Nansen’s Heroic Journey.
by:  N. S. Shaler
(1897)

    The ideas of men concerning the form of the earth go far to determine that sense of relation with nature which is so important a part of our intellectual conception. In the earlier stages of culture, the earth was conceived to be indefinitely extended, — lands beyond lands, and seas beyond seas, until past all that the imagination could compass came the boundless ocean which surrounded the whole. It would seem that this ample concept would have opened the imagination, and incited men to range in ships or fancy over the limitless realm; but it was not so. Even the most imaginative peoples, such as the early Greeks or the folk of India, had very little regard for the unknown. The infinite was a bar to the imagination; if you can go on forever, why go at all? Among the adventurous spirits of antiquity there were few who turned towards exploration, and none who were tempted to seek the unknown seas.

    When the facts concerning the true shape and size of the earth became a part of the general intellectual store, there was a sudden development of interest  in the undiscovered parts of the earth. The sphere, vast as it seemed, could be comprehended; the conception of an antipodes and of realms grading from the tropics to the pole afforded a fair basis for the imagination. Speculations for adventure and of conquest were swiftly formed by all peoples who had the habit of the sea. What we may call the sense of the sphere entered the minds of men.

     After the motives of religious, commercial, and political conquest which characterized the centuries before our own, we find the interest in the earth turning more distinctly to the ways of science. There were no new lands of value to be won by sending a boat’s crew ashore to hoist a flag. Curiosity which could no longer hope to be gratified by the discovery of new continents turned to the depths of the sea or the life of distant lands: here the advance of knowledge has been so rapid that the matter long ago outran the public attention. There are few indeed who are stimulated by the discoveries concerning magnetic declinations, or the contents of the ooze of an ocean floor. So this curiosity about the globe, well developed by centuries of exercise, has had of late a scanty field of satisfaction. All the great popular mysteries of the tropics and the temperate zones are solved. The real students of nature know that our knowledge of the most familiar parts of the earth is so limited that it is in effect ignorance. But most people demand a tale of things unseen before, the sight of  which has been gained by perilous labor. This popular demand for sensational discovery is now restricted to the ice-girt regions about the poles.

     Until very modern times the public paid little attention to the polar regions: their impenetrable areas excited a certain amount of speculation among the northern peoples who dwelt upon their borders, yet they commanded no general attention; but as the unknown disappeared from the lower latitudes, the adventurous spirits, lacking opportunity in the accessible parts of the world, were forced to try their powers on the ice-fields. The first voyages into the frozen seas of the north appear to have been made by the whalers of northern Europe, folk who have faced the dangers of that realm with admirable valor and paid their tribute of life for more than two hundred years. Then came the search for the polarward passage which might give a shorter route to China and the Indies. Last of all, beginning, we may say, with the expedition of Parry in 1821, came the voyages which were in their purpose partly scientific. Not counting the Russian parties, which had for their object the geographic exploration of the Siberian coast and the neighboring islands, there have been more than threescore of these enterprises, each in its way affording an example of valiant endeavor, — the whole presenting a most majestic spectacle of human devotion and endurance. The narratives of these voyages are the best records of the quality of our race. The explorers, knowing nothing of the region, were forced to a rude and illguided assault upon the almost unassailable fortress of the north.

    For many decades the most practicable route to the north pole seemed to be up the broad and readily traversable channel of Davis Strait and Baffin’s Bay, by which ships could arrive at a higher latitude than elsewhere without encountering perennial ice - packs. Unhapply, this west Greenland way terminates northwardly in a region of narrow ice-blocked straits which at their northern ends open into the frozen sea, the surface of which seems to be too rough for sledge travel. It was in this tangle of frozen channels that Sir John Franklin’s expedition was lost.

    The next line of approach to be essayed was that leading by Spitzbergen, or the archipelago to the eastward known as Franz-Josef Land ; but here too the ice - blockade has always been encountered. Some expeditions have been made along the eastcoast of Greenland, but the rebuff that the ice has given has been even more vigorous than on the other routes.

