Visit to the Fram Museum Oslo

Who was Fridtjof Nansen?

Nansen was a Norwegian polar explorer and scientist, who lived in the late 1800s to early 1900s. He was later a statesman, an advocate for Norwegian independence, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to repatriate prisoners of war after World War 1.

Nansen started his career as a marine biologist in Bergen, Norway. He learned to love the polar sea while sailing on whaling and sealing vessels, collecting marine specimens for his research. He earned his PhD just prior to leaving on the Fram expedition.

Fridtjof Nansen

Untitled photo

First Crossing of Greenland

First Crossing of Greenland

Nansen led a team of Norwegian and Saami adventurers in the first crossing of Greenland, across the ice cap from east to west, in 1888-89. His strategy was to sail on a whaling ship to the unpopulated east coast of Greenland, and cross the barren ice cap to the west coast, where there are towns and villages.  The only line of retreat was to go forward, not turn back. This became Nansen's life philosophy.  Fram means Forward!

After they were dropped off by the ship, they spent several weeks in small boats struggling to get to shore thru the thick ice flows along the east coast.  After being swept south by currents, they were able to make their way inside the ice pack to shore, where they met remote Inuit people who had likely never seen Europeans.  They slowly worked their way up a glacier to the ice cap, using sledges and skiis.

After an arduous adventure, they finally arrived on the west coast, but too late to catch a ship back to Norway that year. Nansen and his party spent an extra winter in Godthab (Nuuk), where he studied Inuit lifestyle and clothing, and learned kayaking and dog sledding.   He would later advocate for polar explorers to use Inuit clothing, dogs, sledges, and kayaks in their work. 

The Fram Polar Ship

The Fram Expedition 1893-96

The North Pole was his next goal. He developed a bold plan, to sail a ship to Siberia, get the ship frozen in the polar ice, to be carried over the pole by the ice drift, and come out near Spitzbergen and Greenland.

This plan was based on several key observations. There was abundant driftwood in Greenland, despite the fact there are no trees there. Nansen believed the driftwood came across the polar icecap from forests and rivers in Siberia.

An American ship, the Jeanette, had been crushed in the ice north of Siberia in 1881, in attempting to reach the North Pole by sailing thru the Bering Strait.   Wreckage from the Jeanette was found three years later in sea ice flows in southwest Greenland, have been carried there by ocean currents from Siberia.  

A Purpose built Polar Ship

The Fram ship was designed to withstand being frozen into the Arctic ice without being crushed. Since Sir John Franklin's lost expedition, many polar ships had been crushed by the polar ice and sank.   Nansen planned to stay several years in the polar ice, drift across the North Pole, and come out east of Greenland. The ship was designed and built by the Scottish/Norwegian naval architect Colin Archer.

Inside the Fram

Route of The Fram

Planning the Route

The Fram followed the route of Baron AE Nordenskiold, a Swedish/Finnish explorer, who had earlier completed the first crossing of the Northeast Passage in his ship the Vega in 1878-79.  Nansen met with Nordenskiold to discuss the route, ice and sea conditions, as there were no nautical charts of the route before Nordenskiold's voyage.

The first leg of the journey was north and east, around northern Norway to the Barents Sea, past Novaya Zemlya into the Kara Sea, north of Russia. The Fram sailed past Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of Eurasia, and into the Laptev Sea. Somewhere near the New Siberian Islands the Fram was frozen into the ice.

Fram in The Ice

The Fram behaved as she was designed, and spent three years locked in the polar ice, without being crushed. After some initial random movements, the ship began to drift steadily north and west, towards the pole.

After the second winter in the ice, Nansen realized the Fram would miss the North Pole. Nansen then made another bold plan to attempt to sledge to the Pole with dogs, sleds, and kayaks.

Nansen left the Fram in charge of Capt Otto Sverdrup, who was a capable sea captain, and had accompanied Nansen on the earlier crossing of Greenland.

Fram in the Ice

Three Years in the Polar Ice

A Dash to the Pole

Nansen, accompanied by only one other man, Hjalmar Johansen, left the ship, knowing they could never find Fram again.  They went with dog sleds, kayaks, skiis, and supplies including two rifles, and tried to reach the pole. However, they were slowed by huge ice blocks and pressure ridges, as well as the drift of the polar ice. When they realized the could not reach the pole, they turned south towards Franz Joseph land.

Mountains of Ice and Snow

Kayaks in the Polar Sea

A Race for Survival

Nansen and Johansen then turned south,  attempting  to reach Franz Joseph Land, a remote archipelago of rocky islands far north of Norway. They used the kayaks to cross open water, and reached these islands before the next winter. There they constructed a hut with stones and walrus hides, ate walrus and polar bear meat, and burned walrus blubber oil for heat and light, in what must be the most amazing arctic survival story ever told.

The next spring, after driving each other crazy through the long winter, they took the kayaks and sailed island to island, hoping to find a whaling ship.

They miraculously found the British explorer Frederick Jackson, who famously said “You must be Nansen”, to which Nansen said “Yes, I am Nansen”. Jackson's ship took them back to Norway, and, amazingly, Capt Sverdrup and the Fram arrived only a few days later, having come out of the ice near Spitzbergen as planned.

Franz Joseph Land

Farthest North

Nansen had established a new Farthest North, and had proven the usefulness of Inuit methods in polar exploration. He was hailed as a hero in Norway.

The Fram was later sailed by Capt Otto Sverdrup into the Canadian Arctic, particularly around Ellesmere Island and Axel Heiberg Island, where he mapped previously unknown regions.

Roald Amundsen “borrowed” the Fram to take his expedition to Antarctica.  Amundsen considered Nansen as his mentor, and also used Inuit methods  including clothing, dogs, and sleds. 

Dr Fridtjof Nansen

The Fram Museum

The Fram Museum

The museum was built to house the ship Fram, and records of the expeditions of Dr Nansen, Capt Sverdrup, and Capt Amundsen. The museum now also houses The Gjoa, the small ship which Amundsen and a crew of seven took in the first crossing of the Northwest Passage, across the Canadian high arctic.

The Fram Museum is located on the Bygdoy peninsula in Oslo, as are the nearby Kon Tiki Museum, Viking Ships Museum, and Norwegian Folk Museum. These are all highly recommended. Bygdoy can be reached by ferry from the Oslo waterfront. We rode the ferry to Bygdoy, and took the bus back to our hotel. My wife and I found Oslo to be a charming northern European town, with a mix of classic and modern Scandinavian styling.

Credits and References

The Black and White photos are taken from my copy of Nansen's book Fram Ofver Polarhafvet (Stockholm edition) 1897.  The English edition is titled Farthest North, and has been recently republished. 

The color photos were taken by myself June 2016 at the Fram Museum, Oslo. 

You may also enjoy Roland Huntford's book "Nansen:  the Explorer as Hero". (Duckworth) London 1997

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Northern Mists Photography

Robert Bergstrom
Landscape and Travel Photographer

Featuring Oregon Coast, Puget Sound, PNW, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Denmark.

Landscapes, Seascapes, Maritime themes.
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