Last June, the Norwegian Embassy announced the first-ever English edition of polar explorer Roald Amundsen’s 1903-06 Northwest Passage diaries — translated over several years by the Fram Museum of Oslo, Norway, and presented to Canada as a special gift for its 150th anniversary.
Canadian Geographic asked Geir O. Kløver, the world’s foremost Amundsen expert, director of the Fram Museum and a Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to share a bit about the explorer: the scientific advances he made in Canada’s Arctic, his respectful reliance on the Inuit and, of course, his successful first transit of the Northwest Passage, completed in 1905. Read on for more about this pivotal moment in Canada’s and Norway’s shared polar history, and be sure to visit 50 Sussex this summer to explore Lessons From the Arctic, a new exhibit about Amundsen’s accomplishments.
By Geir O. Kløver
Ever since boyhood, Roald Amundsen had been fascinated by John Franklin’s expedition and tragic fate. The idea of making the first transit by ship through the Northwest Passage began early on to form in his mind. Although Amundsen’s family were traditionally ship owners and sea captains, his mother had wanted him to do something completely different — study medicine. Amundsen complied, but when his mother died, he left his studies and dedicated the rest of his life to exploring the polar regions.
After gaining valuable experience in the Arctic and Antarctic, Amundsen went to Tromsø in 1901 to purchase Gjøa [a 21-metre sloop built in 1872]. For the next two years, he prepared for his expedition to the Northwest Passage. He spent five months in the Arctic with Gjøa’s old crew, learning everything about the ship and navigation in Arctic waters, while catching seal to generate income for the expedition. In addition, Gjøa was restored, strengthened and equipped.
As there were limited game resources in the Arctic to sustain a large crew in the event of a shipwreck, Amundsen hired only six men to accompany him. He wanted a small and tight-knit crew on board Gjøa, who would all have plenty to do during the expedition and who could, to some extent, live off the land and handle the challenges of Arctic life.