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Review of 'Driving to Greenland'

Review of 'Driving to Greenland'

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"I was nowhere near Brown's 'little rise,'" Stark concludes, despite the downhill medals of his youth. "My main concern was still how to slow down."

As an ice diver and climber I share much of Stark's fascination with the medium, but three essays in a row detailing the experience of speed on a frosted incline and my enthusiasm starts to flag. "The Dean of Flow," then, is a welcome shift. The dean is Doug Coombs, a world-class skier who provides Stark with the fine points of his craft-style, not speed. Stark comes away with notes on mountain reading, route finding, tempo, pacing, flow. Coombs advises "skiing the shadows" — the unspoiled margins of a route. "Let the mountain suggest your style rather than forcing your style on it," he advises.

With this, Stark turns to arctic travel. In "Driving to Greenland," he takes to the road in a '74 VW van. Switching to the air in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, he and his wife soon arrive in Qaanaaq, Greenland, 800 miles from the North Pole. The town's "dirt streets are neatly kept, its colorful, steep-roofed houses evoking a Nordic fishing village, yet in the yards stand dogsleds, needle-thin kayaks of hand-stitched canvas, and game-butchering platforms caked with blood."

Thence to hike the glaciers and lava fields of Iceland in "Land of Fire and Ice." We learn that this Ohio-size island has produced, since 1500, an estimated one-third of the world's lava, and that U.S. astronauts trained for their moon landing here. A born anthropologist, Stark has an eye for cultural miscellany: "Gretar Einarsson demonstrated the traditional method of catching grounded seabirds, a technique that involves a stunning kick to the head and a quick bite to the soft part of the bird's skull." He notes the surreal "puffin net, a bit like a butterfly net with a long handle, used by hunters who hide on cliff tops, waiting for passing birds."

There follows a wonderful treatise on the Eskimo kayak: "A Kinde of Strange Fishe." Reminiscent of John McPhee's The Survival of the Bark Canoe, this piece may be the best of the collection. In the company of native Greenlanders, Stark leaves the island of Qeqertarssuaq (try to spell that one without a second look) on a three-day outing for narwhal. Stark describes the group waiting patiently for the whales on an ice floe: "Mamarut sharpened his harpoon; his girlfriend, Tukummeq Peary — a great-granddaughter of Robert Peary — chewed a piece of sealskin to soften it for a pair of boots; and I poked my head into the cockpit of Sigdluk's kayak. . . . His had a spare, simple, elegant design with knifelike bow and stern, and low, slightly sweeping deck, that reminded me of the thinnest sliver of the new moon. . . . He'd painted it light gray to mimic the skin tone of a narwhal calf."

Stark cites a theory that the kayak was invented 9,000 years ago near Alaska's Aleutian Islands. "Unlike our rigid-hulled ships, the elastic membrane of the Aleut kayak was supported by an ingenious skeleton that included a jointed three-piece keel. Both the skeleton and the keel were equipped with as many as sixty bone or ivory bearings that . . . allowed the boat to flex easily and noiselessly over the waves."

In "A Short Stroll in the Firnspiegel" Stark delivers a lively discourse on the formation and classification of snow. There is "living room furniture" — a "particularly soft, comfortable, pillowy type of powder" — "Cold Smoke" and "Styrofoam," "Cinnamon Rolls" and "Snirt," the latter an often rock-hard combination of windblown snow and dirt. There is "boilerplate" and "black ice," "sugar snow" and "cauliflower." And, Stark goes on to promise, "beyond its beauty, you'll find few more satisfying remedies for pent-up frustration than a short stroll in firnspiegel; its chattering and tinkling give you the illusion of stomping across a long tabletop of fine china."

In "The Care and Use of Perfect Ice," Stark reflects on the joys of a life of pickup hockey and the paternal satisfaction of nurturing a homemade rink. In "The Search for the Perfect Sled" he and a friend do precisely that. Closing the collection with "The Ice League," Stark charts one full winter season of activity on the lake of his childhood.

Part memoir, part ethnography, part travel and part sport, the collection forms a Northerner's heartfelt, often eloquent ode to winter, an account of revelation in the form of ice and snow. Near the close of "A Life Built on Snow," Stark writes: "If, as a young boy, I saw in the snow my father's face and my grandfather's in the ice, I now sometimes imagine the face of God. I study a steep, beautiful, untracked powder slope, and its blank, white surface reveals nothing."

Andrew Todhunter is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, California.

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