Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • The Ice Balloon
  • Written by Alec Wilkinson
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307741868
  • Our Price: $15.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Ice Balloon

Buy now from Random House

  • The Ice Balloon
  • Written by Alec Wilkinson
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307957696
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Ice Balloon

The Ice Balloon

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

S. A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration

Written by Alec WilkinsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alec Wilkinson


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 24, 2012
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95769-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
The Ice Balloon Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - The Ice Balloon
  • Email this page - The Ice Balloon
  • Print this page - The Ice Balloon
This book has no tags.
You can add some at Library Thing.


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.


Chapter 1

In August of 1930, a Norwegian sloop, the Bratvaag, sailing in the Arctic Ocean, stopped at a remote island called White Island. The Bratvaag was partly on a scientific mission, led by a geologist named Dr. Gunnar Horn, and partly out sealing. On the second day, the sealers followed some walruses around a point of land. A few hours later, they returned with a book, which was sodden and heavy, and had its pages stuck together. The book was a diary, and on the first page someone had written in pencil, "The Sledge Journey, 1897."

Horn rode to shore with the Bratvaag's captain, who said that two sealers dressing walruses had grown thirsty and gone looking for water. By a stream, Horn wrote, they found "an aluminum lid, which they picked up with astonishment," since White Island was so isolated that almost no one had ever been there. Continuing, they saw something dark protruding from a snowdrift-an edge of a canvas boat. The boat was filled with ice, but within it could be seen a number of books, two shotguns, some clothes and aluminum boxes, a brass boathook, and a surveyor's tool called a theodolite. Several of the objects had been stamped with the phrase "Andrée's Pol. Exp. 1896." Near the boat was a body. It was leaning against a rock, with its legs extended, and it was frozen. On its feet were boots, partly covered by snow. Very little but bones remained of the torso and arms. The head was missing, and clothes were scattered around, leading Horn to conclude that bears had disturbed the remains.

He and the others carefully opened the jacket the corpse was wearing, and when they saw a large monogram A they knew whom they were looking - at--S. A. Andrée, the Swede who, -thirty--three years earlier, on July 11, 1897, had ascended with two companions in a hydrogen balloon to discover the North Pole.

Before the twentieth century, more than a thousand people tried to reach the pole, and according to an accounting made by an English journalist in the 1930s, at least 751 of them died. Only Andrée used a balloon. He had left on a blustery afternoon from Dane's Island, in the Spitsbergen archipelago, six hundred miles from the pole. It took an hour for the balloon, which was a hundred feet tall, to disappear from the view of the people who were watching from the shore- carpenters, technicians, members of the Swedish navy who had assisted in the weeks leading up to the launch.

Two years of planning had led Andrée to predict that he would arrive at the pole in about -forty--three hours. Having crossed it, he would land, maybe six days later, in Asia or Alaska, depending on the winds, and walk to civilization if he had to. Ideally, he said, and perhaps disingenuously, he would descend in San Francisco. To meet the dignitaries who would be waiting for him, he brought a tuxedo.

Every newspaper of substance in Europe and North America carried word of his leaving. The headline on the front page of the New York Times said, "Andrée Off for the Pole." A British military officer called the voyage "The most original and remarkable attempt ever made in Arctic exploration." For novelty and daring, the figure to whom he was most often compared was Columbus.

Then, having crossed the horizon, he vanished, the first person to disappear into the air.

It may be the strangest image in the annals of exploration-a dark gray orb in a white landscape. My wife found it in a slim -En-glish book from 1948 called Ballooning, by C. H. Gibbs--Smith, Companion Royal Aeronautical Society. The -twenty--eight pages of text refer to prints, woodcuts, engravings, and photographs that range chronologically from "The First Public Balloon Ascent, Annonay, 1783," to "World Altitude Record. 1935." In between are "Death of Madame Blanchard, 1819" (fall from balloon); "An Alarming Experience in Gypson's Balloon, 1847" (lightning); and "The 'Zenith' Tragedy, 1875" (crash). Plate 28 is the orb on its side, with two men contemplating it as if detectives sent to determine the circumstances.

All around the balloon is white from snow and ice, and the sky is white from fog, so there is no horizon, and only a fine line, which the balloon delineates, between the background and foreground. The photograph is not entirely in focus, which makes it appear to be more a print than a photograph, and so somehow obscurely unrealistic, or, on the other hand, realistic in an exaggerated way.

