The mothers, however, would not leave their dead young ones. One sniffed at its young one, and pushed it, evidently unable to make out what was the matter; it only saw the blood spurting from its head. It cried and wailed like a human being. At last, when the herd began to plunge in, the mother pushed her young one before her towards the water. I now feared that I should lose my booty, and ran forward to save it; but she was too quick for me. She took the young one by one fore-leg, and disappeared with it like lightning into the depths.
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Unseen and untrodden under their spotless mantle of ice the rigid polar regions slept the profound sleep of death from the earliest dawn of time. Wrapped in his white shroud, the mighty giant stretched his clammy ice-limbs abroad, and dreamed his age-long dreams.
Ages passed—deep was the silence. Then, in the dawn of history, far away in the south, the awakening spirit of man reared its head on high and gazed over the earth. To the south it encountered warmth, to the north, cold; and behind the boundaries of the unknown it placed in imagination the twin kingdoms of consuming heat and of deadly cold. Up to this point no insuperable obstacles had opposed the progress of the advancing hosts, which confidently proceeded on their way.
But here the ramparts of ice and the long darkness of winter brought them to bay. Host after host marched on towards the north, only to suffer defeat. Fresh ranks stood ever ready to advance over the bodies of their predecessors.
Why did we continually return to the attack? Thither, where no living being could draw breath, thither troop after troop made its way. To what end? Was it to bring home the dead, as did Hermod when he rode after Baldur?
Nowhere, in truth, has knowledge been purchased at greater cost of privation and suffering. But the spirit of mankind will never rest till every spot of these regions has been trodden by the foot of man, till every enigma has been solved.
Minute by minute, degree by degree, we have stolen [ 3 ]forward, with painful effort. Slowly the day has approached; even now we are but in its early dawn; darkness still broods over vast tracts around the Pole. Our ancestors, the old Vikings, were the first Arctic voyagers.
It has been said that their expeditions to the frozen sea were of no moment, as they have left no enduring marks behind them. This, however, is scarcely correct. Just as surely as the whalers of our age, in their persistent struggles with ice and sea, form our outposts of investigation up in the north, so were the old Northmen, with Eric the Red, Leif, and others at their head, the pioneers of the polar expeditions of future generations.
It should be borne in mind that as they were the first ocean navigators, so also were they the first to combat with the ice. Long before other seafaring nations had ever ventured to do more than hug the coast lines, our ancestors had traversed the open seas in all directions, had discovered Iceland and Greenland, and had colonized them. At a later period they discovered America, and did not shrink from making a straight course over the Atlantic Ocean, from Greenland to Norway.
Many and many a bout must they have had with the ice along the coasts of Greenland in their open barks, and many a life must have been lost. And that which impelled them to undertake these expeditions was not the mere love of adventure, though that is, indeed, one of the essential traits of our national [ 4 ]character. It was rather the necessity of discovering new countries for the many restless beings that could find no room in Norway.
Furthermore, they were stimulated by a real interest for knowledge. How far he went no one knows, but at all events he deserves recognition as one of the first of the polar navigators that were animated by pure love of knowledge. Naturally, these Northmen were not free from the superstitious ideas about the polar regions prevalent in their times. There, indeed, they placed their Ginnungagap, their Nivlheim, Helheim, and later on Trollebotn; but even these mythical and [ 5 ]poetical ideas contained so large a kernel of observation that our fathers may be said to have possessed a remarkably clear conception of the true nature of things.
Some of the ice is so flat that it looks as if it were frozen on the sea itself; it is from 8 to 10 feet thick, and extends so far out into the sea that it would take a journey of four or more days to reach the land over it.
But this ice lies more to the northeast or north, beyond the limits of the land, than to the south and southwest or west It lies at times quite still, as one would expect, with openings or large fjords in it; but sometimes its movement is so strong and rapid as to equal that of a ship running before the wind, and it drifts against the wind as often as with it.
