The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

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In this grand and astonishing tale, Alec Wilkinson brings us the story of S. A. Andrée, the visionary Swedish aeronaut who, in 1897, during the great age of Arctic endeavor, left to discover the North Pole by flying to it in a hydrogen balloon. Called by a British military officer “the most original and remarkable attempt ever made in Arctic exploration,” Andrée’s expedition was followed by nearly the entire world, and it made him an international legend.

The Ice Balloon begins in the late nineteenth century, when nations, compelled by vanity, commerce, and science, competed with one another for the greatest discoveries, and newspapers covered every journey. Wilkinson describes how in Andrée several contemporary themes intersected. He was the first modern explorer—the first to depart for the Arctic unencumbered by notions of the Romantic age, and the first to be equipped with the newest technologies. No explorer had ever left with more uncertainty regarding his fate, since none had ever flown over the horizon and into the forbidding region of ice.

In addition to portraying the period, The Ice Balloon gives us a brief history of the exploration of the northern polar regions, both myth and fact, including detailed versions of the two record-setting expeditions just prior to Andrée’s—one led by U.S. Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely from Ellesmere Island; the other by Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who initially sought to reach the pole by embedding his ship in the pack ice and drifting toward it with the current.

Woven throughout is Andrée’s own history, and how he came by his brave and singular idea. We also get to know Andrée’s family, the woman who loves him, and the two men who accompany him—Nils Strindberg, a cousin of the famous playwright, with a tender love affair of his own, and Knut Fraenkel, a willing and hearty young man.

Andrée’s flight and the journey, based on the expedition’s diaries and photographs, dramatically recovered thirty-three years after the balloon came down, along with Wilkinson’s research, provide a book filled with suspense and adventure, a haunting story of high ambition and courage, made tangible with the detail, beauty, and devastating conditions of traveling and dwelling in “the realm of Death,” as one Arctic explorer put it.

Alec Wilkinson began writing for The New Yorker in 1980. Before that he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that he was a rock-and-roll musician. He has published nine other books—two memoirs, two collections of essays, three biographical portraits, and two pieces of reporting—most of which first appeared in The New Yorker. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lyndhurst Prize, and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He lives with his wife and son in New York City.

From our Q&A with the author:

Q: What made S. A. Andree’s expedition to the Arctic in 1897 unique?

A: Several things.  To begin with, he was the first person to attempt to fly to the north pole, and the first to fly in the Arctic.  The first to use the air as a means of discovery.  Beforehand, for hundreds of years, the Pole had been approached only by men in ships which the ice often carved up practically into splinters and on sledges and neither had taken anyone far enough.  In fact, the Pole was still so elusive that until the early Twentieth century no one even knew what was there.  (It is difficult to imagine that even as late as the early part of the last century, many scientists believed that the Pole was encircled by a temperate sea; its warmth is what caused icebergs to separate themselves from the larger body of ice).  

Andree was not so much an explorer in a line of explorers, using their methods and refining them, but a pioneer, the advance figure of a new means of approach.  A visionary.  Finally, he was the first explorer to head into the Arctic unencumbered by notions of the Romantic age, which had shaped thoughts and images and impressions of the Arctic for hundreds of years as a place of severe purity, an outpost of the god seeking world, a sanctified ground. 

Q: Who was Andree and what drew you to his story?

A: Andree was a Swedish engineer enraptured by the notions and practical means of flight.  He saw the upper atmosphere as a broad highway from the west toward the east, following the winds, over which balloons could travel with passengers and freight, faster than ships and to places ships and sledges could never reach.  He was a science-minded prophet, absorbed with imagining a future almost entirely different from the one his contemporaries held in mind.  Rather than spend months of arduous, even fatal toil trying to reach the Pole through the ice, he proposed flying to it in fewer than two days and settling for all time the mystery of what circumstances, what kind of territory, it encompassed.  

My wife found a photograph of his balloon in a small, obscure book on ballooning, which had been on the shelf at my friend William Maxwell’s house.  She took it down, saw the photograph, and said, “Have you ever heard of S.A. Andree?”  The photograph—of the balloon on its side in a white landscape—seemed an impossible image, as likely to be truthful as a photograph of an airplane on the moon.  I assumed it was a stunt, a Victorian prank.

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