Reading the north

Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic, 1853-1909

By Sheila Nickerson (University of Alaska Press, $24.95)

The blurb: In the second half of the 19th century, an epic race was underway in some of the most brutal stretches on the planet. Explorers from around the world hoped to stake their claim on the Arctic, with the North Pole being the ultimate prize. Those with the greatest success found that the fastest way to travel was with a team of hardworking sledge dogs.

The book follows the adventures of eight American explorers and their dog teams, starting with Elisha Kent Kane and ending with the controversial Robert Peary. While history has long forgotten these "little camels of the north," Nickerson reveals how critical dogs were to the Arctic conquest. Besides transportation, sledge dogs drove off predators, helped in hunting, found their way through storms and provided warmth. They also faced rough handling, starvation and the possibility of being left behind as expeditions plunged ahead. This is an unflinching look at the dogs that raced to the top of the world.

Excerpt: On April 3, Hayes set out on his spring exploration, accompanied by 12 crew members. Jensen drove his team of eight, and Knorr, the commander's secretary, a team of six. A group of eight men was harnessed to a sledge that carried the twenty-foot metallic boat with which Hayes planned to navigate the open Polar Sea.

Conditions did not cooperate. The temperature, at the outset, was 32 degrees below zero, while in the hut the first night it stood at 1 degree above zero. At Cairn Point, the designated jumping-off place for Smith Sound, Hayes decided to leave the boat; it was too difficult to get it over the broken ice.

Instead, cargo alone would be carried across the frozen sound to Grinnell Land on the other side. But even with the boat jettisoned, the going was daunting. As the party attempted to cross the tumultuous ice, conditions only worsened. At one point, Hayes wrote:

"The poor dogs were almost buried out of sight. They had all crouched together in a heap; and as the drift accumulated over them they poked their heads further and further up into it; and when I came to count them to see if any had left us and run back to the ship or been frozen to death, it was truly counting noses. There were 14 of them."

The men gave out before the dogs and Hayes experienced only hopelessness and despair. Smith Sound, he said, "has given me but one succession of baffling obstacles."

Sending back most of the men, he continued on with three assistants, one of them Jensen, and the 14 dogs. Shortly after starting out, Jensen's sledge tumbled over a decline and injured a leg of one of the dogs. The dog was turned loose and hobbled along to camp. The whole team, exhausted, needed to be nursed. They were fed a special warm supper. Only the night before, they had torn apart Jensen's sledge, eaten the lashings, and scattered pieces of the sledge around the camp, trying to tear open the tin cans of meat; one ate a pouch of tobacco, another the only bar of soap.

Denali National Park and Preserve

By Shelby Carpenter (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99)

The blurb: While Native populations had lived within the boundaries of today's Denali National Park and Preserve for more than 7,000 years, white settlers only arrived en masse starting in the 1890s. When they did arrive, it was to chase after Denali's abundant game supply and placer gold in the Kantishna mining area. Only a handful of renegades made attempts on the peak at the turn of the century. Setting off with two thermoses of hot chocolate and six donuts -- and a 14-foot spruce pole to set on the summit -- the "Sourdough Expedition" reached the mountain's north peak in 1910. Today, Denali draws more than 1,000 climbers each year, and the park provides a safe haven for wildlife and a beautiful natural playground for backpackers and explorers.

Excerpt: Charles Sheldon first publicly presented the idea of a game preserve to protect Dall sheep and other wildlife at a meeting of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1909. Once Wickersham became Alaska's nonvoting delegate to Congress -- also in 1909 -- Sheldon found himself with a more powerful political backer. Many Alaskans were actually against the creation of a park because it would limit their mining claims and their ability to hunt in the area. The U.S. government had already made intrusions into their way of life and into Alaska land -- first with passage of the 1908 Alaska Game Law and then with President Taft's withdrawal of oil tracts in 1910.

Termination Dust

By Susanna Mishler (Red Hen Press, $18.95)

The blurb: Termination dust, the first high-altitude snowfall, marks the end of summer in Alaska. Rooted in the seasons and sense of place, the poems in this collection employ image-driven lyric and dreamlike narrative to grapple with questions of death and belonging. A strange romance between inner and outer landscapes emerges from what increasingly seem like the prayers of an atheist. A tree becomes "a vascular connection / between kingdoms," and the human eye "a hole / hungry for small beauties." Full of vivid animal, human and ghostly encounters, the poems in "Termination Dust" are a kind of spiritual notebook for the unbeliever, forging their way to an earthbound grace.

Excerpt: "Practice"

Two missionaries sat at a table

on the library lawn, with a sign

reading "How can we pray for you?"

They sipped bottled water, legs crossed,

as if this were a perfectly normal question.

I kept walking and didn't let

curiosity take me over the hot grass.

But I wish I could go back now,

tell them to sharpen their knives,

bind my wrists, and feed me slices

of salted avocado from the blades.

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News