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A Voyage Into the Arctic

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

When in the Arctic, a man longs incessantly for the South, with its warmth, its generous visions of variety, its luxuriant fragrances of green growth. Once out of its cold confinement, he is inclined to look back regretfully at its vast strangeness, its singleness and simplicity, its hardiness and white purity. It fascinates him. He wants it—until he has it.

A year ago, a company of us was up there, inexorably bound by the ice, with no chance of going South until the task before us was done and the single boat then above the 82nd Latitude North—our boat—should turn its bow around and head “downwards.” It was always “downwards” for us. We felt we were up, up, up very high. There were French in our company, Germans and Norwegians. With the wail of the Arctic gulls in our ears, and the harsh crunch of the ice along the shoreline, we would recall the South. The French talked of the boulevards of Paris, of the warm, colorful life which flowed along them past the pavement cafes. The Germans remembered Werder in early June, acres of fruit blossoms lying under the Bismarck Hohe, and a plenteousness of sweet wine. The Norwegians wanted to be at Holmenkollen for a late Scandinavian dinner, served at 4:30 in the afternoon at a table overlooking the tiny sailboats flecked across the summer waters of Oslo fjord.

Then, we all of us ached for that which we hadn’t, for what we’d missed that year, the Spring. We begrudged it, that spring we’d lost out of our lives and could never find again. . . . But now, in the South, there comes a homesickness for that bleak, northern solitude. Strange. What is it? Where is its fascination? Probably in its difference, its strangeness and unfamiliarity; in its utter contrast from the temperate zones; its unbroken whiteness; the fierce re-lentlessness of its animal and bird life; its hardihood; the silent beauty of its ice.

Before an open window, in the draught of the street sounds of Paris—the honk of cabs, the cry of a newspaper vendor and footfalls dulled by the neat softened asphalt of pavements—the leaves of a logbook flutter. . . .


A tiny sealer plunges towards the North. Already it is beyond the Arctic Circle, beyond 66.30, where the spring days edge farther and farther into the nights. Soon all darkness is gone, now only, a few hours of dusk between one sun and another. Then even that momentary rest is left behind and the sun lobs twenty-four hours a day, about the horizon, like a rubber ball bouncing along a city street.

It is a puppet of a ship, the Sjoliv—Sealife—a sixty-ton boat with a single, tall mast forward and a diminutive smokestack aft, and its gun’nels, ‘midship, just eighteen inches out of the sea. It has the typical form of the sealers that go up into the Arctic under the rising sun of summer  . . . make port again in the dusk of the setting sun of winter.

The twenty of us aboard her live fore and aft, bunk upon bunk, just under the thin planking of the deck. Through every partition, across every scant open space, come the stench of seal blubber and the smell of the oil on our heavy leather boots. When the wind blows from port, it seizes the smoke from the galley cookstove, sucks it down into the fo’c’sle and piles us out on deck, a deck strewn everywhere with baggage: boxes blocking companionways, skis, dunnage hags, guncases, crates of provisions and barrels of hardtack scattered fore and aft; hindquarters of beef and fore-quarters of mutton lashed against every end of spare rigging. Stores against the constant threat of the Arctic, the threat of an overwinter prison sentence in the ice.

The sea punches and pummels us unmercifully in that open arm of the North Atlantic, a bit of the Arctic Ocean, which sweeps over the Eastern Hemisphere across the Scandinavian countries. Baggage slews across the deck until each article fixes itself fast in its own way. In the cabin nothing stays on the mess table. Tin clatters in the galley. The planks of the vessel’s hull groan under the strain. The sea foams over the gun’nels and lashes viciously against the shut hatches. One gets over seasickness, but one hates, with madness, the ruthless violence of the sea.

It grows colder. Some very fine snow flies through the air. Icicles form here and there on the rigging  . . . now the sea calms and there comes the slush ice. Tiny patches of weak, watery combed gray, ice float flatly, sluggishly on the surface of the sea. After these, individual chunks rear up from the water. Here and there an odd piece, resembling an upturned stalactite, weirdly eroded by the action of the water, mounts up above the others, or detached, floats calmly by. One can imagine anything in their fantastic shapes: a raft, a polar bear, an Indian paddling a canoe, the torso of a man, a white, swathed corpse.

