Fridtjof Nansen

First, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate everyone who has been involved in the celebrations of John Rae, be it the theatre production Long Strides or any of the other numerous events on the John Rae anniversary celebration programme!

Hearing about John Rae’s brave adventures in the far north made me think of another arctic explorer that I have been reading about lately: Fridtjof Nansen. Since other people have shared John Rae’s story with the community so much better than what I ever can, I thought I would rather write about Nansen’s adventures in the Arctic here today, as he was very much a kindred spirit of John Rae.

Fridtjof Nansen was from Norway, and he was born in 1861 – so he was 48 years younger than John Rae, but he used many of the same methods as the brave Orcadian which ensured their survival. While John Rae was a doctor, Fridtjof Nansen studied zoology at the University of Oslo and at a time when Charles Darwin’s ideas were beginning to win currency, Nansen wrote a doctoral thesis named The Structure and Combination of the Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System. He was also a naturalist and oceanographer and his scientific research was partly what led him to become an arctic explorer in the first place.

In 1888, at the age of 27, he crossed Greenland on skis! Unlike other explorers at the time, he did not believe in returning to a safe base but set out into the wild with a “if I die, I die” attitude. Like John Rae, he learnt arctic survival skills from the Inuit population, so he knew he needed to dress in furs and use dogs to pull the expedition’s sledges. On the way there, Nansen and his expedition nearly died when the ship they were on got stuck in the ice and started drifting. However, they managed to get ashore and set off on their epic journey. After a month and a half on skis, they reached the Ameralik fjord at the end of September that year – but to their horror found that they had missed the last ship back to Norway! As ships cannot land in Greenland during the winter, they consequently had to wait for spring in Nuuk. At last, in May 1889, a ship came and took them home. The same year he married the singer Eva Sars, and their new house was named Godthåb (meaning “good hope”) after the Danish name for Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. They went on to have a baby daughter named Liv – meaning “life”.

Despite his near-death experience and long winter of waiting in Greenland, and having a new-born daughter, Nansen was planning another arctic adventure.  On his travels in the Arctic, he had seen driftwood which he realised came from Siberia and was carried by the currents across towards Greenland. He was also very interested when he learned of the fate of the ship Jeanette, carrying an American arctic expedition. It had gone northwards through the Bering Strait in 1879, but got stuck in the ice north of Siberia and drifted for a couple of years before being pressed down by the ice near the Novosibirskije Ostrova islands in 1881. The members of the expedition tried to reach inhabited land, but 20 of them lost their lives and only 13 survived. However, incredibly in 1882-83 wreckage from the Jeanette was found in Qaqortoq in the south-west of Greenland. In Fridtjof Nansen’s mind, this started to look like a plan: Some arctic current must have taken the wreckage from Siberian waters towards Greenland, and what if this current crossed the North Pole on the way! Vessels had a tendency to get frozen stuck in the ice and gradually get pushed down by it, destroying vessels such the Jeanette, but Nansen thought: Why not use this effect as a free lift to the North Pole? All he needed was a vessel strong enough to withstand the ice movement.

Luckily, in Larvik near Oslo there was a very skilled boat builder named Colin Archer, whose parents had emigrated from Scotland to Norway in 1825. He was just the man Nansen needed to construct his ship. The Fram was extra strong with 70 cm thick walls in three skins of wood, and had a special round shape to let it stay on top of the ice instead of being pushed down and crushed by it. It was ready in 1892.

In 1893, on St John ’s Eve on 24th June   – the traditional day for midsummer celebrations in Norway – the Fram set out led by Nansen and with 12 other men on board, food enough for four years, and equipment for their scientific research. It was a cold and drizzly day in Oslo, much like our midsummer weekend in Orkney this year, but a huge crowd had turned out to see the Fram set off from Oslo harbour. They travelled northwards along the coast towards Russia, where they stopped to take on board 28 dogs. At the end of September, the vessel froze stuck in the ice, and what would normally have been a scary situation was in this case going exactly according to plan.

Now, all they would have to do was wait. They had over 600 books on board, and a small windmill giving them electric power. They were also busy with their scientific data gathering, including measuring the depth of the ocean, as it was not clear at that time whether there was land under the North Pole or not. Nansen believed there wasn’t.

