Friday, 4 May 2018

The Vega expedition (II) - discovering the Northeast Passage

[continued from the previous post]

By the 27th September 1878, the Vega expedition reached Kolyuchin Bay in East Siberian Chukchi Sea, with newly formed pack ice. Soon after passing Cape Onmyn, they were forced to halt, a mile off the coast.
The Wintering, Kolyuchin Bay
174º 22' E, Chukchi sea

It was the 28th September, the little Vega was finally and hopelessly frozen into the ice, and they made her fast to a large ice-block. Nordenskjöld knew it was hopeless to resume sailing, so preparations started for the Vega wintering in the Arctic ocean.

A mile off the coast, the Vega was blocked by floes (later thick ice).

The coastal land around was desolate and monotonous, but it was not uninhabited. A small settlement, "Pitlekay" (Pitlekaj, Pilgykey), was a few kilometers from the vessel and further away there were more similar settlements, like Neshkan at 172º 58' W, and Uelen farther to the East, a day trip away.

Neshkan (Najtskaj)

The members of the expedition had frequent and good contact with the inhabitants which visited daily in the ship. The crew and the researchers were kept occupied during the entire wintering with landscaping tasks. They built a small observatorium at the coast near Pitlekay, and measured the water depth and the tides.

The Observatorium

"Only one hundred and twenty miles distant from our goal, which we had been approaching during the last two months, and after having accomplished two thousand four hundred miles. It took some time before we could accustom ourselves to the thought that we were so near and yet so far from our destination."

The Officer's mess during the wintering.

Chukchi visit

As they were fortunately near the shore and the little settlement of Pitlekaj, where in eight tents dwelt a party of Chukchis, they frequently visited mutually, in a friendly social interchange.

Chukchi boat approaching the Vega 
(Th. Weber)

"The boats were of skin, fully laden with laughing and chattering natives, men, women, and children, who indicated by cries and gesticulations that they wished to come on board. The engine was stopped, the boats lay to, and a large number of skin-clad, bare-headed beings climbed up over the gunwale and a lively talk began. Great gladness prevailed when tobacco and Dutch clay pipes were distributed among them. None of them could speak a word of Russian; they had come in closer contact with American whalers than with Russian traders."

Chukchis were dressed in reindeer skins with tight-fitting trousers of seal-skin, shoes of reindeer-skin with seal-skin boots and walrus-skin soles. In very cold weather they wore hoods of wolf fur with the head of the wolf at the back.


Christmas came and was celebrated by a Christmas tree made of willows tied to a flagstaff, and the traditional rice porridge.

Christmas Eve on the Vega

The work done

In mid-April the register was often -40 degrees; nevertheless large flocks of geese, eider-ducks and other birds began to arrive, some perching on the rigging of the Vega, but May and June found her still ice-bound in her winter quarters.

It was not till 18th July 1879 that "the hour of deliverance came at last, and we cast loose from our faithful  ice-block, which for two hundred and ninety-four days had protected us so well against the pressure of the ice and stood westwards in the open channel, now about a mile wide. On the shore stood our old friends, probably on the point of crying, which they had often told us they would do when the ship left them."

For long the Chukchis stood on the shore watching till the "fire-dog", as they called the Vega, was out of sight.

Still under  - 35º C, the East Cape of Bering Strait was reached on July,  completing the Northwest passage route.

The Vega at Penkigney Bay (called Konyam by Nordenskiold), on the Bering Sea.

"Passing through closely packed ice, the Vega  now rounded the East Cape, of which we now and then caught a glimpse through the fog. we noticed the heavy swell of the Pacific Ocean. The completion of the North-East Passage was celebrated the same day with a grand dinner, and the Vega  greeted the Old and New Worlds by a display of flags and the firing of a  salute. Now for the first time after the lapse of three hundred and thirty-six years was the North-East Passage at last achieved."

Sailing through the Strait, they anchored near Bering Island (Nikolskoye) on 14th August.


There is no time to tell how the Vega  sailed on to Japan, how she sailed right round Asia, through the Suez Canal, and reached Sweden in safety. It was on 24th April 1880 that the little weather-beaten Vega, accompanied by flag-decked steamers literally laden with friends, sailed into the Stockholm harbour while the hiss of fireworks and the roar of cannon mingled with the shouts of thousands.


Nordenskiöld described his journey in several publications, in several languages, expanding scientific knowledge of the polar regions on geology, mineralogy, zoology, cartography, meteorology, botany, history and ethnology

He edited a monumental record of the expedition in five volumes, and himself wrote a more popular summary in two volumes.

Besides being the first to navigate the Northeast Passage, Nordenskiöld mapped the Siberian coast and notated several native populations.

Chukchi child, as drawn by the expedition's artist

Treeline in Siberia

This was a brave, rewarding achievement. No prisioners or slaves made, no colonies settled, just the true discovery (as no man had done it before) of a maritime route and of the scientific data collected on the way. Sweden does not celebrate the Vega expedition with pomp and glory (like others do), but they might, for a very beautiful, enlighting human victory to be roud of.