    There thus remained but one unessayed passage, that by Bering Strait and the open water, which was known by the experience of whalers to extend for a good distance to the north of that passage before it came against the ice-pack. The choice of this route was first made by the valiant Lieutenant De Long, of  the American navy, as that for the Jeannette expedition which he commanded. De Long’s views of the situation were sagacious and proved to be well founded. He had learned from the whalers who had been in the Arctic Sea that their ships, when fixed in the ice, always drifted to the northwest. He was most likely wrong in the theory that the cause of this drift was the current of water which passed northwardly through the straits; but his plan of entering the ice and going with it on its polarward voyage was  the most rational and far-sighted contribution to the theory of polar exploration that has been made.

     We all know the story of the unhappy fate of the ill-fitted Jeannette, De Long’s death, and the heroic rescue of the survivors of the expedition by Engineer Melville; but few recognize the fact that if the ship had been well suited for the task she would have won the end the Fram (or Forward, in the English rendering) attained, and thus proved the possibility of journeying to the pole by the simple and relatively safe though tedious process of drifting with the ice across the Arctic Ocean to where the pack breaks up into the floes which stream down the eastern coast of Greenland. On DeLong’s foundations of theory and experience Nansen built, in his preparations for his expedition in the Fram, the last, and on many accounts the most remarkable of all the voyages towards the pole. The story of this journey is admirably told in his Farthest North, in two stately  volumes from the press of Messrs. Harper & Brothers. Not only because it is the latest of the polar expeditions, but  for the reason that the results go further to clear up the mystery of the polar realm, this voyage of Nansen deserves the attention which it is sure to receive from students as well as from the general public.

   In preparing for his latest voyage Nansen had the advantage of a long and well-directed training in arctic exploration; he was particularly fitted for the task by experience won on his excellently managed journey across Greenland in 1888. Although, on that expedition, lhe was perhaps the youngest man who had ever tried a bold adventure in high latitudes, his discretion was well shown, and his success in traversing the great glacier was no more than a fair reward for his skill. Starting with the theory of De Long, Nansen gathered an array of facts  which showed that theory to be well founded. The drift of Siberian timber  to the east coast of Greenland; the contents of the mud found on the ice-floes; the discovery of an Alaskan “throwing-stick” on the Greenland shore; the finding by Eskimos, on the drift-ice of the same region, of various articles which were cast aside by the crew of the Jeannette, — all served to support the hypothesis of De Long that there was a permanent set of the ice to the northwestward from near Bering Strait to the northern-most part of the Atlantic, a movement which might be expected to bring a vessel near the pole.

   Having determined on his expedition, Nansen found his fellow countrymen,  from king to commoner, ready to help him to gather the sum of more than one hundred thousand dollars which the undertaking was to cost. In his ample account of the work of preparation we have a full showing as to the expenses  incurred, from the building of the ship  to the insurance premiums on the lives of the married men of the crew. The sagacity bestowed on the task is best shown in the plan of the Fram. Few of the ships which have faced the dangers of the polar waters have been built for the purpose. The Fram alone was provided with all that modern ship-building contributes for safety and comfort. The ship was of four hundred tons burden, — stronger than any similar mass of timber and steel that was ever put together. A triple expansion engine made her a fair steamer with the least expenditure of fuel. There were electric lights, for which energy was supplied by the steam-engine, by a windmill, or, in case of need, by a contrivance to be turned by hand, incidentally giving exercise to the men. The energy was stocked in storage batteries, so that the crew might have the cheering and health-giving effects of the light which is nearest to that of the sun, during the arctic night. The story of  these and many other arrangements for the welfare of the crew is fascinating;  it has something of the charm that belongs to all well-told tales of the Swiss Family Robinson type, where people are obliged to plan for life apart from their fellows.

    Not all the novel provisions of the equipment turned out to be well contrived. The naphtha launch was a nuisance, and was in the end broken up to furnish runners for those primitive vehicles, the sledges. The machine which was to afford at once exercise and illumination was never used. Still, as events proved, almost all of the foresightful expedients for the safety of ship and crew were well conceived; so that on July 24,1893, when the Fram left Vardo, she was far and away the best conditioned craft that ever turned her prow towards the pole. Nansen’s care as to the material part of his vessel was paralleled in his choice of the men who were to accompany him. These, twelve in number, making with  their chief the ill-omened thirteen, were all Scandinavians. They were selected from a large number of candidates, and  were, as may be seen from their pictures, as sturdy a body of men as could well be brought together; they were in their prime, the eldest forty and the youngest  twenty-six. The wisdom of the commander was nowhere better shown than  in his determination to have no division of his crew into forecastle and cabin; they dwelt together. This arrangement averted the risk of discontent, which does so much to lower the vitality of men.  It enabled the master and his strong lieutenants to impart their courage to all the crew. Experience showed that this method of life in no way lowered the discipline of the ship’s crew; it rather added the strength of the family to the organization.

