Of Ships and Journeys

Give me an all-access tourist pass and by the gods, I will use it.

After several minutes of Travel Math (that specialty involving the calculation of public transportation costs and museum admission fees versus opening hours and time required for movement between two points), I concluded that it would be cost-effective for me to purchase a 24-hour Oslo Pass yesterday.

I hopped on the 91, the public transportation boat, yes, boat, that putters between Oslo’s center and the museums on the Bygdoy peninsula.

Akershus Fortress, Oslo’s medieval castle, from the 91 ferry.

First stop: the Fram museum, which I’d skipped on my last trip to Oslo, back in 1999. Now it had new meaning for me and I was not going to miss it.

For starters, every pamphlet and ad for the museum mentions it has new toilets and touts them as the finest in Oslo, which peaked my curiosity (sadly, there were so many other things to see at the museum that I completely forgot about the toilets until much later in the day. I’ll have to come back just to experience them).

The Fram’s marketing also pushed the “Polar Simulator,” a “terrifying” walk through “minus 10 Celsius temperatures”…minus 10C? Ha! Hahahahahaha! Hold on, let me put on the shorts and flip-flops.

Yeah. Whatever.

But the big draw for me was the Fram itself, which was not only the vessel that Nansen and later Amundsen used to explore the Arctic, but also the ship Amundsen used for his expedition to the South Pole. You know, his successful expedition to the South Pole, as opposed to Scott’s doomed journey a few months later.

Roald Amundsen (center) and his fellow Polies, outside the Fram Museum. On the base is the simple inscription “90 degrees S.” When I saw this, my first thought was “clean-shaven? Yeah, right.” I’m sure they were not looking so well-coiffed when they arrived at the Pole.

And right outside the museum, there was old Roald “Killjoy” Amundsen and his fellow Polies, all looking as dour as ever.

I joke about Roald, but in truth I am fascinated by the way he is largely unremembered outside Norway or beyond Polar Geek circles. He was meticulous and arguably far more practical in his planning than Scott, virtues I think we puny humans tend to undervalue. He certainly was as brave. But it’s Scott who is remembered more. Is it because Robert F. was more dashing? Because we puny humans value style over substance? (Scott was brave as well, no doubt, but there was a certain arrogance to him. And while I’ll never forgive ol’ Roald for killing most of his dogs, having planned for it all along, Scott had the bright idea to bring ponies–ponies! I call Amundsen a killjoy in jest for his methodical, “adventure is just poor planning” attitude, but I’m dead serious when I refer to Scott as The Doom Of Ponies.)

Lighten up, Roald! It’s not your fault that most non-Norwegians think you wrote “James and the Giant Peach.” [My favorite thing about this photo, by the way, is that I walked up to a guy to ask him to take it for me, all ready to trot out my piddling Norwegian, and I heard him speaking Russian to his friend. So I asked him in Russian. And he was actually quite obliging. Yay! A positive Russian experience!]
Even at the Fram museum, Scott gets his own exhibition, on the main floor, no less, and when I was there, it was the most crowded area, with one man taking photos of every sign and map and display. Seriously.

I didn’t take a single one. Out of respect for Roald, poor underacknowledged bastard.

Statue of Nansen beside the Fram, which was just too big to fit in the frame from any vantage point in the museum.

The neatest thing about the Fram, by the way, is that you can actually walk around it, even down into the lower decks.

Fram: I am in you.

The Fram’s arguably biggest achievement was simply not shattering–Fridtjof Nansen, another Norwegian polar explorer who doesn’t get his due, had the great idea in the late 19th century to sail up to the Arctic and intentionally get a ship stuck in the pack ice, believing the ice would then drift over the North Pole, or near enough to it to pop out and plant a flag.

Reaction to his plan was mixed.

Some thought Nansen was daring and brilliant. Others thought he needed counseling, or perhaps an intervention.

(In Polar Explorer Valhalla, I imagine Nansen having a beer with Shackleton, the latter saying “soooooo…you deliberately got your ship trapped in pack ice, huh?”)

Nansen got his way in the end, and had the Fram built with a number of unusual features, including a super-reinforced round hull, going on the theory that the ice wouldn’t have anything to stick to and, as its pressure increased, the boat would simply rise, like a round nut squished between two fingers.

