Reliving Amundsen’s historic quest

Gjoa Haven to mark 100th anniversary of explorer’s crossing of the Northwest Passage


Residents of Gjoa Haven will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first crossing of the Northwest Passage by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen next week.

The festivities were to start with the arrival from Norway of the modern-day vessel Solinova.

On Sept. 6, two kayaks planned to bob over the choppy water – as they may have done 100 years ago – to greet the Norwegian boat as it neared the community.

But, as of Nunatsiaq News press-time this week, it appeared that bad ice conditions would keep the boat away from Gjoa Haven.

A cairn in honour of Amundsen that overlooks the harbour will nevertheless be unveiled in the presence of Norway’s ambassador to Canada, Ingvard Havnen.

The plaque, dedicated to Amundsen’s memory and the centennial celebrations, details his experiences and contributions to Arctic exploration.

Then, the Amauligak dancers and the King Island Band will perform, along with local throatsingers and drum dancers – and the community will have a grand feast and square dance at the school gym, all in honor of the polar explorer who gave their community its name.

The Amundsen Hotel in Gjoa Haven is also named in memory of this intrepid explorer.

In 1903, Amundsen’s sloop, the Gjøa, wintered in a natural harbour on King William Island, in a place his men ended up calling “Gjøahavn” or Gjoa Harbour. For two years the expedition members remained there, building observatories equipped with high-precision instruments.

Their studies established the position of the magnetic North Pole, and included observations of such precision that polar experts based research on them for years afterward. At that time, the magnetic North Pole was about 120 km from Gjoa Haven.

Amundsen also learned how to drive dog teams from Inuit he met. He observed their clothes, the food they ate, and used this knowledge later when he was in polar regions.

“He followed the traditional Inuit lifestyle,” said Anthony Anguttitauraq, who has organized the Amundsen celebrations in Gjoa Haven.

“He learned how to travel by dog team and make an igloo. That’s why he became a successful explorer because he adjusted to what the people did – unlike Franklin [the English explorer whose expedition perished trying to navigate the Northwest Passage].”

In August 1905, the Gjøa resumed its course through fog and drift ice. After three weeks the crew spotted a whaling ship that had set out from California. The Gjøa had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage.

When the boat became locked in ice again, Amundsen would travel by dog team to Alaska where he finally sent out word of his achievement.

Amundsen had hoped to be the first to reach the North Pole, but when he learned Robert Peary got there in 1909, he headed south, and in 1911 became the first man to reach the South Pole.

In June 1918, Amundsen returned to the Arctic in his ship the Maud, which froze in coastal ice for two years, and then froze again off Siberia.

Amundsen would be the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926 in the airship Norge. And two years later, the aircraft disappeared after taking off from Tromsø in northern Norway.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s journey, a group of adventurous Norwegians started a project called “In the footsteps of Roald Amundsen.” Their goal was to complete the same trip as the explorer and his crew made 100 years earlier on board their 44-foot boat.

The members are also collecting data and samples to update knowledge on the impact of human activity in the region.

Like Amundsen’s Gjøa, the Solinova planned to winter over in the community’s harbour.

But as the boat neared Resolute Bay last week, it was forced to turn around and return to Pond Inlet – falling short of the achievement that Amundsen was able to make 100 years ago.

The skipper, Knut Solberg, was bitterly disappointed.

“The Coast Guard thinks it’s too risky, even if they send in an ice breaker,” Soberg said in a telephone interview from Pond Inlet.

“It’s always so frustrating to turn back, like in Resolute, even when we knew it could happen. Everything else has gone as planned. But even Roald Amundsen experienced better conditions than we did. There’s nothing you can do.”

Next summer they plan to sail from Greenland to Gjoa Haven, then through the Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait, and return to Norway via the Panama Canal by the summer of 2005.

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