In the modern era of arctic adventure, the heroes who ski, kiteboard, or even swim to the North Pole carry personal locator beacons (a SPOT), satellite phones, GPSs, and a seemingly endless list of communications gadgets to record, blog, or tweet their adventures: laptops, batteries, solar panels, battery chargers. They also travel small, near stealth-like in the landscape, unlike their Victorian predecessors who headed out in great BIG ships with literally tonnes of supplies that could include libraries and grand pianos.
Back a century or so ago, arctic adventure was something of a crap shoot. Rescue not a few hours away, but weeks or more likely, months, if ever. The risk factor was considerably greater than it is now. Frostbite might be the only thing that Victorian and twenty-first century arctic adventure have in common. In Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition (Tarcher/Putnam)—a book which should be added to the list of books with extraordinarily long subtitles—author Sheila Nickerson sets out on an expedition to bring to life the story of Tookoolito (Hannah), an Inuit woman who, along with her husband Ebierbing, was a guide for nineteenth-century arctic explorers and survived one of the most harrowing expeditions ever: The Polaris Expedition led by Captain Charles Francis Hall.
The Reader’s Digest version: Captain Hall dies (possibly poisoned by his crew) and the expedition ends up splitting into two groups. One group (including Tookoolito and her husband) survives with limited supplies on an ice floe from October through March of the following year: almost five long winter months.
As Nickerson explains it, there is very little known about Tookoolito, a baptized Christian, though (along with her husband) she was a valued guide for and companion to Captain Hall. Nickerson’s task with this book is to discover and bring to light Tookoolito’s contribution to arctic exploration.
The story of the survival of the Polaris Expedition is incredible and Nickerson tells it in an enthralling way. This expedition should be more famous than Franklin’s: celebrate success and survival. But the few first-person accounts of the expedition hardly mention Tookoolito at all, which Nickerson acknowledges, so her importance to the expedition isn’t really evident in MTTN.
During her research on Tookoolito, the author’s mother’s health was declining and Nickerson attempts to make a connection between her mother, herself and Tookoolito. The link is tenuous, and it feels like the author’s experience with her ailing mother deserves a book of its own.
Tookoolito’s life post-Polaris Expedition in Groton, Conneticut, was close to mundane. The evidence Nickerson dug up reveals the life of a rural American housewife: trips to the store, caring for her husband and daughter. A life very much divorced from her experience guiding and surviving in the Arctic.
Published in ArcticaMag.ca 14/11/2012