Our curious nature has always driven humans to explore even the most inhospitable corners of the earth. In 325 BCE, the Greek sailor Pytheas reached a frozen sea during a trip to find a new source of the metal tin. He was quite probably the first Westerner to pass into the Arctic Circle. Russian explorers made many trips into the Arctic as early as the 1200s, and settlers had established trade routes between Arkhangelsk and the mouth of the Yenisey by the early 17th century. However, the dangerous oceans and poor weather conditions made exploration into the furthest reaches nearly impossible until the last century.
On this day in 1935, the Soviet icebreaker Sadko embarked on the first of three journeys into uncharted deep-water regions of the Arctic. During these voyages, the explorers collected information about the last unexplored areas of the northern Karskoye Sea. The ship was named for Sadko, an explorer, musician and merchant who was the hero of several Russian epics.
One of the Sadko explorers’ most notable achievements was unraveling the mystery of the Sannikov Land, which had been debated for decades. Many explorers insisted that there was a large land mass in the area of the North Pole. Some even thought that it was a lush and beautiful place, supporting a wide array of flora and fauna. Migratory birds were seen to head past the icy reaches each year, suggesting that there was a hospitable place there for them to spend their summer months. Other scientists doubted that such a region could be possible so deep in the Arctic Circle.
Polar fox trapper Yakov Sannikov first reported the presence of the phantom island in 1811. He was convinced that there was a large island there, with four rocky mountain peaks in the center. In 1886, a Baltic German explorer, Eduard Toll, saw the contour of the Sannikov Land during a map-making expedition. Toll went on a quest to find the island in 1902, but his ship became stuck in the Arctic ice. He continued toward his goal on foot, but died in the attempt.
The Sadko crew teamed up with an air reconnaissance team to thoroughly research the area and see if they could find the mythical island. However, they found no trace of it. In the end, they concluded that the Sannikov Land, like many Arctic islands, was a temporary formation in the permafrost. A layer of soil gathers on top, but melts over time, leaving no trace behind.
The migratory bird mystery was soon solved as well. The birds were not heading to the North Pole, but over it. The Pole was part of their path to Northern Canada and Alaska, their true summer destinations.