When my wife showed me the image, I assumed it was staged, a Victorian entertainment of some peculiar kind, a lark in an alien landscape, because a balloon couldn't be where this one appeared to be any more than an airplane could be on the moon. And if it wasn't a stunt, I could view it only with a sense of dread for the two men in it. Their craft is wrecked, the landscape is forbidding, and something about the static quality of their forms makes their situation seem utterly hopeless. The caption said, "Andrée's balloon on the ice." Who was Andrée, I wondered? How had he come to be standing beside this ruined contraption, and where was this forlorn place? What had he intended? And what happened to the men in the photograph? Had they made their way safely home? And if they hadn't, how was it that this photograph existed?

Chapter 2

Except for the bottom of the sea or the center of the earth, the North Pole, at the end of the nineteenth century, was the world's last mysterious destination. For decades before the South Pole was visited in December of 1911 by Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian--it was known to reside on land, whereas no one knew what lay at the end of where the compass needle pointed. Some thought a temperate sea; some thought more ice; some thought mountains and islands; and, oddly concretizing the inner life, a remnant of early-nineteenth-century believers, called Hollow Earthers, thought a hole there led to an interior world. (The Tropics, on the other hand, while not entirely revealed, had at least been comprehended; no one, for example, thought that they might enclose a frigid desert.)

To go to an unknown place on the earth that might take a year to reach and come back from, using the fastest means possible, is no longer within the capacity of human beings, but between 1496 and 1868 roughly 135 expeditions went to the Arctic, predominantly from Europe. Until 1845 they were mainly looking for a way to get to the East, a trade route, and their attempts were described as voyages of discovery, even though they were made in the service of commerce. The men who took part were passionate to see what no one else had seen. They were filling in the map, not always accurately, but honorably, and one after another, the ice turned all of them back.

A northern passage had become necessary in 1493, when Pope Alexander VI divided the world, East and West, between the Spanish and the Portuguese, leaving the British, less powerful, unable anymore to reach China or India by sailing around Africa. Following the orders of Sebastian Cabot, a Venetian who, under Edward VI, was "Governour of the Mysterie and Companie of the Merchants Aventurers for the Discoverie of Regions, Dominions, Island, and Places Unknowne," they tried sailing above Russia, a northeast passage, because a map of the period suggested that China and India were closer to -En-gland than they actually were. In 1553, Cabot sent three ships to China, two of which got caught in the ice off eastern Lapland, which was uninhabited. According to Sir John Barrow, writing in 1818, in Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions, their crews of about seventy men "perished miserably from the effects of cold, or hunger, or both." The third ship reached a place where, according to Richard Hakluyt, in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, published in the early seventeenth century, there was "no night at all, but a continual light upon the huge and mighty ocean." From the White Sea, near St. Petersburg, the captain trekked fifteen hundred miles south to Moscow, met Ivan the Terrible, who was pleased to see him, and established a trade route. In 1556, another -En-glish expedition to China made it to Novaya Zemlya, roughly three thousand miles north of the border of Iran and Afghanistan, encountered ice and fog, lost nerve, and turned back. Only one more -En-glish expedition went east, in 1580. It consisted of two small ships, one of which was lost.

Martin Frobisher, who made three voyages between 1576 and 1578, was the first Englishman to look for a passage west. Because Magellan had found a way between the Atlantic and the Pacific by sailing south of the Americas, Frobisher believed that he would find one by sailing north. On his first voyage Queen Elizabeth I waved to him from a window as he sailed down the Thames. Weeks later he and his crew met Eskimos in kayaks and from the strangers' Mongoloid features concluded that they were close to China. Five Englishmen went ashore and -didn't come back, so Frobisher seized an Eskimo and brought him to -En-gland, where he died of a cold. The other artifact Frobisher came home with was a shiny black stone that was somehow taken for evidence of gold. It is not clear how this supposition arose-possibly Frobisher began it cynically as a means of raising money for another voyage-but -En-glish speculators embraced it, and Frobisher was sent to get more. Elizabeth named the territory Meta Incognita, which means "worth unknown." Frobisher returned with two hundred tons of the substance.

On his third trip Frobisher left England with fifteen ships and a hundred settlers to establish a mining colony. Three ships were to stay with the colony, and the other twelve were to load up with black stones and return to England. On the way over a storm off Greenland sank the ship that was carrying a lot of their food and the materials for the house that would see them through the winter. When the crew reached shore and took stock of their loss, they realized they - couldn't stay. They spent a few days loading up with stones, sailed home, and arrived to learn that the stones from their last trip had been discovered to be iron pyrite, which was not even worth smelting and was eventually crushed for roads. Frobisher was in disgrace, though he revived himself five years later by a marriage that made him rich and by joining up with Sir Walter Raleigh and seizing a Spanish ship, the Madre de Dios.

