Graham Reid | | 3 min read
This exceptional biography of the Danish explorer, author and actor (and much more), Peter Freuchen opens with him as a young man buried under snow in the Arctic wilderness with little air and even less energy, unable to dig himself out.
It ends with his sudden death at age 71 in Anchorage, Alaska as he was preparing for another adventure – a flight over the North Pole.
Between times we hear of the remarkable exploits of this imposing giant (six foot seven inches, most of life his face behind a huge unruly beard which covered frostbitten flesh) who walked away from his medical studies for a lifetime of travel – mostly in and around Greenland which became his home – and near-death experiences.
As a child and young man in Copenhagen, Freuchen (pronounced Froy-ken) was seduced by the stories of explorers, especially those who were embarking (and sometimes dying) on journeys into the frozen north.
At 20 he signed on as a stoker on a vessel headed for Greenland (“I had never handled a fire larger than a kitchen stove”) to be part of a mission to this Danish colony about which not much was known.
It was the early 1900s and the frozen north was the new frontier.
And so began Freuchen's life among the Inuit whom he liked, respected and married into. He learned how they survived in the inhospitable place, adopted their dress and customs (which admittedly allowed the young man access to women), spoke their language and respected their beliefs.
While others struggled with the isolation he embraced it – although wasn't averse to partying hard – and came to enjoy their unique food (fermented walrus and seal).
Life however was absurdly difficult: when isolated in small cabin some 40 miles away from the vessel Danmark so he could regularly monitor the climate, the temperature could drop to 60 degrees below zero, he would have to climb the mountain nearby to take readings in the perpetual darkness, wolves would circle the hut and his breath froze into ice on the walls.
Over time the ice inside the hut became two feet thick, he started to go mad and relief crews didn't turn up because getting to him was too difficult.
Quite how this remarkable man became one of the great if largely unheralded explorers and adventurers, who constantly wrote fact and fiction, was hired as a journalist in New York and a screenwriter in Hollywood (he partied with the biggest stars of the era), is a great story told in detail by Mitenbuler with reference to letters, news reports, testimonies and extensive research.
Freuchen spent considerable time in Greenland which he loved – and where he married an Inuit woman and had children – but he also went to Nazi Germany (railing against Hitler at every opportunity, later assisting the resistance and harbouring refugees on his farm in Denmark).
He visited Russia during the Stalin era travelling as far as north east Siberia and was as unimpressed by Communism as he was by American capitalism, the latter he saw encroaching on the Inuit lands in economic colonisation.
An astute observer of social change, an early ecologist warning of the human impact on the environment and thoughtfully troubled by the progress and cost of the so-called civilising effects of progress, Freuchen was – by virtue of his intellect and appearance – a man apart.
Few could claim to have survived what he endured, have lived among the remote Inuits and Hollywood glitterati, count on friends like Paul Robeson (who sang at his last wedding), had their portrait taken by Irving Penn and to have spoken with presidents and whalers with equanimity.
Wanderlust is a compelling book of an extraordinary life which spanned the era of exploration in the early 20th century and which encompassed continents and social classes.
It's a shame it doesn't include maps and is sometimes scant on when the events actually happened. American writer Mitenbuler's story is in such forward motion he doesn't stop to helpfully mention “it was in 1928 when . . . ”.
Peter Freuchen – who lost a foot to frostbite and embellished his adventures a little, although author Mitenbuler pulls him up – saw his beloved Greenland damaged irreparably by imported religion, economics and crass commercialism.
And although he enjoyed the pleasures and privileges of life as an actor, sponsored traveller (to South America and Haiti where he saw base politics and graft with clear eyes), he seems to have never been anything other than a man who embraced extreme hardship as just another challenge.
WANDERLUST by REID MITENBULER, Mariner $40