel with a giant, mutant, carnivorous penguin was a logical viability.)

Did you know, however, that polar bears are the largest and most cunning predator on the planet? Or that they can swim 60 miles and more without resting? Or that – animally politically correct web sites, plush toys, and touchie-feelie books to the contrary – they are the last major carnivore still to stalk and eat human beings on a regular basis? And that they are the last animal – outside of those polar-bear degenerates who depend upon garbage dumps in places like Churchill – who have no inbred fear of human beings? (It seems that most human-polar bear encounters over history have occurred in isolation and ended up with one or the other interlocutors dead with no polar-bear witnesses to pass on the news.) Or that male polar bears don’t hibernate or den-up over the winter and grow to be over ten feet tall and weigh over 1,400 pounds and are always hungry? Or that a polar bear waiting for you just meters from your boat will float in the water and pile slush and snow over its head until only its eyes are visible – and even then only if you know exactly where and when to look? Or that a polar bear can both outswim you in the water and outrun you on ice?

For those romantics who still insist that polar bears are just friendly, non-aggressive, cuddly stuffed animals, I’ll share with you photos I have of a polar bear attacking the sail (conning tower) and stabilizer fin of a Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine minutes after the sub surfaced through polar ice in 2003. (Hmmm what is it – a new, improved and larger whale? I think I’ll kill it.)

   

This other sub – a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine – broke through the ice near the pole to take measurements and to allow the men to stretch their legs. This swarm of curious (but also very hungry) bears were there in seconds, all over it like . . . well . . . like hair on a bear. The captain decided to keep the men inside.

Once again, you get the idea.

In my last web site letter, I wrote about John Keats’s awe at Shakespeare’s powers of thematic greatness and Keats’s comparative dismissal of “lesser poets” who “would let go by a fine isolated verisimitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery.” Keats had Coleridge in mind, but I confess that I’m such a lesser writer who spends much of his life seeking those bits and shards of fine isolated verisimilitude.

So what have I learned in reading these many chronicles of Arctic and Antarctic polar suffering, misery, courage, triumph, and death that might be of help should I decide to write this possible, theoretical novel? There are these things –

That at about 50 below zero Fahrenheit, a long-haired dog (such as those that pull sledges) get so ice-encrusted that when they move they tinkle and clank like ambulatory chandeliers.

That when a captain of an ice-locked ship clears the snow on a few hundred square feet of sea ice so as to allow his men to ice skate in the four months of arctic night, he has to first melt freshwater ice and pour it over the sea ice. It seems that sea ice isn’t slippery.

That men hauling sledges at 60 below zero are baffled to hear a constant tinkling, chiming sound, but then discover that it’s just their own breath freezing in mid-air and falling to the ice and breaking.

That Robert Falcon Scott – renowned for his class-consciousness, stuffiness, and lack of a sense of humor – when once asked by one of his men why his bathroom breaks outside the pyramid tent at –50 degrees took longer than the other men’s breaks, replied, “Well, you see, the truth of it is that it’s hard to get two inches of business out of six inches of clothing.”

That a finger – or any other piece of human anatomy – exposed to the air at –50 degrees will freeze solid and become brittle enough to snap off within a minute.

That when the captain puts on a boxing match on deck at 70 below zero to raise crew morale, the match has to be called because the two boxers can’t find each other in the cloud of their own breath.

That when you’re cannibalizing one of your fellow explorers, the first thing to do is to saw the dead fellow’s jaw off so as to easily get to the protein-rich brain.

That when you’re amputating your own frostbitten, gangrenous finger – black and swollen to the size of your ankle – after you’ve drained the pus and discovered a rotted finger bone protruding (which will be very painful and clumsy to pull your woolly mitten off and over for your next 10 months on the ice), it takes up to 3 hours to amputate that bone with only a dull pair of sewing scissors. (Postscript – your tentmates are not amused during this slow-motion operation, but they can’t leave because it’s 100 below outside. Then again, there’s nothing else on the venue for entertainment that night.)

That friendship and courage and the ability to bear up under unspeakable conditions and suffering know no national boundaries.

And if you’re still with me in this long, rambling megillah, I’ll fix that by quoting from notes I made just today about one of those long-suffering adventures, the expedition of Sir John Franklin which headed off west of Greenland to find the North-West Passage in 1845 with two top-technology ships that were the space shuttles of their day – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – with food for 3-7 years, 3,000 volumes aboard, all the most recent technology, and a muster of 129 men . . . and were never seen again.

