Ice ship the epic voyage.., p.1

Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram, page 1


Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram

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Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram



  The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer




  An imprint of

  University Press of New England

  © 2014 Charles W. Johnson

  All rights reserved

  For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book, contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit

  Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-61168-396-7

  Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61168-604-3

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2014931970

  To Nona,

  my North Star

  The scattered wreckage of our lives can show the way for those who follow, if they correctly interpret what happened and then proceed carefully, avoiding the same mistakes we made.




  PROLOGUE › Polar Fever, Myth, and Mystery

  1 › Eel and Elephant

  PART I › The First Expedition, 1893–1896

  The Arctic Ocean

  2 › Trip to Nowhere

  3 › Northeast Passage

  4 › Into the Ice

  5 › Drifting

  6 › The Mad Dash

  7 › Home Free

  8 › Together, Alone

  9 › What Would Life Be?

  10 › Homecoming

  PART II › The Second Expedition, 1898–1902

  The Canadian Arctic

  11 › Leaving Again

  12 › The Devil’s Way

  13 › Chance Encounters

  14 › Death on Ellesmere

  15 › Unmapped Lands and Uncharted Waters

  16 › New Land, New Dangers

  17 › Hell Gate and the Cave of Ice

  18 › A Third Winter

  19 › The Promised Land

  20 › A Fourth Winter, Breaking Out

  PART III › The Third Expedition, 1910–1912

  Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

  21 › The Boss

  22 › The Great Deception

  23 › Terra Nova

  24 › The Southern Ocean

  25 › Rescue or Rebellion?

  26 › Triumph and Tragedy

  27 › Abandoning Ship

  28 › A Wandering Albatross

  PART IV › Last Voyages

  29 › Ships in Ice, Ships of Air

  30 › The Lonely Places

  31 › Always a Sailor





  Illustration Credits



  My eyes adjust to the subdued light in the cool, cavernous building where it is now, forever off the oceans, forever away from the polar ice and brutal weather it often endured. It sits on big wooden blocks, black-hulled and massive, in this quiet, somber setting. Its voyages are done, its work long since over. But this is not a mausoleum; it is not lying in state. It is very much alive.

  Its energy and history wash over me as I come close. As I let my hand run over its ancient skin, its deep scars, I am taken back to when I was little and heard my father talk of it with such awe and admiration, almost reverence, tinged with affection. Even then I sensed it had a life of its own, a personality built not just of the wood and iron but also by adventures at the far ends of the earth, by those who took it there. I had been eager to listen to stories about it, feel a bit of what others had felt who shared so many years with it. Now here I am, after all these years, ready to take in what the old ice ship will reveal to me, fully awake to what I had only dreamed before.

  As I walk along its 128-foot length, I am struck by how massive yet graceful it is, a perfect blend of opposites. Its hull is smooth, steep sided, and rounded at the bottom, so that encroaching ice could not grab, squeeze, and crush, but instead it would slide up on it. Its bow and stern, armored with thick iron plates, are edged like wedges for smashing through. On board, there is solidity everywhere, a kind of geologic permanence that its long, rough history has not diminished. Its sides are two feet thick, four feet at stem and stern. Below decks are great bracing wooden knees and buttresses athwartships, skewered to the timbers by thick iron rods and bolts. Its three masts are like enormous trees, rooted in the keelson, from which the trunks rise majestically, pass through the deck above, and head toward the sky.

  I move slowly through the living spaces below decks where the men slept, ate, read, sang, sometimes fought, and especially gathered for company on those interminably long winter nights, those years away from home. I sense the snugness of their staterooms, insulated with wool, felt, and reindeer hair, which kept them warm even in the deepest subzero frigidity outside. The names from all three expeditions are etched in small metal plates above the stateroom doors, and I pause at each, remembering, then peer inside, looking for ghosts, or maybe feeling them. I linger longest at the one that says, “Fridtjof Nansen 1893–1896”—the man whose idea it was, who brought it into being. He was the man whose unsmiling, enigmatic gaze from his photographs in Farthest North always drew me in, made me wish I were one of them.

  Now I am here, on his ship, beginning my own voyage.

  ››› Notes: Place names in the book are those at the historical time in which the activity took place (for example, “Christiania” became “Oslo” in 1925, taking back its former name). A modern name, if different than the old, is given in parentheses the first time the place is mentioned. Photographers, when known, are identified in the captions.


  Thanks to those in Norway, Canada, and the United States who have helped me during my research and writing of this book. Working with them has been rewarding, enlightening, and pleasurable. I am grateful to many for not just assisting but also bridging so gracefully the cultural and language gaps I had.

  At the Fram Museum in Oslo, Geir Kløver, director, opened the doors to me for the entire project, allowing me full access to the Fram (even to crawl spaces usually off-limits to the public), sharing his extensive knowledge of the ship and exploration in general, and providing written and photographic material. Elina Vatymaa there also provided timely responses to my requests.

