Greenland – The First Crossing

Greenland 1888

The golden age of the yellow backs slowly gave way [during the last quarter of the 19th century] to a new age of real world adventures that related the successes [and failures] of a new generation of polar adventurers that were rediscovering Greenland.

This new age of exploration arrived on the west coast of Greenland during 1878 when Jens Jensen ventured onto the inland ice sheet where be discovered nunataks and 27 species of flowering plants.

Jens Arnold Diderich Jensen

A nunatak (from Inuit nunataq) is an exposed, often rocky element of a ridge, mountain or peak not covered with ice or snow within (or at the edge of) an ice field or glacier.

The term is typically used in areas where a permanent ice sheet is present. Nunataks present readily identifiable landmark reference points in glaciers or ice caps and are often named.

Lifeforms on nunataks are frequently isolated by the surrounding ice or glacier creating unique habitats. Nunataks are generally angular and jagged because of freeze-thaw weathering and contrast strongly with the softer contours of the glacially eroded land after a glacier retreats.

Although nunataks are not covered in glacial ice, snow can accumulate on them.

The word is of Greenlandic origin and has been used in English since the 1870s.

Nunataks in Western Greenland

Nunataks in the western portion of the Greenland ice sheet seen from the NASA P-3B during an IceBridge survey of southwestern Greenland on Apr. 8, 2013.
Credit: NASA / Jim Yungel

During the brief and intense Arctic summer the mountain landscapes are adorned with a wealth of colours from flowers, herbs, mosses and heather.

Five types of orchid flower in Greenland.

There are even small trees that grow in the innermost fjords in Southern Greenland!

Further north, Disko Island is a paradise for flora-lovers.

Half of Greenland’s more than 500 species of flowering plants, horsetails and ferns are found on the old volcanic island.

Although Greenland geographically belongs to North America, the majority of plant species originate from Europe.

Greenland’s national flower, Niviarsiaq, which means ‘young woman’, is, however, most common in North America.

The flower is also known as broad-leaf fireweed, and is found all over the country.

It is particularly common in stony soils and sandy riverbeds.

The Greenlandic bluebell can be seen as far north as Upernavik in North Greenland and on the east coast up to Daneborg.

The bog blueberry has sweet blueberries, whilst the more common mountain crowberry produces tasty blackberries that are popular ingredients in many Greenlandic desserts and as an accompaniment to boiled cod liver.

The national flower of Greenland – Niviarsiaq

The national flower of Greenland – Niviarsiaq – East Greenland – Adrien Toupet

This arctic plant provides valuable nutrition for the Inuit, who eat the leaves raw, boiled with fat, or steeped in water for tea, the flowers and fruits raw, and as a salad with meals of seal and walrus blubber.

Every part of this plant is edible, tasting much like spinach, and is also known in the Canadian tundra as River Beauty.

It is the national flower of Greenland, where it is known by the Greenlandic name niviarsiaq, which means “little girl”.

Five years later, in 1883, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld ventured onto the Greenland ice sheet where he discovered plenty of ice, intermittent hot springs and no forests.

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld

The Sami people, also spelled Sámi or Saami, are the indigenous Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Kola Peninsula of Russia, and the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway.

The Sámi are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia recognized and protected under the international conventions of indigenous peoples, and are hence the northernmost indigenous people of Europe.

Nordenskjold Greenland Expedition 1883

Hot springs in Greenland are a common natural phenomenon, but the island of Uunartoq is home to the only place where the springs are warm enough to bathe in.

On the uninhabited island between Alluitsup Paa and Nanortalik in South Greenland there are three naturally heated springs which run together to a small stone-dammed pool.

Surrounded by mountain peaks and drifting icebergs, you can lie in the warm water and enjoy the almost surrealistically beautiful natural surroundings.

On Disko Island there are thousands of hot springs, whilst on the other side of the country in East Greenland the springs only number just over the hundred mark.

On the other hand, several of them are considerably warmer than on Disko Island.

The hottest are between 50-60 degrees Celsius (122-140 degrees Fahrenheit).

None of these have been dammed up, however, and therefore they are not as well known as the hot springs in South Greenland.

The hot springs in Greenland are not due to volcanic activity, as is the case on Iceland.

It appears that the water is heated by deep layers in the earth’s crust rubbing against each other.

The definition of a hot spring is that it has the same temperature all year round and is warmer than the location’s average temperature.

The hottest spring in Greenland is around 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), whilst the hot springs on Uunartoq provide water with a temperature of 37-38 degrees (98-100 degrees Fahrenheit) – an absolutely perfect bathtub temperature!

Uunartoq Hot Springs - Greenland

Uunartoq Hot Springs
Image: ilovegreenland

Greenland Hot Spring

Our hot spring came bubbling up from what looked like a mini-volcano crater (above).