Well, Nansen’s nutball theory worked, though the Fram never got close enough to the North Pole for him to enjoy that little slice of glory.

And while the Fram also survived Amundsen’s South Pole expedition, the round hull that worked so well in Arctic pack ice apparently was the bane of crew and dogs in Antarctic waters, where it rolled precipitously in the swells.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on sextants which helped me finally understand how they work.

As for the Polar Simulator, whatevs. It was dark and cold and covered in faux ice, and, inexplicably, decorated with skeletons. The other people going through it shivered and shrieked and ran through. I paused to consider whether it was really minus 10C. I don’t think it was, though they did succeed in making the air very dry, which makes it tough to gauge a temp as warm as minus 10C, especially in calm conditions. I wanted to tell the people dashing through the faux ice cavern that it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind that gets you on the Ice, but I decided that would be insufferably smug of me.

Another poster at the Polar Simulator. You’re not fooling anyone.

After the Fram, I headed to the adjacent Norwegian Maritime Museum, which is undergoing some renovation. Fortunately, their history of ships exhibit is still open, from a 2,200-year-old dugout canoe, the oldest ship in Norway, to a chilling video simulation of how the Estonia sank. I had just arrived in Moscow when the ferry went down in the North Sea and heard it was due to faulty locks on the bow doors to the car decks. But the video shows in absolutely horrific detail how the doors first leaked, then opened, then busted off, all the while more water sloshing and then flooding in, destabilizing the ship. If the simulator is correct, there were several minutes of wild rolling until the ferry finally capsized and sank to the bottom, upside down. What I gathered from the video was that there was no way people could even try to get to the lifeboats, but there was a long period of knowing they were doomed.

The museum also had, no surprise, a number of excellent ship-building exhibits, but truth be told I kind of lost interest after the evolution from clinker to carvel.

The Gjoa, which took Amundsen and his crew through the Northwest Passage, awaiting the opening of its own triangular home beside the Fram in 2013.

Across the street from the Maritime Museum and the Fram (and the Gjoa, Amundsen’s ship when he sailed through the Northwest Passage…yeah, he did that, too, and amazingly still found time to write “James and the Giant Peach.” Yes, I’m joking. But only about the Peach. The Gjoa is sitting outside the Fram building while its own home is being built, scheduled for completion in 2013) is the Kon-Tiki Museum, where Thor Heyerdahl’s famous reed raft, and its successor, his Ra II, reside.

Originally I had no plans to see the Kon-Tiki, but it was free with my Oslo Pass and I was there, so, eh, might as well.

The Kon-Tiki

Does that sound dismissive? I’m sorry, Thor, I guess it is. Staring at the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I thought okay, neat that you proved people could cross the Pacific and Atlantic in this primitive kind of vessel. But, while acknowledging intellectually the importance of these achievements, I felt no emotional connection.

The day was getting long. I knew where I needed to go.

It’s about a ten minute walk from the Fram and Kon-Tiki to one of my favorite places in the world. I was a little worried that maybe I was misremembering my visit in 1999, that maybe the Viking Ship Museum was not all that.

It was. It is.

Oseberg Ship

When I visited the Fram, I thought, “oh cool.” When I saw the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I was impressed. But when I walked into the Viking Ship Museum again, I got a bit choked up.

There is something about that place.

Close-up of the Oseberg Ship

It is partly the museum itself, its austere, church-like space. (I just learned they’re planning to move the ships to a new location to reduce risk of fire and all I can say is NOOOOOOOO! Fire-proof the existing building and leave them there!)

It is partly the wise choice of the curators not to crowd the space with excessive signage and hands-on “SAIL YOUR OWN VIKING SHIP” exhibits.

Karl and the Oseberg

But it is mostly the ships themselves, at least the Gokstad and Oseberg (the deformed Tune remains as it was found, like a squashed bug). There is such elegant efficiency in their lines, such power and beauty.

Copy of Oseberg prow

The Oseberg gets most of the love for its prow and, I think, for the fact that it was the burial ship for two women (and their horses and their dogs and so on), which raises questions about the role of women in Viking society that they would get such a high-falutin’ funeral. Scholars have variously claimed the women to be noble and slave, priestesses, wife and mother of a chieftain, and so on.