     The plan of the voyage was to skirt the northern shore of Siberia — a way which the expeditions of Nordenskjold  and others had shown to be possible — to some point north of the New Siberia Islands. The season proved unfavorable. There were great delays due to the ice, so that it was late in September, at the beginning of winter, when the Fram found her way to the pack at a point  about two hundred and fifty miles south-west of the place where the Jeannette sank, twelve years before. Entering the lanes of open water as far as it was possible, the craft was made fast to the ice, where she was at once frozen in. Thus the grim voyage of three years’ duration was begun.

    The years of patient endurance of the ice-drift recorded in the journal have a curious charm. The drifting was very slow, and there were frequent back-sets, so that at the end of the first annual alternation of darkness and day the ship had gone but one hundred and eighty-nine miles, though it had drifted in all more than three hundred miles. At the end of the first stage of the journey, it seemed probable that the men would have to eat the five years’ store of provisions before they would be released from prison in the open sea near Spitzbergen. Nevertheless, the direction of the movements was exactly what had been reckoned upon, and the ship had proved worthy of her mission. Again and again those strange disturbances of the pack which urge one portion of an  ice-field against another caused the floe next the ship to break up and crowd against her sides; but in these as in many subsequent and more formidable wrestlings with this danger, the strong draft, with sides which tumbled sharply to the keel, rose above the contending masses so as to suffer no harm.

   Though the life in both winter and summer had much of sameness, there were numerous diversions. All possible anniversaries were observed; some with processions, of which the reproduced photographs give an entertaining impression. Except in the very dead of winter there were visits from birds, which apparently were flying to and fro from some land to the northeast, and of polar bears, which scented the crew afar off and hungrily sought their company. These great beasts, though willing enough to fight when brought to bay, do not seem to have been as dangerous as they have been represented, for all hands came unscathed from the scores of encounters with them. Then there were the dogs which were taken for possible need in sledge expeditions; there had been near twoscore of them at the start, but they slew one another until the number was materially lessened. As may be imagined, they were good companions for the lonely household. There were the unending observations to be made, some of the results of which we are to consider. So ran the time away.

     The second winter brought a better rate of speed in the drifting, but also wearying backsets, and a direction which made it likely that the Fram would not drift northward beyond 85 deg., and might not go beyond 82 or 83 deg., thus missing the polar point by from three hundred to four hundred miles. The hard testing of the ice-pinches showed that the ship was sure to withstand the perils to which she would be exposed. The perfect health and good spirits of the men warranted the belief that they would fare well in charge of Sverdrup, a masterful man and an able navigator. Therefore Nansen set about his preparations for leaving the vessel, with one companion, for a dog-sled journey towards the goal. The eminent probability of such an expedition becoming necessary had been in view from the beginning; not with the aim, as he takes care to explain, of attaining the precise point where the pole star is in the zenith, but of penetrating as far as possible into the vast unknown realm and ascertaining something of its features.

   The second winter passed in preparing sledges and kyaks for use on open water, in making ready the stores which were to be carried, and in training the dogs for their task. On March 14, 1895, after several unsuccessful starts, Nansen and Lieutenant Johansen finally parted from the ship. Some of their companions went with them for a day or two, but thereafter for fifteen months they were quite alone. For a time, while dogs and men were fresh, and the ice was not very much cut up by the pressure-ridges, over which their heavy sledges had to be worked with great labor and much delay, the party made good speed; but as they journeyed northward the surface became rougher and the labor more arduous. The rate of daily gain rapidly slackened. When Nansen started on this forced march he intended to push north for fifty days before turning; but very soon the  ridges rose to thirty feet in height, and the ground between them was as bad as sludge could make it. A little exploration in advance of the sledges revealed the fact that the field grew yet more difficult to the northward. Moreover, the food for the dogs was becoming scanty; the gruesome business of killing them in succession to feed the remainder was begun. Nothing in the history of the expedition shows more clearly the quality of judgment which makes Nansen a great explorer than his decision at just the right time, as the event proved, to give over the northward march. Many persons would have adhered to the plan of marching on for a definite period, because they would have felt pledged to it; in this as in other instances, he had the  rare capacity to make a well-balanced determination with the moment as the centre. The decisive circumstance was that the computation of his marches so far disagreed with his observations as to  lead him to believe that the ice under his feet was moving southward. So on April 8 the course was turned to the south, not for the Fram, then less than two hundred miles away, but towards Franz-Josef Land, the little known shores of which might be reckoned as at least one half further away than the ship.

