Wherever she goes, Wheeler exhibits a knack for summing up people, places and things memorably. She describes Rockwell Kent, the American painter and illustrator who fell in love with the Far North, as Greenland's Gauguin, "who saw his Tahiti in the starlit winters of Igdlorssuit." She corrects those who assume that scenery without trees, mountains or valleys must be dull: "The interior of an ice sheet is the most mesmerizing of all polar landscapes." She evokes the futile battle against insects: "The pages of my notebook tell their own story, encrusted with flattened mosquito and blackfly corpses and splotches of my own blood. The bugs bit us even as we wore jackets with full-head net hoods and peered out at the landscape through a veil of brown mesh."
Only once did I part company with her. Changing planes in Pond Inlet, at the north end of Baffin Island, she dismisses the village as "bleak." But with its outlook on a bay and beyond that Bylot Island, which is dominated by a sinuous glacier, Pond Inlet is one of the world's most beautiful places. How Wheeler could have missed this is a puzzlement.
"The Magnetic North" gives ample coverage to the damage being done to the Arctic by pollution and global warming, but for an account of the effects on a specific creature, readers should turn to Kieran Mulvaney's illuminating "The Great White Bear." Mulvaney has ventured far from his home in Alexandria, Va., to watch polar bears, notably in northern Alaska and on Hudson Bay. He tells unsettling tales of human-bear encounters, including one that the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen survived only because his dog got involved. That anecdote ends with Amundsen relating his surprising thoughts during what he feared might be his last seconds of life: "I lay there wondering how many hairpins were swept up on the sidewalks of Regent Street in London on a Monday morning!"
Polar bears are imperiled because they use ice floes as platforms from which to hunt seals and on which to haul up and rest - and not only is Arctic ice disappearing at a fearsome rate, but it's hard to see what could reverse that trend. As a result, polar bears may be reduced to relict populations in the High Arctic and Greenland by the middle of this century. Beyond that, one hardly dares look.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.