Excerpts From Fridtjof Nansen's 'Farthest North'.
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Chapter 6   The Winter Night.

It really looked as if we were now frozen in for good, and I did not expect to get the Fram out of the ice till we were on the other side of the Pole, nearing the Atlantic Ocean.  Autumn was already well advanced; the sun stood lower in the heavens day by day; and the temperature sank steadily.  The long night of winter was approaching - that dreaded night.  There was nothing to be done except prepare ourselves for it, and by degrees we converted our ship, as well as we could, into comfortable winter quarters; while at the same time we took every precaution to assure her against the destructive forces of nature to which it was prophesied that we must succumb.  The rudder was hauled up, so that it might not be destroyed by the pressure of the ice.  We had intended to do the same with the screw; but as it, with its iron case, would certainly help to strengthen the stern, and especially the rudder stock, we let it remain in its place.  We had a good deal of work with the engine, too, each separate part was taken out, oiled, and laid away for the winter; slide-valves, pistons, shafts, were examined and thoroughly cleaned.  Amundsen looked after that engine as if it had been his own child; late and early he was down tending it lovingly; and we used to tease him about it, to see the defiant look come into his eyes and hear him say:  'It's all very well for you to talk, but there's not such another engine in the world, and it would be a sin and a shame not to take good care of it.'  Assuredly he left nothing undone...

We cleared up in the hold to make room for a joiner's workshop down there; our mechanical workshop we had in the engine room.  The smithy was at first on deck, and afterwards on the ice; tinsmith's work was done chiefly in the chart room, shoemaker's and sailmaker's and various odd sorts of work, in the saloon...  There was nothing, from the most delicate instruments down to wooden shoes and axe handles, that could not be made on board the Fram.  When we were found to be short of sounding line, a grand rope-walk was constructed on the ice.  It proved to be a very profitable undertaking, and was well patronised.

Presently we began putting up the windmill which was to drive the dynamo and produce the electric light...  The windmill was erected on the port side of the fore-deck, between the main hatch and the rail.  It took several weeks to get this important appliance into working order...

There was the care of the ship and rigging, the inspection of sails, ropes, etc.; there were provisions of all kinds to be got out from the cases down in the hold, and handed over to the cook; there was ice - good, pure, freshwater ice - to be found and carried to the galley to be melted for cooking, drinking and washing water.  Then, as already mentioned there was always something doing in the various workshops.  Now 'Smith Lars' had to straighten the longboat davits which had been twisted by the waves in the Kara Sea; now it was a hook, a knife, a bear trap, or something else to be forged.  The tinsmith, again 'Smith Lars,' had to solder together a great tin pail for the ice melting in the galley.  The mechanician, Amundsen, would have an order for some instrument or other - perhaps a new current gauge.  The watchmaker, Mogstad, would have a thermograph to examine and clean, or a new spring to put into a watch.  The sailmaker might have an order for a quantity of dog harness.  Then each man had to be his own shoemaker - make himself canvas boots with thick, warm, wooden soles, according to Sverdrup's newest pattern.  Presently there would come an order to mechanician Amundsen for a supply of new zinc music sheets for the organ - these being a brand new invention of the leader of the expedition.  The electrician would have to examine and clean the accumulator batteries, which were in danger of freezing.  When at last the windmill was ready, it had to be attended to, turned according to the wind, etc.  And when the wind was too strong, some one had to climb up and reef the mill sails, which was not a pleasant occupation in this winter cold, and involved much breathing on fingers and rubbing of the tip of the nose…

To these varied employments was presently added, as the most important of all, the taking of scientific observations, which gave many of us constant occupation.  Those that involved the greatest labour were, of course, the meteorological observations, which were taken every four hours day and night; indeed, for a considerable part of the time, every two hours.  They kept one man, sometimes two, at work all day.  It was Hansen who had the principal charge of this department, and his regular assistant until March 1895, was Johansen, whose place was then taken by Nordahl.  The night observations were taken by whoever was on watch.  About every second day when the weather was clear, Hansen and his assistant took the astronomical observation which ascertained our position.  This was certainly the work which was followed with most interest by all the members of the expedition; and it was not uncommon to see Hansen's cabin, while he was making his calculations, besieged with idle spectators, waiting to hear the result - whether we had drifted north or south since the last observation and how far.  The state of feeling on board very much depended on these results.

Hansen had also at stated periods to take observations to determine the magnetic constant in this unknown region.  These were carried on at first in a tent, specially constructed for the purpose, which was soon erected on the ice; but later we built him a large snow hut, as being both more suitable and more comfortable.