The first man to try to reach the pole was Henry Hudson, in 1607, who believed that the most efficient way to travel to the East would be not to thread one's way among icebound channels and bays of ice, but to go over the top of the world. Hudson was persuaded, as many geographers had been for centuries, that the ice formed only a species of blockade, and that past it was an open polar sea that possibly was temperate. On a voyage in 1610, pressing his crew to continue, he was overthrown. They put him and his son and a few sympathizers in a small boat, and they drifted off, through the bay that had been named for him, and were never heard from again.

After about 1847 most journeys to the Arctic were essentially search parties looking for the British explorer Sir John Franklin, who became the most famous man ever to be lost there. He was fifty--nine when he left England in May of 1845, having been sent to determine whether the part of Canadian coastline that was still unvisited, a little more than three hundred miles, completed the Northwest Passage. He had two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which were last seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, off Greenland, in late July. Franklin had been twice to the Arctic, and one of his voyages had been nearly legendary for its deprivations and suffering, but his third was inept. He sailed into the ice as if a gentleman on a foray into interesting territory, and disappeared.

Many historians think that Lady Franklin sent her husband to the Arctic in late middle age as a means of restoring prestige that had seeped from him (and her). Nevertheless she insisted that the government find him. Over thirty--one years, with public and private money, forty--two expeditions, the bulk of them from England but some from America, went looking for Franklin or for some explanation of why he hadn't come back, then finally for relics of him. More people died in the search than on the expedition. Eventually it was learned from Eskimos and from diaries that were found, and from gravesites and artifacts, that his ships had been enclosed by ice, that he had died early in the confinement, the ships had been crushed, and that every one of his crew, roughly 128 in all, had died in the long retreat, some having practiced cannibalism.

This deeply unwelcome news was brought to England in 1854 by a Scottish explorer named John Rae, who was also a doctor. Eskimos told Rae, through an interpeter, that in the winter of 1850 some of their people had encountered about forty white men who were dragging a boat and some sledges. By means of gestures the white men explained that ice had destroyed their ship, and that they were hoping to reach territory where they could hunt deer. All of them were very thin. They bought seal meat from the Eskimos, camped overnight, and left the following day, heading east toward a river. Months later, by the river, the Eskimos found about thirty bodies and some graves. A day's walk away they found five more bodies. Many of the bodies in both places had been mutilated. As best Rae could, he checked versions of the story against one another and found that they essentially agreed. In his report he wrote, "It is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life." From the Eskimos Rae bought a gold watch, a surgeon's knife, some silver spoons and forks, and a piece of silver plate that was engraved with Franklin's initials.

Rae had meant his account to be private, but it was published in a newspaper, and it outraged Lady Franklin and pretty much the rest of the British, who refused to believe that their naval officers and sailors could have behaved dishonorably. Some people said that the Eskimos probably killed the Englishmen and made up the story. Charles Dickens, in a piece called “The Lost Arctic Voyagers,” published in two editions of his weekly magazine Household Words, wrote that Rae, while an unimpeachable source, had likely been misled by an interpreter who had been either unskilled or inclined, as were “ninety-nine interpreters out of a hundred, whether savage, half-savage, or wholly civilized,” to exaggerate so as to make himself seem more important.

Franklin was a sentimental figure but not a sympathetic one. He and his men had insisted on the rightness of British bearing and cold-weather cunning, and refused to enact any of the widely known practices of the Eskimos whose territories they were crossing. Apparently believing that their ships were invincible and that their tinned food would never run out, they had not included any accomplished hunters among them. The Arctic explorer and scholar Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote of them in 1938, “One of the most baffling problems of Canadian exploration is how Sir John Franklin and his party of more than a hun- dred contrived to die to the last man, apparently from hunger and malnutrition, in a district where several hundred Eskimos had been living for generations, bringing up their children, and taking care of their aged.” People more favorably disposed to Franklin would respond that the meagerness of the Eskimo’s circumstances was proof that game was scarce in the Arctic and that even skillful hunters could not have fed as many men as were left; they had, so to speak, overwhelmed the territory.