But the Gokstad, likely a military craft before it was used as the burial ship for a man, is my favorite. It has none of the ornamentation of the Oseberg, but its lines are so splendid. I was happy just to stare at it, appreciating its construction, how it must have sliced through the waters and rippled over the waves with cat-like grace.

The Gokstad Ship

I spent 45 minutes at the Fram and the same amount of time at the Maritime Museum, and a mere 10 minutes at the Kon-Tiki (sorry, Thor). I was at the Viking Ship Museum for two hours, until closing, and could have stayed ten more. It’s not that there’s a lot to do. It’s really just three ships, a couple boats, an impressive but, in the grand scheme of museums, relatively small exhibit of grave goods found mostly from Oseberg, including the only known surviving Viking wagon.

Viking wagon or, as I like to call it, the vikingvagon.

But the ships themselves, and the space they occupy command, touch me in a way none of the other fine and well-done museums did. I couldn’t help but think back on all that’s happened in my life in the 13 years since I last saw them. When I last stood before them, I was a year away from being diagnosed with cancer. I’d just finished writing Plaguewalker, but the characters of The War’s End and The Guardian had not yet stirred in my imagination. Iceland, New Zealand, Tasmania, the Lofotens and a dozen other places were still on my must-see list. Visiting Antarctica was only a dream, one too lofty even to put on that list. I could not have dared to imagine the places I’d go and things I’d do in the thirteen years ahead of me then.

Another view of the Gokstad. I get a little verklempt just looking at the photo even now.

It made me wonder what the men who rowed and sailed those boats thought of their own journeys, those accomplished and those that were still dreams. And I wondered what the next 13 years will bring for me.

As an aside, I was particularly glad I went back to see the Viking ships because, since my last visit, there has been an intriguing development. The skeletons found with the Oseberg and Gokstad ships (curiously, no one ever mentions the skeleton found with the Tune) were reburied in the 1940s, but in 2006, citing their scientific significance and risk of losing them, they were dug up again. This time, forensic pathologists went to town on them and discovered just about everything believed about the skeletons from earlier study was wrong.

The Oseberg women are both much older than first believed: one, likely in her 80s, appears to have died from breast or abdominal cancer that metastasized to her bones and the second was in her 50s, and might have died from complications of a broken collarbone (though, given the handful of bones that remain of her, it is extremely difficult to say).

The Gokstad man was even more fascinating. An apparent hormonal imbalance caused his bones to be extremely dense and large. He was a big man, almost certainly more than six feet tall, and a number of edged weapon wounds to his bones that show no signs of healing suggest he was killed. (When found in the late 19th century, he was described as frail and elderly and crippled.) A fighting man? A chieftain who fell in battle or was done in by his enemies with an ambush after a long night in the mead hall? We’ll probably never know, but it was fascinating to read how advances in science have upended the old theories.

Sadly, science is not omnipotent. Attempts to extract and analyze DNA from all three skeletons have failed due to apparent contamination, though they’ll keep trying.

A reason to return to the museum (hopefully still in its current location) in another 13 years. Not that I needed one.

Boats and tent posts (on wall) found in the Gokstad ship

Today is my last day in Oslo, and in Norway. Tomorrow will be a long day, starting with a two-mile walk with my luggage to the airport bus stop at three in the morning (hey kids, when you find a hotel that’s a third of the going price online, don’t just look at Google maps to see how close it is to a metro stop…check when the metro runs and what time your flight leaves and when you need to be at the airport!). Then there will be the flight to Stockholm, the flight to O’Hare, the bus to Milwaukee, the jetlag-stunned greeting and catching up with my amazing friends the Shorewoodians, starting the austere diet and exercise regime, getting the car out of storage, job-hunting, ramping up publicity for Plaguewalker, finishing the edit of The War’s End, training to volunteer at the pound, looking for a place to live, and so on, and so on.

When it gets overwhelming (and it will…I mean, seriously, no carbs and job-hunting? Who am I kidding?), I hope I remember to think back to the sight of age-stained wood and lines elegant and efficient, to the thought of journeys past and future.

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One thought on “Of Ships and Journeys

  1. Susan Foran

    So the flyer from Boswell Book Company is correct! Gemma Tarlach, author of Plaguewalker will really be in Milwaukee on October 26th. Yay!

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