The strength of our people now dwindled away, and [ 6 ]centuries elapsed before explorers once more sought the northern seas. Then it was other nations, especially the Dutch and the English, that led the van.
The sober observations of the old Northmen were forgotten, and in their stead we meet with repeated instances of the attraction of mankind towards the most fantastic ideas; a tendency of thought that found ample scope in the regions of the north. When the cold proved not to be absolutely deadly, theories flew to the opposite extreme, and marvellous were the erroneous ideas that sprang up and have held their own down to the present day.
Over and over again it has been the same—the most natural explanation of phenomena is the very one that men have most shunned; and, if no middle course was to be found, they have rushed to the wildest hypothesis. It is only thus that the belief in an open polar sea could have arisen and held its ground.
Though everywhere ice was met with, people maintained that this open sea must lie behind the ice. Thus the belief in an ice-free northeast and northwest passage to the wealth of Cathay or of India, first propounded towards the close of the 15th century, cropped up again and again, only to be again and again refuted. Since the ice barred the southern regions, the way must lie farther north; and finally a passage over the Pole itself was sought for. Wild as these theories were, they have worked for the benefit of mankind; for by their means our knowledge of the earth has been [ 7 ]widely extended.
Hence we may see that no work done in the service of investigation is ever lost, not even when carried out under false assumptions. England has to thank these chimeras in no small degree for the fact that she has become the mightiest seafaring nation of the world.
By many paths and by many means mankind has endeavored to penetrate this kingdom of death. At first the attempt was made exclusively by sea. Ships were then ill adapted to combat the ice, and people were loath to make the venture.
The clinker-built pine and fir barks of the old Northmen were no better fitted for the purpose than were the small clumsy carvels of the first English and Dutch Arctic explorers. Little by little they learnt to adapt their vessels to the conditions, and with ever-increasing daring they forced them in among the dreaded floes.
But the uncivilized polar tribes, both those that inhabit the Siberian tundras and the Eskimo of North America, had discovered, long before polar expeditions had begun, another and a safer means of traversing these regions—to wit, the sledge, usually drawn by dogs. It was in Siberia that this excellent method of locomotion was first applied to the service of polar exploration. Already in the 17th and 18th centuries the Russians undertook very extensive sledge journeys, and charted the whole of the Siberian coast from the borders of Europe to Bering Strait.
And they did not merely [ 8 ]travel along the coasts, but crossed the drift-ice itself to the New Siberian Islands, and even north of them. Nowhere, perhaps, have travellers gone through so many sufferings, or evinced so much endurance.
In America, too, the sledge was employed by Englishmen at an early date for the purpose of exploring the shores of the Arctic seas. Sometimes the toboggan or Indian sledge was used, sometimes that of the Eskimo. While the Russians had generally travelled with a large number of dogs, and only a few men, the English employed many more men on their expeditions, and their sledges were entirely, or for the most part, drawn by the explorers themselves.
It would appear, indeed, as if dogs were not held in great estimation by the English. The American traveller Peary has, however, adopted a totally different method of travelling on the inland ice of Greenland, employing as few men and as many dogs as possible. The great importance of dogs for sledge journeys was clear to me before I undertook my Greenland expedition, and the reason I did not use them then [ 9 ]was simply that I was unable to procure any serviceable animals.
It is said of the old Northmen in the Sagas and in the Kongespeilet, that for days on end they had to drag their boats over the ice in the Greenland sea, in order to reach land. The first in modern times to make use of this means of travelling was Parry, who, in his memorable attempt to reach the Pole in , abandoned his ship and made his way over the drift-ice northward with boats, which he dragged on sledges.
Of later years this method of travelling has not been greatly employed in approaching the Pole. It may, however, be mentioned that Markham took boats with him also on his sledge expedition. Many expeditions have through sheer necessity accomplished long distances over the drift-ice in this way, in order to reach home after having abandoned or lost their ship. At all events, no attempts have been made in this direction. The methods of advance have been tested on four main routes: the Smith Sound route, the sea route between Greenland and Spitzbergen, Franz Josef Land route, and the Bering Strait route.