    That Nansen did not endeavor to find  his ship, but left her in the ice while he laid his course homeward, has led certain critics to censure his conduct. General Greely, a renowned arctic explorer, asserts that he “thus deviated from the most sacred duty devolving upon the commander of a naval expedition.” Nansen, in his preface, refers with a fine disdain and without comment to this and other prognostications of his failure and carpings at his success. He in no wise makes excuses for his action, leaving the reader to compass the situation. This can readily be done by a brief review of the facts, which may well be set forth here, for the reason that the assault upon the reputation of a man whose record entitles him to eminent respect has been made by one of our countrymen.

   Nansen’s sledge journey was, as before noted, a part of his reckoning. He had provided a second in command, apparently a better trained navigator than himself, to care for the ship. At least four other members of the crew were by quality and training able to take charge of the vessel. To have retreated towards the Fram would have entailed certain grave dangers and limited the work of exploration in an important measure. Owing to the irregular movements of the drift, the place of the vessel at the end of two months, which would have elapsed, could not have been determined within a range of fifty or sixty  miles. If by chance the ice had opened, she might have steamed away on her journey. It was useless to think of following the trail of the sledges, for it might have been effaced by a fall of snow.

   If Nansen had tried to discover the Fram and had failed to do so, he would  then have found himself with his provisions nearly gone and his dogs worn out. The issue showed that in this case he and his companion would probably have perished. Moreover, by pushing southward he made a long journey across a field that had never before been traversed, and that may not he seen again for centuries. There can be no valid suspicion that this independent movement was taken with any idea of abandoning the party. The project, indeed, had been freely talked over with all his companions, and as freely accepted by them as the fit thing to do. The thought that the crew of the Fram would be in any kind of danger was not likely to enter the minds of these stout fellows. It would be quite as reasonable to accuse a forlorn hope of deserting the army which it led, as it would be to charge Nansen with abandoning his ship.

   The journey from the most northern  point he attained afforded the only real hardships and serious dangers incurred on the whole expedition. At first the way was easy, but with the increasing  scarcity of food the dogs had to be killed one by one, so that when the party came, on August 7, to the open water at the northern end of the archipelago known as Franz - Josef Land, there were but two of these faithful comrades left. As there was no possibility of carrying the poor creatures in the kyaks, they also were killed. Nansen and his companion seem to have been much worn by their  hard march. To make matters worse,  their watches had stopped at the same time during a period of stress, so that there was no means at hand whereby to determine their longitude. Land, in the form of numerous islands, was near by, but they could not determine by the shape of these islands where to place  them on the maps. For three weeks they crept west and south, paddling through lanes of water, and dragging their boats over ice-fields which were widening with the increasing cold, until, on August 28, it became evident that they must prepare to winter where they were.

   They built a rude stone hut, chinked  it with snow and roofed it with walrus hides. Here in cheerful misery the two men wore out the hideous winter, with a smoky blubber lamp for light and fire, blubber and bear meat for food, and an occasional battle with a hungry bear for diversion. Their clothing was worn to rags, which had become so sodden with oil that it could be wrung out of them. In conditions like these no approach to cleanliness is possible. In a tussle with a bear Johansen received a blow on the cheek from the creature’s paw. Nansen remarks that the only result was to scrape off some of the grime, so that portions of the white skin were visible. There is little record of this time. The journal was neglected from August 24 until December 6. All the account of these months was set down from memory. In such trials the minds of men are deadened; they live, so far as they live at all, in the moment.

