On September 9, 1903, Amundsen sailed into Simpson Strait, south of King William Island in Canada’s central Arctic. The strait was free of ice to the west, and while he could have continued through the Northwest Passage in only one season, he was looking for a good wintering place, having decided to stay for two years to take continuous readings of the North Magnetic Pole. He found a small harbour, which he named Gjøahavn (meaning “Gjøa Harbour” and today called Gjoa Haven), at the right distance from the magnetic pole for a fixed magnetic station.
Near the end of October 1903, a small band of Inuit appeared at Gjøahavn. Soon an Inuit village grew nearby. These were Netsiliks, the most isolated of the Canadian Inuit. Their ancestors had encountered British explorers in the previous century, but this group had never seen a white man before. Amundsen immediately made friends with them and an amicable relationship developed. The Norwegians learned their language and were able to communicate fully with the Inuit. The friendliness and generosity of the Inuit was repaid by the white men’s goodwill and respect. The Inuit taught the Norwegians how to make igloos, to make their sledge runners slide at very low temperatures, the art of dressing warmly in loose furs and how to drive dogs.
In turn, the Norwegians provided the Inuit with knives, needles and matches, other tools of wood and metal and, when needed, food. They hunted together and a number of Inuit assisted in the Norwegians’ daily chores. They went on frequent visits to each other’s camps and studied each other’s cultures. Amundsen was fascinated by these people and their survival skills. He spent a lot of time studying all aspects of their culture and gathered a large collection of artifacts, including clothing, hunting tools, utensils, kayaks and sledges. His diary gives great insights into the lives of the Netsilik Inuit in the early 1900s. The Amundsen collection is today recognised as a major contribution to polar ethnography and was presented to the Cultural History Museum in Oslo.