A student of traditional kayaks discovers a piece of kayaking history in an Oslo museum and surveys one of the bamboo and canvas kayaks used in Fridtjof nansen’s legendary 1890’s expedition.
While visiting friends in Norway, I discovered that Oslo’s Fram Museum was full of traditional kayaks. Of all the kayaks on display, there was one that I recognized. It was one of the canvas-and-bamboo kayaks used in 1895 by expedition leader Fridtjof Nansen and Fram crewmember Hjalmar Johansen in their attempt to reach the North Pole.
I’d seen it before in an engraving of bamboo kayaks in Derek Hutchinson’s book, The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking, showing Nansen and Johansen in the kayaks lashed side by side, sailing the arctic waves. And there in the museum was one of the actual kayaks! I had no idea that any of these boats still existed.
When I got home, I checked through all the books I knew of about kayak surveys and found no mention of the Fram kayaks. The only reference I could find was a web page by canoe, kayak and small-boat historian, Craig O’Donnell, who had reverse-engineered pictures of Nansen’s kayak into a set of plans. Even O’Donnell didn’t know whether or not the kayaks still existed.
When Harvey Golden, a well-versed student of traditional kayaks, came to my town to talk about competing in the 2000 Greenland National Kayak Championship, I asked him about the bamboo kayaks. He had never heard of the Fram kayaks either, but he said someone should survey them before they aged further and deteriorated. A seed was planted in my mind.
The Search Begins
Six months after talking to Harvey, I found myself on a 767 to Copenhagen with a load of rulers, measuring tapes, calipers, fishing line, paper, pencils and an arm’s-length cardboard box full of 1 x 4s and canvas straps-my disassembled homemade kayak stands.
I was to join my friend living in Lund, Sweden, head north by night train to stay with another friend who lived near the museum in Norway and survey some kayaks. I had spent time before leaving home devouring anything I could read by and about Nansen: Farthest North (Nansen’s book about his expedition to the North Pole, originally published in 1897), First Crossing of Greenland (Nansen’s 1890 book chronicling his crossing of the Greenland ice cap in 1888 by ski and sledge) and Eskimo Life (his observations on Greenland peoples and culture, published in 1891), as well as books on kayak surveying: John Brand’s The Little Kayak Book, 3 vols., and David Zimmerly’s Qayaq: Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia.
After steeling my courage, I had faxed a letter to the Fram Museum asking if I could come study their kayak collection. I had expected to wait weeks or months for a reply, but when I answered the phone the next morning at breakfast, it was a long-distance call from Norway. A man from the museum, Mr. Berg, said he would be happy for me to come study their kayaks.
After 10 hours on the plane, 20 minutes across the Øresund bridge to Sweden to pick up Josh, my surveying partner, and eight hours on the train north to Norway, I arrived jet-lagged and sleep deprived to meet my friend Elise who let us stay in her tiny apartment. Josh and I fortified ourselves with bowls of oatmeal and cups of tea and set off for the museum.
In the Fram Museum, we found the bamboo kayak as well as a similar unidentified kayak that appeared to be a replica of the original kayak from the Farthest North expedition (Fram Museum no. 171) but built with a lumber frame instead of bamboo and covered in worn, painted canvas with six deck straps sewn on. There were also four Greenland kayaks and a gray canvas-covered folding kayak, with a long open cockpit bearing the label: “Faltboot Werke, Rosenheim Bayern,” its origin unknown to the museum.
We could only spend five days in Oslo, so I quickly decided to document Fram Museum no. 171 and one of the Greenland kayaks (Fram Museum no. 176) that was built for one of Nansen’s colleagues following a crossing of the Greenland ice cap in 1888.
Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer who at age 27 led a team of five to be the first to cross the Greenland ice cap. Returning to Norway in 1889, he took a position at Christiana University as a professor of zoology, but his interests were not settled. He returned to exploration, leading the Fram expedition from 1893-96, crossing the then-uncharted Arctic Ocean.
Although he wanted to continue exploring, his fame led him to be made Norway’s ambassador to Britain. He helped dissolve the union of Norway and Sweden in 1905 and later organized a relief effort for refugees and POWs from World War I, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
After returning from the crossing of Greenland, Nansen had settled down into a house in Oslo, which he named Gothaab, to write about his recent experiences. On his wall, he hung the harpoon he used to hunt with in Greenland. Something about that harpoon always bothered him: Where did the wood come from that Greenlanders collected to make their tools?
Despite the name, Greenland was mostly covered in ice with only seasonal vegetation that grew around the coasts. There were no trees there more than a couple of feet tall.
Any wood there that had not been imported was driftwood. Nansen’s harpoon was made from a piece of straight-grained, reddish wood that had washed up on the shore, originally from a tree that had grown tall and straight on some other land. It could have come from anywhere that connected to the arctic seas; the tree might have fallen into a stream or river and flowed down into the sea to drift by a current and land finally on the shores of Greenland.
An early indication of the origin of materials across the frozen polar sea came from the Jeanette, an American scientific ship that was trapped in the arctic ice north of Siberia in 1881.