Here it was scalding hot but just below some locals (hunters we guessed) had dammed it to make a pool where the water was just about bearable…

Captain JP’s log – Bathing in the hot springs of Greenland

The race to traverse Greenland had thus begun and Robert Peary [on his first Artic expedition] arrived [three years later in 1886] hoping to cross Greenland by dog sled but had to abandon his attempt [after travelling about 100 miles] due to a shortage of food.

Rear Admiral Robert Peary

The race to traverse Greenland was finally won on skis in 1888 by the truly remarkable Fridtjof Nansen in a adventure that was even more remarkable than yellow back fiction.

Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930) was a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In his youth a champion skier and ice skater, he led the team that made the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888, and won international fame after reaching a record northern latitude of 86°14′ during his North Pole expedition of 1893–96.

Although he retired from exploration after his return to Norway, his techniques of polar travel and his innovations in equipment and clothing influenced a generation of subsequent Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.

The plan was to cross the Greenland ice sheet on skis, from the east coast to the west coast, in the opposite direction from what others has tried before him.

Nansen had been to the east coast of Greenland before: as a student in 1882 he had sailed with the sealing vessel Viking, and after that he developed a fascination for all things polar.

The idea of an expedition across Greenland germinated in 1883.

The Greenland Expedition was a huge success – both as a springboard for Norway as a polar nation and for Nansen himself, who became famous both at home and abroad.

He also gleaned a lot of knowledge from the expedition, not least because they were obliged to spend the winter with the Inuits on the west coast of Greenland from autumn 1888 to spring 1889.

Nansen used his time to study Inuit life and culture, something that later proved beneficial for both Nansen and polar research as a whole.

The Greenland Expedition - 1888

The Greenland Expedition, 1888.
Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

When Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888 he used sledge-rigged sails made from the expedition’s tent floor!

He started a long tradition of using wind-power to assist travel on the ice cap.

Crossing Greenland on skis

Sailing across Greenland

Coasting down the slopes

The first crossing of Greenland – Translated by Hubert Majendie Gepp – 1919.

The Fram Museum provides a wonderful account of the Nansen expedition and the following extract clearly suggests there is a fine line between bravery and impetuosity.

On the ice along Greenland’s east coast
The sealing ship Jason fetched the men from Iceland 4 June 1888 and they met the drift ice the following day. It was already well-known that the ice flowing southwards along Greenland’s east coast was difficult for ships to penetrate, particularly before the end of the summer. 11 June was a clear and fine day and they were c. 70 km off the coast near to Angmagssalik. It looked promising, but Jason’s attempts to push through the drift ice were in vain.

A whole month passed by and the sealing season was drawing to a close.

On 17 July they were only 20 km from Sermilik Fjord and Nansen decided to make a dash for the shore through the belt of ice in two rowing boats, the one brought by him and the other donated by Jason’s skipper. The boats were packed and the last letters written. Sverdrup was put in command of the one boat with Kristiansen and Ravna, while Nansen was in the other with Dietrichson and Balto. They could at last start their expedition.

However, the shore was not won so easily. The rowing trip started off well, but then strong currents and ice threatened to crush the boats and they had to pull them up on to ice floes. They had been struggling for 15 hours on what had originally seemed like a short and easy trip to shore, and they now raised the tents on the ice for a well-earned rest.

On 19 July the weather cleared again and they could still see land by the Sermilik Fjord, but now at twice the distance. A new attempt was made to row in, but again they had to pull up on to the ice. They were caught in a current that took them rapidly southwards and away from the fjord. On 20 July the waves increased in size and started to break over the ice floe. Originally c. 30 m in diameter, it now broke up into smaller floes which were driven nearer and nearer to the coast and the breaking waves. The men managed to move over to a larger and thicker foe, but the situation was critical.

At one point Ravna and Balto suddenly disappeared. Nansen searched for them and finally looked under the tarpaulin on one of the boats. He found the two at the bottom of the boat where they had given up and prepared themselves for the inevitable death. A while later the weather changed to sunshine. They were now c. 55 km south of the mouth of Sermilik Fjord with an increasing distance from land. Even this last, solid floe started breaking up and the options were not good.

Finally they had to launch the boats and hope for the best.

They could only hold out, try to sleep and be as rested and prepared as possible. As they crept into the sleeping bags, the crashing of the breaking waves was deafening and the water foamed outside the tent walls. The ice floe rocked like a ship in heavy seas and Nansen expected that Sverdrup, who was the watch, would call them out at any moment, but nothing happened. When Nansen woke up in the morning, he could only hear distant rolls of thunder. The ice floe was badly damaged and covered in lumps of ice that had been thrown up.