Almost no nation managed more, or got beat up worse, in the Arctic than the British, the losses coming partly from a willfully romantic attitude and partly from pridefulness. A famously skilled British sledger of the nineteenth century, Sir Francis Leo- pold McClintock, who had looked for Franklin, gave a speech on sledging in which he described the British sledger undertak- ing a journey in the Arctic as characterized by a “strong sense of duty, and an equally strong determination to accomplish it— dauntless resolution and indomitable will; that useful compound of stubbornness and endurance which is so eminently British.” Before Franklin disappeared explorers frequently went to the Arctic and had terrible things happen to them, but often they returned and were heroes. After the Arctic erased Franklin and his ships and crew, the British were less keen about what benefits might be had from going there. (By the time the Northwest Pas- sage was completed, in the late nineteenth century, it was useless from being so difficult to navigate.
Furthermore, depending on how much ice there was and where it was concentrated, the passage wasn’t even in the same place every year.) Almost as a nation the British seemed to feel that the Arctic, having been paid the compliment of courtship, had not played fair.

The difference between the Arctic and the tropics, the other blanks on the period’s maps, is one of conception. Each drew a somewhat different type. Discoverers in the tropics were geogra- phers, missionaries, seekers after mineral wealth, or pursuers of stories left in the archives of Spanish exploration about cities of gold. The formidable threats they faced—natives, disease, para- sites, unholy heat, antagonistic creatures—were an alliance of resistance. To the European the place was a clotted mass of haz- ards, a closet in which disaster came at you in waves, whereas the Arctic was the open plain, the desert, the spaces where God and the wild spirits roamed.

In the mind of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Arctic was a region of severe—even sacred—purity, and the terms of life there were different from those of any more temper- ate place. In a year, to begin with, it had only one day and one night. Absence defined it. The palette of dangers was reduced to two: cold and starvation. No secondary antagonists such as poi- son arrows or insects or parasites or diseases intervened, unless in the case of scurvy, which was caused not by an agent native to the ground but by poor nutrition. (Fresh meat, it turned out, pro- tected the Eskimos, but the Europeans relied mainly on lemon juice and the less effective lime juice.)

The path in the Arctic had two ends: arrival or death, which of course was its own arrival. And it was imagined to be the cleanest death, nearly conceptual, a wasting away slowly, an exhaustion relaxing into sleep, it was said; a perishing, an era- sure, which was essentially different from a mauling or a withering amid fits of fever or the weakening effects of a larva or a parasite that had worked its way through the bloodstream and the body. A man was believed to have his wits in the Arctic until nearly the end. It was a godly place, fierce and unknowable, the spooky and capacious territory of the imagination. Onto its blackness any idea could be projected. Men who went to the Arctic enraptured, who saw God in the austerity and the other- worldly ice, were often disabused by the experiences they had there, though. A holy-minded American explorer named Charles Hall, viewing the frozen body of a comrade, wrote in a journal, “O, My God, Thy ways are not our ways!”

Finally, while exploration in the tropics might be a treasure hunt, the Arctic offered no riches that could be held in one’s hand. In the Arctic what prizes might be obtained would fall mostly to others—the route one found would be traveled. The science one might work would be for selfless gain, and was more likely to be specific than practical, since the conditions of the landscape—a region of ice, not land—were duplicated nowhere else. Certainly one’s name would be revered. One would get a statue. One could leave the names of one’s family and sponsors and friends on the landscape, although that wouldn’t necessarily fill a bank vault.

In 1881 a member of a British Arctic expedition, describing the allure of the frigid places, wrote, “It seems to us certain that the Arctic world has a romance and an attraction about it, which are far more powerful over the minds of men than the rich glowing lands of the Tropics.”

The pole was the chaste and pitiless heart of a god-dwelling region. People thought of the tropics and saw golden cities. People thought of the cold territories and shuddered.
Alec Wilkinson|Author Q&A

About Alec Wilkinson

Alec Wilkinson - The Ice Balloon

Photo © Sara Barrett

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.