Despite all efforts to free her from the ice, she was crushed. Years later, a number of articles from the ship were found on the southwest coast of Greenland, evidence that there was a polar drift that might pass right through or very near the North Pole, from Siberia to Greenland.
Origin of Fram No. 171
In 1892, Nansen decided to test his drift theory. He commissioned the building of the Fram, a ship designed to survive the crushing pressure of being trapped in the polar ice pack. It had an egg-shaped hull, reinforced oak construction and layers of insulation.
The Fram and her crew sailed from Norway in 1893 to attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. The plan was to sail to the polar pack ice north of Siberia, intentionally trap the Fram in the ice pack and follow the drift. Nansen estimated that it would take three years to come out on the other side in the waters near Greenland.
Two years into the drift, all was going much better than expected. The crew, instead of starving or growing ill because of a deficiency in diet, were getting fat. Nansen, however, was bored. Despite the scientific accomplishments of the voyage, Nansen realized that they’d pass about 15 degrees shy of the North Pole.
He made a bold decision: he would use the skills he had acquired in Greenland to try to reach the pole by ski and dog sledge. He would then make his way to a safe port using kayaks once he reached open water. He decided to travel with only one other companion, Hjalmar Johansen, a young crewmember fit enough to be up to the task.
During the winter, the crew of the Fram built the sledges and the kayaks. The kayaks were bamboo framed, twine lashed and covered in canvas. They were loosely based on the Greenland design Nansen was familiar with, only shorter and wider.
The kayaks’ short, wide, flat-bottomed hulls were not designed for speed but for cargo-carrying ability. With three deck hatches and deep hulls, they could carry three months’ worth of supplies and equipment for the two men and their dogs.
The hulls were made for crossing open lanes in the ice and for paddling along the coasts of whatever land they’d reach, not for rough ocean passages. They were not agile like the kayak Nansen had used in Greenland, and it would be unlikely that Nansen or Johansen could recover from a capsize by executing a roll, as he had done before in Greenland.
In March of 1895, the kayaks were mounted on the sledges and filled with provisions, and Nansen and Johansen set out for the North Pole.
Surveying the Kayak
The museum removed Fram no. 171 from its display on the wall starboard to the giant display of the Fram and placed it down by the keel of the ship for us to work on. The museum indicated that the boat was Hjalmar Johansen’s kayak. We were told that Johansen’s kayak was originally housed at the Ski Museum in Oslo, which still holds the sister kayak used by Nansen as well as other artifacts from the expedition. I could confirm the identity of 171 by the depth-to-sheer measurement.
Johansen’s boat was built deeper, 38 cm to Nansen’s 30 cm, to add more cargo space. The boat was a little crooked from pressure on the starboard stringer. The whole frame had shifted over to the port side, but because of the way the ribs were constructed, no ribs had broken and no lashings had parted.
The canvas skin had a dirty, aged appearance and showed the damage and scrapes from the arctic ice and repairs done by Nansen and Johansen (patches and re-sewn seams). Otherwise the skin was in good condition.
The skin is canvas, originally waterproofed by steeping it in a mixture of paraffin and tallow and later patched with oil paint and soot mixed with melted blubber. All this waterproofing made the kayak heavy. Nansen reported it to be 41 pounds with the skin accounting for 25 pounds of the weight.
Three hatches in the deck gave access to the equipment stored inside. They were made by leaving a circular hole in the deck canvas with a loose tube of canvas cloth sewn to the perimeter of the hole. The hatch could be closed much like a dry bag: rolled or folded back onto itself and tied off with a cord. As the kayak rode high on the sea, water getting on deck and collecting into the hatches’ depressions would not have been much of an issue.
Sticking my head inside, I found that the kayak was stinky and full of dust. It was easy to imagine the sweat, blood, blubber, grease, sea salt and soot that must have had their turn inside.
For a kayak that had been through what Nansen and Johansen did to their kayaks and then aged more than a hundred years, Fram no. 171 had considerably little structural damage. There were no loose pieces inside. Some loose bamboo fibers fell out during the survey, and these were respectfully placed back in the kayak after we were done.
The bamboo frame lashed with cord was built using transverse frames holding the stringers instead of traditional ribs. Anyone familiar with George Dyson’s aluminum baidarka designs will recognize the structure.
Most of the frame members are straight except the gunwales, the stringers and the one deck beam at the front of the cockpit. There are no mortises. The transverse frames are secured to the gunwales and the stringers by lashings going through a hole drilled in the rib (to keep its position) and wrapped around each side of the joint to hold it together.
The only pieces of the frame that are not made of bamboo are the cockpit coaming and the bow and stern pieces.
The coaming is made from a bent strip of 12 mm x 40 mm wood, joined by metal rivets, with three separated bone pieces of 5 mm x 12 mm x 23.5 mm making a sprayskirt lip. In keeping with Greenland style, it’s attached to the skin and not the frame. The bow piece is 44 cm long and is at 35 degrees from vertical. The stern is 40 cm long and at 22 degrees.
There are a number of places where the bamboo broke and was repaired. Nansen wrote that at one point when they were sure of being close to open water, they stopped their march across the ice and took a few weeks to make their kayaks seaworthy again.
