Thursday, May 13, 2010

Siberian driftwood cannot lie

The great Norwegian explorer, oceanographer and international diplomat, Fridtjof Nansen, died 80 years ago today. One of his many important achievements was to envisage the possibility of, and then lead an expedition towards, the North Pole by sailing a specially-designed ship - Fram - into pack ice and letting the natural currents drift her in the ice towards the Pole. Nansen’s record of the Fram expedition, based largely on his diaries, have become a classic of the genre, and are still in print. The original two volumes, however, are freely available on the internet.

Nansen was born near Oslo in 1861 into a prosperous family. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was keen on encouraging her children toward outdoor pursuits. At school, Nansen excelled at sciences as well as at sports such as skating and skiing. In 1882, he joined a sealer for a trip of several months to Greenland. He studied zoology at the University of Oslo, starting in 1881, but also worked during the period as zoological curator at the Bergen Museum. In 1888 he enacted a plan, first envisaged after the sealer trip, to ski across Greenland’s ice cap. The key to his success in this venture, he said, was to have decided to cross from the uninhabited east to the inhabited west, so there would be no possibility of retreat.

In 1889, Nansen married the accomplished singer Eva Sars, and they were to have five children, though Eva was to die tragically young, of pneumonia in 1907. In the next few years, Nansen served as curator of the Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo, published two books - The First Crossing of Greenland (1890) and Eskimo Life (1891) - and planned a new expedition into the Arctic, this time based on an audacious plan to reach the North Pole by building a ship that would be carried, not crushed, by the winter freezing and movement of ice in the polar sea.

The Fram (Forward in English) was sailed into the ice pack off Siberia in September 1893, and then began the expected long slow drift. However, in March 1895, after 18 months, and once it was clear that the Fram would continue to drift safely but no closer to the Pole, Nansen and one colleague, F H Johansen, left the ship for an attempt on the Pole. Using dogsleds, they travelled for 23 days, and got closer than anyone had before, but then they turned back, southwest to Franz Josef Land. There they spent the 1895-1896 winter, living in a stone hut roofed with walrus skins, and eating polar bear and walrus meat. They started south again in May, and were reunited with the crew of the Fram in August 21 at Tromsø. Wikipedia has a long and detailed article about the expedition.

Professor James S Aber of Emporia State University makes this assessment of Nansen’s methods in Arctic exploration: ‘Previous expeditions had attempted to transfer temperate European technique into a hostile environment without success. Many men and ships were destroyed, lost, or killed by such tactics. Nansen’s expeditions, on the other hand, involved small crews and carefully conceived methods based on Eskimo and Lapp techniques of survival. In all of Nansen’s exploits, not a single person, major piece of equipment, or important scientific observation was lost. No other person or exploration program, before or since, can claim such an outstanding record for success and safety under such adverse conditions.’

The Fram voyage was Nansen’s final expedition, but it was to provide him with plenty of work and a good income in the years to come. He wrote an account of the voyage based on his diaries, which was translated into English and published in two volumes already in 1897, and he compiled six volumes of scientific observations. Although, after the Fram expedition, he was given a professorship of zoology at the University of Oslo, his interests shifted towards oceanography and he was appointed professor of oceanography instead, leading to important research on the behaviour and origin of ocean currents.

Despite his passion for scientific research, Nansen found himself increasingly preoccupied with political and international issues. In 1905, he supported the independence of Norway from Sweden and, after the dissolution of the Union, served as his country’s minister to Great Britain until May 1908. During the First World War, he served as head of the Norwegian commission to the US. After the war, there were some attempts to make him prime minister, in a broad coalition against a strengthening Labour Party. But, according to Wikipedia, the rejection of this attempt to establish a Nansen government also marked Norway’s final transition into the parliamentary system.

When the League of Nations started in 1920, he was Norway’s delegate and remained so till his death. For the League, he organised the repatriating of nearly half a million prisoners of war, many of them held in Russia; and he administered its High Commission for Refugees. For the Red Cross, he directed relief aid for millions of Russians suffering in the 1921-1922 famine. He also directed major efforts by the League to solve the problem of Greek refugees and to resettle survivors of the Armenian genocide. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died on 13 May 1930, eighty years ago today. Apart from Wikipedia, there is plenty of biographical information about Nansen available on the internet, not least at the website of the Nobel Prize or the Fram Museum.

