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.

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]