What was not according to plan was how slowly the ice moved towards the Pole. Nansen had hoped it would take no more than three years or four at the most to be carried with the ice across the North Pole, but now as the months went on, he could see that they were too far south and it was taking a lot longer than he had thought. In February, they were at 80 degrees north and the temperature was minus fifty. However, in May they were still only at 81⁰34’ N, and Nansen realised that the ice wasn’t going to carry them over the top of the Pole after all.

So he left the ship. Taking only one man – Hjalmar Johansen – and the dogs with him, Nansen decided he was going to attempt to reach the North Pole on skis, helped by the dogs, sledges and kayaks. Each dog had been given a name, but realities are harsh in the Arctic and as the dogs got exhausted and started giving up, Nansen and Johansen had to shoot them one by one. What was also rather desperate was that as they were fighting against the snow going northwards, the ice they were on was now being blown southwards! Moreover, in the summer the snow was getting sticky and skiing was getting difficult. The dogs were pulling the sledges with all their food and equipment, although they also shot birds and sea mammals to sustain themselves. Suddenly, they would come upon open water, and more than once one of the men fell in and then had no other method of getting dry than taking their wet clothes with them into the sleeping-bag and defrosting and drying them with their own body-heat.

In April 1895, Nansen and Johansen realised that they were moving too slowly and would run out of food unless they turned back soon. They were at 86⁰14’N and that was the furthest north anyone had ever been before. Happy about this result, they celebrated with a small piece of chocolate and some extra food, and turned southwards.

But the journey back was long and dangerous. Isn’t it typical: When they wanted to go northwards, the ice was going southwards. And now, when they wanted to go southwards, the ice was going northwards! They were hoping to reach the stability of land soon, but their map, which was made by the Austrian explorer Peyer, was wrong: Where he had drawn an island called Peterman’s Land, there was only ice and water. For a whole month they were stuck in bad weather and had to camp and survive on seal meat. Nansen was about my age when this happened, and I know that if it were me I would have missed my family terribly. So did Nansen and Johansen, so they called their camp the “camp of longing”.  When finally moving on, it was with minimal equipment, but they had two kayaks which they had tied together, fitting skis, sledges and dogs across them and in these they crossed the open water.

Suddenly, they were attacked by a polar bear! Their gun was lying in the kayak, so Nansen ran for it as fast as he could, but as he dived for the kayak he accidentally pushed it out into the water and only just managed to get a hold of it. Meanwhile, Johansen was fighting off the polar bear with his bare hands! Always polite and courteous, Johansen said with the finest manner – while looking into the razor-sharp teeth of the bear: “Please hurry, or I fear it may be too late.” Luckily, one of their last remaining dogs managed to distract the bear long enough for Nansen to return with the gun.

When they finally reached land, Johansen went down on his knees and kissed a stone. Nansen named two islands after his wife and daughter. It later turned out it was all one island, so it was renamed Eva-Liv Island. Grudgingly, they realised they would not get home that year and built a stone hut in which they spent the winter. On Christmas Eve, Nansen allowed himself the luxury of a clean pair of underpants. And after nine months of sharing a sleeping bag, Nansen made the suggestion to his companion that they should address each other using the familiar term for ‘you’: Du.

When spring came, they set out again, using their kayaks and skis, as the dogs were all dead. One day, Nansen and Johansen nearly died themselves, when their kayaks drifted away from them. Nansen had to swim in the ice cold water to catch up and was blue by the time he got there, but he pulled through. They were now at Franz-Josef-Land.

While camping to try to dry their clothes and equipment after this incident, they suddenly hear dogs barking! Ecstatic, they shout to make themselves known. It turned out to be a British arctic expedition, led by Frederic Jackson. Nansen and Johansen were very relieved and grateful to be taken back to Jackson’s camp, where they could wash, get clean clothes and sit down.

In August 1896 Jackson’s ship the Windward took Nansen and Johansen back to Norway, where they met up with the Fram and the rest of the crew who had just escaped the ice. They were all received as heroes. Eva and Liv were probably the happiest of all. The Fram is now in a museum in Oslo, and you can go inside it to have a look. It was also used in Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1910-11.

Nansen achieved some long strides in scientific research based on the data he and his crew had gathered, and went on to become Norway’s ambassador in London and then a diplomat in the forerunner to the UN. In this job, he organised the repatriation of 450 000 prisoners of war after World War 2 and contributed to saving the lives of countless refugees in Russia and Armenia. In 1922 he received Nobel’s Peace Prize.


Ragnhild Ljosland
July 2013