Dutch explorer William Barents and his crew made a key discovery while they were stuck in the Arctic over the winter of 1596-97: Polar bears are difficult to kill. At first, they were thrilled to encounter these creatures. They hoped to capture one and bring it back to the Netherlands as a gift for a patron. They soon discovered that it was not only impossible to catch a bear alive, their firearms were inadequate to take one down. Even worse, the bears had their own ideas about who would be catching whom.

The bears are a recurring presence in “Icebound,” Andrea Pitzer’s account of Barents’s third journey to the Arctic. At every turn, it seemed there was another bear — swimming at their boat, or charging at them across the ice, or catching a man in its jaws. At first perceived as exotic trophies, the bears became a major danger of the expedition. They were as tough as the Arctic environment and ruled their domain with no predators to threaten them. “In its natural habitat, each bear offered the same fusion of the mundane and the mythic as the Arctic itself,” Pitzer writes. “With its nonretractable claws and forty-two teeth, the animal possessed a lethal magnificence, yet the men had to find a way to live on a day-to-day basis with it. . . . Humans were new enough to spark curiosity but not yet familiar enough to spark fear.”

Barents’s expedition was seeking a northeast passage from Europe to Asia, without having to travel around Africa. Barents set sail a century after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope to reach India. The Dutch, like other seafaring nations, were keen to find their own way to Asia. European merchants dreamed of a shortcut to China that might shave months off the route.

Barents and his men departed in the spring of 1596 and headed north past Norway, sailing closer to the North Pole than any Europeans ever had. As on all merchant voyages, the men brought goods they might be able to trade, including bolts of fabric and pewter candlesticks. They hoped for a warm sea and little ice at the pole, believing — as some cartographers had for centuries — that the poles were temperate. It seemed plausible, given that maps of the world still depicted monsters and large empty spaces. But Barents and his crew, who made their way to the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, high in the Arctic Circle, encountered not a warm ocean but icebergs.

Never reaching China, instead they got stuck. By fall, their ship was trapped in the ice. Unable to carry on, the crew used timber from the ship to build a cabin on land and hunkered down. As Pitzer notes, they were unprepared for the Arctic weather and did not have supplies to last for long. The few foxes they managed to trap and eat helped sustain them.

Pitzer re-creates the crew’s vicious winter with the drama of a novel. We see the men huddling in their cabin, burning what they had for warmth and listening to the polar bears scratching at the roof and walls. If the snow or bears didn’t get them, sickness hovered. “The scurvy spreading through the crew would lend its hallmark stench to unwashed clothes and bodies, making the cabin even more oppressive,” Pitzer writes. The author relies largely on the published first-person accounts of two crew members, Gerrit de Veer and Jan Huygen van Linschoten. De Veer’s diary was an instant success and was translated into French, Latin, German and English.

By June, the ice finally cleared enough for the men to sail — not on their damaged ship but on two small open boats they had repaired. Hungry and weak, they hugged the coastline, eventually reaching Kola Bay and meeting a Dutch ship that could take them homeward. But Barents would die on the return journey. When the 12 survivors of the original 17 men arrived in the port of Amsterdam, Pitzer writes, “they stood on the deck of the ship in the same clothes they’d worn since leaving the summer before, the same leather shoes that had frozen to uselessness in the Arctic winter and then thawed again in spring. . . . They reentered the world more empty-handed than they’d left it, their survival story the only thing they had to share other than the pelts of dead animals.”

Icebound

Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World

By Andrea Pitzer

Scribner.
302 pp. $29