Lawrence Howard, co-founder of Portland Story Theater, returns to Bend this week with the latest in his “Armchair Adventurer” series — the true story of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
Nansen was a long-distance cross-country skier, world traveler, scientist, diplomat and humanitarian who earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize. Born in 1861, Nansen even sported creative facial hair more than a hundred years before today’s hipsters sprouted peach fuzz. Howard will share the odyssey that was Nansen’s life on Friday at Cascades Theatre in Bend.
Though the true story of a life lived between 1861 and 1930, “Nansen of the North” seems specially crafted to entertain 21st-century Central Oregonians. Let’s look at it point by point.
• Cross-country skiing: “Skiing was everything to him,” Howard said. “For him, skiing was as natural as breathing is to the rest of us.” That’s a facet of the man to which many a snow-lover will relate.
Think you put in some miles this winter at Meissner Sno-park? Nansen, who started skiing at age 2, was the Norwegian national cross-country ski champion by age 19. He went on to win 11 more times.
• Hankering for travel: Nansen “actually started out in life as a scientist,” Howard explained. “He took a voyage on a sealing ship; not to go sealing, but to study Arctic wildlife, and study of deep seawater samples and so on.” During the five-month voyage, the ship got stuck in ice right off the coast of Greenland, and the unexplored interior called to Nansen.
“This idea jells in his mind that he’s going to cross over Greenland on ski. He eventually does that. He becomes the first person to traverse Greenland from one side to the other. To him, that was just a ski trip, right?” Howard said, laughing.
• Respect for indigenous peoples: Along with him and three other Norwegians on his Greenland adventure were two Sami people, indigenous to far northern Scandinavia and often referred to as Laplanders. According to Howard, the Sami were the fathers of skiing.
“These are the greatest skiers and world travelers, and that’s why Nansen takes a couple of them along with him,” Howard said. “That’s where you first start to see Nansen is a guy who respects the knowledge of native people — people who others might think were primitive. Nansen sees them as highly adapted to their environments and recognizes that he can learn from them.”
In fact, when he ended up stranded for the winter 1888-89 and living with Greenlanders, Nansen used the time to learn how to hunt and survive using their methods.
• Heroism, paid slacking: “When he comes back, he’s a hero. Now, he gets this great job at the Oslo university, where he has a salary but no real job duties,” Howard said, laughing. “Don’t you wish you had (a job) like that? I know I do.”
• Fame, travel, building boats: Nansen’s next big expedition was the one that really put him on the famous 19th-century explorer map — a North Pole trek using new ideas about ocean currents.
“Nansen is fascinated by this, and he has this idea that if you built a ship strong enough to withstand the tremendous crushing pressure of the ice … you could voluntarily lock it into the ice at a certain point, and this east-to-west drift would carry you over the North Pole, or at least very close to it,” Howard said. “Of course, that was the holy grail. Everybody wanted to be the first at the North Pole.”
Despite harumphing and tut-tutting from critics, Nansen consulted a leading naval architect to design what would become the Fram. With its oak timber and sturdy, rounded hull, the Fram was designed to pop up onto the ice rather than succumb to it. It worked.
• Outdoor survival — and tiny houses: Nansen and one travel companion, Hjalmar Johansen, would end up separated from their iced-in ship, Howard said, and became lost for months among poorly mapped islands discovered only 20 years earlier.
“Somehow, the land that he’s seeing, is not matching up to this map that he has. They’re very confused and kind of lost,” Howard said. “They’re paddling around from island to island … whenever they take to the kayaks, they have to ferry their dogs across from one block of ice to another.”
Come late August, the two prepare to hunker down for their third winter in the Arctic, putting to good use things Nansen learned during his Greenland winter.
“They make a little hut,” Howard said. “They dig down into the frozen earth and they build up rock walls and they cover it over with walrus hides and polar bear skins and they make a little hut. It’s 6 feet wide and 10 feet long, but they can stand up in it, which is a luxury for them compared to their tent.”
He and Johansen had just one book with them to pass the long winter months: Nansen’s sailing almanac, chockablock with exciting charts and figures. And you thought this winter seemed interminable. Despite all but going mad, the two survived.
• Walrus attack: If you think Canadian geese are aggressive, you may find it interesting to note that an old male walrus attacked Nansen’s kayak the following spring as he and Johansen tried to get un-lost.
“(It) drives its tusks down into the kayak, and of course it’s taking on water, and sitting lower and lower,” Howard said. The two paddled like mad for the nearest shoreline, where they spent three days making repairs and drying out gear. As they prepared to set off, Nansen thought he heard dogs barking. Johansen thought they were hearing birds. Fortunately, Nansen walked toward the sound — and spotted a figure in the distance.
“This is a British Arctic explorer named Frederick Jackson, who actually had applied for a spot in the Fram expedition, and Nansen had rejected him, because he wanted it to be an all-Norwegian expedition — there was this big sense of national pride,” Howard said. Despite this, Jackson doesn’t realize the man in front of him is Nansen.
• Creative facial hair: “Nansen is such a mess, so wild and ragged and disheveled and unkempt and greasy, that Jackson doesn’t recognize him. And they have this funny conversation … and then suddenly the light goes on, and Jackson says, ‘Oh, my God, you’re Nansen, aren’t you?’
“And he says, ‘Yes, I’m Nansen.’
“And Jackson says … ‘Well, by Jove, I am devilish glad to see you!’”
• Diplomacy and humanitarianism:
Now even more of a hero in Norway, Nansen becomes the go-to expert for would-be explorers — an early REI, if you will — and went on to represent Norway as a delegate in the League of Nations. In 1922, his work, which included helping repatriate displaced people in the wake of World War I, earned Nansen a Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s little wonder Howard, who’s visited previously to tell us of Ernest Shackleton and other adventurers, strayed so far north from his usual Antarctic tales. “He’s such a renaissance man,” Howard said of Nansen. “He was so much more than an explorer.”