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Lessons from the Arctic


Amundsen (left) and the crew of the Gjøa


When the Norwegian Embassy contacted CNS Council in late May wondering if we might be interested in hosting a talk by Geir Kløver, the Director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, our response was an enthusiastic “Yes!” All of the Norwegians on Council (and there happen to be several of us at the moment) have visited the Fram Museum at some point in our lives. The Fram Museum is Norway’s museum about polar exploration and honours three great Norwegian polar explorers in particular—Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen. “Fram” (which means “forward”) is the name of a ship that was used by all three of these men in their polar explorations and the ship itself is on display at the museum. Generations of Norwegian school children, polar enthusiasts, visitors, and tourists have been to the museum since it was first established in 1936.

Fram Museum Director Geir Kløver was in Canada on official business related to the celebration of Norway’s 75 years of diplomatic relations with Canada. At noon on June 1, the bells in the Peace Tower played “Oppå Fjellet” (“On top of the mountain”) by Edvard Grieg. At the same moment, Ambassador Anne Kari H. Ovind presented the speakers of the House of Commons and Senate with a special edition of Roald Amundsen’s expedition diaries freshly translated into English, noting that it was “a fitting symbol to mark both our 75 years of diplomatic relations and the 150th Anniversary of Confederation.” The diaries are of particular interest to Canadians because they chronicle Amundsen’s expedition of 1903 to 1906 through the Northwest Passage, during which he and his men depended on and formed friendships with the Nettilik Inuit families of the Central Arctic. The lessons learned during those three years were key to Amundsen’s later success in winning the race to the South Pole.


Geir Kløver, Director of the Fram Museum, and CNS President Karin Birnbaum (photo by Rozanne Junker)

Councillor Hanne Sjøborg took the lead in organizing Geir Kløver’s talk and with just a few days notice, found a place that could accommodate us - the Clarkstown Restaurant on Beechwood Avenue; got a notice out to our CNS–announce subscribers and affiliate organizations; and booked 43 people to attend. The talk and lunch took place at noon on Friday, June 2. It was called “Lessons from the Arctic: How Roald Amundsen Won the Race to the South Pole.” And what a story Mr. Kløver had to tell!

Amundsen had wanted to be a polar explorer since his childhood but appeased his mother’s wishes by entering medical school. When she died, he dropped out and dedicated himself to learning everything he could about polar exploration. He started out by studying earlier expeditions such as Franklin’s to learn from their mistakes, and he got his master mariner’s license, thus becoming “Captain Amundsen”. His first polar exploration adventure was as First Mate for the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99. It was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic region, their ship having become frozen in the thick sea ice. Scurvy was a serious problem and Amundsen learned from the ship doctor that diet was key to preventing it. Unlike some of the others, Amundsen was ready and willing to eat everything that came from the sea, including seal and penguin.

Amundsen then decided to take on the challenge of being the first to get through the Northwest Passage. He also wanted to find the current location of the North Magnetic Pole and went to Germany to study with the leading expert on magnetism, learning German in the process. Then he purchased a 70 x 20 ft herring fishing boat called the “Gjøa”, and assembled a crew of only seven men. (Compare this to Franklin’s large ship and crew of 129 men.) Amundsen knew that a small boat would be easier to pass through the shallow Northwest Passage, and that the fewer mouths he had to feed, the better. Amundsen chose his small crew very carefully. He made sure it included men who knew how to live off the land - experienced hunters, trappers, and pilots. Amundsen made meticulous preparations for the voyage, researching maps of the Canadian Arctic and speaking to whalers who were familiar with the conditions of the area. He had a 13-horsepower marine paraffin motor installed on the Gjøa, which had previously been powered only by sail. He mapped out his route in advance, filed it, and stuck to it as he and his crew sailed across the North Atlantic and past Baffin Island. On September 9, 1903, they reached what is now called Gjøa Haven on King William Island. They emptied the ship and set to work building houses out of wooden crates.

