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Exploration of Franz Josef Land: Part 2

7 December, 2022

In the decades following its discovery in 1873, Franz Josef Land continued to attract adventurers to the edge of the world. The remote and barely hospitable archipelago was at times a base of operations—and at times a place of refuge—for explorers hoping to travel even farther off the map, into the white places where no one had gone before.

Following the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872–74, the next expedition to Franz Josef Land was made in 1880 by British explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith. Having set out from Scotland on the barque Eira in June, the expedition reached Franz Josef Land via Svalbard in August. Unlike their Austrian predecessors, they did not become trapped in ice. Taking advantage of a polynya (open water) in the area, Smith and his crew explored the previously undiscovered southwestern islands, including Bell Island. After two weeks of scientific research, exploration and hunting, they sailed back to Svalbard through the open Barents Sea. Smith led another expedition to Franz Josef Land the following year. They returned to Bell Island and built a cabin where they intended to spend the winter. However, while exploring farther afield, the Eira was holed by ice and sank near Cape Flora on Northbrook Island. Though all lives and stores were saved, the men could not return to Bell Island. Instead, they built a shelter out of turf and stones at Cape Flora, where they spent the long winter subsisting on polar bear and burning walrus blubber. Finally, in June 1882, they departed Franz Josef Land and were rescued in Novaya Zemlya after five weeks at sea in their lifeboats.

Meanwhile, the ill-fated U.S. Arctic Expedition of 1879–1881 came to grief when the USS Jeannette was crushed by ice and sank off the New Siberian Islands. In 1884, material from the Jeannette was found in Greenland, having obviously drifted across the Arctic Ocean and perhaps across the North Pole itself. This led Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen to believe it was possible to reach 90 degrees north by intentionally freezing a ship into the pack ice north of Siberia and simply drifting to within striking distance of the pole. So, in 1893, Nansen set sail with his purpose-built ship, the Fram, and reached the New Siberian Islands. The Fram performed as intended and was not damaged by the crushing force of the ice that held her prisoner for the next three years. However, progress toward the pole was slow and erratic. In March 1895, at 84 degrees north, Nansen selected one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, to accompany him on a dog sledge journey to the pole. Difficult ice conditions and severe cold forced them to retreat after passing 86 degrees north—a new record. Deciding not to return to their ship, the pair headed south to Franz Josef Land. The Fram and her crew eventually emerged from the ice near Spitsbergen, as Nansen had predicted. After an epic struggle through deteriorating ice conditions and surviving a polar bear attack, Nansen and Johansen finally reached Franz Josef Land in August 1895. They found their position on maps made by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition. They wanted to reach Bell Island, where they knew supplies had been left by Benjamin Leigh Smith. However, this proved impossible and they decided to overwinter in the north of the archipelago at a place they named Cape Norway. There, they dug a small pit and used a driftwood log to support a roof made of skins. This was their primitive shelter for the next eight months. In May 1896, the pair left Cape Norway with the intention of reaching Spitsbergen by kayak. After a month of arduous travel, exhausted from near drownings and walrus attacks, they reached Cape Flora. There, by pure chance, they happened upon a man—Frederick Jackson of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition—and the men were saved. On a modern-day expedition to Franz Josef Land, you can visit historical sites that give silent testimony to the resilience of these early explorers. You can visit the cabin known as Eira Lodge, still standing on Bell Island. At Cape Flora, you can see relics from a variety of polar expeditions, including that of Frederick Jackson. You can also see the haunting remains of the pit used by Nansen and Johansen at Cape Norway on Jackson Island, named by Nansen after the man who saved him from certain death. You may even visit Cape Tegetthoff, where the discoverers of Franz Josef Land first came ashore in this beautiful and beguiling land.

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