Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World
Updated: Mar 11
The adventures of the 1596-1597 Dutch expedition to the Arctic led by William Barents are the subject of a new (2021) book by American author Andrea Pitzer (https://andreapitzer.com/bio/) entitled "Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World".
424 years ago this month, Dutch explorers William Barents and Jacob van Heemskerck and their surviving crewmembers were enduring the long Arctic winter shipwrecked on the northern
tip of Novaya Zemlya (New Land), a remote island hundreds of miles northeast of Archangel and the White Sea. As part of her research for the book, author Pitzer visited Murmansk and sailed east across the Barents Sea to Novaya Zemlya in August 2019.
Although native Pomor sailors and fishermen from the Archangel region had frequented these waters in summer for many years, Navigator Barents and Captain van Heemskerck led
this early European attempt to open lucrative trade with China across a challenging Arctic sea route. After discovering Svalbard and Bear Island north of Norway, Barents sailed their small 60-
foot ship east across what would be named the Barents Sea in an attempt to sail eastward around the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya into what would be named the Kara Sea.
Unfortunately, after reaching the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya (at about 77 degrees North Latitude), they lingered too long in the Arctic summer and their ship became permanently
locked in ice by late August 1596. The men were forced to abandon the ship and build a crude wooden shelter just off the beach to winter-over and hope for escape in the spring of
1597. They named the beach Ice Harbor and named their shelter Safe House.
Author Pitzer vividly describes the brutal hardships and dangers faced by the crew, including severe cold and snow, inadequate clothing and supplies, and being stalked by polar bears and disease alike. It was not until June 1597 that the sea ice cleared enough for the 15 surviving men to escape in two small boats salvaged from the larger (now damaged) ship. The return trip to the Netherlands was also very dangerous as they rowed and sailed these open boats hundreds of miles south and westward, occasionally meeting Pomor and Russian ships that graciously gave the starving men food and navigational help. Navigator
Barents died early on the return trip and his final resting place is lost to history. The 12 remaining survivors arrived back in Amsterdam on November 1, 1597; they had been gone for 18 months.
In recent times, a number of more modern expeditions to Ice Harbor have discovered the remains of the Safe House and have recovered a number of artifacts and relics that are now on
display in Dutch and Norwegian museums and in the Archangel Regional Museum of Local Lore . In a recent interview with National Public Radio, author Pitzer said that the survivors faced "an unbelievably brutal affair . . . a day-to-day battle to live in this place that was not on any map in existence at the time".
Author Pitzer has provided us with some of her photographs from her 2019 trip to the area, seen in the photo gallery below. Hover over the photographs to reveal captions . Photographs of the artifacts recovered at the site are from the Archangel Museum of Local Lore (courtesy: Museum director Natalia Shpanova ; photographs by Nastya Uglovskaya.)