  Susan Barr, noted polar historian, ethnographer, researcher, and author, made time in her busy schedule to visit with me and offer important considerations, and then kindly reviewed the manuscript.

  At the National Library of Norway in Oslo, Guro Tangvald and Jens Petter Kollhøg have been wonderfully attentive, long distance and in person, to my repeated questions about and requests for photographs, maps, and original materials from the expeditions. Anne Melgård and Harald Lund helped me understand the materials more deeply, both the written and photographic.

  At the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Ann Kristin Balto helped with many of the original photographs, particularly hard-to-find ones from the second expedition. Helle Goldman also made herself available for consultation and assistance.

  At the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Liv Bentsborg provided several of the images taken by Anders Beer Wilse, a fine photographer of the period.

  From her home in Trondheim, former colleague and Vermonter Nancy Bazilchuk gave encouragement and guidance.

  In Canada, Jerry Kobalenko, veteran Arctic sledger and traveler, shared his knowledge of Ellesmere and of the Fram expedition there, and unknowingly gave inspiration through his fine photography and writing.

  Ingrid Nuse of Johnson, Vermont, assisted me with translations of some of the diaries. Reidun Nuquist, native of Oslo and longtime neighbor in Vermont, kindly offered translations and interpretations of some of the diaries and letters of expedition members.

  Lawrence Millman, friend, energetic wanderer, and naturalist, who is drawn to far northern places where humans are scarce, encouraged me early on to tackle this, and then, in his uniquely humorous, insightful (sometimes incisive) way, showed me the right direction and even suggested the main title.

  Without Mike Burton, director of the University Press of New England, this book would not have come to pass; he saw through the smoke of my pipe dream about the Fram and got me going on the hard reality of writing about it. Thanks, too, to his skilled and helpful staff.

  Finally, I owe a great deal to my family, for what they do out of love. Nona Estrin, my wife and close companion for so many years and in so many things, got me to Baffin Island twice and shared its wonders with me. She provided keen critique of each chapter through her sharp, discerning eye and finely attuned ear. She continues to inspire and surprise me by her special way of relating to nature, no matter where or when.

  My sons, Brendan and Graylyn, have given me support beyond mere filial duty, showing interest and true delight in what I was up to. Brendan also helped me with the befuddling, and sometimes amusing, world of cyber-translation. My deceased son Hunter is always with me, too, wherever I go.

  Finally, I give remembrance to my parents, whose presence and influence I often felt, different now but as palpable as at any time in my life. My mother, Margaret Hunter Johnson, loved literature, writing, and the quiet reflection required for both. My father, Robert E. Johnson, had a passion for investigation and understanding, including of the Arctic, its people, ecology, and history. I have his autographed copy of Nansen’s Farthest North, cherished for what it is and what it represents to me.



  On June 18, 1884, three Inuit from Julianehaab (now Qaqortoq), a small settlement on Greenland’s southwest coast, spotted something unusual on a slab of floe ice where they were seal hunting. They went closer and found twisted planks of wood, and among them various papers, articles of clothing, and other items with writing they could not read. Interested yet puzzled, they gave the finds to the colonial manager of the town (Greenland then was a colony of Denmark), Carl Lytzen, who was excited by the discovery and documented it in an article in a Danish journal.

  What to some might have seemed a passing account of a curious event in an obscure part of the world was actually big news, leading ultimately to one of the great polar expeditions of all time and revolutionizing scientific understanding of the vast, mysterious, and largely unknown Arctic.

  Lytzen’s article mentioned several items that were of particular interest because of the names they bore, among them the apparent bill of lading for a ship called the Jeannette, signed by its commander George De Long; a list of the Jeannette’s boats; clothing with names, evidently belonging to some of the crew; and even a torn checkbook of the Bank of California. The news soon reached readers, far and wide, who knew all too well about the star-crossed ship with its elegant, almost delicate, name.

  ››› It was the height of “polar fever,” a relatively brief period in the late 1800s and early 1900s when countries were vying with each other to be the first to reach the North Pole (and somewhat later the South Pole), ostensibly for the advancement of knowledge and science, but in reality mostly for fame, prestige, and national pride. It was not unlike a later time when nations raced to be the first into space, then to reach the moon, for the very same reasons. Like the moon, the North Pole seemed a worthy goal since no one had ever been there and it presented so many challenges. But to many, then as now, there was no point in going to such godforsaken places whose only value was to color dreams and fuel ambitions.

  Nonetheless, the Arctic had long captured imaginations and attracted exploration, but mostly for finding trading routes between Europe and eastern North America to China and the Far East, routes that would greatly shorten the arduous, time-consuming, and often prohibitively expensive journeys around Cape Horn or Cape of Good Hope, to and from those bountiful, exotic lands. What, though, exactly lay to the north remained a mystery. This did not stop people from having their theories, even unshakable certainties, about what was there.

