True North: Travels in Arctic Europe

Since I had enjoyed Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis so much I sought out his earlier work and thanks to an interloan from the Calgary Public Library I was able to read True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, originally published in 2008. In this work Francis traced the steps of explorers throughout the past, except in Francis’s case he had the conveniences of modern transportation. He did try to copy the explorer experience by camping in a tent versus staying in a hotel. True North is the diary of his voyage, starting in the northernmost part of the UK, the Shetland Islands, then moving to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and finishing in Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish Lapland.

Francis combined his own travel story with the histories of the explorers he emulated. Chapters were divided seamlessly as he wove his own travelogue amidst the published accounts and private letters of those who preceded him centuries before. The author was cognizant of the competitive drive of explorers to get there first, and sometimes centuries would lapse between separate individual “discoveries” of the same places. Regardless of anyone’s claim to immortality by being a discoverer of new lands, Francis revealed evidence that others had arrived even earlier. And in many of those cases, the explorers (such as the Vikings) couldn’t have cared less.

Since the author visited Iceland shortly before the financial meltdown his interactions with the locals weren’t preoccupied with doom-and-gloom. He hitchhiked often (Mark and I even picked up a hitchhiker during our Ring Road trip around Iceland in 2015) and the drivers throughout his travels were so friendly, sometimes offering him back to their place for dinner.

Francis was bewildered why he couldn’t sail from Iceland to Greenland directly, which is what another traveller friend of mine has said when he made a similar puddle jump. I liked the way the author phrased it:

“But instead of sailing over the Denmark Strait I was going to have to fly to Denmark, and from Copenhagen airport fly back out west again over the island I had just left. It seemed wrong, especially in these days of concern over our ‘carbon footprints’, but in planning my trip there had been no other way.”

While there may have been no passenger ship routes from Iceland to Greenland in 2008, I wonder if he would have chosen to fly instead. It makes sense that he would, instead of backtracking to Denmark. I have checked and can see that Air Greenland currently flies from Keflavík to Nuuk and Icelandair flies from the Reykjavík city airport to Nuuk, each flight taking only three hours and twenty minutes. However there is always the possibility that these flights were introduced after 2008.

Francis charmed me with his descriptions of Arctic scenery and I cite his most memorable passages that inspired multiple rereads:

“Near the water’s surface, seven hundred metres below, fulmars circled on the up-draught of air like motes of dust in a column of light.”

“Behind me to the south were the eighteen islands of the Faroes; separated by narrow and broad sounds, joined by innumerable tunnels, bridges and ferries, fracturing the sea around them like a broken mirror.”

“The waiter had hair like a seam of quartz, pale blonde and flecked with grey.”

“Anna’s and her husband Olafur’s house was a typical suburban home, a white cube on a friendly street that seemed out of place in the landscape that lay around the town. The black cliffs to the south across the fjord seemed to glower in disapproval. Electric lighting and central heating, however appreciated by the people of Borg, jarred with their surroundings. I had the impression that the mires around the town wanted to swallow it up.”

“The valley was bounded on both sides by high mountain ridges sprinkled with snow, their summits angular and brittle, whipped into peaks like a tray of meringues.”

“A river meandered across it, meeting tributaries in a sunken brocade of lace linked with shining threads of water.”

“Ice was sprinkled on the ocean like chalk crumbled over a mirror.”

“The Finnish language has the cadence and rhythm of streams and rainfall, it sounds the way that drawing circles in the mud with your fingers feels.”

As a speaker of Finnish I can’t imagine how he can compare the language to mud circles. I tend to describe Finnish discourse as resembling rapid gunfire. Francis’s description seems to suggest a slow and lugubrious cadence. I think I will ask the author; we have been in touch since my review of Island Dreams.

Francis included an insert of colour photos to accompany his travel stories. His Notes on Sources will inspire future reads.

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