Reading: Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen

This is not an original observation, but I am able to confirm that even amongst those with a strong sense of geography any differentiation between the two polar regions can be elusive. Before I came to Antarctica I was asked if I was likely to see polar bears. They live only in the Arctic. "Will you see any penguins, or do they only have those at the north pole?" (I told Anne our friendship will be over if I fail to see some penguins on this trip--there are colonies some distance away on Ross Island, where the McMurdo station is, but seeing them right here is apparently unlikely. There are no penguins at the north pole, although one species, the Galapagos Penguin, lives as far north as the equator, on the Galapagos Islands. Antarctica proper has two species, the Emperor and the Adelie; many others live on various Islands in the deep southern oceans but don't quite reach as far south as the continent). Why then complicate the issue with a mention of Farthest North, a memoir of north polar exploration?

Despite the confusion there are obvious similarities between the north Arctic and the southern Antarctic. They are both, as my pappy used to say, and his pappy before him, colder than a witches tit. (Although today was our first day with any "weather" to speak of. We were filming backhoes and strange airportesque all terrain transport vehicles beeping along the snow-swept boulevards of McMurdo, which looks, as the guy sitting next to me on the airplane down put it, "pretty much like any grubby Alaskan mining town." It is supposed to be about -17 F outside and wind chill down to -44F. The combination of snot and moist exhaled vapor turned the nasal zone of my balaclava into icy chain mail in a matter of moments. The scary part is in that chill of a wind the clump of ice clinging around your beard acts as a reassuring insulating barrier). The first man to reach the south pole, R Amundsen, and Robert Scott, who made it a month later and then died trying to get back to McMurdo, both learned a tremendous amount from Fridtjof Nansen, a lunatic Norwegian who, with Colin Archer, built a special and unique ship, the Fram, designing it to be capable of sustaining a complete freeze into pack ice without being crushed to splinters. Amundsen sailed the same almost flat bottomed Fram on his successful southward journey; Nansen apocryphally or actually watched their departure and waved a wistful goodbye from some fjord overlook outside of Christiania.

Farthest North is the travelogue of a journey which must stand in the annals of world adventure as one of the most extreme of all time. Based on some shards of driftwood brought back from Greenland, Nansen hypothesized that the north polar ice cap flows like an immense ice river, arcing over the pole from Siberian Asia towards Greenland and the north Atlantic. He and Archer designed the Fram to withstand the pressures of being frozen into the ice in order that he might then sail and steam his way north-east from northernmost Norway along the virtually uncharted northern coast of Siberia before becoming intentionally frozen into the ice. He then planned to wait it out, a frozen Noah with three dozen Huskies in an ark, resting on the gigantic ice-floe, drifting steadily towards the as-yet undiscovered Pole. Steadily and very slowly; the plans for the trip included provisions for a three-year journey. Nansen expected the Fram to eventually melt free somewhere in the north Atlantic. What makes Farthest North so compelling is that Nansen actually planned on being ice-bound. His very goal was to lodge himself in the sort of predicament that any sensible sailors would at all costs avoid.

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