Sunday, 11 February 2018

De Long Islands, a US discovery at over 75º on the Siberian Artic

This was Ultima Thule for some: for the crew of the USS Jeanette, the failed but heroic Arctic Expedition of 1879-1881.

The Jeanette, a three-masted schooner with a steam engine taking 33 aboard, was to reach the North Pole by a never before attempted route: sailing the Bering Strait northwards and passing the Wrangel Islands (an area well known by whaling ships), then possibly to reach the Pole and proceed further to land somewhere north of Greenland. The enterprise was supported by G Bennett, an eccentric newspaper tycoon.

It all started quite well at San Francisco; the journey was well prepared, the route carefully thought, the ship entirely refurbished and reinforced, every detail meticulously previewed. Still it ended in tragedy - two years later the Jeanette sinked at 78º, on the Siberian Arctic ocean, under the brutal pressure of the thick ice pack.

The Jeanette trapped in the ice pack in Siberian Arctic waters.

The crew started a long retreat through a mixed path of sea water, ice and a few landings, discovering new islands on the way. From the Jeanette, they dragged two cutters and a whaleboat along the icepack until at last they reached open waters, but under a violent sea storm. After a painful journey, two of the three boats managed to land on the Lena River Delta, and part of the crew was finally rescued in vary bad shape at local native Yakut villages; but many couldn't and left their lives buried in the Siberian tundra soil. The story has been told several times, the best reading is probably "In the Kingdom of Ice " by Hampton Sides; maybe some day I will dedicate a post to the De Long /Jeanette polar expedition.

Here, I just wish to report the islands they discovered, as a small hommage to their brave but ill-fated accomplishment.

Now this really is a cold, remote and gloomy place. Ultima indeed.

De Long Islands: Jeanette, Henrietta and Bennett  

Discovered in 1881 by the Jeannette expedition commanded by W. De Long of the US navy, the De-Long are an uninhabited archipelago, part of the New Siberian Islands. Each of the three Islands has its own ice cap and glaciers.

Jeanette Island

Coordinates 76° 43′ N, 158°06′ E
Dimensions: 2 km long, area ~ 3.3 km2.

Jeannette Island (Russian: Остров Жанне́тты, Ostrov Zhannetty) is the easternmost of the De Long Islands in the East Siberian Sea.

The island surface is mainly covered by a central ice cap and firn. The highest point is just 351 m high. The ocean around is frozen most of the year.

The Jeanette crew had sight of the Island and named it as their own ship; but they did not attempt to land, for it was too far and small, and a new bigger island - Henrietta - was soon visible.

The smallest in the archipelago but also the most beautiful.

Henrietta Island

Coordinates: 77° 06′ N, 156° 30′ E
Dimensions:  roughly square, about 6km wide.

A Russian map, showing the abandonned station with a star (acmp.).

Henrietta Island (Russian: Остров Генриетты, Ostrov Genriyetty) is the northernmost island of the archipelago. Almost half of it is covered by a central ice cap that reaches its maximum height at 312 m. Cape Melville (Mys Mel'villya) and Cape Bennett (Mys Bennetta) are the two main features.

"The island is a desolate rock, surmounted by a snow-cap, which feeds several discharging glaciers on its east face". [G. Melville]

"A sled party landed, hoisted the national ensign, and took possession in the name of the United States." The excursion, led by George Melville, built a cairn, and placed inside it a copper case with record of their visit.

Polar bear on Henrietta's ice cap

A Soviet polar station was established on Henrietta Island in 1937, and closed in 1963.

The abandoned Station is still in a rather good condition. Inside some documents are kept for memory.

Visiting Henrietta.

Bennett Island

Coordinates: 76° 44′ N, 149° 30′ E
Dimensions: 29 km long, 14 km wide

Bennett ( Russian: Остров Бе́ннетта , Ostrov Bennetta) is the largest island and it has also the archipelago's highest point at 426 m.

The shores are rocky and high, covered by glaciers descending into the sea.

Cape Emma, named after De Long's wife. With a low pebble beach, that's where De Long party landed.

The men from the Jeanette expedition arrived at this island after their ship sank amidst the icepack, not far from Henrietta. They then walked painfully on ice carrying the three small boats they had taken aboard, which were almost useless at this point, as there was no open water. One of them, with a party led by George Melville, landed on Bennett after a hard fight against the ice pack.

The Melville party from the Jeanette landing on Bennett, pulling the boat to solid ground.

A pebble and gravel beach near Cape Emma.

Bennett Island has the largest permanent ice cover within the De Long Islands. It consists of four separate glaciers perched on high, basaltic plateaus bounded by steep scarp-like slopes.

Two of these glaciers are named as De Long East, De Long West.

Glacier on Bennett

Iced lake on the northeastern side

A peculiar and not totally explained ocurrence on Bennett is the plumes of gas, easily observed from above by satellite. It is not of volcanic origin, the best guess currently is some source of methane emission.


Today the De Long Islands are posession of Russia, which ignored them at the time and only twenty years later set foot on them. The Zhokhov Island, presently integrated in the archipelago, was also discovered later by Russian explorers. Humans had occupied that island in the Mesolithic, around 6000 BC - probably bear hunters. Tools of stone, bone, antler and ivory have been found.

Bennett links (In Russian):

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Thule (Tile) in the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus

One of the most valuable treasures kept in Carolina Rediviva, the magnificent Uppsala Library, is the first large map of Northern Europe, a remarkable work by Olaus Magnus in 1539:

Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum.

When the chart was made, a persisting belief in the existence of griffins, unicorns, dragons, and a host of other unnatural creatures still remained. Modern science was in its infancy, and the medieval imaginary prevailed.

