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Why to choose Russian Arctic for Holidays?
It’s been more than a year and I am just about to finish this article just now. I am not a fun of travel blogs, and even less of those countless selfies showing ‘me here’, ‘me there’ and I would really like to avoid it. So it took me that long, because I wasn’t sure what and how I wanted to describe. Not my personal experiences or feelings, not even my admiration to the beauty of this place. Not our bold steps ‘ where no man has gone before’. 😉 I wouldn’t like to spoil it to anyone, you need to go and see it if you dream about it. And yet I would like to inspire and share what this place means to me, why I was attracted to it so strong! Because I think that was one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.
It was my 5th sailing expedition to polar regions and all of them with the same organizer: Lodowe Krainy and Maciej Sodkiewicz as a captain. Having seen East Greenland, Spitsbergen, Alaska and Antarctic before – what was so special about Franz Josef Land?
As always the very good reason was that I hadn’t been there yet! But that’s not all. I haven’t been to too many fascinating, wild, remote places. And it’s true that I prefer too cold rather than too hot. And all those blues, whites and blacks, and everything in between… But it is the history of explorations of this area, the events that this archipelago had witnessed, that filled my head with dreams – I could hardly imagine a better place to touch the past and feel its adventurous spirit.
First official notes on those islands come from 1873 and the Austro-Hungarian expedition led by Julius von Payer and Kurt Weyprecht, on the ship Admiral Tegetthoff. According to them the main goal of the expedition was to find the Northeast Passage, and secondly – reach the North Pole. None of that was achieved, because the ship got locked in pack ice near Novaya Zemlya and it was drifted towards the new land instead. It was believed to be the new polar continent at that time. Being discovered by Austro-Hungarian team “the name Franz Josef Land, a group of over 190 sea islands, came from the name of then ruling emperor of Austria-Hungary and in fact was used to mean that this territory belonged to the Austro-Hungarian state“. Some sledge expeditions were led to explore the new land and they reached the highest latitude of 81° 50′ North.
On the spring next year, captain Weyprecht decided to leave the ship frozen in pack ice and return with sledges and boats to Novaya Zemlya, where they were rescued by Russian fishing vessel.
Although there may have been before some scientific presumptions of this land existing, as the Russian scientist N. G. Schilling proposed in 1865 that the ice conditions in the Barents Sea could only be explained if there was another land mass in the area, (but he never received funding for an expedition), the discovery made on Tegetthoff was purely accidental. It is also possible that the islands were visited before by Norwegian hunters, but kept in secret as place aimed at exploiting it for sealing and whaling.
But after the first official record of this land, to support the territorial claims it was necessary to have there a permanent settlement of people who would be involved in some activity, which was not easy to establish there. Following the discovery, other expeditions were organized, to explore, to prove the territorial claims, to stop on the way to the inaccessible North Pole… And so the pioneers of the new archipelago were naming the islands, straits, bays, gulfs and other distinctive forms of the archipelago by names of their compatriots and hence the diversity of languages in official names in this area.
It is not possible to shortly describe all the interesting expeditions that took place in Franz Josef Land, so I chose three of them, that are most significant or most extraordinary in my opinion.
The Scottish yachtsman, Benjamin Leigh Smith was first to spend a winter on Franz Josef Land. In 1880 he led the scientific expedition to Franz Josef Land, he named Northbrook Island and Cape Flora – the most accessible part of it, described the Bell Island and made a general reconnaissance before his future research. When he came back the following year, in 1881, with the same crew and the same ship Eira, he was ready to build a plank house, later called Eira Lodge, on the flat peninsula of Bell Island. It supposed to serve as their main stationary base for the winter operations. However, it was never used according to its intended purpose. During their voyage to Northbrook Island, their ship got crushed by ice and they were forced to abandon it and from its remains build the new cabin on Cape Flora to survive the coming winter. The Flora Cottage served them well and the following summer, all 25 people from the expedition, using four boats, managed to reach Novaya Zemlya, where they met the British schooner Willem Barents, that took them home.
However that was not the end of Flora Cottage history. It was used in the following years by other expeditions, as a food storage place or a part of a stationary base camp. That is why it is regarded as a first ‘capital’ of Franz Josef Land.
Fifteen years later, in 1896 the most extraordinary meeting took place on Cape Flora. And those are the circumstances that led to it:
In 1894, not far from the Flora Cottage, the Englishman Frederick George Jackson anchored his ship Windward and set up a small settlement Elmwood. The key target for his expedition was scientific study of this polar area and he managed to collect a great deal of scientific data on that region. The expedition was very well prepared and equipped with wooden cabins, dogs and sledges and even some Siberian ponies to live there and conduct the research. They worked on Franz Josef Land for three years until 1897. And thanks to Jackson’s expedition, this land was for the first time proven to be an archipelago, not a polar continent as previously believed.