Nansen’s record of the Fram expedition has become something of an explorer’s classic with many editions since the original two volumes were published by Archibald Constable and Co in London and Harper & Brothers in New York in 1897. In English the book was called Farthest North with the subtitle Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship Fram 1893-1896 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr Nansen and Lieut. Johansen. There is no acknowledgement of a translator, but there are many photographs and sketches. Both volumes are freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are several consecutive entries from early in 1894. In them, Nansen not only gives a good summary of the expedition so far, but waxes lyrical about his daughter and the stars, gets all philosophical, and mulls over the idea of leaving the Fram and trying to sledge to the Pole (more than a year before he actually does so).

4 January 1894.
‘It seems as if the twilight were increasing quite perceptibly now, but this is very possibly only imagination. I am in good spirits in spite of the fact that we are drifting south again. After all, what does it matter? Perhaps the gain to science will be as great, and, after all, I suppose this desire to reach the North Pole is only a piece of vanity. I have now a very good idea of what it must be like up there. (‘I like that!’ say you.) Our deep water here is connected with, is a part of, the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean - of this there can be no doubt. And have not I found that things go exactly as I calculated they would whenever we get a favorable wind? Have not many before us had to wait for wind? And as to vanity - that is a child’s disease, got over long ago. All calculations, with but one exception, have proved correct. We made our way along the coast of Asia, which many prophesied we should have great difficulty in doing. We were able to sail farther north than I had dared to hope for in my boldest moments, and in just the longitude I wished. We are closed in by the ice, also as I wished. The Fram has borne the ice-pressure splendidly, and allows herself to be lifted by it without so much as creaking, in spite of being more heavily loaded with coal, and drawing more water than we reckoned on when we made our calculations; and this after her certain destruction and ours was prophesied by those most experienced in such matters. I have not found the ice higher nor heavier than I expected it to be; and the comfort, warmth, and good ventilation on board are far beyond my expectations. Nothing is wanting in our equipment, and the food is quite exceptionally good. As Blessing and I agreed a few days ago, it is as good as at home; there is not a thing we long for; not even the thought of a beefsteak a la Chateaubriand, or a pork cutlet with mushrooms and a bottle of Burgundy, can make our mouths water; we simply don’t care about such things. The preparations for the expedition cost me several years of precious life; but now I do not grudge them: my object is attained. On the drifting ice we live a winter life, not only in every respect better than that of previous expeditions, but actually as if we had brought a bit of Norway, of Europe, with us. We are as well off as if we were at home. All together in one saloon, with everything in common, we are a little part of the fatherland, and daily we draw closer and closer together. In one point only have my calculations proved incorrect, but unfortunately in one of the most important. I pre-supposed a shallow Polar Sea, the geatest depth known in these regions up till now being 80 fathoms, found by the Jeannette. I reasoned that all currents would have a strong influence in the shallow Polar Sea, and that on the Asiatic side the current of the Siberian rivers would be strong enough to drive the ice a good way north. But here I already find a depth which we cannot measure with all our line, a depth of certainly 1,000 fathoms, and possibly double that. This at once upsets all faith in the operation of a current; we find either none, or an extremely slight one; my only trust now is in the winds. Columbus discovered America by means of a mistaken calculation, and even that not his own; heaven only knows where my mistake will lead us. Only I repeat once more - the Siberian driftwood on the coast of Greenland cannot lie, and the way it went we must go.’

8 January 1894
‘Little Liv [Nansen’s daughter] is a year old today; it will be a fete day at home. As I was lying on the sofa reading after dinner, Peter put his head in at the door and asked me to come up and look at a strange star which had just shown itself above the horizon, shining like a beacon flame. I got quite a start when I came on deck and saw a strong red light just above the edge of the ice in the south. It twinkled and changed color; it looked just as if some one were coming carrying a lantern over the ice; I actually believe that for a moment I so far forgot our surroundings as to think that it really was some person approaching from the south. It was Venus, which we see to-day for the first time, as it has till now been beneath the horizon. It is beautiful with its red light. Curious that it should happen to come to-day. It must be Liv’s star, as Jupiter is the home star. And Liv’s birthday is a lucky day - we are on our way north again. According to observations we are certainly north of 79° north latitude. On the home day, September 6th, the favorable wind began to blow that carried us along the coast of Asia; perhaps Liv’s day has brought us into a good current, and we are making the real start for the north under her star.’