The tent stood at the edge of the floe and close by a large iceberg rocked up and down and threatened to fall over the tent. The sea washed over the floe on all sides, but the mounds of ice lumps protected the tent. The boat that Ravna and Balto had hidden in was washed over by a huge wave and Sverdrup had to hang on to it as well he could. When all seemed lost and the floe was moving into the breaking waves, it changed direction and with unexpected speed rushed towards the land. They had survived the expedition’s most dramatic episode. Continual watch was held in two-hour shifts in order to alert the others of any changes in the ice and sea conditions. They were all worried. They risked drifting out into the Atlantic and disappearing there, although Nansen was sure they would get contact with land in the end.

After a couple of days more the ice thinned out. Breakfast was eaten quickly and the boats were launched. They were now in open water, and with Norwegian and Danish flags flying they rowed towards a steep cliff. Shortly afterwards they were safely in a small bay, were able to step ashore, prepare a good dinner and drink cocoa. Now the job was to get further north again, as they had been carried 380 km south of where they had left Jason. The northward rowing along the coast was hard and they were often in danger from rocks falling from the cliffs. After some time they met a small group of Inuit. Gifts were exchanged and needles were exchanged for meat as the concentrated food Nansen had brought did not stave off feelings of hunger.

Before leaving Kristiania Nansen had promised that there would be enough to eat and drink. Every day the men could eat their fill. Now they were in the awkward situation of having to ration the food. Balto complained and meant that none of them had been able to eat enough after they arrived at the coast. In addition they were ordered out to all kinds of strenuous work. Nansen on the other hand meant that he had never promised anything regarding the food. He maintained that the provisions would only last to the middle of Greenland if they all ate without restrictions. When Kristiansen arrived back home he was asked if they had had enough food. His reply was that “No, he had never been full up”.

Finally on land
At last, on 10 August, they were at Umivik. Here they camped and Nansen decided it should be the starting point for the crossing. The preparations for the ski trip itself could now begin.

They had left Jason on 17 July not far from Sermilik Fjord, which was the planned starting point for the trip.

On arrival at Umivik, 25 days later, they had travelled c. 800 km in the boats and were c.110 km south of Sermilik Fjord.

At last they could continue, but the starting point was different and they had lost a lot of time.

THE FIRST CROSSING OF GREENLAND (1888-1889) – The Fram Museum

However, the more detailed The First Crossing of Greenland [translated by Hubert Majendie Gepp – 1919] provides greater insights into the character of Fridtjof Nansen, the people of Greenland and their country.

On the first day they encountered a large Eskimo encampment near Cape Bille, and there were further occasional contacts with the nomadic native population as the journey continued.

The East Coast of Greenland - An Eskimo Encampment - 1888

The first crossing of Greenland – Translated by Hubert Majendie Gepp – 1919.

Needless to say, the Artic adventures of Fridtjof Nansen continued for some years…

On 17 June [1896], during a stop for repairs after the kayaks had been attacked by a walrus, Nansen thought he heard sounds of a dog barking, and of voices.

He went to investigate, and a few minutes later saw the figure of a man approaching.

It was the British explorer Frederick Jackson, who was leading an expedition to Franz Josef Land and was camped at Cape Flora on the nearby Northbrook Island.

The two were equally astonished by their encounter; after some awkward hesitation Jackson asked: “You are Nansen, aren’t you?”, and received the reply “Yes, I am Nansen.”

Fridtjof Nansen and Frederick Jackson at Cape Flora, Franz Josef Land, 17 June 1896

The inquisitive reader should also enjoy Nansen: The Explorer as Hero [1997] by Roland Huntford.

Behind the great polar explorers of the early twentieth century – Amundsen, Shackleton, Scott in the South and Peary in the North – looms the spirit of Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), the mentor of them all.

He was the father of modern polar exploration, the last act of territorial discovery before the leap into space began.

Nansen was a prime illustration of Carlyle’s dictum that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’.

He was not merely a pioneer in the wildly diverse fields of oceanography and skiing, but one of the founders of neurology.

A restless, unquiet Faustian spirit, Nansen was a Renaissance Man born out of his time into the new Norway of Ibsen and Grieg.

He was an artist and historian, a diplomat who had dealings with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, and played a part in the Versailles Peace Conference, where he helped the Americans in their efforts to contain the Bolsheviks.

He also undertook famine relief in Russia.

Finally, working for the League of Nations as both High Commissioner for Refugees and High Commissioner for the Repatriation of Prisoners of War, he became the first of the modern media-conscious international civil servants.

Nansen: The Explorer as Hero – Roland Huntford – 1997

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2 Responses to Greenland – The First Crossing

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