On a seal trail

One hundred and thirty years ago, the ship "Fram" was trapped in the Arctic ice, when Fridtjof Nansen began to prepare for a lengthy trek by ski and kayak through the frozen wastes and coldest waters on Earth...

In the 19th century, the passing era of sailing vessels and slender and silent schooners with sails that soared like cathedral archs was being mourned in poetry. Their day was done as they gave way to steam ships, sooty, heavy and smoky, true, but offering two undoubted advantages: their cargo-carrying capacity was far greater and they were reliably faster -- especially when encountering calm, windless sea conditions that might last for several weeks. No longer to be considered were those listless weeks of silence, without water, under the blazing sun, with weevils swarming in the rotten salted meat that constituted the crew's rations. Forgotten too was the lookout's stoicism required to warn of the rocks springing up in front of glazed eyes, when, driven by the unrelenting wind, sailing vessel had little opportunity to maneuver. People began to miss the sight of the trailing albatross, the music of the wind in the rigging, a nostalgic longing that owed much to the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé and the shanties sung in pubs whose clientele were devotees of this much beloved salty genre of music.

Small steamers and container ships

Far fewer songs were to be written about the S/S Belgica, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's expedition and Otto Sverdrup's harpoons. And yet the contrast between these small steamers and container ships and tankers -- that year by year are increasingly traversing the Northern Sea Route, their oily wakes so wide that they could be seen from space -- is much greater than that between the typical schooners and steam ships that used to cross the Atlantic. What is immediately striking is the difference in scale of the vessels (the ships sailing today on the shores of Novaya Zemlya and Siberia are about a thousand times larger than those from a century ago) as well as the route their passage takes. Global warming, which few today can any longer doubt even as the skeptics continue to argue its causes, has revealed hundreds of kilometers of black-gravelled coastlines, which may become green in a dozen or so years. Meanwhile, they [schooners and steamers alike] glide through the ice, white, iridescent navy blue, green and lilac.

Today, the polar night is aglow with halogen lights in the bow and LEDs in the cabins, whereas a century ago those exploring these waters were sentenced to six months in the dim flame of Ignacy Łukasiewicz's lamp. Contemporary explorers are guided by satellite navigation and Starlink, and if they use sonar, it is to avoid hurting a stray seal or mammal, a reminder that navigation systems give a maplike read-out of the contours of the seafloor. A century ago, mariners sailed into the absolute unknown: not even "ubi leones" but ubi nunquam. They were sailing into the darkness and frost, hoping to reach the ice vortex at the top of the Earth, like the vortex that each of us wears on the top of our heads until we go bald.
From the left: Otto Sverdrup, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Fridtjof Nansen and Washington DeLong. Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket – originally posted on Flickr (CC BY 2.0); George J. Stodart – "Vegas färd kring Asien och Europa" by A. E. Nordenskiöld, published in Stockholm in 1881; Henry Van der Weyde; Naval History and Heritage Command – Public Domain, Wikimedia
There have been generations of such intrepid voyagers. A history of geographical discoveries includes Pytheas of Massalia, a contemporary of Aristotle, who most certainly sailed to the British Isles, probably to Iceland, and perhaps (who knows?) even further. In "Peri Okeanos", he wrote about the blurring of the distinction between sea and land and the ice floes through which it was impossible to sail and the icy conditions which threatened to blanket the ship and its fittings. We know of several Vikings who sailed to the Kola Peninsula, including Ottar of Halogaland in the 10th century. What happened in the centuries that followed is shrouded in silence.

Trade with Russia is always profitable

Further attempts to storm the so-called Northeast Passage did not occur until the 16th century, and only then thanks to the rise of the powers of the European North: England, Sweden and the Netherlands. Richard Chancellor talked to Russian (Novgorod) merchants in sheepskin coats and furs. Steven Borough sailed as far as the Kara Sea. Willem Barentsz, the Dutch merchant/navigator who dreamed of Novaya Zemlya (Het Nieuwe Land), met his fate in the ice of Spitsbergen. The "Little Ice Age" of the 17th and 18th centuries was not conducive to migration along the northern shores of Eurasia. It was not until the optimistic age of steam and electricity that new attempts were made.

  And even then, drama was not in short supply. Think of the story of the American cruiser "Jeannette", which, under the command of George Washington De Long, got trapped in the ice north of the Bering Strait. For nearly two years, locked into an ice field, it drifted off the coast of eastern Siberia before eventually cracking apart under the crushing pressure of the ice. Most of the crew drowned in the icy waters of the Lena, ending their deperate efforts to reach the west, where they had hoped to find some semblance of civilization.

As often happens, out of tragedy came discovery. Three years had passed when the remains of the "Jeannette" -- including documents signed by De Long and the clothes of the crew members -- washed up on the west coast of Greenland, close by the settlement of Julianehaab. How did this come about? Fortunately, since teleportation had yet to be heard of, there proved to be only one explanation: the Northern Ocean's icefields do not circulate haphazardly but, rather, move in a circle, driven by ocean currents and the Earth's rotation. So the question arose -- was it possible that icefields were also on the move around and above the North Pole?

This hypothesis was to be advanced by twenty-something Fridtjof Nansen, a biologist, alpinist and skier, who worked at the museum in Bergen. He managed to convince a large part of the Norwegian elite and his peers about his hypothesis (which, slightly amended, turned out to be correct). That being so, Nansen postulated that it might be possible for a vessel to follow the drift of the ice field and venture far enough north to reach the Pole without becoming icebound.

"Fram" grows into the ice

Norway's aspiration to gain a symbolic advantage over Sweden, from which it was increasingly distancing itself, probably helped Nansen promote his theories. He appeared before the Geographical Society and Parliament, and thanks to public collections and budget subsidies, the sailing ship "Fram" was built in the years 1891-1893. Indestructible, resembling a nut shell, it was intended to sail into the ice fields where "Jeannette" had been destroyed. On October 5, 1893, the "Fram" found itself surrounded by ice at Cape Chelyuskin. It was to remain stuck in the middle of the ice field until the end of the month.
However, this was only the beginning of the expedition. After a year-and-a-half, Nansen realised that if the "Fram" was to continue circling in this manner, it would take too long for the vessel to get close to the North Pole. In February, 1895 the explorer, together with the experienced dog sled driver Hjalmar Johansen, decided to set off on skis, with supplies carried on sleighs, towards the Pole. The ship would continue to drift.

On reaching latitude 86 degrees north, Nansen decided to turn back; supplies had run out faster than expected and trekking across an endless plain of ice blocks piled several storeys high was proving practically impossible. He and Johansen faced another winter of waiting on the northern shores of the archipelago that made up Franz Josef Land. All the while, "Fram", under the command of Otto Sverdrup, was drifting towards Spitsbergen, in keeping with Nansen's hypothesis.

I wonder how much the charm of these expeditions has weathered since, or rather whether such ventures continues to appeal and grab the attention of succeeding generations. Boys have been playing soldiers forever and will continue to do so until "toxic masculinity" is finally eradicated. Worldwide, a generation or two, probably in the times of our grandparents rather than our fathers, were playing cowboys and Indians. There was a fashion for cosmonauts, there was a trend for tankmen. However, it seems that few people experienced the history of polar expeditions as much as Polish teenage readers of Alina and Czesław Centkiewicz's books.

Polar drawer

Is it worth confronting the memory of 40 years ago? "Don't keep souvenirs, because your drawer will emit smoke poisonous to your breath," warns Czesław Miłosz [the Polish poet], but he does so somewhat ironically. Fate (more precisely -- sitting on the jury of the Identitas Foundation Award) drew me to Tromsø. The fog at the airport was constant. I had an hour-and-a-half to run from the motel to the local Museum of Polar Expeditions and open the drawer of my memory.

