A well-known journalist in a local bagel joint, after not seeing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Welcome back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I traveled a lot to write my children’s adventure books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d probably been out climbing Aztec or Mayan temples, paddling a river, accompanying biologists studying polar bears, whales, or manatees. What I love about my job as a children’s adventure writer is research. I tell students, “to research is to explore.”
Recently I traveled to the very top of Norway, near Russia, to learn what a 19th-century polar explorer felt when he returned from a harrowing three-year Arctic sojourn. I’ve been writing a new adventure biography for Henry Holt, my second in a series, after Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a Shackleton-sort of story before Shackleton, a story few in this country know anything about.
In 1893 the Norwegian zoologist and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a special ship he had built called the Fram (meaning “forward” in Norwegian). His object was to collect valuable scientific data on the unknown Arctic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unaccomplished in 400 years of trying. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right proportions to withstand the forces of crushing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arctic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Traveling on an Arctic current at one or two miles a day (Arctic ice is in constant motion), he’d “float” for a number of years (he had provisions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the other side near Greenland.
Veteran Arctic travelers thought he was crazy, that he would jeopardize his and his crew’s lives. It was obviously a fool’s mission. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his daring. In 1888 he was the first to cross Greenland on skis. Unlike Admiral Peary and others who attempted the trek, Nansen traveled from the uninhabited eastern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, later saying, “I demolish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move forward.” After his Greenland success he set his compass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on previous expeditions were inevitably crushed, all hands diving for lifeboats or trudging on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.
Nevertheless, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the country to Vardø, the last little fishing port in Norway, and then hunted for the pack ice above the Siberian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-worthiness. When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scraping against the hull sent shivers of horror into the men’s hearts. But the Fram did what its shipwright designed it to do. With a super wide, thick hull, it was lifted right up on top of that deadly frozen mass, slipping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was carried creaking and moaning toward its goal.
After nearly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen realized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fellow crewmember Hjalmar Johansen prepared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small canvas-covered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and supplies, and headed into the white world knowing they’d never find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and failing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pressure ridges and jumbled blocks of ice. They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they finally found land after five months, they survived the long polar winter on walrus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hardly wide enough to sleep stretched out.
When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, fragile kayaks about to paddle hundreds of miles of open water to Spitsbergen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog somewhere on the edge of the ice. He scrambled to investigate. Amazingly he saw the figure of a man, who turned out to be another polar explorer, a Brit named Frederick Jackson, whom Nansen had actually met in London years ago.
Jackson took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s supply ship returned the Norwegians to Vardø almost three years after leaving the small fishing village. A year later Nansen penned a bestseller called Farthest North, an account of one of the greatest polar adventure tales ever told.
I needed to go to Vardø to understand Nansen’s feelings when he left Norway, and when he returned to Norway. So I rented a car in Tromsø, a beautiful city above the Arctic Circle and drove across the top of the country, a region called Finnmark, practically to Siberia. I drove through bounding reindeer, around massive fjords and past mountains aflame with yellow birch trees to reach that town where the famous Norwegian explorer had bought his last supplies in July 1893, wondering if he’d ever return.
When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fishing village, with Russian signage in the harbor. Fisherman in small boats sorted through their night’s catch. The autumn Arctic Sea wind on my face helped me imagine Nansen and his small crew heading out to sea in 1893. I pictured the famous Norwegian on the Fram gazing back at the sleepy town, feeling this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved country, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been feted for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Norway.) Now everything was silent.
“The masts in the harbor, the house-roofs, and chimneys stood out against the cool morning sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore — rugged, bare, and weather-worn in the hazy morning, but still lovely — dotted here and there with tiny houses and boats, and all Norway lay behind it….”
I strolled around the village for a few hours to imagine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that early June morning in 1896, no one spotted Jackson’s sloop gliding into the peaceful harbor at Vardø. The two survivors jumped ashore and raced to the telegraph station. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laughing and smiling. A fisherman walked by them staring at Johansen’s odd jacket he’d made from a blanket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine winter months they had lived like cavemen.
A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would discover they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “summery.”
Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to understand what Nansen meant by the word “summery.”