An Unsung Hero

In honor of the excessive media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I’ve decided to write this bog posting about an Arctic explorer named Paul Bjorvig (1857-1932). What does this virtually unknown Norwegian have to do with recent events in Boston? Absolutely nothing. That’s why I’m writing about him.

P. Bjorvig

Paul Bjorvig

In 1898, Bjorvig took part in an American polar expedition led by two highly unlikely individuals, the Chicago journalist William Wellman and religious enthusiast Evelyn Baldwin. The expedition used Russia’s remote Franz Josef Land archipelago as a base for, among other things, searching for lost Norwegian balloonist Salomon Andree. Wellman and Baldwin also roamed about the archipelago. “We are giving the islands, straits, and points good American names,” Wellman wrote.

While the two leaders were traveling around Franz Josef Land, Bjorvig and another Norwegian, Bernt Bentsen, remained behind in an ice cave and looked after the expedition’s supplies. Bentsen grew increasingly ill, perhaps from scurvy, perhaps trichinosis, and in January of 1899 he died. His last request to Bjorvig: “Please don’t let a polar bear eat my remains.” I promise you that I won’t, said his companion.

The only way to prevent a polar bear from dining on Bentsen was to keep his remains in the ice cave. A not very pleasant thought, but Bjorvig had given his word. He wrapped Bentsen in his, Bentsen’s, sleeping bag and, because the cave was so small, kept that sleeping bag right next to his own sleeping bag. Days blurred into weeks, but Bjorvig and Bentsen remained together, so to speak.

Eventually, Wellman returned to the ice cave (Baldwin was now inhabiting the crude Masonic lodge he’d built on Greely Island). Where’s Bentsen? he asked Bjorvig. “Dead,” Bjorvig replied, pointing to the sleeping bag. If he had then screamed in anguish or beaten his head against the cave’s icy wall, he might be remembered today, but he did nothing more dramatic than offer Wellman a cup of coffee.

In fact, the media — such as it was in those days — paid almost no attention to Bjorvig. Nowadays, of course, the media would swarm all over him, ramming microphones in his face and asking him all sorts of questions. What was it like to hang out with a dead man for two months? Did you contemplate suicide? Do you think the Arctic has conspired against you? How about your companion’s smell? Could you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10? And was it a threat to, if not your sanity, at least your appetite? In the end, Bjorvig would have become a celebrity and doubtless a talk show regular.

Once he returned to Norway, Bjorvig did not undergo a period of healing, nor did he engage in prayer or reflection. Instead, he signed up almost immediately for an expedition to Antarctica. After the Antarctic trip, he signed up for an expedition to Svalbard (Spitzbergen). While he was in Svalbard, he heard that his 22 year old son had been killed by a bear back in Norway. Not a single member of the media ever asked him how he felt about the loss of his son. At the time, such a question would have been considered vulgar if not downright invasive.

In 1908-1909, Bjorvig overwintered in Svalbard with his friend Knut Johnsen. One spring day the two men went for a walk, and Johnsen fell through the ice. There was nothing Bjorvig could do to save him. After his friend’s death, Bjorvig decided that (as he wrote in his journal) “I have had enough sorrow from the Arctic.” Then he added the following line:

But if a man has no sorrows, he has no joys.


Thanks to Perspektivet Museum (Norway) for the image of Paul Bjorvig, used under Creative Commons license.

4 thoughts on “An Unsung Hero

  1. Hi Larry – This is a great story at just the right time. I had to forward this to the old Norwegians in the family, still a hardy but quiet bunch. It’s been a long time since seeing you at the BMC in Cambridge, but I am glad to have found your blog.

  2. In the safety of anonymity, I will confess that I never bought Ondaatje’s story of the Cave of the Swimmers, “she was still there,” and so forth. But this bog I buy.

  3. Hey, there’s no ‘like’ button for me to push so that this can get plastered around facebook and go viral!

  4. Hi – I’m a new fan – discovered you at library and read Last Places – just couldn’t put it down and read certain chapters over again. Will read all your others. Thank you for this wonderful story on Bjorvig – I love it!

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