Author Q&A

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. 
Q: In terms of Arctic exploration, where does Andree’s journey in 1897 fit in to history? 
A: He stands, by means of the uniqueness of his undertaking, both inside and outside history.  An exotic, a one-off.  A British military officer of the period described Andree’s voyage as the most original and remarkable journey ever made into the Arctic, and for daring, and visionary thinking the figure Andree was most often compared to was Columbus.  He proved to be, also, I suppose, a species of worldly clairvoyant.  When the Pole was finally observed, it was not from the deck of a ship, or from behind a sledge, but from the cockpit of an airship, precisely the vantage that would have been Andree’s. 
Q: The balloon took off for the Arctic on July 11, 1897.  33 years went by before the discovery of Andree’s remains and diaries.  What went wrong?
A: They sailed over the horizon and disappeared, becoming the first men ever to be lost in the air.  Since they had penetrated territory no one had ever seen before, there was no means of pursuing them or rescuing them or bringing them any comfort.  No one was even sure what direction they had flown in once they were lost to sight, since the winds never blew in a straight line.  The world could only wait for their return.  Days passed with only slight word, from messages carried by pigeons released from the balloon, then weeks, then a curtain fell and concealed them.  
Three days into their flight, roughly at the time Andree had predicted arriving at the Pole, ice from fog formed on the balloon and brought it down.  They were then three men on a forced march through territory as inhospitable and forbidding as any in the world.  “The realm of death” is how one explorer described the Arctic. 
Q: There are some truly amazing photographs of the balloon in the Arctic.  What can you tell us about those photos? 
A: The photographs were made by Nils Strindberg, the expedition’s photographer, and a relation of the writer August Strindberg.  Strindberg had a better than typical eye---he had won a photography contest once and had shown photographs he had made in the Arctic on an earlier trip.  As the expedition got underway he took a number of images, although fewer and fewer as they traveled on the ice, since the work of doing so was so fatiguing and so relentless that they stopped more or less only to eat and to rest and he hadn’t the energy, apparently, to unpack and set up his camera.  Even so, he took something like a hundred photographs, which were not developed until 1933, when the film was found with his remains.  No record of the kind exists for any other Arctic expedition.  The effect of seeing the images from what was described as a death march across the ice was for the survivors as if Andree and Fraenkel and Strindberg had been seen in the Afterlife. 
Q: You include some fun tidbits throughout such as how on one of Andree’s test flights he threw cards out of the balloon asking anyone who found them to send them back to him so that he could tell exactly where he had been.  What primary sources were you able to get access to in researching this book? 
A: Mainly his diaries and the records he kept of his travels.  
Q: What has Andree’s legacy been?
A: Well, no one ever tried to fly a balloon to the North Pole again, but he had introduced the idea that the air was the means of access to the top of the world.  Andree was a fanatic of a kind and his demise may have put off others who might have tried to overcome the difficulties of reaching the Pole by using a balloon.  Nevertheless, when the Pole was finally discovered---that is, by someone whose account is not disputed---it was seen from an airship, as Andree had hoped to see it.   
Q: While much of the book takes place abroad, you end the book with a discovery you made in NYC’s Central Park.  Tell us about that. 
A: In 1876, as a young man, Andree had sailed to America to attend the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia which had been organized to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  At the Exposition all the world’s new technologies were on display and Andree was obsessed with practical science.  He found a job as the janitor at the Swedish Pavilion, which allowed him to wander wherever he cared to at the fair.  The Swedish Pavilion was a tech built house, the first one ever built, and Andree slept in a bedroom upstairs.  After the fair the house was taken down and put up in Central Park.  When I returned from visiting Sweden it occurred to me to wonder what the Pavilion had looked like and when I saw a photograph of it I was brought up short by the awareness that I had passed the building, which is near my apartment, nearly every day for twenty years.  I still like to go there and imagine Andree, tall and blond and full of promise, consumed with daring ideas for the future.  



“Riveting. . . . Superb storytelling. . . . A bone-chilling account of a journey gone terribly bad in the harshest conditions possible.” —The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Gripping. . . . When you consider what these people went through, it is hard not to admire their resilience, optimism and determination, but also to question their sanity. That is what makes such stories as Andrée's so compelling.” —The Seattle Times

“Wilkinson writes with insight and flair . . . . He understands that the value of polar stories . . . [lies] in our endless love of discovery and the drama of being human.” —The New York Times Book Review
“That rare work of nonfiction whose sublimely understated writing rivals the inherent drama of its subject matter. . . . [Wilkinson’s] book couldn’t be more riveting.” —The Toronto Star

“Fabulous. . . . One feels guilty having so much fun reading about such harrowing voyages.”—The Boston Globe 

“Fast-moving and often heartbreaking.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“Wilkinson’s writing is so flawless and engaging that I’d read him on a packed subway at rush hour.” —Sebastian Junger

“Alec Wilkinson is a spare, clear, and lucid writer who works in stylistic simplicity with material that is not simple at all.” —Peter Matthiessen

The Ice Balloon captures a time and place unknown to us now and, in elegant, low-key prose, offers an inspiring narrative of exploration and the indomitable human spirit.” —Highbrow Magazine

“An eminently tellable story that is a perfect match for [Wilkinson’s] spare and evocative style. . . . It’s possible to forget that today’s adventure tourists are following trails once traveled only by heroes, fools, and dreamers.” —Natural History

“Captivating. . . . A thrilling account of a remarkable man.”—Publishers Weekly

 “A fine addition to the annals of polar exploration.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Entertaining and extremely well written, this captivating story about an obscure Arctic expedition is an essential purchase for all avid readers of exploration and polar literature.” —Library Journal (starred review)

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: