How could nice regular guys from Denmark and Togo relate their tales of Arctic adventure without a hint, at the very least, of braggadocio coloring the pictures? They couldn’t. So throw in quite a bit of booze, even more sex, lots of skinning and dismembering and eating of dried seal intestines and frozen blubber. And then there are grueling dog sled journeys; the constant danger of death, dismemberment, and being frozen solid. Add bravery and love and humor and you have a couple of very good books.
I spent time trying to describe the beauty and lyricism of Ehrlich’s writing in This Cold Heaven and also how brilliantly Joanna Kavenna in The Ice Museum offers up gripping otherworldly portraits of Greenland. Now I’ll introduce you to a couple of manly men out there in the cold world, whose approach is maybe a little different.
First Peter Freuchen. What a guy. As he would be the first to say. Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures was written in the early 50s and a copy somehow came to be part of my dad’s sparse library at some point in time. I brought it home after dad died and paid no attention to it for years—then my flickering but real interest in all things north flared again, especially focusing on the Vikings, and where better to start then on the bottom shelf of one of my bookcases with a ragged old book dad read lying on that supremely ugly old brown couch up at the cabin on the ‘old place.’
Peter Freuchen was a restless young Dane who came to epitomize in many ways the very concept of ‘explorer.’ Apparently he came honestly to his wandering ways. He opens the Vagrant Viking with this quote: “To the memory of my mother, one of a long line of seafarers, who taught me at an early age that staying at home is no way to get on in the world.”
Freuchen would spend a big part of his life in Greenland, traveling with the famous Knud Rasmussen across the polar icecap and establishing the Thule Trading Station. The name Thule was chosen because it was the most northern trading post in the world, in other words, the ‘Ultima Thule.” Freuchen’s first family was Inuit, wife Navarana, who died in the Spanish Flu epidemic, and two children. Eventually Freuchen would marry again, and he would experience almost equally daring adventures in South Africa, Siberia and even Hollywood.
I actually stopped and googled and even referenced other writings from time to time to see if this guy was for real—his life has the ring of too-much. He is absolutely real it turns out—as much so as the even more improbable explorer coming up next.
Freuchen fits the definition of the big bold first-person-to-reach-someplace kind of explorer. Tété-Michel Kpomassie, author of An African in Greenland doesn’t fit anywhere, at least not neatly. He was a young boy in Togo when, frightened by a python while high in a coconut palm, he had a nearly fatal fall. While recuperating he happened to find and read a book about Greenland—a place with neither snakes nor trees. He was hooked; he had to go there. And he did—working his way north through Africa and Europe over the next few years, odd jobs to support himself and studying all the while by correspondence courses to learn the languages needed for journeying across two continents.
Finally, in the mid-sixties, he was on a boat to Greenland. Kpomassie wasn’t setting out to be the first across that glacier or go up that fiord—although it is most likely he was the first person from Togo to visit any part of Greenland. He wanted to be there, live there, and experience the culture in all ways, the personal interactions and life in the country’s cold and dangerous norm.
Kpomassie is larger than life in ways both like and unlike Freuchen. He isn’t setting up new trading posts but he also isn’t someone who grew up Danish with Greenland always lurking in the background of adventure fantasies. Kpomassie’s story is actually the more unlikely of the two. An African in Greenland spends time in Togo, in a place and culture in itself as ‘different’ as anything Kpomassie would encounter in Greenland. Certainly his introduction to the countries he passes through in Africa and Europe and finally in metropolitan Paris where he spends time includes some serious ‘culture shock’ as well.
Kpomassie’s adventures in Greenland are the story however and there is nothing romanticized about the Inuit culture—which in certain aspects—is not pretty. Not in the north of Greenland and not in the sixties at least. Both Freuchen and Kpomassie are pretty matter-of-fact about the lack of sexual restraint of the kind societies usually put in place to keep life somewhat organized—but there is a disparity in what they describe. Freuchen acknowledges different mores but it seems there were practical considerations and cultural guidelines for sexual interactions earlier in the century when he was exploring, living there, marrying and fathering children.
Kpomassie’s far blunter description of life in the remote villages only rings true when seen through the haze of alcohol that was, and is, frequently present in those remote little collections of humans just surviving. The level of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity is only alluded to in the other books I’ve read, now we get the actual sensory experience of a northern village as the snow melts around a winter’s worth of casually tossed rubbish and husky dog shit. This was not the kind of experience about which Gretel Erhlich was rhapsodizing—although neither did she ignore it.
All these book have prepared me for `the far north of Greenland more than the often-visited Viking south where we will be—but every day I get just a little more excited by it all.
Hope to write something about the south next and possibly a small piece about the sled dogs since I am baby-sitting a half-husky this week—who runs like the wind or like she’s leading a team across a glacier! They had hard lives-those dogs, even harder than the people.
Here’s an article courtesy NPR that looks very good although I haven’t read it yet.
Only 98° in Albuquerque today.
For further information: