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A Yankee Notebook

February 16, 2015


MONTPELIER – 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 of writing they could not read.

That’s the opening of the Prologue of Ice Ship, a brand-new book by Charles Johnson, a neighbor of ours in East Montpelier, a Coast Guard veteran and former Vermont State Naturalist. The incident it describes marks the beginning of the end of the end of fantasies and speculation long held about the nature of the Arctic Ocean. Charles’ book is the result of years of research and visits to the Ice Ship itself: the Fram, now preserved in a huge A-frame building specially erected for it in Oslo. The tale follows the ship on its three voyages to the Arctic Ocean, the then-unexplored islands west of Greenland and Ellesmere Island, and finally to the Antarctic ice shelf in support of Roald Amundsen’s successful expedition to the South Pole.

If you’re at all hazy on Arctic geography, you’ll need a good map of the earth north of 50 degrees to follow the first two voyages of Fram (“Forward”). It also helps to have an interest in exploration, or at least an appreciation of the Norwegian fascination for it, beginning in the Viking Age, when the Scandinavians developed their sleek, swift-sailing longships.

There was no doubt about the provenance of the bits of rubbish and clothing found in 1884 off the southwest tip of Greenland, just west of Cape Farewell. Among them were papers signed by the captain of the USS Jeannette, a ship last heard from in August 1878. She’d been bought by James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, who had an interest in Arctic exploration. Jeannette was commissioned by the United States Navy to proceed north through the Bering Strait, break through into the open polar sea, and sail to the North Pole, if possible.

That whole exercise was a classic case of wishful thinking. Jeannette was caught fast in the ice pack by mid-September and never escaped – though she did drift northward, raising hopes that she might reach the Pole while beset – but after almost two years in the ice, she was finally crushed by the irresistible drifting pack. The crew set off for the inhospitable and all-but-uninhabited coast of Siberia. Their odyssey, calamities, and the survival of a few of them are epic tales. The best book on the subject – In the Lena Delta – is that of the intrepid engineer, George Melville, who with his surviving boat crew spent three years searching for his lost shipmates.

If you’re checking your map, you can see how far it is from north of the Chukchi Sea to the southern tip of Greenland. The appearance of flotsam from Jeannette excited much comment, and seemed to support the theory, recently proposed but generally unaccepted, of the transpolar drift of pack ice. And it caught the attention of an athletic young Norwegian scholar and scientist, Fridtjof Nansen, yearning for adventure right at the onset of the last great age of terrestrial conquest.

Nansen was able to convince influential Norwegian donors and institutions of the probability of success in reaching the North Pole in a ship purposely frozen into the ice and built to withstand its pressure; and he was able to persuade enough of them to part with enough cash to finance the construction of the ship. It was designed and built by a Norwegian architect and yard, and manned by an all-Norwegian crew (“Typical Scandinavian depressives,”mused a Danish friend of mine, “perfectly suited to spending a nine-month winter in the dark.”). The ship’s wooden hull was built incredibly strong – two feet thick amidships, and six feet thick at bow and stern, with extra bracing throughout. It was rounded below the waterline, designed to rise up under pressure, but in the open sea guaranteed to cause seasickness in the stoutest sailor. Nansen stocked provisions for five years, mounted a windmill to provide electric light (it soon broke), and took several teams of sledge dogs. Fram picked her way east through the Northeast Passage and entered the pack near the New Siberian Islands, near where Jeannette had been beset.

Fram emerged from the pack three years later near Spitsbergen, but without reaching 90º north latitude. Nansen and a companion, Hjalmar Johansen, who’d left the ship to try for the pole with skis and dogs, emerged about the same time in Franz Josef Land farther to the east after a long winter underground in a rude dugout. Ship and crew were instantly famous. Nansen later became the League of Nations Commissioner for World War I refugees, and won a Nobel Prize.

Norwegians are justifiably proud of their maritime heritage, and show it. A short ferry ride across Oslo Harbor lies the Bygdøy Peninsula, studded with museums. The biggest is the giant A-frame that houses Fram. You can walk all around her and through her; I remember how short the bunks were for such tall Scandinavians. Right beside that A-frame is another that shelters Gjøa, the ship that carried Roald Amundsen and his crew on the first traverse of the Northwest Passage. Across a parking lot stands the Kon-Tiki Museum, with the huge balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl and a few hardy, water-soaked kindred spirits sailed from South America to Polynesia, demonstrating that it could have been done. (Modern DNA evidence suggests that it was.) A short distance away lies the museum containing some of the clinker-built, thousand-year-old longships that carried the Vikings throughout Europe and westward to the New World almost 500 years before Columbus. A day on Bygdøy provides more stimulation than the average person can process. The how and what of exploration and adventure are all there. Charles Johnson’s Ice Ship beautifully captures the essence of the Norse spirit that fills in the answer to the big remaining question: Why?

Photo by Willem lange