Fram Museum Oslo


Ravna, Ole Nilsen (1841-1906)

Ravna was one of the two Sami who skied with Nansen over Greenland in 1888.

Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906)

Ole Nilsen Ravna was born 31 October 1841 in the mountains by Karasjok in north Norway. He was a reindeer Sámi with the Sámi name Bikkan Ovlla, and he had his own reindeer flock. Nansen wanted to have two Sámi with him on his expedition over Greenland since he reckoned they would be extra well-suited to a long ski trek over snow and ice. When Ravna (with Samuel Balto) arrived in Kristiania (Oslo) after a 12-day journey from the north to meet Nansen for the first time, he described Ravna as being “an old man with long, black hair which hung down to his shoulders. He was very short and looked more like a Lapp than the younger man [Balto]”.

Nansen’s first impression was disappointment; he wanted a younger, unmarried man. Ravna was 46, married and had five children. This was the first time the two Sámi had travelled south of the Arctic Circle and there was no time to send them back and find replacements, so they were accepted. 

Ravna was not particularly fluent in Norwegian, and when he in addition was seasick on the way to Greenland’s east coast, the journey was not a good time for him. Nor was the dangerous drift on the ice floes southwards along the coast a happy experience. On the trek across Greenland’s ice cap Ravna’s Sámi New Testament was a great comfort to him and Balto. In addition to the difficult natural conditions that they were used to, the two Sámi were also faced with the use of snowshoes and sails on the sledges, which they met with deep scepticism. When they at last reached bare land at the western edge of the ice cap Nansen noted that “Also on Ravna’s face it was at last possible to discover a happy expression, poor soul, he had many times given up hope of feeling fast ground under his feet again”. During the winter 1888-89 in Godthaab Ravna was the only one of the group who did not try to learn how to paddle a kayak. All in all he was sceptical to all the new experiences and he longed to get back to the familiar landscape around Karasjok. 

When Nansen’s expedition arrived in Kristiania on 30 May 1889 a huge crowd stood waiting to greet them. Dietrichson asked Ravna: “Look, isn’t it a great sight with all these people, Ravna?”, and he answered: “Yes, nice, very nice, if they had only been reindeer”.

However, Ravna’s experience from Greenland cannot have been too negative since he applied to Nansen to join the Fram expedition over the Arctic Ocean in 1893. But this time he was politely refused. Ravna received a silver medal from King Oscar II of Sweden-Norway for his participation on the Greenland expedition.

Ravna was not, however, finished with arctic expeditions. In 1905, 65 years old, he went back to Greenland together with Isak Klemmetsen from Karasjok and the famous Danish arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen. The Royal Greenland Trading Company in Copenhagen wanted an analysis of the possibilities for tame reindeer farming in the area around Godthaab. On the way there Ravna and Klemmetsen were able to meet with Fridtjof Nansen in Kristiania.

Ole Ravna died on 11 August 1906 at Spierttanjárga/Sværholthalvøya, a peninsula in north Norway between Porsangerfjorden in the west and Laksefjorden in the east. He was buried in Lakselv churchyard in Porsanger. In 1909 the Norwegian Geographical Society had a memorial stone erected by the grave with the inscription:”Here lies Ravna who followed Nansen over Greenland’s ice cap”. Karasjok council are working in 2011 to raise a memorial to both Ravna and Balto at a central place in the town.


Roland Huntford: Fridtjof Nansen - Mennesket bak myten. Aschehoug 1996

Roland Huntford: Nansen (eng.). Duckworth 1997

Wikipedia: Ole Nilsen Ravna