Sunday, May 22, 2011

Japanese duo retrace Franklin's steps

Faithful readers of this blog will recall, perhaps, my posting from back in February about a previously unknown Japanese adventurer, Yusuke Kakuhata, and his bold plan to retrace Franklin's footsteps across some of the most barren areas of the Arctic, unsupported and on foot. At the time, I was doubly skeptical -- first, that the attempt was real, given that its only mention was on a relatively unknown English-language Japanese news site -- and second, that such a journey, undertaken as it appeared to be by a man whose previous experiences were all on guided expeditions, seemed foolhardy. It now appears I was mistaken on both fronts -- according to this new posting at the ExplorersWeb site, Mr. Kakuhata and his fellow traveller, the more experienced Yasunaga Ogita (both pictured above) have indeed completed the most difficult leg of their planned trip, making the more than 1,000 kilometre trip from Resolute Bay to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, in 60 days. Having left Resolute on March 15, they are now resting in Gjoa before departing on the final section of their journey toward the Baker Lake region. This would seem to evoke the route supposed to have been traversed by the mysterious Kabloona known only as "Aglooka," and supposed by Charles Francis Hall to have been Francis Crozier -- for he and his two or three companions (depending on the source) are the only members of Franklin's party said by the Inuit to have headed out in this direction. Ogita and Kakuhata plan to start their journey taking sleds, then switch to backpacks when the snow withdraws and the tundra begins to thaw. The article also mentions that Mr. Ogita has been posting updates to his blog -- it's in Japanese, and didn't see a translation link, though you can auto-translate it and get the general gist.

I for one would certainly want to congratulate these two travellers -- their undertaking, although not unprecedented (the American Express Franklin Memorial Expedition followed much the same route in 2003) is certainly remarkable in its being undertaken by such a small, unsupported party, and commencing so early in the season. I hope we'll soon have more details of their journey.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Art from the Arctic

The Arctic has spurred the creativity of artists for centuries, marking as it does the border between the known and the unknown, the visible and invisible worlds. As historian Robert McGhee so eloquently put it, they are, in many ways, the "last imaginary place" on earth. Most of the time, artists relied on the sketches and accounts of explorers, reconstructing this unearthly country by borrowing the witness of those who sojourned there; some of the most astonishing works -- Friedrich's "Sea of Ice," or Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes," were painted by men who had never approached within a thousand miles of the Arctic Circle. And yet, even in the nineteenth century, there were artists -- sometimes a whole shipload of them -- who headed north to see this singular landscape for themselves. The Armerican artist William Bradford chartered annual excursions for photography ice-painting nearly every year from 1861 to 1867. In 1869, aboard the Panther, with the explorer Isaac I. Hayes as their guide, Bradford and his fellow artists journeyed father north than any such party had managed before, venturing deep into Melville Bay before being turned back by the implacable barrier of pack-ice at about 75ยบ north. In his quest to make the most of his northern sojourns, Bradford regularly brought along hired photographers to take studies of every scene. Two of these, John L. Dunmore and George P. Critcherson, accompanied him on the Panther, making hundreds of wet-plate collodion images, from which Bradford later drew from to assemble the massive elephant-folio volume, The Arctic Regions.

Such a thing, I had until now thought, was a curiously nineteenth-century notion: putting artists on a picture-making cruise seemed somehow both bold and quaint. And yet just today, just by chance, I stumbled across a documentary, Art from the Arctic, which describes a series of voyages made between 2003 and 2005, with British filmmaker David Buckland taking the role of Bradford, and the passenger-artists including sculptors Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, choreographer Siobhan Davis, and the writer Ian McEwen. The film documenting their journeys is, happily, available to watch free online, both at Hulu and at SnagFilms (I recommend the latter, as it's free of adverts for insurance companies). The film itself isn't terribly remarkable, though there are some lovely shots of Svalbard, including calving glaciers and a polar bear which -- thanks to a telephoto lens -- looks dangerously close to a boatload of defenseless artists. Nevertheless, the story it tells is a remarkable one; in this day and age of virtual visits and Skyping sociality, it's somehow encouraging to see artists and writers actually enduring the rigors of a sea voyage -- and, in one case, a wintering-over -- simply to gain that ineluctable thing that we still can call "experience." I recommend it very highly, and hope that perhaps this sort of thing may happen again -- if it does, I'll put in for a ticket.