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Arland O. Fiske: The icebreaker ‘Fram’

Across the road from the farm where I grew up in Richland County, N.D.,there was a township called Nanson. We farmed some of that land. Later, I discovered it was named after a famous Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen (“sen” endings were often changed to “son” in America at the ports of immigration. Norway had a Swedish king and its immigrants had their names changed with the Swedish “son” ending).

When Nansen went to London in 1892 to present his plans for Arctic exploration to the Royal Geographic Society, his plan was deemed doomed to disaster. But Nansen was a true scientist with a Nordic understanding of the Polar regions. His ship was 128 feet long and 36 feet at its widest. The layers of planking were between 24 to 28 inches thick, with spaces between filled with pitch to make it watertight. The bottom was almost flat. The height of the main mast was 80 feet and the crow’s nest was 102 feet above the waterline. It had a three-cylinder engine capable of seven knots in calm water. The ship was named the “Fram,” which means, “Forward,” a fit description of Nansen’s spirit.

Nansen said his goodbyes to his wife and daughter on June 23, 1893, and sailed out of the Oslo harbor around Norway’s West Coast. The commander was Otto Sverdrup from a well-known Norwegian family who was also a scientist. There was a crew of 12. Wherever they stopped, they were given farewell parties. On July 21, they left the coast of Norway. Stopping at islands, they hunted for meat. By mid-August, they encountered storms and by Oct. 1, they were sitting on ice. Polar bears visited them several times. One came on board and killed some dogs.

During the winter, there was nothing to do but wait until spring. The snow storms were fierce, long and cold, down to 56 degrees below zero. Despite their situation, they celebrated Christmas with a gourmet dinner, including fish pudding and cloudberries.

The 17th of May (Norway’s Constitution Day) was greeted with outbursts of patriotism.

The Fram sailed all summer and went 2,000 miles east of Norway on the north coast of Siberia before it began its return trek.

On March 14, 1895, Nansen and Lt. Frederick Johansen left the Fram by dogsled for the polar cap.

On April 17, 1895, they stopped, 226 miles from their goal, but 200 miles closer than anyone had ever been. They could go no farther.

After a perilous journey by sled and kayak, Nansen returned to Norway in mid August. All his dogs had to be killed.

A few days later, Sverdrup arrived with the Fram. The expedition was hailed as a great scientific success. Oxford and Cambridge Universities gave honorary degrees to Nansen, who was then 34.

Nansen did not return to the Arctic, but served his country well through teaching and statecraft. He had become the most famous man in all Norway. What were his future conquests? That remains for another story. But if you go to Oslo, see the Fram for yourself. It is preserved in Bygdoy Park in Oslo and still looks like a grand ship.

Next Week: The Promise of America

ARLAND FISKE , a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.