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CHAPTER XX.

NANSEN, THE MODERN VIKING.

Fridtjof Nansen, subject of the king of Norway, descendant of the vikings who braved the perils of ice and storm in early ages, surpassed Greely's "farthest north," and established a record which it remained for Peary to beat.

There have been few polar explorers of greater courage and physical equipment for the hardships of the Arctic than Nansen. Of powerful frame and dauntless bravery, he is a mighty hunter, a man of tremendous determination, and shrewd in the ways of the wilderness. Had it not been given to Peary and Cook to find the pole in 1909, it may well be believed that Nansen would have reached it in a few years.

The first great exploit for which Nansen is famous is the crossing of Greenland, which meant the traversing of the immense glacier which covers the whole central part of the island, the scaling of enormous ice-mountains, and the slaying of fierce wild beasts, lest he himself be slain. The feat was accomplished in the summer of 1888, five men accompanying Nansen, and making part of the journey by sledges, which they hauled themselves, as they had no dogs. The route led over great snow-wastes, never before trod by human foot, and up mountains, some of which were 9,000 feet high. Part of the way led over water to cross which it was necessary for the party to drag a boat along. Frequently the thermometer fell 40 below zero; once to 49 below. This journey, a distance of about 800 miles, was accomplished in ninety days. On his return Nansen found himself a hero. He arrived in Copenhagen May 21, 1889, was attended by a demonstration remarkably similar to that accorded Dr. Cook when the latter returned from the Arctic. Immense crowds met Nansen at the dock, and although royalty in person did not accord him the same honors that fell to Cook, he was lionized in every way scientific bodies could devise. During the summer he visited all the European capitals, and his personality became as well known as that of any famous man on earth.

The natural result of this was that when, a year or two later, Nansen conceived the ambition to reach the north pole, he received enthusiastic support. He had a startling theory he desired to prove. This was that in a ship built stanchly enough to endure any amount of ice-pressure, he could drift across the top of the earth, and thus claim the distinction of being first in that latitude. He based his idea on the experience of the steamer Jeannette, which was abandoned north of the New Siberia Island in June, 1881, and pieces of which were recovered on the shore of West Greenland.

Nansen said: "It struck me that if objects from a ship could drift this way, a ship, too, might go the same route, provided she was strong enough to withstand the pressure of the ice."

The theory did not meet with unanimous support from other explorers, but Nansen was encouraged to keep on, and in November, 1890, the ship Fram was christened in Norway. The Fram, which is still in service, is perhaps the strongest boat ever built. Her dimensions are: Length of keel, 102, and water line, 113 feet. Breadth at water line, 34 feet; depth of hold, 17 feet. The total thickness of" the ship's sides is 24 to 28 inches, braced by powerful beams of wood and iron, and all the material used in the construction is the toughest and most durable that could be procured from any part of the world.

As showing the enthusiasm aroused by the project, the following list of contributions for it is given:


Appropriation by the Government of Norway, about   $75,500

The King's private purse and individuals                        28,500

Collections by a committee                                                6,100

Dr. Nansen's contribution                                                   5,000

London Geographical Society                                           2,000

A private gentleman of Riga (not named)                        1,750

Interest account                                                                   2,700

                                                      Total $121,550


The Fram left Christiana Fjord, Norway, June 23, 1893, with a crew of fourteen men, and provisions for two years. It sailed to Siberia, where Nansen hoped to strike the current that apparently took the Jeannette west. In August the ship gained the open sea and drifted to latitude 79; but later the cantankerous current started the other way, and carried the Fram southeast to latitude 77. There she became frozen in, and subject to an enormous pressure of ice. This, however, only served to bring out the strength of the vessel, which was specially constructed so the ice, instead of crushing her, would slide along her sides.

In March of that year, after the party had endured the longest polar night ever seen by man owing to their long stay above the 70th parallel, Nansen decided on a sledge journey. He had concluded the drift project was too uncertain. The greatest risks attended this venture, and Nansen determined to make it himself, with only one companion, a man named Johansen. On March 3 the sun appeared, and eleven days later the two started out. The trip was one of the most trying any explorer has suffered, but it was also one of the most triumphant, for it was by this means Nansen achieved his "farthest north" 86 degrees, 14 minutes, north latitude. The best previous record was that of the Greely party. Nansen reached to within 225 geographical miles of the north pole.

Nansen writes: "In order to investigate the state of the ice, and the possibility of advance, I went further north on ski (slender snow-shoes that resemble sled runners) but could discern no likely way. From the highest hummock I could find, I saw only packed and piled up ice as far as the horizon. Here, as during our whole journey, we saw no sign of land in any direction. The ice appeared to drift before the wind without being stopped by mainland or islands. If it were like this in the direction of Franz Josef Land, we might have difficulty enough getting there, and the ice grew so bad that I thought it unadvisable to continue our journey any further toward the north."

