Forward

Museums tell you everything you want to know about a country.

In New Zealand, I once visited a museum of milk separators—“The world’s largest collection of milk separators!” boasted the sign—and it didn’t lie. I spent an hour perusing hundreds of different examples of defunct farm equipment and learned how dairy farmers used to separate milk.

In England, you can see the crown jewels, and in Italy—Michelangelo’s David. Where I live in Washington, DC, you’ll find Dorothy’s ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. Yes, every country shows off its most prized possessions in museums—and in Norway, they show off their ships.

I became aware of Norway’s boat fetish after spending a day in three different Oslo museums all dedicated to ships: the Viking Ships Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Fram Museum. For the past 1,200 years, Norwegians have built ships and traveled the globe. Historically speaking, the very long country of Norway was stitched together by ships making trade and battle—in the 9th Century, at the Battle of Hafrsfjord, King Harald the Fair-haired joined the three kingdoms into what is now Norway. The sagas say that he “cleared the ships of men”—which was all that it took to win a kingdom. No doubt the Viking shipbuilding tradition gave Norway an advantage in traveling the world (Small fact: the term “starboard” comes from the Vikings).

The Norwegian explorers I admire most all built boats with specific journeys in mind.  Viking ships were crafted especially for the open Atlantic, Thor Heyerdahl built Kon-Tiki from balsa wood and drifted over 4,000 miles (7,000 km) to Polynesia, and Roald Amundsen sailed Fram to Antarctica and the glory of the South Pole.

The Fram is so legend, it was hard for me to accept that the mammoth red and black hull before me was the actual ship I had read so much about. Weighing over 400 tons, the ship was designed specifically to deal with the crushing ice of the Arctic. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen ordered the new ship to be extra strong and ice-proof so that he could drift with the polar ice and reach the North Pole.

The American explorer Adolphus Greely (who was already the infamous leader behind one of the most disastrous Arctic expeditions to date), called Nansen’s plan “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”—which is like a calling card for true explorers.

Thus in 1893, the Fram was built solid as stone but sleek as glass, sailed to Siberia, and left to freeze into the drifting pack of arctic ice. But nature was too slow for Nansen, and after a year and a half of drifting at less than a mile a day, he left the ship on skis, with a dogsled of provisions and the accomplished champion skier and gymnast Hjalmar Johansen as his right-hand man. The pair made it as far north as 86°13.6′N (a new record in 1895) before turning back, skiing several hundred miles to Franz Josef land where they spent a dismal winter surviving on whatever they could catch: mostly walrus and polar bear. To conserve warmth, the two shared a sleeping bag for nearly seven months—an intimacy that saw the two castaways fall into using the familiar Norwegian Du (“you”) with one another. Even so, when they finally made it back to Norway and were reunited with their ship (three years after they left) Nansen reverted to calling his companion by the more formal De.

Having proven itself an able ice-worthy ship, Fram became the chosen vessel of polar explorer Roald Amundsen when he led his successful South Pole expedition to Antarctica. (Interestingly, the same Hjalmar Johansen also accompanied Amundsen on his historic journey, but fell out with the explorer and was ordered away before reaching the pole. He killed himself two years later. Poor Johansen.)

At least ten thousand tales of adventure are strung up in this ship now parked in Oslo, and I stood in awe of its bulk, both physical and historic. For the record books, Fram sailed farther north (85°57’N) and farther south (78°41’S) than any other wooden ship in history—and for me personally, Fram represented everything I love about traveling: the spark of an idea, the dream of a destination, the calculating and preparing the best one can, and then the face-first adventure, where everything changes not according to plan but works out in the end, more or less.

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Merely spreading my hand on the ship’s steel-wrapped hull was enough, but then I discovered the open door and steps leading up to the top deck. In five seconds I became a five-year old boy, playing “ship”, running up and down the deck, gazing up into the halyards and imagining the ghosts of last century’s great polar explorers.

Finally, I wrapped my hand around the wheel and spun the rudder a good 180 degrees. North or South, it didn’t matter. This ship had done both in its day, and while this wooden wheel that I gripped was most likely not the original, I knew that I was standing in the same spot as Nansen and Amundsen once had. White-knuckled and holding fast to the wheel, I squinted my eyes in the dim blue light of the museum and imagined icebergs ahead—envisioned the white ice landscapes I know from Antarctica and Greenland. Maybe I was just a boy playing on a museum exhibit but for that one brief moment, I was also having a religious experience.

In Norwegian, Fram means “forward” and there is no better name for the ship that carried Norwegians to the ends of the earth. It was an honor to be on board—and I left the museum like one leaves a grand memorial—somber yet inspired.

Yes, museums tell you everything you want to know about a country, and in Norway, they love their ships.

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