North to 88 and the First Crossing of The Polar Sea

“When one goes forth a-voyaging He has a tale to tell.”


Mystery, silence, desolation

On the walls of the cabin hung the pictures of Norway’s King and Queen, presented to the “Fram” on the expedition to the South Pole in 1910; an image of the Madonna which the Italians had brought with them; and a four-leaf clover given to the ship by Major Scott, who piloted the British airship R. 34 across the Atlantic. In the keel hung the flags of Norway, the United States, and Italy, to be dropped on the North Pole.

To those who made the first crossing of the Polar Sea it will ever be “life’s great adventure,” for in all human experience never before has man traveled so fast and so far into the realm of the unknown. There is an indefinable something about such an experience, where illusion and reality are so hauntingly intermingled, that ever after it may well color one’s whole sentiment of existence.

Two hours after leaving King’s Bay we found ourselves over the “pack-ice.” What weather! The sun shone brilliantly out of a sky of pure turquoise, and the whalelike shadow that our airship cast beneath us trailed monotonously across a glittering snowfield, unbroken, save where wind and tide had rift the icy surface into cracks and leads of open water. Three white whales darted under the protecting shelf of an ice-floe, and polar bear, frightened at the sight and noise of the weird monster that took to the air instead of the sea, dived into the sheltering leads, sending up columns of spray that reflected the bright sunshine.

As we approached latitude 83½ the snow-crowned peaks of Spitzbergen merged into the deepening blue of the southern sky, losing their identity, and all signs of life vanished. Intermittent fogs rolling beneath us like a great woolen ocean, hid the ice from our view. Approaching 88 we had to rise from 1800 feet to more than 3000 in order to get over it. Latitude 87.44—what memories! The motors were slowed down in commemoration of our, sojourn there the year previous, although we were passing the exact spot 50 miles to the eastward.

In this latitude, during the summer months, it is difficult to separate days and nights, for the sun swings around the horizon at practically the same altitude during the entire twenty-four hours. But our Greenwich chronometer told us we had been out 16½ hours, so the time was really 1.30 a.m., May 12. The fog had completely cleared away and there was no wind. The navigator who had been on his knees at one of the starboard windows since 1.10 with his sextant set on the height and declination the sun should have at the Pole, corresponding to the given date, suddenly announced, "Here we are!" as the sun’s image started to cover his sextant bubble. We were over the North Pole! With motors throttled and heads uncovered we descended to within 300 feet of the ice and dropped three flags.

“There is no more evanescent quality in an accomplished fact,” says Conrad, “than its wonderfulness.” Solicited incessantly by the considerations affecting its fears and desires, the human mind turns naturally away from the marvelous side of events. And it was in the most natural way possible that, after crossing the Pole, we filled our mugs with meat-balls immersed in a liquid of hot grease, from a large thermos cask, and, squatting down anywhere out of the way of trampling feet, devoured the first and only hot meal of our entire voyage from Spitzbergen to Alaska.

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