For the next eight weeks they followed Nansen and Johansen's trail southwest through the archipelago, moving from island to island. Once a Soviet military zone and still largely off-limits to outsiders, Franz Josef Land remains virtually as unspoiled as it was during Nansen's day.
At Cape Norvegiya on Jackson Island, Ousland and Ulrich found the ruins of the miserable stone hut with a walrus-hide roof where the earlier explorers had wintered over, hunting polar bear and walrus for food. Nansen had picked up crucial skills from Inuit villagers on Greenland, where he had spent the winter of 1888-89. When he and Johansen ran out of fuel for their stove, they used blubber lamps to cook. "I'm surprised they didn't just shoot themselves," Ulrich said, looking at the low circle of stones from the cramped shelter. "The only reason they survived," Ousland said, "was that they refused to give up."
By the time Ousland and Ulrich reached Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, where Nansen and Johansen were rescued by British explorer Frederick George Jackson, they too were eager to make their departure. A friend from Oslo had agreed to pick them up by sailboat but had been delayed by several weeks. "It was a very peaceful place with a small lake, the perfect place to wait three weeks," Ulrich said. "The other islands were just rocks and stones and ice, but Cape Flora was green, with moss and flowers." The only other residents were thousands of seabirds nesting on cliffs and a hungry polar bear and cub, stranded by the lack of sea ice—a consequence of recent climate change. Night after night the bears returned to camp to try their luck, tripping the last of the flares set up to scare them off. In the end the men had to shoo the bears away by dousing them with pepper spray, shooting rifles in the air, banging on pots and pans, and screaming at the top of their lungs.
"We chased them right into the water," Ousland said. "After that we reached an understanding."
On August 13, as promised, the ketch Athene appeared off the coast of Cape Flora, and Ousland and Ulrich paddled their kayaks out to meet their ride back to Norway. After 15 weeks in the far north, the time had come to follow Nansen's ghost home.
"Nansen was way ahead of his time in how he thought about the Arctic and how to travel in it," Ousland said. "For us it was like a holiday compared to Nansen," Ulrich added. "We knew what we had in front of us. He didn't even know where he was and how far he had to go."