They took the skins off and repaired any holes. Johansen’s frame had to be splinted a number of times on the gunwales and the stringers, which I was able to see in two places on the aft section.
Because bamboo does not come in regular widths, as does sawn lumber, each piece of the frame is a slightly different size. Also, bamboo’s width is not uniform through its length. It grows in sections, each separated by a nodule ring and tapering in between. In spite of this, Fram no. 171’s members are of a fairly consistent size, and a fair generalization can be made as to the size in width of each piece.
Exhibited with Fram no. 171 was the sledge used to haul the kayaks and their gear over the ice. I didn’t have time to survey it, although I wish I had. There was no paddle displayed with the kayak. Nansen reports using a canvas-bladed paddle lashed to a bamboo stick.
There are no photographs, but I would guess that it was similar to one used by Nansen in Greenland when he built an improvised skin-on-frame rowboat to take him down the Ameralik fjord on the last stage of his crossing-a Y-fork supporting a canvas blade.
These paddles were found to be too short for use when the two kayaks were lashed together side-by-side for long crossings. Improved paddles were made with shafts of bamboo snowshoe staffs lashed to blades made of broken-off wooden skis, which would look something like an improvised Greenland paddle.
Put to Use
After months of travel against the southern drift, across pressure ridges and around lanes of open water and the occasional stretch of good ice, Nansen and Johansen reached 86° 14′ North, the farthest north reached by human beings at that time. They decided it was time to give up the bid for the North Pole and turn south before supplies and dogs ran out (they would kill their weakest dog to feed the rest, a gruesome business that haunted Nansen in the years that followed). They reached open water August 7, 1895, after five months on the ice and down to one sledge dog each.
They had reached the sea near Franz Joseph Land, hundreds of miles from their intended target of Spitsbergen. Having dreamed of the ease of paddling instead of trudging over ice, they would still have to make a long crossing in a heavily laden, flat-bottomed boat not designed for the open ocean. Their solution was to lash the kayaks together catamaran-style with their skis through the deck straps as support and their sledges and two remaining dogs on the deck as cargo. They could only paddle on one side of each kayak, but they soon had a following wind and found that the sail they had carried for pushing their sledges across the ice worked just as well for their little watercraft.
Winter was approaching, so they found a suitable island where they built a stone-and-moss hut and survived on polar bear and walrus meat. Their plan was to stay until spring, then sail through the Franz Joseph archipelago to the westernmost point and make the open crossing of 140 nautical miles to Spitsbergen, where there was sure to be a Norwegian whaler that could take them home.
Up until this point, they had made much smaller open-water crossings from island to island of no more than a day and usually along the edge of ice where they could camp at night. To stay and wait meant hoping the Fram would make it out of the ice soon enough that their supplies wouldn’t run out and that rescue would find them. Besides that, waiting was not in their character. To go south across the Barents Sea to northern Russia meant a longer crossing and a long walk home. Spitzbergen was the closest Norwegian territory.
One day during their voyage westward through the remaining Franz Joseph islands, Nansen heard dogs barking while he was breaking camp. He went to investigate and encountered a British man, clothed in fine wool and smelling of soap.
Nansen, with only his sharp eyes peering from a face blackened with soot and grease, greeted the man and conversed with him as he walked back to the man’s hut. Suddenly, recognizing who he was, the man turned to him and said, “Aren’t you Nansen? By Jove! I’m glad to see you.”
The man was part of a British scientific party that had a ship coming for them sometime that summer. Despite the comfort of clean clothes and a warm hut and coffee for both Nansen and Johansen, they were eager to sail south. Over the next few weeks in the company of the Brits, Nansen still considered trying for Spitsbergen in the kayaks. Luckily, the ship finally arrived and took him and Johansen and their kayaks and sledges back to Norway.
Remarkably, eight days later, the Fram arrived at Skjærvø, Norway, after having been freed from the ice only six days before. After almost a year apart, Nansen reunited with his crew and sailed home to Oslo.
The Fram was used twice more: in 1898 to explore the northern tip of Greenland and in 1910 to springboard Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, which makes it the ship that has sailed the farthest north and south on the surface of the Earth. In 1936, it was preserved for posterity in the A-framed museum where it currently rests.
Built to Last
It seems incredible today that a pair of canvas and bamboo kayaks of Fram no. 171’s design would perform well in harsh arctic conditions. They had a couple of things going for them-they were short and wide, which enabled them to carry a large amount of cargo, and the design was flexible enough that it could be transported on sledge over ice, paddled across calm water lanes in the ice, lashed together and sailed over longer stretches and last over a year’s hard use.
Although the frames and skin were damaged, they were repairable with simple materials and tools, such as splints and cord for the frame and soot and blubber grease to seal the canvas.
Even when disasters occurred, like a walrus spearing holes through the deck of Nansen’s kayak or a gunshot accidentally piercing the hull (narrowly missing Nansen’s legs), the kayak could be repaired, usually in hours, and they could continue. The design’s simplicity paid off.
What better endorsement is there for the usefulness of good old canvas on a hand-lashed frame?