In the meantime, in Norway, another man was preparing for his gigantic voyage towards the North Pole. Based on the Henrik Mohn’s transpolar drift theory, Nansen was planning to let his specially designed ship Fram freeze into the pack ice and let it be carried north towards the Pole. The idea came from the discovery of a ship’s wreckage on south west coast of Greenland. The American ship, Jeanette, had sunk off the north coast of Siberia in 1881 and during next three years drifted through the Arctic Ocean, possibly reaching on its way the vicinity of the Pole. So the plan was to repeat this route.
In the summer 1893, Fram left the last port of call in Norway, and headed east along the Siberian coast. On 5th of October 1893, being close to New Siberian Islands, Nansen finally let the ship get stuck in pack ice, and they raised the rudder. The slow, frustrating journey took them 1,5 years before Nansen realized that they would not reach the Pole that way. On March 14, 1895, after writing a goodbye letter to his wife, he left Fram with its commander and the rest of the crew, and together with Hjalmar Johansen (I really recommend to follow his biography too!) begun the march towards the North Pole. The conditions were more difficult than expected, and they were not able to cover daily distances big enough to reach the Pole and come back safely before winter. On 7th of April, at the latitude of 86°13’6N, facing more and more difficult terrain, Nansen decided to turn around and head towards Franz Josef Land, knowing it was reliable food source on their way towards civilization. They reached the archipelago after 4 months(!), on 6th of August, 1895 and the first island they passed was called by Nansen in respect of his wife: Eva-Liv Island.
They managed to reach Cape Norway on Jackson Island (the island was named by Nansen later on, in respect to Frederick Jackson), where Nansen decided to spend another winter before heading further south. They improvised the tiny hat, by digging the shallow hole in the ground, and covering it with walrus skin stretched on the drifted wood plank. Skinning a walrus was quite a challenge for only two men, so they were forced to do it while standing in the ice cold water to be able to move the animal body at all. But those skins plus walrus and polar bears’ meat let them survive the winter, and in the following spring they resumed their journey back.
What must had been the surprise for Frederick Jackson to meet Nansen and Johansen at Cape Flora on June 17, 1896 – I can only imagine. But after a moment of hesitation, he recognized Nansen in the middle of the Arctic and welcomed both explorers. Not only they were soon taken back home by the ship Windward, but soon after they arrival to Norway, they reunited with the ship Fram and its crew, who also made it safely back, after drifting in pack ice to the north of Spitsbergen and then sailing south.
Although Nansen didn’t reach the main objective, his expedition was of great importance. First, by contrast to other expeditions, he took advantage of a small, well-trained group, instead of large crews, and Inuit and Sami people experience on living and travelling in polar regions – his whole crew came back safely home. He proved the polar drift theory and that the North Pole was located on a pack ice on the ocean and there was no polar continent above Eurasia and Franz Josef Land. Not to mention other scientific surveys, observations and data collected during the voyage.
Georgy Sedov was born in a very poor fisherman family and nothing would change his fate if not his ambition and stubbornness. He begun education quite late but managed to attend a navigation course, where he proved to be quite talented and his career started on. He was soon promoted and at the same time driven more and more towards explorations of polar seas. In 1902-03 he participated in hydrographic expedition in the Arctic Ocean and later explored some areas next to Kolyma river mouth and Novaya Zemlya. In 1903 he also met Anthony Fiala, who was just about to lead the American expedition targeting the North Pole. (But when staying in Tiplitz Bay on Rudolf Island, they lost their ship and were forced to abandon the main goal and return south). I dare to say that such a meeting affected and even more inspired Sedov to dream about the North. Especially that no matter what he achieved so far, he always felt a dark shadow of his poor origin and he wanted to achieve something great to deserve himself a proper respect from the society, his friends and his aristocratic wife (Vera Mai-Mayevskaya, daughter of the general V.Z. May-Mayevsky). How much it was true among his companions to treat him as if he was out of place, and how much it was just his pride and ambition – hard to say. Anyway it led him to his greatest, tragic journey.
In 1912 he would not be the first one to reach the North Pole, but he imagined that sticking the Russian flag there, where only two men claimed to be before, would be respectively great achievement to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Romanov Family and would solve his personal complexes once and for all, proving him a worthy husband and skilled explorer.
His plan though was not supported by the hydrographic society. And it was not enough time to properly prepare the expedition, not to mention the lack of money, collected mostly from voluntary donors (including the last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II). It was not enough to buy the good quality equipment in the proper amount. Inexperienced crew, homeless dogs caught on streets, rotten food and the ship not big enough to accommodate everything they needed – but they left for the North Pole anyway.
From the very beginning it was not going as planned. The ship Svyatoy Muchenik Foka (Saint Phocas the Martyr) left Archangelsk on August 14, 1912, already being late. They had to spend their first winter on Novaya Zemlya as their way to Franz Josef Land was blocked by pack ice. They managed to reach Hoocker Island a year after the expedition started. Lack of coal and food forced them to stop for another winter in a place called by Sedov Tikhaya Bay (Calm Bay). Not able to return to Russia without the record of success, Sedov decided for the hectic march towards the Pole. February 15th, 1914, he left the camp together with two other crewmen and some dog sleds. But all of them were already showing signs of scurvy, and additionally Sedov’s condition rapidly deteriorated. He never made it to the Pole; he died on Rudolf Island – last piece of land before the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. His companions buried him on Cape Auk and returned to the settlement on the Hoocker Island.