1/31/05 -- yesterday was spent reading extensive autopsy reports and viewing photos of three of Franklin's crewmen buried on an island in 1846 who were dug up and autopsied in 1984 and again in 1987. Don't tell the Egyptians, but if you really want to be preserved after death (the Egyptians did a lousy job), get buried in permafrost. The men's faces and eyes are perfectly intact -- the eyes stare at you through the ice that's invaded the coffins and their open mouths seem to be screaming, one man had been buried with a bright red handkerchief over his face and the cloth had molded his features with his incisors protruding through the red fabric, quite a shock to see as the scientists melted the last ice -- clothing, skin, and other details are almost perfectly preserved. The corpses’ hands look as if they'll begin moving any second (although the ship's surgeon -- not doctor, just surgeon -- had tied the hands together by or atop the bodies so that rigor mortis wouldn't freeze them into bizarre postures.) One young man, 22 when he died (of tuberculosis . . . he was a stoker and his lungs were as full of coal dust as a clogged vacuum cleaner's bag would be) has all his brown hair hanging down over his brow. One wants to brush it back for him. He's wearing his brother's best shirt - the initials are still completely legible on the inside of the collar. His brother was on the ship with him and will die later, under much more terrible circumstances.

2/1/05 -- Today was spent studying and memorizing below-decks diagrams of HMS Terror, engineering details of the strange locomotive engine and experimental, retractable propellers they built into the thing, and scrounging facts about the "Preston Patented Illuminator" built into all the officers' tiny 5 foot x 6 foot cabins (the Illuminator was essentially a 6-inch-wide skylight that did nothing but add to polar depression since the outside was buried in snow and covered by canvas during the 10 months of winter so it was just a round, black hole) and the "Frazer's Patent Stove" that took up much of the space in the center of the lower deck -- the only deck heated during the endless winter. More than a stove, this thing had a huge oven, six burners, a built-in desalinator, and a hand-powered pump to draw water from either the sea or the huge, iron water-storage tanks down in the hold. (Neither source was of any use after the ice and water tanks froze solid.) During their first (of three) winters and summers frozen in the ice, the lower deck must have been pretty comfy. Plenty of hot food. Central heating. The "great room" at the stern with its 1,200 volume lending library (filled with volumes on earlier Arctic exploration, texts on astronomy, biology, and other natural sciences, novels including The Vicar of Wakefield and Ivanhoe, and hundreds of bound copies of Punch.) There was a 6 by 5-foot table in the great room so the officers could sit around and chat and smoke while they read. A hand organ nearby was supplied with 50 punched metal disks with hundreds of tunes they could play, many of them new and popular. Shelves held chess sets, playing cards, and draughts (checkers.)

That was the first winter.

The second winter began on September 15th when they were frozen fast again -- against a lee shore, which is every sailor's worst nightmare -- and they would never escape the ice again, although they stayed aboard their two ships for another 19 months before attempting an 850-mile escape, dragging tons of boats, sledges, and provisions with them across the ice and shifting floes, to nowhere in particular. (They didn't travel 850+ miles -- because of all the three and four-story pressure ridges they had to hack a path through, and the open leads they had to detour around, and due to the simple fact that they had so many huge boats and sledges to man-haul that they would get one across a tough patch and then have to go back to lug three or four more the same distance –so they traveled more than 3,000 miles in 40-below temperatures with, for days and weeks on end, no food.)