Amundsen knew there were Inuit living on King William Island and had brought items to trade - tools, wood, and other items. His first meeting with them was on October 29, 1903, and from that moment, everything changed. Amundsen’s interest and focus switched from studying the North Magnetic Pole to making an ethnographic study of the Inuit. The group he encountered had never seen white men before. Only a few days after their first meeting, Amundsen spent his first night with them in an igloo. Determined to learn their language, he began by using signs and gestures. Over the course of 13 months, he learned it to the point of fluency. This made it possible for him to understand their unique world view including the nuances of their view of life and death. He was also able to find out what they knew about the Franklin expedition and its final tragic end. Among their possessions, the group had some knives from that expedition.

Using the items he had brought along to trade, Amundsen was able to procure a sample of pretty much everything the Inuit had, all of it very worn from daily use. He put together what amounted to an extremely valuable time capsule of their way of life. Amundsen also persevered with his magnetic studies and was successful in pinpointing the location of the Magnetic North Pole. His meticulous observations are still useful to scientists today. Amundsen and his men spent two winters at Gjøa Haven before completing the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage, spending a third winter in the Arctic before finally sailing to Nome, Alaska. Those three years of living in Arctic conditions plus the survival skills he learned directly from the Inuit would be invaluable to him later in planning his expedition to the South Pole. For example, he learned how important dogs were to the Inuit and how they used them. In the vast, unmarked open spaces of the Arctic, sled dogs needed someone to lead them in the right direction. (When Amundsen put together his crew for his South Pole expedition, he recruited the fastest skier in Norway for that job.) He learned that a large number of dogs were needed because they tended to die off of various diseases. And he learned how to ice the runners of the sleds so they would run smoothly over the extremely cold, dry snow.

Amundsen also came to appreciate the properties of the clothing worn by the Inuit. Made of caribou hair, each strand of which is hollow, it was very light yet extremely warm. A layer of inner clothing was worn with the hair next to the skin, and the outer clothing was worn with the hair on the outside. The style was loose, with good circulation. The long “tail” at the back was great for sitting on and the tassels at the bottom kept the wind from blowing up the back.

Amundsen and his men learned to eat what was available locally, in season. And after a great deal of practice and many sorry-looking results, they finally learned how to build igloos, the ultimate proof that they really had learned from the Inuit how to live off the land in Arctic conditions.

After his successful Northwest Passage expedition, Amundsen embarked on a world-wide speaking tour in multiple languages, this being an important part of financing his expeditions. Then he started planning a trip to reach the North Pole. He obtained the use of the Fram ship, raised the necessary funds, and put together an experienced crew of 19 men. When a couple of other explorers claimed to have reached the North Pole already, Amundsen changed his mind about his destination. He and his crew left Oslo on June 3, 1910, and it was only once they had reached Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, that Amundsen informed his men that his true goal was the South Pole. It is a testament to his extraordinary leadership that the entire crew agreed to the drastic change in plan.

The trip to the South Pole was arduous, with many setbacks along the way. Amundsen knew that it was crucial to manage morale among his men and had planned carefully for that too. The ship’s provisions included alcohol and tobacco, which were passed around on all special occasions. There was a record player on board, gifts for Christmas, and even a steam bath so each man had a hot steam bath and a shave once a week.

The diaries and accounts of the South Pole voyage by many of the crew members have now been published and each one naturally provides a slightly different perspective on the expedition, while at the same time revealing something about the personality of the writer. Geir Kløver had a great deal more to tell us about Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, the meticulous and painstaking preparations that ensured its success, Amundsen’s ability and willingness to learn from his mistakes, and his enlightened attitude towards his crew. The best way to find out more would be to visit the Fram Museum in Oslo yourself. But if that’s not possible, there are good books on the subject; for example “The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen” by Stephen R. Bown, and “The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole” by Roland Huntford. The CNS was honoured to receive from Mr. Kløver a copy of the newly published “The Roald Amundsen’s Diaries: the Northwest Passage 1903 to 1905”. Council will make this book available for members to examine at some of our events this Fall.

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