Review of ‘Driving to Greenland’

Driving to Greenland
Peter Stark
Lyons & Burford

"From my earliest memories I associated my grandfather with ice, and my father I associated with snow." With this image — two men leaping to mind in the form of Norse gods, beards rattling with frost, eyes blue and brutal, breath like winter wind-Peter Stark begins this sturdy collection of essays on a life spent largely outdoors in cold weather.

"I think to the north," Stark writes, for the book is in part an expression of temperament, of a largely inborn affinity to one of Earth's four moods. The feeling springs from too great a depth to be conditioned, like the terrifying sense of recognition — the rising in your ageless blood of something that is finally coming home — as you climb for the first time the stony hilltop of Mycenae.

Young Stark "collected the secrets of snow and ice the way that other boys collected snakes and rocks, and savored the power of ice heaves and avalanches like other boys keened after fighter planes and large guns." Now 40, Stark has retained his passion, deepened it, plumbed its limits as an athlete and outdoorsman in the media of ice and snow.

For the second essay, "Leaps of Faith," he ventures to Ishpeming, Michigan, to take a 30-meter flight from a Nordic ski jump: "There's nothing frilly or baroque about it. You go straight, you go fast. . . . The lingering impressions are of power, cold and metallic. Place names such as Ironwood, Iron Mountain, Copper Peak; the steel girders and frost-coated timbers that support the jump scaffolds; mercury-vapor lights and cinder-block warming huts; chain saws and snowmobiles. . . ."

Nor is there anything frilly or baroque about Stark's language. His style is clean and straightforward. In passages of memoir he manages intimacy — anxieties of youth, love affairs, his father's two suicide attempts — without a whiff of sentimentality. And his reflections on snow and ice can wax philosophical, can even enter the realm of the metaphysical, without alarming.

"Sliding to Glory" puts Stark on a luge at Lake Placid. "Steered true," he writes, "a luge sled runs nearly silent, its journey down that twisting tube of ice accompanied by little more than the low whir of polished steel runners cutting cleanly across the sculpted surface at 50 or 60 or 70 miles per hour.

"So when something goes wrong, you can hear it happen."

Dimitry Feld, Russian immigrant, former dog-grooming instructor and U.S. Luge Association coach, gives Stark the drill for beginners: "'Go get sled and helmet,' he said in heavily accented English, 'and I show you how to steer. Then I bless you,' he said making a sign of the cross, 'and off you go.'"

Then on to the next event in Stark's Plimptonian Olympics: downhill racing in "Fear of Falling." U.S. downhill skier Mike Brown "describes a 'little rise' that a downhiller must make: 'from the fear that 80 miles per hour is too fast, to the fear that 80's not fast enough.'

"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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