But back to the good times on the Terror. The second winter they went on 4 to 6 rations (six men eating the rations meant for four), the coal got low so they only heated the lower deck a few hours a day and that far below any comfort level (but just enough that the ice on everything would melt and drip and soak their hammocks, clothes, and blankets, which would re-freeze as soon as the heat went off). For most of the day the temperature in the lower deck hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit, 50 to 70 degrees warmer than the outside. At night it got colder inside. There was always noise where the men slept -- each hammock having precisely 14 inches next to the other hammocks -- but the most unnerving sounds were the explosions, gunshots, creaks, groans, and literal screams of the ice, so loud that men had to shout to hear each other, which went on all the time. Outside, pressure ridges would suddenly and without warning shove jagged ridges and spires of ice 50 or 60 feet in the air with a sound like the end of the world, and many of these spikes and spears were exploding into the Terror day and night. The metal bolts, screws, collars, and stanchions on the ship groaned and moaned from the cold all the time, sometimes louder than the screaming ice that was pressing in on the hull with more than 140 pounds per square inch just inches from their heads -- it didn't bother the men so much in the daytime, but at night it was like being buried among a chorus of the screaming dead. Every groan and sound might mean that the ship would be crushed in seconds -- it had happened to most of the other ships frozen in the ice, and would continue to destroy ships that way for more than half a century. Every man slept with a little ditty bag of personal possessions under his hammock or in his sea chest, ready to abandon ship in a minute or two. But this was wishful nonsense -- to be out on the ice in the winter was certain, terrible death. Some just packed a pipe and a Bible. (Years later, dozens of Bibles were found with the skeletons of cannibalized corpses discovered almost 1,000 miles south -- Bibles and watches and keepsakes and 40 pounds of chocolate the men were too weak and toothless to eat at the end. Some of the fleeing men though packed novels rather than Bibles. (On Franklin whaleboat discovered in 1859 held two skeletons – the one at the stern of the boat intact and fully clothed and surrounded by a double-barreled shotguns (locked and loaded), knives, a stack of warm clothing, a heap of gold watches, and the last of the food – 40 pounds of chocolate. The skeleton at the bow of the whaleboat had five Bibles and one novel stacked near him, but this man had been eaten, the bones repeatedly gnawed.)

Even a non-novelist might suspect that there is a story there somewhere.

But meanwhile, on Terror in the ice that second winter. Without adequate fuel to melt ice -- either from the frozen tanks down in the hold or the old icebergs where the salt had leeched out of the ice -- there was barely enough water to drink and none to bathe in or clean clothes with. Men took their tools and sawed a frozen cube out of the scuttlebutt each day to provide the 63 gallons necessary to keep them alive, but every time water was transferred, it had to be sawed, loaded, hauled, and somehow melted. Men got in the habit belowdecks of tucking tin cups of ice chips under their clothes, against their skin, in an attempt to melt some ice into drinking water. In the sealed-up space for three years with 68 men, pipesmoke, the stench from the bilge below and the constantly full buckets under the "seats of ease" on either side of the single dining and sleeping area (no one went outside to take care of this when it was 70 below zero) etc, the air was getting a little thick by the ninth or tenth month of the second winter.

The third winter . . . well, we don't want to talk about the third winter yet.

To go below the lower deck (which was the topmost interior deck), one had to put on full winter slops, grab a spluttering lantern, and descend the 6-foot narrow ladderway to the orlop deck. (The space between decks was a little more than 7 feet, but with heavy beams, extra planking, sail gear, etc rigged under the low ceilings, the actual height for men to stand and walk was 6 feet or less.)

The orlop deck was never heated or illuminated. Here work parties carrying lanterns, the frozen clouds of their own breath hanging over their Welsh wigs (woolen watch caps), fetched "consumables" -- food, stores, tools, and spares from different freezing, dark compartments. Way in the back toward the stern, locked and bolted, was the Spirit Room containing several years' worth of rum and the ship's 200 muskets and sword bayonets and cutlasses. (The only easy way to get to the Spirit Room, of course, was down locked scuttles leading from the officer's mess and officer's Great Cabin above. If a mutiny came, the officers would get to the guns first. Old Royal Navy practice.) (There were 18 Royal Marines aboard the two ships and they were as useless as tits on a boar. None of them were hunters. None of them served any real purpose on the ships. Mostly they ate, drank, and then died.)

On either side of the Spirit Room were the most important store rooms -- scuttling with rats in the frozen dark -- the Sail Room and the Slop Room (slops are clothing and wearable gear dispensed by the purser. All the cold weather slops except for the outer canvas greatcoats, including the long underwear were wool, which is terrible for the Arctic -- it retains moisture from sweat and breath and then becomes ice-ridden and heavy. And no longer warm.) The Sail Room was jammed. In the winter, which was more than 10 months out of each year, the three main masts were broken down to stumps, the spars and rigging taken down completely, and these stored below so that the deck wouldn't constantly be bombarded by falling ice. Behind all the Spirit, Sail, and Slop Rooms was the Captain's Storeroom, loaded with beef tongues, calves heads, jugged hares cured hams, and cheeses. Many cheeses. (And this was on Crozier's Terror -- Sir John's flagship, HMS Erebus, groaned under the weight of his private stores.)

Another dark and even narrower ladderway led down to the hold. None of the crew would go there unless ordered to.