As the days pass the patches and chunks thicken into fields. The strength of the ice, increased by its volume, resists the thawing of the salt water. The chunks are now firm and they strike our sides with a dull, deep thump. The bits of ice appear soft and fleecy, but a good two-thirds of each piece floats underneath the surface. We dodge and take the individual chunks easily along our sides.

The ice pilot goes aloft into the ice barrel fixed onto the foremast. He guides the vessel through the open lanes in the fields, singing back to the helmsman brisk commands through the cold, thrumming air:

Styrbord . . . styrbord . . . midskib!

In the thickest spots our rattling engine shuts down and we drift, almost imperceptibly, while the ice crunches dully along our sides. Sometimes it threatens to squeeze us, but always, as we listen painfully for the sound of splintering wood, somewhere the ice yields, pieces overlapping each other to relieve the taut tension.

Days and nights grow whiter and whiter. Ahead appears the ice horizon, or “blink”, a long, low strip of white along the water’s edge, caused by the reflection in the sky of the great ice fields to the North. Behind, southwards, the sky glowers darkly by contrast. Ominously, it seems to the uninitiated, yet for the ice pilots of the North that thunderous glimmer of darkness, always a mirror of open water, is a safety beacon.


At 1 o’clock one morning, with the sun started on its low, upward incline, snowpointed peaks are sighted thirty miles away, by the starboard quarter. The mountains of Spitz-bergen, a land known to the Vikings in 1194 as Svalbard, or Cold Coast. Later, Russian fur trappers, from along the shores of the White Sea, sailed here and built huts. Still later came Norwegian hunters, then English, Danes, and finally Dutch whalers, who used the island as a base for their expeditions into the Polar Sea, called it Spitzbergen, or Pointed Mountains. One name is as good as the other.

Warily the Sjoliv forges around the tip of Prince Charles Foreland and enters the wide mouth of King’s Bay. Quickly it meets the solid sheet ice that lies thickly, evenly over the whole of the harbour. The ship grinds its bow gently into the ice’s edge and halts. Across the vast expanse of frozen water appear the protruding “calves” of the glaciers that he at the uttermost limits of the bay, ten miles away. Beyond, rise snowy peaks, everywhere snowy mountains and valleys, nowhere a plain. Above all tower the Three Pyramids, the sister peaks, Svea, Dana and Nora, named after the three Scandinavian countries in their common language before the time of the Vikings. Closer, huddled against the slanting base of a peak, is the town of Ny Aalesund, a dozen and a half frame houses buried in snow. It rises up from the ground to the bases of their windows and descends from the roofs to hang over their eaves. Beyond the houses, black holes pierce the snowy sides of the mountain range—coal mines—black pitch under fabulous quantities of fleecy snow. This shanty town, cut by the 79th altitude, is the northernmost speck of civilization. No human lives beyond it, not even Esquimaux. North, towards the Pole, lie only water, ice and snow, live only animals and wildfowl.

Ashore, it is the moment of the Arctic spring, gorgeously clear days between winter and summer, between darkness and mists. The sun lobs horizontally about the horizon, whitens acutely the snow and turns slate blue the distant peaks. Yet, like Aprils elsewhere, the season is cantankerously variable. Snow and sunshine at momentary intervals. Snow falls upon us while sunlight bathes the mountains yonder. At night the view of these jagged ranges is finest. Then the peaks are soft and orange, without the white hardness of day.

When calm, it is warm. Only when the wind blows down off the mountains, or up from the frozen sea, does it cut into the flesh. A canvas jacket over a sweater, leather mittens over gloves—something outside to break the wind and a bit of wool underneath—is the principle of protection. One can’t work in furs. And for the feet the Lapland boot, developed through centuries by, the keepers of the reindeer herds in the snowy lands over the tip of Sweden. Huge, leather boots, pointed like those of a court jester, and filled with dried grass.

