North to 88 and the First Crossing of The Polar Sea

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


First land after 2000 miles—the coast of Alaska

With full speed ahead we settled down to the monotony of routine again, heading southward instead of north, with the sun-compass settled for Point Barrow, Alaska, 1500 miles away. Ahead lay the world’s biggest unexplored area. What would it reveal, a lost continent, islands, or what? Would we cross safely to tell the world what we had seen? Hour after hour passed, but only the same glittering surface rift by wind and tide into cracks and leads of open water, was here as before crossing our route, in a west-east direction. We reached the “Ice-Pole” at 7 a.m., five and one-half hours later.

This “Ice-Pole,” so called because it is the center of the Arctic ice-mass and therefore the most nearly inaccessible spot in the Arctic regions, lies in latitude 86 N. and longitude 157 W. But its inaccessibility was now conquered.

We had covered one half the distance between King’s Bay and Point Barrow. Of the seven tons of fuel the ship carried, only about two tons had been consumed. Here, strange to say, we picked up the first sign of life since leaving 83½ (almost 700 miles), one lone Polar bear track. What a challenge! What a mockery to our egotism! Yet there it was, plainly crossing a large ice-floe. Only a Polar bear, but something alive and like ourselves seeking—but what, away out here? Anyway, it was something tangible again. The sense of utter solitude—the illusion of disembodiment—that had taken possession of me, as I seemed to float through the void like a lost soul, beyond the confines of a three-dimensional world, vanished, and in its place sprang eternal hope and the desire to achieve.

Just ahead, so it seemed, lay Alaska, the goal of our dreams. “A little more, yet how far it was; a little less, but what worlds away.” But as we approached its coast, fears assailed us; for we ran into the only storm during our entire voyage—fog, wind, and sleet—and for thirty-one hours we battled. Ice coated the aërial wire and froze the windmill driver of our generator, which supplied the electrical energy to operate the transmitter and charge the storage batteries, and all efforts to establish communication with Alaska were of no avail.

Ice-crust formed on the bow of the ship. This was alarming, not only because it loaded her down, but also because it spoiled her trimming. We tried to counteract the effect by moving the fuel from the bow tanks and sending the crew aft. Needless to say, our greatest danger lay in the ice that was torn loose from the sides of the ship by the whirling propellers and thrown against the gas bags. An iceblock of the most fantastic shape settled on the sun compass, stopping the clockwork and putting it out of action for the rest of the flight.

It was a surprise, therefore, to find by observation at 4 a.m., on May 13, that we were in a nearly north-south position on a line striking the Alaskan coast and passing only twenty-one nautical miles west of Point Barrow, because it had been nearly twelve hours since the last longitude observation. At 6.45 a.m., land was sighted ahead on the port bow, and at 7.25 after a voyage lasting 48 hours, we reached the coast. Flat and snow-covered, it was the most desolate looking coast line imaginable, but it was land and that was enough.

deflated Norge

Her work finished—the Norge deflated at Teller

As we passed over the coast line the fog became denser and denser, obliging us to go lower and lower in order to be able to see far enough ahead so that we would not run against obstacles. At last, abreast of Cape Beaufort, it became impossible to see any longer, and we rose through fog and cloud into bright sunshine. Heavy layers of fog drifted beneath us, and only now and then through openings in it could we glimpse the barren peaks of the Endicott range, over which we were passing—far too little to enable us to make out our whereabouts.

When we believed ourselves as far south as we could go, we tried to get down underneath the fog and do our best to find the way. We had to nose down to an elevation of only three hundred feet before we could see what lay beneath. We were over drift-ice again. Where were we? Unreal as it may seem, our wireless picked up a strong signal at this moment, which we thought might be Nome but we could not tell for certain, because it was a communication with another station and we couldn’t get the signature. But it gave us a position north of Diomede Island and enabled us to set a course for Cape Prince of Wales.

Very soon we were over open water which aroused our suspicions, for we might just as well be on the outside of Bering Strait and, with our course, heading straight for the Aleutian Islands. Getting into sunshine again we were obliged to take our observation from the top of the ship, as the sun at this latitude was so high that it was hidden by the envelope in whichever direction the ship pointed. The observation gave our latitude as 67.30. We then went down through the clouds and found ourselves over land, having passed over the whole of Kotzebue Bay, driven by a northerly gale of more than 70 miles per hour. Heading west to get to the sea again, we heard the Nome wireless, which together with the identification of the coast line, gave us our exact position.

At 3.30 on the morning of May 14, we rounded Cape Prince of Wales, and, tired but happy, brought our airship, coated with a ton of ice, safely to rest at the little trading post of Teller, 91 miles northwest of Nome, after a journey of 3393 miles, lasting seventy-two hours, across the Polar Sea from Europe to America.

Amundsen was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage by ship. He did that in 1903–06, about a decade before the flight described here. In 1969, following the discovery of oil in northern Alaska, the S.S. Manhattan, an American ice-breaking tanker, became the first commercial ship to sail the Northwest Passage.

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