A giant lobster, a mast-high serpent, a four-legged and two-spout reptile Balena, a ray ("Rockas") which is finally a friendly animal, protecting swimmers and seamen from other predators... Other images show Icelandic people drying fish, folks skiing on the frozen Gulf of Finland, sleds being pulled by reindeer across the Gulf of Bothnia.

But what brings me to post this here is that island on section D, between the Orkneys and the Faröe Islands and south of Iceland, called Tile. Oh ! Isn't that our dear Thule, really ?

The belief in the existence of Thule, the Ultima Thule, was still quite strong in the 16th century. An island beyond all fronteers of the world, beyond the world as they knew it, that's how Olaus refers to Tile.

On the map you can read:  
Hec insula habet XXX millia populus et amplius
(the island has 30 000 inhabitants or more)
Hic habitat dominus insularaum
(here lives the Lord of the Islands) !

Tile (Thule) threatened by the four-legged, curved-fangs, double spouter 'Balena'.

Olaus Magnus studied in Germany, was B.A. graduate by Rostock University in 1513; the classic studies by then must have informed him about Pytheas and his journey to the 'extreme' North, he must have red the texts of Pliny the Elder; so he felt the need to place Thule on the map, and in the lack of a better judgement he placed it in the only 'empty' area on his fantastic Ocean. But I notice his Thule was not to be misidentified as Norway's coast, nor the Faröe, not even Iceland; Thule was more towards the West. That was some progress indeed !

It's also amazing that Olau Magnus maps the whirlpools, the Maëlstrom by the Lofoten Islands (noted 'horrenda Caribdis') and others where the Gulf stream meets the cold Arctic waters; unable to see all those from above - no satellite or air view - how could he identify and locate them with such a precision ?

Deadly whirlpools south of Iceland.

Olaus Magnus was a Catholic priest in Lutheran Sweden; a man of Renaissance, an attentive observer of the Nature and life around him. Exiled in Germany, he started drawing a large map of the Northern countries on nine woodcut blocks. It was completed in Venice, between 1537 and 1539, after 12 years of work. When it was finally printed and published, it was the largest, most detailed and most precise map of Europe.

Presently there are only two copies, one in Munich and another ( the best preserved) in Uppsala.

Fascinating is several ways, more than a map, it's a work of Art.

The Physeter (also a double-spouter !)

The fantasies and monsters are quite similar to what we can find in the Nordic sagas from the 13th century. This above could be Jörmungandr or the Midgard Serpent, thrown by Odin into the Ocean and then grown to a giant snake that could embrace the whole world.

Well, Thule is there by its own right: a mythological Utopia where we all long to travel.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Gamvik, village and museum on the extreme North of Norway

At 71ºN, this coastal village has the northernmost museum and church in continental Norway (in Svalbard island, farther up into the Arctic, there are churches and museums). As one could guess, this is also the most depressed and poorly cared for region of Norway.

is a fishing village in Finnmark county, Norway, located on its northern shore along the Barents Sea. Once thriving of fishing and whaling activity, Gamvik declined dramatically after the fish factory closed. But it's a charming little coastal village.

Gamvik has been progressively abadonned in recent years, several houses are for sale. Maybe some tourism could help.

The village was historically only accessible by boat, but due to the poor harbour conditions it lost the ferry connection in favour of the neighbouring Mehamn. In the 1970s, Gamvik Airport was built and in the 1980s, Norwegian Road 888 started linking Mehamn to Gamvik.

The Old Norse form of the name may have been Gangvík. The first element is then gangr which means "path" and the last element is vík which means "cove" or "wick".

Lonely house in Gamvik: it could be in Greenland...

Gamvik, Norway

: 71° 02′ N, 27° 51′ E
:  ~ 1400 (municipality)

The church, the school and the museum are the main buildings. The building quality is under average for Norway.

A herd of reindeer wandering through town.

Kids from Gamvik municipality bring life to the local school.

Brygga, the old pier in decay.

Gamvik old church

Gamvik Church, 1958, on the site of several previous churches.

The northernmost church in mainland Europe.

The altar, baptistery and pulpit.

The organ gallery and a votive ship (kirkeskip) honouring Gamvik seamen.

The Museum

Housed in an old fish factory, the restored "Brodtkorbbruket", and facing the Barents Sea, the Gamvik Museum is an authentic framework for the history of the fishing industry and coastal culture.

The Museum was founded in 1978 with a collecting of photographs and artifacts, revealing the turbulent history of Nordkyn.

Pomor trade items.

'Pomor' is the trade carried out between the Pomors of Northwest Russia and the people along the coast of Northern Norway. It dates back to the Viking Age and the Middle Age.

The exhibition is extended outside:

Tradtional large 'A' frame used for hanging cod on to dry.

The expedition vessel "Gamvik" was built in 1971. It was the last major wooden boat used to shuttle goods and passengers between Gamvik's quay and the Hurtigrutan ferry.

The "pramma", as it was commonly called, played an important part in the economic and social life of the communities. In bad weather, passengers had to go to the "sail" - a kind of basket in sailcloth - which was then taken on board. The "pramma" was in use up to 1990.

The vessel was given in 1991 from the shipping company to Gamvik municipality; later it was decided that the vessel was to be landed at Gamvik Museum.

Slettnes Lighthouse
, 71° 05′ N

Built in 1905, and located about 3 km north of Gamvik, this is the northernmost lighthouse on continental Europe, also known as the 'North Cape Light'. The round cast iron tower is 39 metres high. It has been declared an heritage site and provides tourist lodging.