The population of Ny Aalesund, a couple of hundred miners, revels in the warmth and daylight. The confinement of winter is over, the confinement of the darkness which seems, during December, January, and February, to be without end. Gone are the long, black days when lights must be lit at midday. Off shift, the men wander about the dug-out snow trails of the settlement, hands in pockets and coatless. And with the spring, with us, comes the first post —the first letters and newspapers since last October! Indoors men lie on cots and read . . . out-doors the gulls, wailing, wailing and wailing, swoop up to the shanties and quarrel among themselves over the winter’s refuse.

While we wait for the North to open further its ice lanes, we revictual, rewater and recoal.

Innumerable brownish-black dots are scattered over the thirty-square-mile expanse of harbour-ice. Each is a seal, sunning and drying itself beside its air hole. At a distance of a half mile, one resembles a man, if he were to wear a fur bathing suit, asleep on a sandbeach. Sometimes there’s a pup, a tiny, long, whitehaired creature that looks like an Angora cat. For two or three weeks it must lie helplessly on the ice beside its mother before it dare venture into the water. Only after it takes to the water, because of the inexorability, of adaptive coloration, does its fur gradually change to the brownish-black of the adult. Seal we shoot, lashing the carcasses to our rigging. There they freeze fast and keep fresh until chunks are hacked off and put on the galley stove. The meat is dark, strong and oily, but tolerably edible after an overnight soaking in vinegar water.

Water we take off the top of the glacier calves, fallen from the great glacier edges and arrested in their drift southwards last fall when the bay froze solidly. The clear, blue ice is fresh. Chunks are thrown onto the deck aft, to be thawed into water as needed. Coal we load from miniature cars drawn down from the base of the range by a coughing locomotive, scarcely large enough to fit its gaunt, Norwegian engineer. And the next day, a snowstorm howls out of the West. It buries three feet deep in drift the narrow gauge railway tracks just dug out of their winter’s snow barricade. A wind, a wind that seems to carry particles of steel in its teeth, whips across the settlement. It carries the swell of the open sea into the harbour atop the ice. It eddies the sandfine snow above the hard, tense ice underneath. The Anctic has tautened itself for winter’s last spasm. The mountains are blotted out of sight. We feel prisoners of inaccessibility. Tonight, there’s nothing in the world for us but ourselves and our few frame shacks.


By the light of the lowhung Arctic sun we quit Ny Aalesund. The Sjoliv winds out of the bay through the “icewake” left by us a month ago. Beyond Cap Mitra, the northern lip of King’s Bay, we float soundlessly in open water. It heartens us after the long weeks beside the stiffened water of the harbour. The splash of it is sweet and its easy flow gives us a long-missed sense of liberation. Broadside of the northwesterly wind, we roll along Spitzbergen’s western coastline, by the Seven Glaciers, passing us, one after another, as sentinels parading post.

In Dane’s Gat we ride quietly at anchor, our vision bounded by a world of two colors—the clean white of the snow on the mountains and the blue of sea and sky. On our left lies a great, roundshouldered mountain; on our right another, with a sharply peaked ridge ahead. All at once we can see three distinct glaciers, distinguishable from the snow by their sky-blue color, descending, like rivers., to the water through every gorge in the mountains. The water, which stretches one way towards Dane’s Island, another way towards Amsterdam Island and again towards Spitzbergen’s mainland, is as placid as a mill pond. Eider duck, auk, and Arctic gull skim close to its surface across the path of the summer sun. Only occasionally, does a fleecy chunk of ice float by.

