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The forbidding islands of Franz Josef Land

We came out of the cave, we looked over the hill and we saw fire. We crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west.


The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration, and in 1873, a remote and forbidding archipelago that would soon be called Franz Joseph Land was next.

In the summer of 1872, Austro-Hungarian army lieutenants Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht got stuck in sea ice north of Novaya Zemlya while trying to find a northern passage across the top of Russia from the Barents Sea to the Bering Sea.

Whiile adrift in this icebound manner aboard their steam schooner Tegethoff, the trepid explorers spotted a series of islands that didn't appear on their maps. Von Payer, the expedition leader, led several sledge trips across the ice and further investigated several of them, one of the islands reaching 81º50' North. And so, on Aug. 30, 1873 they named this archipelago after Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.

Dutch whalers as well as Norwegian and Russian trappers had almost certainly been familiar with some of the islands prior to the voyage of the Tegetthof. In hindsight, of course, we realize that these whalers and trappers were completely different kinds of explorers, inspired more by the need to eke out a living than any fame that might be achieved by claiming sovereignty over a group of uncharted islands.

Both von Payer and Weyprecht knew they were brought to the forbidding islands of Franz Joseph Land by accident.  However, since there wasn't much else they could do with their time, they took advantage of the situation and charted as much of the archipelago as they could.

After nearly two years aboard, the officers and crew abandoned the Tegetthof for good, taking to sledges and small boats looking for the open sea and, hopefully, fair winds back to Novaya Zemlya. Fortunately, a Russian fishing boat spotted them, and eventually helped them get back to Norway.

Even though von Payer and Weyprecht had accomplished a great deal in those two years, they could not think of any practical use for the forbidding islands of Franz Joseph Land and never returned. Interestingly, von Payer became a painter and, toward the end of his life, sketched out an idea for an expedition to the North Pole in a submarine!

It would be almost 30 years before a Russian expedition, led by Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov, reached Franz Josef Land on board the Yermak, the first Russian icebreaker, and raised the Russian flag for the Czar. Over the years, Italy, and Norway claimed Franz Josef Land as their own, but in 1930 soverignty was settled when Otto Schmidt, head of the Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route, hoisted the Soviet flag on Yuri Kuchiev Island. It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union and 1991 that foreign scientists were welcome to the islands, which were declared a nature reserve in 1994.

The deep history of Franz Joseph Land has many amazing stories. Several books have been written with great reverence for this fascinating archipelago. Closed off to visitors for many years during the Soviet era, the archipelago is just now being "re-discovered" as an ideal destination for expedition cruises.

Do you have anything to add about the amazing Franz Josef Land Archipelago?  Please tell us in the comments!

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