About a Hut: The Long Arctic Night

longarcticnightThe Long Arctic Night is a fictionalised account of William Barents’ third voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northeast Passage, a voyage from which he did not return. I credit this book with turning me into a reader. It wasn’t the first ‘chapter’ book I read for myself, but it is the one I remember most clearly. I was a bit worried that reading it again would be a disappointment but it is every bit as clear and well paced as I remember.

Barents set out on May 6, 1596, from Amsterdam, only for his ship to become trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to overwinter in a tiny wooden hut they built on Nova Zembla:

Meanwhile we had made good progress with the building of our hut, and the four walls were almost completed, so that everyone could see there were to be three doors, one facing east, one south, and one west. The north wall, however, was entirely solid, as the rawest and coldest winds generally blow from that direction; and Piet, well aware of that, had, with foresight, provided for it in his construction plan. … On the following day we added the slanting roof, which sloped at an oblique angle from north to south, and covered it thickly with mud paste, which froze as usual the instant it was applied.

Barentshut_1881The men encounter bears, live on seal meat and develop scurvy. When the ice finally melts the following Spring they find the ship has been crushed, forcing them to sail back to the mainland in two small boats.

Amazingly the hut itself was rediscovered almost 300 years later, in 1871; many artefacts were recovered and are kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The photograph shows how it looked in 1881, but the site is now marked by a memorial and is visited by arctic cruise ships. In recent years, as global warming melts the ice, the Northeast Passage has become passable to shipping, shaving around 3000 miles from the journey between the Netherlands and South Korea.

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