In later times, the point from which the Pole has been most frequently assailed is Smith Sound, probably because American explorers had somewhat too hastily asserted that they had there descried the open Polar Sea, extending indefinitely towards the north. Every expedition was stopped, however, by immense masses of ice, which came drifting southward, and piled themselves up against the coasts. The most important expedition by this route was the English one conducted by Nares in —76, the equipment of which involved a vast expenditure.
During the stay of the Greely expedition from to in this same region, Lockwood attained a somewhat higher record, viz. By way of the sea between Greenland and Spitzbergen, several attempts have been made to penetrate the secrets of the domain of ice. In Henry Hudson endeavored to reach the Pole along the east coast of Greenland, where he was in hopes of finding an open basin and a waterway to the Pacific.
Owing to the enormous masses of ice which the polar current sweeps southward along this coast, it is certainly one of the most unfavorable routes for a polar expedition. A better route is that by Spitzbergen, which was essayed by Hudson, when his progress was blocked off Greenland. Thanks to the warm current that runs by the west coast of Spitzbergen in a northerly direction, the sea is kept free from ice, and it is without comparison the route by which one can the most safely and easily reach high latitudes in ice-free waters.
It was north of Spitzbergen that Edward Parry made his attempt in , above alluded to. Farther eastward the ice-conditions are less favorable, and therefore few polar expeditions have directed their course through these regions.
Franz Josef Land was afterwards twice visited by the English traveller Leigh Smith in and —82; and it is here that the English Jackson-Harmsworth expedition is at present established. The plan of the Danish expedition under Hovgaard was to push forward to the North Pole from Cape Chelyuskin along the east coast of an extensive tract of land which Hovgaard thought must lie to the east of Franz Josef Land.
He got set fast in the ice, however, in the Kara Sea, and remained the winter there, returning home the following year. Only a few attempts have been made through Bering Strait. Scarcely anywhere have polar travellers been so hopelessly blocked by ice in comparatively low latitudes.
The last-named expedition, however, had a most important bearing upon my own. His main reason for this choice was his belief in a Japanese current running north through Bering Strait and onward along the east coast of Wrangel Land, which was believed to extend far to the north.
It was urged that the warm water of this current would open a way along that coast, possibly up to the Pole. The experience of whalers showed that whenever their vessels were set fast in the ice here they drifted northwards; hence it was concluded that the current generally set in that direction.
Everywhere, then, has the ice stopped the progress of [ 14 ]mankind towards the north. In two cases only have ice-bound vessels drifted in a northerly direction—in the case of the Tegethoff and the Jeannette—while most of the others have been carried away from their goal by masses of ice drifting southward. On reading the history of Arctic explorations, it early occurred to me that it would be very difficult to wrest the secrets from these unknown regions of ice by adopting the routes and the methods hitherto employed.
But where did the proper route lie? It was in the autumn of that I happened to see an article by Professor Mohn in the Norwegian Morgenblad, in which it was stated that sundry articles which must have come from the Jeannette had been found on the southwest coast of Greenland. He conjectured that they must have drifted on a floe right across the Polar Sea.
It immediately occurred to me that here lay the route ready to hand. If a floe could drift right across the unknown region, that drift might also be enlisted in the service of exploration—and my plan was laid.
Some years, however, elapsed before, in February, , after my return from my Greenland expedition, I at last propounded the idea in an address before the Christiania Geographical Society.
As this address plays an important part in the history of the expedition, I shall reproduce its principal features, as printed in the March number of Naturen,
Farthest North by Nansen
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Early life Nansen went to school in Kristiania Oslo , where in he passed his entrance examination to the university. He chose to study zoology in the expectation that fieldwork would give him the chance of an outdoor life and enable him to make use of his artistic talents. Although scientific work was always closest to his heart, he first attained fame as an explorer. As a young man Nansen was a great outdoor athlete, an accomplished skater and skier, and a keen hunter and fisherman.