Friday, October 3, 2014

Oh, how the snow refreshes one’s soul - Fridtjof Nansen explores the Arctic

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:


  1. What, no scurvy? That's preposterous! You can't be a real sailor without having bits of your gums and teeth fall off from rotting.

  2. I know - it must have been the single most important change in the expedition of exploration. Scurvy had devastated most earlier attempts at polar voyages. But Nansen had packed along a five year supply of vitamin C.

    Their great luck was that, with all of the heavy equipment, firearms, explosives, and polar bears, there was never even a serious injury. The doctor routinely complained, ironically, I suppose, of having nothing to do. He spent more time doctoring the dogs.

  3. When I was a sailor -- 25 years in the Navy -- I would often complain about the living conditions on the ships. I should have read Nansen for a better perspective. Compared to him and his comrades, I was clearly a feeble, lightweight, spoiled complainer. Seriously, I cannot imagine living and surviving in the conditions those fellows faced. People were obviously made of tougher stuff.

  4. In contemporary accounts of the trip, the crew of the Fram are often called "Vikings." They were tough stuff. Although they were allowed booze on special occasions, which I think the U.S. Navy did not.

  5. Booze was NOT allowed on ships. However, here is an anecdote that probably signifies nothing. There was an occasion one evening when I -- the new ensign on board the USS KITTY HAWK -- was summoned to the executive officer's office. He wanted to discuss some legal issues (i.e., I was the assistant legal officer), and he poured himself a glass of wine during our meeting. He did not offer me any. I was in no position to question the apparent violation of Navy policy. After all, he was the big cheese, and I was merely a small dollop of Velveeta. I still wonder, though, about his peculiar exemption from the rules under which everyone had to live. Should I have reported the exemption to the captain? No. I was a mere ensign (i.e., there is hardly anyone less significant on a ship), and I hoped to have a career of some duration. The XO, however, did rather have the appearance of a Viking. Perhaps there was some connection and exemption that I was not permitted to understand.

  6. Almost like it was a test of some sort.

    I enjoyed all of the dinner scenes in Master and Commander, the English officers having a formal dinner with silver service and wine pairings.

    I guess I enjoyed pretty much all of the scenes in Master and Commander.

  7. If you are saying the XO was testing me, that never occurred to me, so I failed. Perhaps that explains my Navy career trajectory. I shall have to try Master and Commander, but perhaps it will make me homesick for the open sea. (Homesick? No, I hated sea duty. Hated it!)

  8. I should say, in case a real Patrick O'Brian fan wanders by, that I mean the movie, not the books, which I have not read although I'll bet I'd enjoy them.

    1. The movie? I have a confession: I do not go to movies, and I rarely -- if ever -- watch movies on TV or DVD. And as for movies based on good novels, I avoid them with even more of an aversion. Yeah, I know, I'm some sort of an oddity. So be it.

  9. Have you read any of Eric Shipton's books? I think you might like them.

  10. I'm going to write an entire piece later this evening about how I don't read books about mountaineering. But how I should read them.