   In March, 1896, the bears came again, and with them came also plenty and the strength to prepare for the further journey to Spitzbergen. Setting out on May 19, the two men journeyed easily except  for the attacks of the walruses, who resented the invasion of their ancient realm.On June 17 they found the permanent station of Jackson, the arctic explorer, which had been established at Cape Flora. Thence, after waiting awhile for a ship, they had a swift passage to Norway.

    Perhaps the most delightful part of this charming story is the account which Nansen gives of his welcome back, — a welcome which came from king and peasant, and which rang adown the shore as he was borne southward towards his home. Most dramatically, as if the Fates for once would give a fill of pleasure, while his only anxiety was concerning the still unheard-from Fram, came the message that she had arrived and that all  the crew were well. The good ship had gone on uneventfully until she cleared the ice in the expected place; thence she had made her way easily to her haven.

    It is too soon to determine the full value of the scientific results which have been attained by Nansen’s voyage. His book is professedly a popular narrative. It evidently contains an account of only a part of the investigations which were made. It seems likely that the harvest of facts will prove to be limited, but what was gathered is of very great importance. The gains to science may be briefly stated as follows: No land masses of consequence were discovered, though certain small additions were made to our knowledge of the islands of the Franz-Josef group. But if the over-sea features of the region traversed lack interest, the under-water part thereof affords a great surprise. It had long been assumed on what appeared to be good grounds that the polar sea was shallow, but Nansen‘s and Sverdrup’s soundings show that their ship floated from one end of her course  in the ice to the other over a depth of about twelve thousand feet. In a word, it is evident that the Atlantic deep extends far up to the north of Asia, perhaps much beyond the point where the Fram made fast to the ice. This revolution in our knowledge of the shape of the earth’s crust will lead to changes in views as to former land connections of North America with Europe.

     Another important point which was well determined is that the water at a little depth below the ice is not arctic water; it has a temperature slightly above freezing; it is pretty surely the end of the Gulf Stream movement, and as such it was recognized by Nansen. If this under-water is flowing to the east-ward, it seems likely that the westward drift is a surface return of the same stream, to a certain extent mingled with the discharge of the numerous great rivers which enter the Arctic Ocean from the American and Eurasian continents. Whether the great depth of the sea can be considered an indication that the region immediately about the pole is also covered by water is not clear. The grade downward to the sea floor from the islands of New Siberia and Franz-Josef Land may be paralleled by a like grade from land about the pole. As before noted, the flight of birds seen at the beginning of the drifting voyage appears to indicate land to the north and east upon which the creatures may have their breeding-places.

     Nansen found abundant evidence of glacial action along the Siberian shore, but his training has evidently not been such as to fit him to observe the facts concerning such phenomena as the geologist needs to know. Near Cape Chelyuskin, on the eastern Taimur Peninsula, he discovered mountains which seemed to have a deep and permanent snow-cap. One cannot help regretting that some of the time spent in hunting on this shore was not devoted to determining which way  the ice movement took place when the glaciers lay over it, — a point of the greatest importance to geologists.

    In the straits by which he traversed Franz-Josef Land Nansen made a few notes of interest. The summits of the islands are extensively occupied by what appears to be a sheetlike mass of dark-colored volcanic rocks. This fact, taken with what is known of like rocks in Spitzbergen, warrants the belief that in the Jurassic or cretaceous age there were here large flows of lava covering a great extent of land or sea floor. Through the lava and down into the underlying stratified rocks, the rivers, in a time when the sea was at a relatively low level, cut deep valleys; in a way dissecting the land. Since then the sea has risen or the land has sunk down, so that the valleys have been turned into straits and bays, the uplands remaining as islands. The discovery of the deep sea near the pole may throw light on the history of these ancient river systems, and thus help us to a better understanding of arctic geography.

    Although the gain for learning won by Nansen’s voyage is large, the chief value of his book consists in the charming exhibition of human nature which it affords. From the dedication, “To her who christened the ship, and had the courage to remain behind,” to the story of the welcome home, these volumes are an admirable record of genuine manliness. Those persons who have become poisoned by the vain notion that our race is in its decadence should read this account of how men of our race and time endured the severest trials that nature can impose on them.

N. S. Shaler



 source:  Shaler, N. S., "Nansen’s Heroic Journey",  The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 79, Issue 475,
Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co., May 1897, pp 610-617
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