  Basing opinions on dubious evidence, none of it direct since no one had ever been there, some professed that the Arctic, that vast unknown northern polar region, was a shallow, open, ice-free sea that could be navigated freely once the great barrier of ice was breeched. This ocean supposedly was fed, and kept open, by warm currents, “rivers” they were called, flowing up the west coast of Norway and east coast of Japan, through the ice barrier and into that open polar sea. Others claimed it was just the opposite, not an ocean but an ice-covered continent whose known extremities were believed to be Greenland and “Wrangel Land” north of Siberia (later discovered to be an island). Still others supposed it was neither open ocean nor frozen land but a sea permanently covered with a shield of ice that would fracture and disperse in a crazy quilt of floes at its southern edges. No one knew for sure.

  Early explorers believing in the open-ocean theory sought passage to the Orient by going north to reach the open ocean but were inevitably forced back by the ice. Stymied, they tried alternative routes through ice-free waters, in opposite directions: one eastward around Scandinavia and then hugging the northern coast of Russia; the other westward from the east coast of North America through a confusing myriad of big islands in the eastern Canadian Arctic and then along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska (then belonging to Russia). Known to history as the Northeast and Northwest Passages, respectively, these routes for centuries were a hope instead of a reality, as the impregnable ice battered ill-suited ships into submission, near disaster, or oblivion, and the dark brutal winters took a heavy toll on the men who dared venture in. It was not until 1879 that the Northeast Passage was actually found, when Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after one winter frozen in above Siberia, punched through into the North Pacific. Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian explorer and later discoverer of the South Pole, was similarly frozen in for two planned winters at King William Island off northern Canada, and then made it to the Pacific Ocean in 1906, the first successful ship transit of the Northwest Passage.

  Though Nordenskiöld, and later Amundsen, proved the passages could indeed be made, the difficulties and risks encountered on the way, including long winter layovers in the ice, caused a cooling of interest in pursuing this way to the Orient. Governments and private sponsors, often jointly, began to turn their attention to the more symbolic achievement of attaining the North Pole, by sending ships north into the ice, some with visions of finding the “rivers” leading to a wave-washed sea, others of reaching a promised, if barren and frigid, land. One of these was the Jeannette, a privately owned American ship with a crew of thirty-three seasoned Arctic sailors “on loan” from the U.S. Navy, including its commander, Lieutenant George De Long.

  Under orders from the U.S. government, the Jeannette set sail in June of 1879 from San Francisco, heading to the Bering Strait, and on to the Chukchi Sea. It was to proceed from there to Wrangel Land, then believed by some to be a southern extension of an “Arctic Continent.” Once landfall was made, they were to track the coast north as far as they could go by water and then make a run for the North Pole on sledges pulled by dogs. The prize of first at the pole would be theirs and their sponsor’s: fame, resounding international acclaim, and possible fortune.

  It did not go as planned. By the fall of that year, the Jeannette was inexorably bound in the ice northwest of Wrangel Land (which, before the ship was beset, De Long had discovered was an island, not a part of a far northern continent), and for the next eighteen months, including two winters, the ship drifted, locked in the ice, in a generally northwesterly direction.
Then, two years after it had left San Francisco, it was finally crushed, and its pulverized remains disappeared into the grinding ice, one thousand miles west of where the ship had first been caught. The crew, in a harrowing tale renowned in Arctic exploration, hauled three of its lifeboats on sledges for weeks until they reached open water near the New Siberian Islands, and then tried to sail together to the Siberian mainland and possible rescue by natives near the Lena River delta. A storm separated the boats; one was lost forever, but the other two, one under the command of De Long and the other under his engineer George Melville, made it to the mainland but were separated far from each other. Each party pushed on, starving and exhausted, trying to find salvation in that unknown, uncharted land. In the end, De Long perished along with nineteen others. His body, the bodies of his party, logbooks, and other items were later found where he died in Siberia and were brought back to the United States.

  Two years later, the items from the smashed-up Jeannette appeared on the ice off Julianehaab, Greenland, and Lytzen’s article announced it to an enthralled if somewhat skeptical audience. People wondered how the items had got there, nearly three thousand miles from the ship’s last known position (as recorded in De Long’s recovered log), in a completely different hemisphere, perhaps even directly over the pole. Were the items fake? If not, had someone planted them there as a kind of joke? If so, why did they go to so much trouble?

  ››› One reader of Lytzen’s article was Henrik Mohn, a noted professor of meteorology at the Royal Frederick University (now University of Oslo) who had himself been on voyages of research in the far north. Based on his considerable knowledge of ocean currents in the region, Mohn felt certain that the items could only have come across a polar sea, riding with the drifting ice. He proposed this theory in a November 1884 newspaper article in Norway. His article, in turn, caught the immediate attention of a bright, twenty-three-year-old Norwegian working as a curator at Bergen’s Museum. His name was Fridtjof Nansen, who would become one of the greatest Arctic explorers, a renowned scientist even to this day, and, in his latter years and for other reasons, a Nobel Prize laureate.

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