Sunday, 29 April 2018

The fortunate journey of Nordenskiöld's Vega, the first to sail the Northeast Passage

Th history of polar expeditions and pioneer arctic journeys is full of tragedies and failures. But this is a case of full success; the adventure of the ship Vega under command of the finland-swedish baron Nordenskiöld is remembered as the first time ever the NorthEast passage was sailed. With no human lifes lost.

To illustrate this report, I'll insert original prints from "The voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe" as well as present day photos of the places and peoples.

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) was a finnish baron, a prominent geologist and mineralogist from a family of scientists. He had to move to Sweden because of the Russian domination over Finland which he opposed and wrote against. Those were the times of the first Crimean War, and Nordenskiöld was a pro-european, anti-tsarist liberal; those ideas were not welcome at the pro-Russian Helsinki University.

But he was quite welcome in Sweden. As a geologist, he took part in geological expeditions to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), reaching the latitute of 81º 42' N in 1858. Arctic explorations followed to Greenland and Arctic Russia in 1867, 1870, 1872 and 1875; he grew the ambition to attempt the discovery of the Northeast Passage. Like a truly new Viking, he had sea and exploit in his blood.

The 800 tons steamship "Vega", built in 1872 at Bremerhaven as a sealer and whaler, was bought for the expedition.

At the Karlskrona shipyards in Sweden, she was strengthened to withstand ice, under government funding, and provided with an auxiliary engine. A smaller steamship, the "Lena", would accompany the expedition until the Lena River to help with supplies.

The Lena

Food provisions icluded bacon, coffee, biscuits, pemmican, potatoes, cranberry juice and lemon against scurvy.

At Gothenburg they took on sledges, tents, cooking utensils, and even a little kitten, which would live in the captain's berth till it grew accustomed to the sea.

Starting July 1878 from Karlskrona, then stopping at Tromsö to join the provision ship Lena, the Vega crossed the Artcic Circle and entered Magerøya sund to pass the North Cape at 71º 10' N on the 16th July, then sailed  eastwards to the Kara Sea.

Kara Sea

The south-west coast of Nova Zembla (Nova Zemlya) was reached in two weeks, with the sea completely free of ice. Nordenskiöld sailed onwards through the Kara Strait until the Vega anchored outside the village of Khabarovo on the Yugorsky peninsula.

From at least the 12th century, Russian Pomors have been navigating the White and Barents Seas. Since then they regularly entered the Ob Gulf, or portaged across the Yamal Peninsula for trade.

The Samoyeds camp at Khabarovo. They "dressed in reindeer skin from head to foot".

On the bleak northern shores stood a little wooden church. This village and this bay since the XIV century were a staging post for trading sailors, so there was arranged this small chapel.

It seemed strange to find here brass bas-reliefs representing the holy figures; in front of each hung a little oil lamp.

On the 1st August, the Vega  was off again, navigating the Kara Sea, then past White Island and the estuary of the great Ob River, and reached the mouth of the Yenisei to Dickson Island. That region of the Arctic Ocean is usually free of ice due to the immense freshwater discharge of the two great rivers.

Dickson (Dikson), at the Yenisei river mouth

Kuzkin Island, as the Pomors named it, faces the Yenisei river mouth; it had already been visited in a previous expedition led by Nordenskiöld in 1875. He then renamed it "Dickson port" as he found there a favorable harbour. Dikson would later become one of the great Arctic harbours of Russia, a strategic site in the Northern Sea Route.

The expedition arrived on the 6th August. "Here in this best-known haven on the whole Arctic coast of Asia" they anchored and spent some time hunting for meat. "In consequence of the successful sport we lived very extravagantly during these days; our table groaned with joints of reindeer venison and bear-hams."

The Vega and the Lena moored by the ice.

River boat on Yenisei

With fresh supplies received from upriver Dudinka, the Vega expedition resumed its eastboud route; they found few rotten ice, dense fogs, uncharted small islands - an archipelago that would later be named "Nordenskiöld archipelago" ! - , and then the temperature dropped and ice floes were more solid; the Taymyr Peninsula was passed with broken coastal ice. The next target was Cape Chelyuskin, the journey's most intense moment.

Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point in continental Eurasia

They now sailed north close bound in fog, till on 20th August "we reached the great goal, which for centuries had been the object of unsuccessful struggles ". For the first time a vessel lay at anchor off the northernmost cape of the Old World. With colours flying on every mast and saluting the venerable cape with the Swedish salute of five guns, "we came to an anchor!". The fog lifting for a moment, they saw a white Polar bear on the icy coast "regarding the unexpected guests with surprise."

The Vega and the Lena at Cape Chelyuskin, watched by a polar bear.

When afterwards a member of the expedition was asked which moment was the proudest of the whole voyage, he answered, without hesitation: "Undoubtedly the moment when we anchored off Cape Chelyuskin."

The next step, approaching the New Siberian Islands, would face compacting icefields and dense fog. Violent snowstorms soon set in and "aloft everything was covered with a crust of ice, and the position in the crow's nest was anything but pleasant." The expedition was forced a detour backwards to the Taymyr and there return by a coastal route, and on 27th August the Vega was at the mouth of the Lena.

The Lena River

With an ice-free sea, the Vega sailed on eastwards; the New Siberian (Nysebir) Islands at 141.5° E, then the Bear (Medvezhiy) Islands at 161° 26′ E, lying long and low in the Polar seas, were safely passed fullspeed.

Medvezhiy Islands, East Siberian Sea.

On the 3rd September a thick snowstorm came on, and though the ice was growing more closely packed than any yet encountered they could still make their way along a narrow ice-free channel near the coast. Snowstorms and drifting ice compelled careful navigation. Fog also hindered the expedition once more.

Pasting the mouth of the Kolyma river, the coast was low, a sandy strip betwen the ocean and tundra lagoons behind; nomadic tents were seen, and native Chukchis came to the Vega and were welcome aboard. This was the first time they ever saw a big ship, they were noisily frantic and marvelled. As new ice made it dificult to restart the jouney, several observations were made aground, taking notes on geology, fauna and flora, and the native way of life.

The Vega continued route by the coastal channel, sailing shallow waters. Ice floes started hitting hard against the keel, and slow progress was made. By the 27th September, few miles after Cape Onmyn on the Chukchi Sea coast, they reached Kolyuchin Bay with newly formed pack ice.

Blocked by a a mass of thick ice, they were forced to halt a mile from Kolyuchin Bay, a short time from the small hamlet of Pitlekay.

[to be continued soon]