The museum in Tromsø has the charm of a provincial establishment, something it shares with the shrines of Clio [the muse of history] in Turoszów, Taillancourt. The lady at the cash register was strangely sulky, brusquely gesticulating where to put the card; the souvenir shop offered a pile of dusty mugs at absurd prices (in Tromsø they still had countless six-colored flags stuck in them -- could it be an aspect of polar expeditions unknown to us?). Dioramas, I was to conclude, should not be visited people allergic to dust. Yet you can learn much while there.

There are many signs of courage in the face of emptiness: sad flakes of tin, most likely the remains of the horn used by members of the Barentsz expedition to call to one another when caught in fog. Illuminated with a spooky blue light reminiscent of nuclear accidents, there's the reconstruction of the hut where members survived the winter by hunting foxes, bears, walruses and seals. Spend five minutes in this hut and you will fully understand the unique success of Norwegian literature at the onset of the 20th century: as the flame of a kerosene lamp flickers in the darkness, you can hear the whistle of the wind and the howling of a dog thanks to a loop on the recorder, while a barely warm kettle sits cooling on the doused hob. A preserved pencilled note of one of the 1911 wanderers says it all: It will be like this for another 187, 186, 185 days.

Humanitarian pickaxe

What is also clear is that the hunters caught plenty of seals (A very hesitant Norway signed conventions limiting seal hunting in the 1960s). The museum's halls are dominated by stuffed seals of all species: bearded seals, Greenland ice seals, ringed seals and gray seals -- they look at us with huge, glassy eyes, just like in Agnieszka Holland's films.
The sealskins strike the observer as highly unusual. They are almost perfectly round, like giant cakes or unfolded gypsy dresses. As in every provincial museum, there are signs everywhere prohibiting touching the displays. Yet everyone -- from adults to children -- reaches out and strokes these circles, once they are sure that the menacing lady at the counter has stopped monitoring them. The skins are soft and fluffy -- like nothing else in the world. A little affectionate, a trifle apologetic, given the museum's attempts to offer a morsel of humor in a very Nordic spirit, there is a massive, brown-stained pickaxe bearing a plaque that explains in Norwegian and English:

"Hakkapik, a tool used to kill baby seals. The seal was first stunned with a blunt end, and then its skull was pierced with a sharp end and its brain was torn apart. It is an extremely humane and painless method."

Oddly enough, I didn't come here to explore echoes of Norwegian humanitarianism from half a century ago. I climb the creaking stairs to the top floor, where I find Nansen's thoroughly reconstructed kayak: he had learned how to construct it from the Greenlandic Inuit, who gave us the word "kayak".

He built it himself from the remains of fishing rods, sleds, also built on the model of Inuit vehicles (qamutiik), and seal skins, and then sewed them together with thread fashioned from seal intestines. A fearless sailor on the wild waters of the Liwiec, Wkra and Hańcza -- I open the display cases (I exposed myself to the spirits of conservation by stroking the sealskins) and look at the kayak up close.

The bamboo frame, a kind of scaffolding, looks as if it couldn't support a three-year-old: the bamboo struts are three, maybe four millimeters thick. Stretched leather, torn, with tufts of bristles, covers this fragile latticework. The hole in which the kayaker was sitting is made of a piece of bamboo rolled into a circle, additionally trimmed with soft leather -- it does not adhere to the body, water poured inside with each wave of the Northern Ocean. Several pockets were sewn for the vital belongings of the polar explorers - weapons, compass, notes, food -- tied at the top with a strap.

I have read accounts of astronauts entering the void in Earth's orbit wearing spacesuits with the NASA logo: they, too, could be turned into a humanoid block of ice in a second by any crevice. But sailing in a sealskin umbrella, stretched on the remains of a fishing rod, over the black waters of the Arctic Ocean, an area measuring fifteen and a half million square kilometers (so what if most of it is covered with ice?)! Well, you had to be Fridtjof Nansen for that.

–Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) smokes a pipe in front of the vessel "Fram". Photo: Fridtjof Nansen, in the collection of the National Library of Norway – Public domain, Wikimedia
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