Although on the way back to Archangelsk, St. Phocas crew also managed to save two survivors from another Russian expedition on Cape Flora (another great story to follow, but not this time), all together it was a tragic year for Russian explorers. Besides G. Sedov and I. Zaner (the engineer of Sedov’s expedition), the number of deaths on Franz Josef Land reached 18, 11 of them being members of Russians expeditions.
The Sedov’s expedition wintering in Tikhaya Bay started the chapter of the second ‘capital’ of Franz Josef Land. The scientist were conducting the regular meteorological observations during their stay there. Later on, July 1929, the first permanent scientific station was developed on the same spot and it operated until 1959. During years of operations, it witnessed more scientific expeditions, some International Polar Year activities, several children to be born there… Its opening fixed the Russians rights for this territory. (Actually Soviet Union claimed in 1926 its right to everything laying between its north coast and the North Pole.)
The islands of Franz Josef Land have been a Nature Sanctuary since 1994 and became part of the Russian Arctic National Park in 2012. Today, the settlement in Tikhaya Bay on Hoocker Island, is mostly a tourist spot and the National Park outpost.
It was also our main base in 2019, where we had to check in and out for visiting Franz Josef Land. That is also where we could take a proper bath in the Russian sauna, built and maintained by the summer crews of the National Park. That is also where we met the first polar bears family, observed in vicinity of the settlement. After helping the crew to perform some scientific research (by giving them a lift on our sailing yacht to particular spots), we were guided in return to some other locations, having guidance and company when going ashore.
Being part of the European Continental Shelf, Franz Josef Land is the northernmost point of Europe (and Eastern Hemisphere), with Rudolf Island reaching 81°54′N. The whole area stretches to 375 km form West to East and 234 km from North to South. The characteristic basalt mountains reach maximum of 670 meters above sea level and rise each year around 2,5-3mm! The average yearly temperatures are noted between -13 and -18 °C. For winter being under -30°C, with the lowest temperature recorded during the pioneer expedition: -51°C. Maximum temperatures during summer are just under +3°C.
The areas not covered constantly by ice or snow make around 15% of the land area of the archipelago, with the climatic snow line being at a height of 100-300 meters above the sea level, and are mostly overgrown with tundra: mosses, lichens and so on. The most popular animals are polar bears, polar foxes, walruses, seals and around 20 species of birds.
Just after Nansen and Johansen’s hat on Jackson Island, the second point of interest for me for me was to see those extraordinary round rocks of Champ Island. The mystery of them is solved by pure scientific explanation. Which is a pity, as there are similar stone formations in several places in the world, and all the legends surrounding them are quite amazing: starting with the dragons’ eggs, through devil’s marbles, ending on being the proof of aliens presence.
But the mystery here on Champ Island starts long, long time ago. Around 65 – 200 million years ago! Apparently in Mesozoic the area of Franz Josef Land was a warm, shallow sea. The small pieces of organic debris (bone, wood, leaves) had been embedded among surrounding them quartz grains. And, comparing to the quartz, being much more chemically reactive they attracted any minerals dissolved in water when the sediments were building up. And that minerals, like iron, cemented the sand surrounding those pieces of debris. When the water was washing off the sand stone, the characteristic round shapes started to appear.
The concretions on Champ Island reach form few millimeters in diameter up to 2 meters!
I must say I was tempted for a while to take one little piece of such ‘jewelry’ with me as a memory. But who will protect the nature, if we don’t? So I left it where it should be.
4. It was worth it!
Apart from visiting all those historically and geographically famous places, we had to deal with the annoying part of the expedition. Bureaucracy. Not only all those visas, but the exact dates of passing the territorial waters surrounding Franz Josef Land had to be approved more than 6 months before the expedition even started. Anyone who had chance to sail on open seas, would smile on such a demand. But there was no choice. The organizer had to present the exact date of entering and leaving the territorial waters not only when leaving/entering the White Sea but also the archipelago! What is more, any deviations from the previously approved plan (e.g. passing the boarder next to Franz Josef Land a day later than expected, due to the ice or weather conditions) required our thorough explanation to the Russian border authorities.
But it was all worth it. To see the beauty of Arctic, again. To take a bath in the ocean on 82°N in ice cold water (literally, -0,8°C), having a seal as a company! To see some polar bears, finally! And what was the point of it all: to walk on the very same ground as one of the greatest explorers in the world: Nansen himself! Yes, it was definitely worth it.
For above video thanks to Ewa Banaszek! 🙂
For more photos you can visit: https://pozdrowieniazpodrozy.com/galeria/piekno-polnocy/
- Victor Kuznetsov, “The history of the three “Capitals” of the Arctic Archipelago Franz Josef Land”, Arkhangelsk, 2013.
- Bertrand Imbert, “Wielkie Wyprawy Polarne”, Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1996.
- North Pole: Glaciologist Colin Souness talks about Stone Geospheres on Champ Island (360° VR)