Now, a whole ‘nother kind of travel book, Farthest North (1897) by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, zoologist, oceanographer, innovator in skiing, pioneer of polar exploration (that’s this book), symbol of the Norwegian nation, and humanitarian.
Nansen had the idea, based mostly on the fact that Siberian driftwood washes up in Greenland, that if he built the right ship he could sail it east along the Siberian coast then let the ship be frozen into the icepack after which the ship would slowly drift across the pole towards Greenland. Slowly meant several years. Nansen turned out to be right about everything except that the ship did not drift far enough north to reach the pole itself, so after a year and a half Nansen decided he and another crew member would try to walk to the pole. How would they get home, since the ship would have drifted who knows where? Oh don’t worry, they’ll just walk home, or at least to one of the frozen Arctic islands where someone will probably find them.
Nansen and his men were all obviously insane.
Everything worked pretty much as planned. Nansen and his companion reached 86° 14' N, the farthest north anyone had ever been, before turning back. The ship reached 85° 57' ̒N, which would have been farthest north if Nansen and his partner had not wandered off on their own. Nansen arrived back in Norway just a few days before the ship with the rest of his men. No one died; no one was ever even seriously ill or injured. They were national heroes for the young Norwegian state. Later, Nansen would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with World War I refugees, so Farthest North just covers his lesser achievement.
The ship, the Fram, can be inspected at the Fram Museum in Oslo. Please see the museum’s website for photos and a map which may help make sense of my gibberish.
The book is a mix of action and tedium. Polar bears attack (right), or a crushing ice shelf threatens to overwhelm the ship – very exciting. Or, for days the trapped Fram slowly drifts “[s]teadily southward. This is almost depressing” (Ch. VI, Oct. 16).
Ugh! that was a bitter gust – I jump up and walk on. What am I dreaming about! so far from the goal – hundreds and hundreds of miles between us, ice and land and ice again. And we are drifting round and round in a ring, bewildered, attaining nothing, only waiting, always waiting, for what? (VI, Nov. 5)
On the other hand:
Oh, how the snow refreshes one’s soul, and drives away all the gloom and sadness from this sullen land of fogs. (Ch. 5, Aug. 23, still off the Siberian coast)
Nansen and his men are where they wanted to be. Most of them even gained weight. The quantity and variety of foodstuffs they had brought along in tins is astonishing. No more scurvy with all of that lemonade and pineapple. In an environment like this, the most mundane details of life and landscape become of interest.
The most exciting part of the book is the hundred days on foot (and dogsled, kayak, and skis). Hampton Sides covers that story in a superb January 2009 National Geographic piece, much of which is about his own trip to the Arctic island where Nansen spent an entire winter in a tiny hut. I borrowed the photo from him; the other illustrations are copied from the electronic text.
I read the Modern Library Exploration edition of Farthest North which is intelligently abridged. I actually checked, reading sections of the complete edition on Google books (Vol. 1, Vol. 2). The only advantage of the complete version is that it has more of Nansen’s illustrations: