Winter has just not materialized here in the mid-Atlantic. Day after day of gray skies, rain, 40 degrees, and plenty of mud–I have just not been especially inspired to get out an tramp around. So I’ve been doing a fair bit of arm chair exploring these days in search of a little inspiration by re-reading some of my favorite expedition books. Here’s a good one for readers.
Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen chronicles his journey to the Arctic from 1893 through 1896. It was a big and ambition expedition, and the story of it takes up two volumes. Here was his idea: Based on observations and discoveries of ships lost in the Arctic north of Siberia and found along the coast of Greenland, he hypothesized that the Arctic ice pack was set in motion by oceanic currents and the influence of prevailing wind. He surmised that a ship icebound north of Siberia would be carried across the top of the globe, perhaps even to the north pole, and deposited some time later near the coast of Greenland. He decided to test his hypothesis with his expedition, for which he had a ship built with a very rounded bottom so that when the ice compressed, the ship would be lifted like a cork out the pack. The ship was christened the Fram (Norwegian for “Forward”—also the ship that Roald Amundsen, another Norwegian explorer, used on his successful expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole). With 18 men and supplies for five years the expedition traveled east out of Tromso, Norway into the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia and drove into the ice.
I would have to say that this is indeed one of the more entertaining polar expedition stories I have read. The first volume describes the expedition’s experiences ice-bound in the Arctic—the tedium of passing each day; the snail’s pace by which the boat was carried north (and often times south) by currents and the wind (it finally reached about 84 degrees north latitude); the amazing views of the aurora borealis; the party’s encounters with polar bears; as well as their gustatory experiences. I found it quite amusing to read Nansen’s descriptions of how the party was so well provisioned, each member actually put on weight during the expedition! Equally as amusing to hear him talk about -20 degrees F as a pleasantly warm day, and 30 degrees as just unpleasant because everything melted and got slushy—all a matter of perspective.
When it became clear that the boat wasn’t going to be carried to the North Pole, Nansen selected one of the team members, Johansen, and set off with sledges, dogs, and hand-made kayaks, to attempt to reach the Pole. The second volume describes that part of the expedition, successful up to about 88 degrees north before being stopped by pressure ridges in the ice, and their trials in attempting to make it back to Franz Josefland and Spitzbergen north of Norway. Again, the story is really entertaining! It takes four attempts to finally get on their way north and away from the Fram. Along the way south, they encounter many, many polar bears; are attacked in their kayaks by walruses; spend a winter in a hand-built rock hut; and for the most part have very little certainty about where they are located for over a year. In the end, both the Nansen/Johansen party and the Fram returned to Norway within a couple of months of each other. It is a long read, but equally gripping and amusing throughout.