Two of us are put ashore to take up life alone in a deserted hunter’s shack—the northernmost house in the world —on Dane’s Island lying full on the 80th latitude. Our shelter, a commodious house of two stories with ladder communication between, was built at the end of the last century by a Scotch explorer named Pike. Years ago he left it as a heritage to the stray fox-hunters of the North. A few glass window panes let in the illumination of the Arctic night. We cook on a rusty iron stove and sleep on mattresses spread over a floor littered past sweeping with the white hairs of polar bear skins used by previous dwellers to wrap themselves in during long winter nights. Our fresh water supply comes from a torrential stream of melting snow which pours down from the mountains and into Dane’s Gat through a natural rock filter. Fuel we find in the remnants of boxes left by ill-fated, Arctic expeditions. On the left of our doorway is a grave, on the right another, each marked by. a plain wooden cross, but nameless. Thousands of Anctic birds wheel and cry against the cliff at our back. The sea surge grumbles underneath the yard of overhanging snow twenty feet in front of us. The sun, now at midnight, hangs due north over the top of Amsterdam Island, a mile across the Gat.

At 4 o’clock, lying awake under the brightness of the Arctic sunlight, I think I hear voices, the uncanny sound of a human voice. Alert, I listen. Now it seems like water biting off chunks of the overhanging snow along the shoreline, now the unmistakable rattle of tin.

“Polar Bear,” I think aloud, and reach for Larsen’s rifle, standing at the foot of the mattress.

Again comes the sound but now distinctly that of a human voice. So it is, for through the window I see three men pulling up a twenty foot sailboat. I wake Larsen. While he goes out to offer the hospitality of our home—ours by a few hours’ previous claim—I build a fire and put on the coffee pot.

They are hunters from Northeast Land who range themselves comfortably around the stove. The chinless leader tells us they, have been all winter on Hinlopen Straits, between Spitzbergen and Northeast Land, and got here only after a twenty-three hour row, the wind having failed them. They listen greedily to the news of the past eight months. Yet they are not so far behind the world—only twenty minutes—by the alarm clock they now compare with our watches. About a score of hunters like these come North every autumn before the water freezes and isolates Spitzbergen, and return with their skins by the first sealer which picks them up the following spring or early summer. All winter they trap blue and white fox by the illumination of the Northern Lights. Occasionally one is caught asleep and eaten by a polar bear, or, maddened by the incessant intimacy of a partner, one walks out into the Arctic night and never returns. Then another mound of stones and a plain wooden cross appear—like those beside our shack.

As the days march by, they become indistinguishable, one from another. Whether it rains, snows, or the sun shines, it is always day, never night. The brightness causes a tiredness that cannot solve itself in sleep. Like the Arctic, we, too, confuse day and night.. Until midnight, we sit up with our three companions in solitude and drink coffee. Each hour a fresh brew. Afterwards, at one or two or three o’clock in the morning, we go out and climb a mountain, watch the innumerable birds circling against the cliffs, hear the sharp cries of the fox inland and gather eider duck eggs. They lie in every crevice of the rocks. One night we collect 4,000 and store them against the return of the Sjoliv. For eggs are fresh food—and fresh food is scarce in the Arctic. When we get back to Pike’s House, even after hours of mushing through the snow, we lie awake for hours under the incessant flail of the sunlight. After a week we long for release. Hourly we scan the Gat for a sign of the Sjoliv.


Beyond Dane’s Gat we meet the polar mist which shrouds the Arctic during the summer. Dense streaks of fog hang across the water, against the mountains and above the glacier beds. It is like the autumnal mist which settles at sunrise and sunset in valleys of fertile lands. The mist comes from the disparity in temperature between the water and the air. The water is chill, always being freshened by melting snow and ice, while the air is daily warming under the everlasting sunlight.

We thread our way carefully through the island group that lies off the northwest coast of Spitzbergen—past Bird-song and Foul Islands and Cloven Cliff—all mountainous, with their brown sides streaked with snow. Multitudes of birds wheel about them, so many that, at a distauce, they appear like swarms of gnats. Close by eider duck thrash the water with their wings as they raise themselves heavily out of our path. Seal swim by placidly, within fifty yards of us. It is windless and for hours our smoke smudge travels slowly away from us at a great, northwesterly tangent. . . . We awake halted by the thick, polar mist which closed in about us during the night. We can see nothing, only, hear Arctic noises—from starboard the cries of a million invisible birds, from port the sound of water crunching the ice harshly against itself. Until a wind comes and clears away the thickness, we must lie helplessly at anchor.