The hold deck was below the frozen waterline and was the coldest part of the ship. It reeked of sewage, coal dust, and fumes and was always ankle-deep in meltwater, except when that froze underfoot. There were 21 square water tanks holding 38 tons of fresh water -- all useless without fuel to melt it. More metal tanks held extra provisions and stores, but the crucial tanks were those that ran along each outer side for the length of the ship -- the coal bunkers. These were essentially empty by the end of the second winter. Not only couldn't the ship steam out of the ice, they could no longer heat the interior or melt the ice for drinking water.

The hold level wasn't empty though -- in the boiler room, in flickering lamplight from hell, the engineer and three stokers shoveled coal around the clock. Even when they couldn't spare the coal to heat the lower deck, they had to keep steam up in the boilers. Other crewmen were constantly detailed to haul heavy sacks of coal from the frozen black storage bins to the boiler room at all hours, kicking their way through the legions of scampering, hunger-maddened rats in the dark.

It was on the hold deck that they began stacking and storing bodies of the crew as they fell, letting them freeze. Captain Sir John Franklin and his top lieutenant Gore, who both died in spring of 1847, were l lucky -- the ice was only a few feet deep in that spring that never became summer and which would keep the ship trapped for yet another year before the men abandoned ship. The crew sawed and blew holes in the ice with gunpowder and held proper funeral ceremonies in May of 1847, lowering Sir John's and Lieutenant Gore's bodies into the black water. The 22 men who died the next winter -- when the ice was more than a dozen feet thick -- were just hauled down here to the darkest lockers on the lower levels and stacked like cordwood. Whenever a stoker paused in his shoveling or a freezing crewman listened as he hauled sacks of coal through the awful, reeking darkness, he could hear the rats feasting on the Terror's dead. (Rats have to keep gnawing constantly or their teeth will keep growing and cut their own throats. A frozen corpse is no problem for them. Plus, by this second and third winter the rats were very hungry, invading the men's soaked and frozen hammocks and blankets on the lower deck and chewing on them as they slept.)

* * * * *

Anyway, sorry to rattle on. You get the idea. And all this is before things get bad for Crozier and the crew of HMS Terror.

Will I write the novel I have in mind? I don’t know. There are a lot of factors to consider. Stephen King once said – and he may have been quoting for all I know – that writing a short story is like going on a date, but writing a novel is like getting married.

A metaphor I prefer is the one from the surprisingly good Ron Howard movie “Parenthood,” where the Jason Robards character is talking to his son Steve Martin. When Martin, already in his early 40’s, shows surprise that his father Robards – who had been a terrible father to him – was still wrestling with the problems of being a parent to his favorite kid, the ne’er- do-well rogue of the family played by Tom Hulce, Robard explains (more or less) – “You don’t underestand. Parenthood doesn’t end. It’s like Aunt Edna’s ass – it just goes on and on forever. And it’s just as frightening.”

So I see embarking on this novel (or any novel) more like contemplating parenthood than marriage. Is it worth the aggravation? Can I afford it? Can I do without the sleep? Can I live with this little bugger for years? Will I be proud of it when it grows up?

Meanwhile, up at Windwalker, I have various outings that will keep me busy while I’m proofing and pondering. One is the traditional snowshoe expedition out to the giant C-band dish antenna way out in the woods where I use brooms and shovels to dig the dish out and brush it off in case there’s anything good on television that week. Of course, then the snow falls and blows and covers it up again the next day. In this sense, I am precisely like those poor sailors frozen in the Arctic ice in 1848 – precisely. I bet their satellite reception was lousy too.

A more worthy expedition is one I try to make by March 1st every year wherein I hike or snowshoe to the top of my Windwalker hill and clean out last year’s nest-detritus in the bluebird box I nailed to an aspen tree ten years ago. This is a bit of a ceremony and one I look forward to.

Mountain bluebirds reappear at the end of February or in early March and they like the inside of their boxes – best situated at the edge of an aspen grove near a meadow and with a nice view – to be clean and tidy. (Even though they’re the ones who leave the mess every year.) They’re petty birds, but demanding – and territorial to a fault. Not only will they chirp and holler and give me hell if I walk near their box while they’re nesting and hatching little mountain bluebirds through the spring and summer, but from March until October the males will mob my truck and fly ahead of it while flashing feathery middle fingers at me when I drive the quarter mile or so up Windwalker’s driveway to the cabin. They have no fear of a ton-and-a-half SUV if it’s intruding on their territory, even though their damned nesting box is three hundred yards up the hill.

Birds. Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.

Sincerely,


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