Peter Lourie is the author of Locked in Ice: Nansen's Daring Quest for the North Pole, a new biography for kids. His other books include Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush and The Polar Bear Scientists. He teaches at Middlebury College, and he lives in Vermont.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen in your new biography?
A: This is one of the greatest polar survival stories that few know anything about.
Norwegian explorer, scientist, and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen built a special ship called the Fram that he hoped would get locked in ice to “float” on top of the pack ice above Siberia and carry him and 12 crew members toward the North Pole, then over to the Greenland side of the globe.
If the pack didn’t crush them with hundreds of thousands of pounds of hostile pressure, the Fram would drift, locked in ice, at a snail’s pace on slow polar currents to the top of the world. Nansen wanted to be the first ever to reach the North Pole, a terra incognita in the late 19th century.
His method of travel convinced everyone he was completely mad. Veteran polar travelers were positive his boat would be “nipped,” hopelessly crushed by the ruthless Arctic floes and everyone might die.
But this amazing boat did exactly what its brilliant designer Colin Archer wanted--it floated (not without terrifying roars, screams, and ungodly creaks). As the ice formed around it, the Fram rose up slipping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice,” and was carried for years toward its goal at one mile an hour.
In fact, the Fram drifted at the mercy of the elements day after day, through two polar winters, through the moon-studded darkness and under the brilliance of the northern lights, until Nansen realized he would miss the actual top of the world by a few hundred miles before passing over to the other side of the globe.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to be the first ever to reach the pole, he and crew member Hjalmar Johansen jumped onto the ice with 28 dogs, three sleds, two small, canvas-covered kayaks and 1,500 lbs of food, and set out for what might well be a suicidal mission in the disintegrating spring ice. They knew they’d never find the mother ship again.
Once they set off, they would be on their own for months, maybe even years. The idea would be to reach the pole within 50 days and then dash back to some little-known islands in the Archipelago of Franz Josef Land. If they could even find such a place in all that ice!
Nansen knew he might die. Before he left the Fram, he wrote a letter to his wife, Eva:
You will know that your image will be the last I see . . . when I go to the eternal rest, where we will meet…and rest for ever safely in each other’s arms. Ah Eva, my Eva, if it should happen, do not cry too hard. Remember no one escapes his fate.
My book is about Nansen’s 15-month survival out on the ice, a story that needed telling to modern audiences, young and old. We live at a time of thinning and disappearing Arctic ice cover. Modern polar explorers are literally swimming their way to the pole, but only 125 years ago, the Arctic was completely frozen throughout most of the year.
Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that you found especially fascinating?
A: Nansen was an amazing man. I traveled to Norway to meet other biographers and collect hundreds of archival photos (there are over 200 in the book). Nansen and the crew took these photos on their three-year sojourn. I drove across the top of Norway, a region called Finnmark, to see the places Nansen had passed through on his way north.
I wanted to know the details of how Nansen succeeded. I wanted to focus on this one expedition, to see how meticulous a planner and how great a visionary he was. From this one trip came six large volumes of scientific tables, charts and data, new information about the Arctic. I wondered also what all that ice looked like, which future generations will never see.
Of all the interesting aspects about Nansen, perhaps the one I found most interesting was how he traveled. Archer had built Nansen an ice ship strong and wide enough to be squeezed upward as the ice froze beneath the hull.
The Fram was so well built that even after being crushed and jerked and thrown about in the pack for three years, it was in good enough shape to be used by other explorers, including fellow Norwegian Roald Amundsen when he went to the South Pole in 1911. The Fram in fact is so famous in polar exploration that it now sits in its own museum in Oslo.
Q: How would you compare Nansen's work to that of other explorers, and why hasn't more been written about him?
A: Why haven’t more people written about Nansen, I wonder. A scientist-explorer, he has been called the father of polar travel, and yet Nansen is the least known of all.
When we study polar exploration, we start with Shackleton's amazing story at the bottom of the planet 20 years after Nansen’s trip. And what a great story Shackleton has to tell of survival and triumph.
We also study the journeys of Amundsen, Peary and Scott, but the one who preceded these heroes in what we call the golden age of polar travel was this scientist/explorer/visionary who only a few years before was the first to cross Greenland on skis (1888), the first to really study the Arctic ice cap and the surrounding ocean currents.
Nansen helped demystify the as-yet uncharted North Pole. He discovered that, unlike Antarctica, there was no land in the Arctic. It was a cap of ice sitting over water miles deep.
And he wrote brilliantly about his North Pole journey in a best-selling book called Farthest North, a book, by the way, that National Geographic calls one of the 100 best adventure stories of all time.
Yet Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, Norway’s preeminent hero, and perhaps the greatest scientist in that golden age of polar travel at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, is the least known of all. Most of my friends had never heard of him.
When he gave up polar travel, Nansen had an even more illustrious career as a statesman for the fledgling country of Norway; he worked in famine relief after World War 1 and helped found the United Nations. In 1922 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are more than 50 books about Shackleton. But until Locked in Ice, there were only three on Nansen and none that focused on his North Pole expedition. The first of the three is his own book, Farthest North. The second, With Nansen in the North, is by his companion Hjalmar Johansen. The third is a biography by Roland Huntford.
So I wanted to write a book with a focus on Nansen’s greatest journey, The Norwegian North Polar Expedition 1893-96. And I wanted to explore his story and tell it to kids and adults alike.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Nansen's story?
A: Never give up. Imagine. And dare to succeed. Nansen said: “The Difficult is what takes a little time. The impossible is what takes a little longer.”
When Nansen was planning his trip across the Greenland ice cap in 1888, he planned to do it differently from others who had tried, like Admiral Robert Peary.
The Norwegian scientist would collect meteorological data as he trekked from the uninhabited eastern shore, over the ice cap toward the settlements on the west side. Everyone else had set off in the opposite direction and had run out of food only to return to the towns in failure.
For Nansen there would be no turning back. They took only enough food to go one way, leaving only one of two outcomes: success or death. How many people today might benefit from half that determination!!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My next adventure biography will be about Henry Morton Stanley’s 1871 journey to Lake Tanganyika to find Dr. David Livingstone.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Peter Lourie.