For the ship's doctor there was less occupation.  He looked long and vainly for patients, and at last had to give it up and in despair take to doctoring the dogs.  Once a month he too had to make his scientific observations, which consisted in the weighing of each man, and the counting of blood corpuscles, and estimating the amount of blood pigment...  this was also work that was watched with anxious interest, as every man thought he could tell from the result obtained how long it would be before it would be before scurvy overtook him.

Among our scientific pursuits may also be mentioned the determining of the temperature of the water and of its degree of saltiness at varying depths; the collection and examination of such animals as are to be found in these northern seas; the ascertaining of the amount of electricity in the air; the observation of the formation of the ice, its growth and thickness, and of the temperature of the different layers of ice; the investigation of the currents in the water underneath it, etc., etc.  I had the main charge of this department.  There remains to be mentioned the regular observation of the aurora borealis, which we had a splendid opportunity of studying.  After I had gone on with it for some time, Blessing undertook this part of my duties; and when I left the ship, I made over to him all the other observations that were under my charge.  Not an inconsiderable item of our scientific work were the soundings and dredgings.  At the greater depths, it was such an undertaking that everyone had to assist; and from the way we were obliged to do it later, one sounding sometimes gave occupation for several days…


"Tuesday, September 26th.  Beautiful weather.  The sun stands much lower now; it was 9° above the horizon at midday.  Winter is rapidly approaching; there are 14½°[F or -8°C] of frost this evening, but we do not feel it cold.  Today's observations unfortunately show no particular drift northwards; according to then we are still in 78° 50' north latitude.  I wandered about over the floe towards evening.  Nothing more wonderfully beautiful can exist in the Arctic night.  It is dreamland, painted in the imagination's most delicate tints; it is colour etherealised.  One shade melts into the other, so that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and yet they are all there.  No forms - it is all faint, dreamy colour music, a far away, long drawn out melody on muted strings.  Is not all life's beauty high, and delicate, and pure like the night?  Give it brighter colours, and it is no longer so beautiful.  The sky is like an enormous cupola, blue at the zenith, shading down into green, and then into lilac and violet at the edges.  Over the ice fields there are cold violet-blue shadows, with lighter pink tints where a ridge here and there catches the last reflection of the vanished day.  Up in the blue of the cupola shine the stars, speaking peace, as they always do, those unchanging friends.  In the south stands a large red-yellow moon, encircled by a yellow ring and light golden clouds floating on the blue background.  Presently the aurora borealis shakes over the vault of heaven its veil of glittering silver - changing now to yellow, now to green, now to red.  It spreads, contracts again, in restless change, next it breaks into waving, many folded bands of shining silver, over which shoot billows of glittering rays; and then the glory vanishes.  Presently it shimmers in tongues of flame over the very zenith; and then again it shoots a bright ray right up from the horizon, until the whole melts away in the moonlight, and it is as though one heard the sigh of a departing spirit.  Here and there are left a few waving streamers of light, vague as a foreboding - they are the dust from the aurora's glittering cloak.  But now it is growing again; new lightnings shoot up; and the endless game begins afresh.  And all the time this utter stillness, impressive as the symphony of infinitude.  I have never been able to grasp the fact that this earth will some day be spent and desolate and empty.  To what end, in that case, all this beauty, with not a creature to rejoice in it?  Now I begin to define it.  This is the coming earth - here are beauty and death.  But to what purpose?  Ah, what is the purpose of all these spheres?  Read the answer if you can in the starry blue firmament.”  [From Nansen’s diary].

“Monday, October 2nd…
Hansen had today begun to set up his observatory tent a little ahead of the ship on the starboard bow.  In the afternoon he got Blessing and Johansen to help him.  While they were hard at work, they caught sight of a bear not far from them, just off the bow of the Fram.

'Hush!  Keep quiet, in case we frighten him,' says Hansen.

'Yes, yes!'  And they crouch together and look at him.

'I think I'd better try to slip on board and announce him,'  says Blessing.

'I think you should,' says Hansen.

And off steals Blessing on tiptoe, so as not to frighten the bear.  By this time Bruin has seen and scented them, and comes jogging along, following his nose, towards them.

Hansen now began to get over his fear of startling him.  The bear caught sight of Blessing slinking off to the ship, and set after him.  Blessing also was now much less concerned than he had as to the bear's nerves.  He stopped uncertain what to do; but a moment's reflection brought him to the conclusion that it was pleasanter to be three than one just then, and he went back to the others faster than he had gone from them.  The bear followed at a good rate.  Hansen did not like the look of things, and thought the time had come to try a dodge he had seen recommended in a book.  He raised himself to his full height, flung his arms about, and yelled with all the power of his lungs, ably assisted by the others.  But the bear came on quite undisturbed.  The situation was becoming critical.  Each snatched up his weapon - Hansen an ice staff, Johansen an axe, and Blessing nothing.  They screamed with all their strength, 'Bear! bear!' and set off for the ship as hard as they could tear.  But the bear held on his steady course to the tent, and examined everything there before he went after them.