Under way now. The sun, undimmed by mist of any cloud, turns the floating drift-ice dazzingly white atop and cerulean blue underneath. Cakes dot the water all about, looking, on the side of their own shadows, like the tanks that once strewed the battlefields of France. The afternoon is a poem of ice. A dead calm, with the water glassy and the sky painting its blue upon it betwreen the chunks of ice. On our port beam lie the Seven Islands, or seven mountains of stone and snow, varicolored in the rich sunlight. Cautiously we pick our way through the beauty of the ice-choked waters—through drift-ice, pack-ice, screw-ice and foot-ice which seems to grow out of the sea’s bottom—taking the great chunks sideways, crashing into, splitting and burying the smaller ones. The wind that blows chill off the polar ice northwards has failed at the moment. It is luxuriously warm. At midnight we lie quietly at anchor and while away the lonely Anctic evening by throwing bits of seal blubber at the greedy gulls alongside.

We lie at rest all night, then soon after breakfast weigh off to meet a sealer sighted several miles southwards. We trade tobacco for a polar bear skin and part company, each vessel drifting scarcely, perceptibly away from the other, For long the reflection of the tall mast of the sealer lies wrinkled across our wake. By noon we have lost the floating screw-ice and are in clear water. In two hours we come again upon the barrier and follow along it until a wraith of the polar mist soaks over us. Then we head away, out into the open water, only returning to the dangerous ice-edge when the fog has gone. For there is always the risk of foot-ice, stretching out beneath the surface of the water, quick to founder a ship.

Often a small boat is swung out from the davits and a party goes off for a seal, spotted sunning itself on an ice-cake. Afar we watch the tiny speck of the boat creep up on its quarry, kill and skin. Within an hour the boat again bumps alongside. The thick, wet blubbery seal-skin is hoisted aboard, the two to three inches of blubber slit off with long knives, put in empty petrol drums and the skin left on deck to dry.

We are sauntering along at halfspeed. Ice Pilot Johan-nessen, twenty-five years in the Arctic, as his father and his grandfather before him, stands in the ice barrel fixed onto the Sjoliv’s tall foremast, scanning the northern horizon through a long telescope. It’s from him we hear the cry:

Is bjdrnl Is bjorn.

Then we see it, a young polar bear, distinguishable from the ice by its yellowish tinge, working slowly along the edge of the polar pack.

Five of us put out in a small boat towards the edge of the ice. The bear awaits our coming, with that peculiar curiosity so often fatal to him, and only tardily withdraws across the interior of the ice field. As our boat jams upon the edge, Larsen leaps out, firing quickly at the bear, who offers a poor target as he awkardly clambers away across the irregular ice. Now he has gone from sight, but one shot told, for we see a trace of blood staining the bluish white snow. In our boat, we give chase. It is cruel, hard work, dragging, poling and rowing across that field of ice, its bed of water visible only here and there. For a full mile we follow the trail of blood, until, weakened, the bear turns at bay. Struck again, he rears up, with his forepaws clutching at his breast for air, then plunges down head foremost.

Across the ice we look northwards, across a whiteness indescribable, a whiteness that appears to scintillate off the ice in particles. About seven miles away the jagged line of the ice meets the sky. Everywhere the chunks rise to the height of a man; sometimes mountains of ice rear up, one hundred or three hundred feet into the air. So it stretches all the way to the Pole—only some six hundred miles distant, for we have reached the edge of the polar pack, at approximately 81 degrees, north. Over the top, over the head of the world, lies this cap of ice—as if thick cream were poured over the blunt end of an egg. We are where the world concentrates itself, where the hemispheres are drawn together. On our left lies America, ahead Asia and to the right Europe. All very close together. Greenland is only three hundred miles away, Alaska fifteen hundred miles and Siberia and Russia eight hundred miles.

As if beaten back by the rough whiteness we turn our boat about to regain open water. As we leave the immense field of ice to its own life, the gulls swarm to the deserted carcass of the bear.


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