12 January 1894
‘There was pressure about 10 o’clock this morning in the opening forward, but I could see no movement when I was there a little later. I followed the opening some way to the north. It is pretty cold work walking with the thermometer at 40° F below zero, and the wind blowing with a velocitv of 16 feet per second straight in your face. But now we are certainly drifting fast to the north under Liv’s star. After all, it is not quite indifferent to me whether we are going north or south. When the drift is northward new life seems to come into me, and hope, the ever young, springs fresh and green from under the winter snow. I see the way open before me, and I see the home-coming in the distance - too great happiness to believe in.’

14 January 1894
‘Sunday again. . . Yesterday the ice was quiet, but this morning there was considerable pressure in several places. Goodness knows what is causing it just now; it is a whole week after new moon. I took a long walk to the southwest, and got right in among it. Packing began where I stood, with roars and thunders below me and on every side. I jumped, and ran like a hare, as if I had never heard such a thing before; it came so unexpectedly. The ice was curiously fiat there to the south; the farther I went the flatter it grew, with excellent sledging surface. Over such ice one could drive many miles a day.’

15 January 1894
‘There was pressure forward both this morning and towards noon, but we heard the loudest sounds from the north. Sverdrup, Mogstad, and Peter went in that direction and were stopped by a large, open channel. Peter and I afterwards walked a long distance N.N.E., past a large opening that I had skirted before Christmas. It was shining, flat ice, splendid for sledging on, always better the farther north we went. The longer I wander about and see this sort of ice in all directions, the more strongly does a plan take hold of me that I have long had in my mind. It would be possible to get with dogs and sledges over this ice to the Pole, if one left the ship for good and made one’s way back in the direction of Franz Josef Land, Spitzbergen, or the west coast of Greenland. It might almost be called an easy expedition for two men.

But it would be too hasty to go off in spring. We must first see what kind of drift the summer brings. And as I think over it, I feel doubtful if it would be right to go off and leave the others. Imagine if I came home and they did not! Yet it was to explore the unknown polar regions that I came; it was for that the Norwegian people gave their money; and surely my first duty is to do that if I can. I must give the drift plan a longer trial yet; but if it takes us in a wrong direction, then there is nothing for it but to try the other, come what may.’

16 January 1894
‘The ice is quiet to-day. Does longing stupefy one, or does it wear itself out and turn at last into stolidity? Oh that burning longing night and day were happiness! But now its fire has turned to ice. Why does home seem so far away? It is one’s all; life without it is so empty, so empty - nothing but dead emptiness. Is it the restlessness of spring that is beginning to come over one, the desire for action, for something different from this indolent, enervating life? Is the soul of man nothing but a succession of moods and feelings, shifting as incalculably as the changing winds? Perhaps my brain is over-tired; day and night my thoughts have turned on the one point, the possibility of reaching the Pole and getting home. Perhaps it is rest I need - to sleep, sleep! Am I afraid of venturing my life? No, it cannot be that. But what else, then, can be keeping me back? Perhaps a secret doubt of the practicability of the plan. My mind is confused; the whole thing has got into a tangle; I am a riddle to myself. I am worn out, and yet I do not feel any special tiredness. Is it perhaps because I sat up reading last night? Everything around is emptiness, and my brain is a blank. I look at the home pictures and am moved by them in a curious, dull way; I look into the future, and feel as if it does not much matter to me whether I get home in the autumn of this year or next. So long as I get home in the end, a year or two seem almost nothing. I have never thought this before. I have no inclination to read, nor to draw, nor to do anything else whatever. Folly! Shall I try a few pages of Schopenhauer? No, I will go to bed, though I am not sleepy. Perhaps, if the truth were known, I am longing now more than ever. The only thing that helps me is writing, trying to express myself on these pages, and then looking at myself, as it were, from the outside. Yes, man’s life is nothing but a succession of moods, half memory and half hope.’

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