It was a lean he-bear.  [Later shot by Nansen].  The only thing that was found in its stomach when it was opened was a piece of paper, with the names 'Lütken and Mohn.'  This was the wrapping paper of a 'ski' light, and had been left by one of us somewhere on the ice.  After this day some of the members of the expedition would hardly leave the ship without being armed to the teeth…”  [From Nansen’s Diary].


Friday, October 13th.  Now we are in the very midst of what the prophets would have had us dread so much.  The ice is pressing and packing round us with a noise like thunder.  It is piling itself up into long walls, and heaps high enough to reach a good way up the Fram's rigging; in fact, it is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder.  But here we sit quite tranquil, not even going up to look at all the hurly-burly, but just chatting and laughing as usual.  Last night there was tremendous pressure round our old dog floe.  The ice had towered up higher than the highest point of the floe, and hustled down upon it.  It had quite spoilt a well, where we till now had found good drinking water, filling it with brine.  Furthermore, it had cast itself over our stern ice anchor and part of the steel cable which held it, burying them so effectually that we had afterwards to cut the cable.  Then it covered our planks and sledges, which stood on the ice.  Before long the dogs were in danger, and the watch had to turn out all hands to save them.  At last the floe was split in two.  This morning the ice was one scene of melancholy confusion, gleaming in the most glorious sunshine.  Piled up all round us were high, steep ice walls.  Strangely enough, we had lain on the very verge of the worst confusion, and had escaped with the loss of an ice anchor, a piece of steel cable, a few planks and half a Samoyede sledge, all of which might have been saved if we had looked after them in time.  But the men have grown so indifferent to the pressure now, that they do not even go up to look, let it thunder ever so hard.  They feel that the ship can stand it, and so long as that is the case there is nothing to hurt except the ice itself…

Such an ice conflict is undeniably a stupendous spectacle.  One feels one's self to be in the presence of Titanic forces...  First you hear a sound like the thundering rumble of an earthquake far away on the great waste; then you hear it in several places, always coming nearer and nearer.  The silent ice world re-echoes with thunders; nature's giants are awakening to the battle.  The ice cracks on every side of you and begins to pile itself up; and all of a sudden you find yourself in the midst of the struggle.  There are howlings and thunderings round you; you feel the ice trembling, and hear it rumbling under your feet; there is no peace anywhere.  In the semi-darkness you can see it piling and tossing itself up into ridges nearer and nearer you - floes 10, 12, 15 feet [3-4.6 meters] thick, broken and flung on the top of each other as if they were featherweights.  They are quite near you now, and you jump away to save your life.  But the ice splits in front of you, a black gulf opens, and water streams up.  You turn in another direction, but there through the dark you can just see a new ridge of moving ice blocks coming towards you.  You try another direction, but there it is the same.  All round there is thundering and roaring as of some enormous waterfall, with explosions like cannon salvoes.  Still nearer you it comes.  The floe you are standing on gets smaller and smaller; water pours over it; there can be no escape except by scrambling over the rolling ice blocks to get to the other side of the pack.  But now the disturbance begins to calm down.  The noise passes on, and is lost by degrees in the distance…

When it became clear that the Fram would not drift over the North Pole, Nansen and Johansen got off the Fram and attempted a march to the North Pole.  In doing so they had no hope of returning to the Fram - they would never find her.  Instead, having attained the ‘Farthest North’ of any human, they set off to walk to the nearest land - the group of islands known as ‘Franz Josef Land’.


Wednesday, July 31st.  The ice is as disintegrated and impracticable as can well be conceived.  The continual friction and packing of the floes against each other grinds up the ice so that the water is full of brash and small pieces; to ferry over this in the kayaks is impossible, and the search is long before we eventually find a hazardous crossing.  Sometimes we have to form one by pushing small floes together, or must ferry the sledges over in a little floe.  My back is still painful, Johansen had to go ahead yesterday also; and evening and morning he is obliged to take off my boots and socks, for I am unable to do it myself.  He is touchingly unselfish, and takes care of me as if I were a child; everything he thinks can ease me he does quietly, without my knowing it.  Poor fellow, he has to work doubly hard now, and does not know how this will end.  I feel very much better today, however, and it is to be hoped shall soon be alright…

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