Arctic cruises have become slightly easier over the last century or two. Previous to that, adventurers reaching the Great White North faced unescapable harsh conditions coupled with the danger of having their ships frozen into the ice for the entire Arctic winter.
Yet despite the dangers, the North has called hundreds of eager explorers over the years. Here are 5 expeditions and explorers that took a crack at claiming the Arctic as their own.
1. Grisly ends for the Franklin Expedition
Like so many other expeditions, the outing led by British explorer Sir John Franklin set out in 1845 in the hopes of finding a Northwest Passage. The expedition disappeared, none of the 129 crew members ever being seen alive again.
Various countries sent out search parties over the following years. What they, and more modern researchers have found, is a tale of desperation.
As the harsh environment closed in around them, the decision was made to abandon the expedition’s two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror in the hopes of finding an inland Hudson’s Bay company trading post.
Oddly enough, it seems that a fair amount of food stores were left behind on the ships. It may be possible they just couldn’t carry it all, but it’s also a possibility that crew members were becoming sick from lead poisoning from improperly sealed cans.
Inuit oral history, as well as recovered bones, tell the tale of what happened next. The surviving starving crew members resorted to cannibalism of their deceased members in order to survive. Archaeologists have been able to see that not only do knife scoring on the bones indicate flesh being cut off, but the survivors were desperate enough to crack open the bones to suck out the marrow.
2. The Ancient Greeks
The first recorded European exploration of the north revolves around the explorer Pytheas. He set out around 330 B.C. and was able to record some things that must have been startling to the known Grecian world.
First, he found Britain, recording much of its coastline before turning north and finding more land (which might have been a British isle, or Iceland, or Norway) which he dubbed “Thule” which means “the end of the Earth.” It also became the name of a culture that was a precursor to the modern-day Inuit.
He also became the first Greek to actually witness the “midnight sun”. While it had been previously speculated upon, he was the first of the advanced Europeans to actually see the phenomenon with his own eyes.
It’s possible he might have continued even further north, or perhaps further west to Greenland or North America, but he encountered pack ice and decided that he had had quite enough adventuring for one day and turned back.
3. Erik the Red
Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldsson) was forced to move not once but twice because of his habit of killing the heck out of people. Once the second killing occurred the locals decided that they had had enough of his killing-flavoured shenanigans and banished him to the icy island of Greenland for three years (making him Greenland’s first permanent Norse settler).
Once his exile was up, Erik returned to his fellow Norse folk in Iceland with tales of how wonderful his new home was – the farming was awesome and there was plenty of fishing and hunting. He even gave it a new name, “Greenland”, which must have sounded way sexier than “Iceland” to people who lived without indoor heating systems.
So not only was Erik the first Euro to make a permanent settlement on Greenland, he was also possibly the world’s first sleazy ad man.
4. Make the Arctic come to you
Norweigian explorer, diplomat, and scientist Fridtjof Nansen had a rather novel idea when it came to Arctic cruises – since the Arctic had the tendency to freeze ships into its ice, why not use that to one’s advantage?
So in 1893 he set out on his specially designed ship, the Fram. What made the Fram so special was that it wasn’t designed to outrun the Arctic’s freeze-in winters or to muscle its way through encroaching ice. Instead, the Fram was built to deliberately be frozen into the ice with the hope that the flow would carry it to the North Pole.
It kind of worked, and he and his crew reached a point where they had to set out for the rest of the way to the North Pole on skis. They thought they were making pretty good time until they realised that they were skiing across spans of ice that were drifting south, which was the late 1800’s version of walking the wrong way on an escalator. After running low on food, running low on pack dogs, and having their kayaks attacked by a walrus, Nansen made the decision to turn back.
5. Peary versus Cook
American explorer Robert Edwin Peary Sr. had made his name for a previous attempt at crossing the great Greenlandic ice-shield via dogsled. He was also known for being one of the first explorers to adopt Inuit approaches (e.g. making igloos instead of carrying the extra weight of tents), as well as approaching inappropriately young Inuit girls (he took on a 14 year-old Inuit mistress).
Peary thought he had hit exploratory pay-dirt by reaching the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. There was just one problem – when he returned home he found that a doctor from a former expedition, Frederick Albert Cook, was claiming that he had reached the Pole a whole year earlier.
The debate raged on in newspapers, and was the cause of a congressional inquiry. While the inquiry sided with Peary, the debate remained, and even carried into the 1980s when a book written by British explorer Wally Herbert stated that Peary never quite reached the Pole, even though he got fairly close (within 100 kilometres).