The loneliness of the trip was somewhat relieved by the hunting of game, in which the two had many thrilling experiences. One of the most notable of these was an adventure which Nansen describes as follows:

"We were just about to cross a channel on the ice in our kayaks. This was generally accomplished by tying the two kayaks together on the ice, then placing them on the water, and after creeping with the dogs out onto the decks, paddling across. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, and turning saw Johansen on his back with a bear over him, he holding the bear by the throat. I caught at my gun which lay on the fore-deck of my kayak; but at the same moment the boat slid into the water, and the gun with it. By exerting all my strength I hauled the heavy laden kayak up again, but while doing so I heard Johansen quietly remark, 'You must hurry up if you don't want to be too late.' At last I got the gun out of the case; and as I turned round with it cocked, the bear was just in front of me. In the hurry of the moment I had cocked the right barrel, which was loaded with shot; but the charge took effect behind the ear, and the bear fell down dead between us. The only wound that Johansen received was a slight scratch on the back of one hand, and we went on our way well laden with fresh bear meat.

"The bear must have followed our track like a cat, and, covered by the ice-blocks, have slunk up while we were clearing the ice from the lane and had our backs to him. We could see by the trail how it had crept over a small ridge just behind us under cover of a mound by Johansen's kayak. While the latter, without suspecting anything or looking rounds went back and stooped down to pick up the hauling rope, he suddenly caught sight of an animal crouched up at the end of the kayak, but thought it was Suggen (the dog); and before he had time to realize that it was so big he received a cuff on the ear which made him see fireworks, and over he went on his back. * * * It was just as the bear was about to bite Johansen in the head that he uttered the memorable words, 'Look sharp!' * * * Johansen let go his hold on the bear and wiggled out, while the bear gave Suggen a cuff which made him howl lustily. Then Kaifas (the other dog) got a slap on the nose. Meanwhile Johansen had struggled to his feet and when I fired had got his gun, which was sticking out of the kayak hole."

After their long journey across the frozen seas, Nansen and Johansen reached land near the 81st parallel, only to become imprisoned in the ice. This forced them to winter many miles from the Fram. So hardy were they, however, that they passed the winter in perfect health. Immense quantities of game were near them, also, and they were able to get bear, walrus, at any time. There were also quantities of foxes, "which almost every night," Nansen declares, "constantly sat upon the roof of our hut, whence we could perpetually hear their gnawing of our frozen meat. These foxes were of both the white variety and the valuable dark-furred kind, and had we been so inclined we could easily have laid by a store of valuable furs. Our supply of ammunition, however, was not so large as to allow of our spending it upon them, for it seemed to me that bears were the smallest game that could give us any return for our cartridges.

"At last came the spring, with sunshine and birds. How well I remember that first evening, a few days before the sun had appeared above the horizon, when we suddenly saw a flock of little auks sail past us along the mountains to the north. It was like the first greeting from life and spring. Many followed in their train, and soon the mountains around us swarmed with these little summer visitors of the north, which enlivened everything with their cheerful twittering."

May 19 the travelers started south again, and coming to water, they tried voyaging in 'their kayaks, with an improvised mast and sail. This proved an adventurous trip. Says Nansen:

"One day, when we had been sailing along the shore, we lay to in the evening to reconnoiter our farther way westward. In leaving the kayaks, we made them fast to the ice by a strong strap, which we thought was perfectly reliable. While we were a little way off on the top of a hummock, however, we discovered that our linked boats had broken from their moorings and were rapidly drifting away from the ice, carried along by the wind. All our provisions were on board, our whole outfit, our guns, and our ammunition. There we stood upon the ice, entirely without resource. Our only safely lay in reaching our kayaks, and I had no choice but to spring into the water and try to reach them by swimming. It was, however, a struggle for life, for the kayaks seemed to drift more rapidly before the wind than I could swim; the icy water gradually robbed my whole body of feeling, and it became more and more difficult to use my limbs. At length I reached the side of our craft; but it was only by summoning up my last energies that I finally succeeded in getting on board, and we were saved."

This remarkable journey was to have as its climax one of those meetings of men in a strange country which are dramatic incidents in the world's history. While cooking breakfast one day, and not in the least suspecting the presence of a white man within hundreds of miles, he heard a dog bark, looked up, and saw F. G. Jackson, an English explorer, who was studying Franz Joseph land. Nansen embarked on Jackson's steamer and returned home in August, 1896, to find himself the chief hero of Norway, and a man of redoubled fame in the rest of the world.


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