Roald Amundsen’s bust turning heads in Gjoa Haven
IQALUIT — Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen left Gjoa Haven in 1905 on his way to fame and glory as captain of the first known ship to ply the Northwest Passage.
His 1996 return, in the form of a larger-than-life bronze statue, is still turning heads.
Seventy-eight-year-old Lars Gunnar Aanensen, a consumate world traveller and compatriot of Amundsen, paid a second visit to the Kitikmeot community this week, thrilled to have walked the same ground as his boyhood hero and to see once again the bronze bust that bears tribute to his deeds.
“All Norwegians admire him,” said Aanensen, who attended celebrations three years ago in Gjoa Haven to mark the 91st anniversary of Amundsen’s departure and to witness the unveiling of the memorial.
Amundsen and the crew of his converted fishing vessel, Gjoa, spent two years on King William Island before sailing for Nome, Alaska on the second leg of a journey that began in Oslo in 1903.
The voyage made Amundsen a national hero at a time when Norway was gaining her political independence from Sweden, and his exploits still resonate among Norwegians today.
“Good planning, that’s what he’s famous for, and his daring,” Aanensen explained enthusiastically. Then he proceeded to tell the curious tale of Gjoa Haven’s own claim to fame.
In 1911, Amundsen would mount a highly publicized and successful overland expedition to the South Pole, but his fortunes later turned.
After three years of trying to navigate a way to the North Pole in his ship, Maud — whose wrecked remains are still visible in Cambridge Bay today — Amundsen declared the expedition a failure in 1921.
Alonzo Lewis, a young American sculptor, befriended the bankrupt Amundsen in Seattle, Washington that year and was captivated by the luckless adventurer’s story.
Amundsen apparently agreed to pose for Lewis in the hope that the sculpture might revive interest in — and perhaps financial support for — further exploits. But by then the Norwegian’s popular reputation had waned beyond even his extraordinary talent for self-promotion.
Both the artist and explorer seemed destined for obscurity.
Lewis completed his plaster bust but had trouble interesting reputable buyers, and the likeness of Amundsen gradually vanished into a subterreanean universe of pawnbrokers, curiosity shops and memorabilia collections.
Amundsen himself would reclaim his fame five years later by piloting the airship Norge across the North Pole, from Spitzbergen Island in the Norwegian Arctic to Alaska, before perishing in a plane crash in 1928 at age 56.
In 1975, the long-lost sculpture was recovered. A Norwegian air navigator by the name of Einar Sverre Pederson was holidaying on the Pacific coast and came across the unidentified bust while rummaging in a Seattle antique store.
The face was unmistakably that of Norway’s famous son and Pederson quickly snapped it up.
“It was, in fact, a bargain,” said Aanensen, a friend of Pederson, 80, who is retired and currently living in Anchorage, Alaska.
In 1976, Pederson paid to have two replicas of the Lewis bust cast in bronze at a metal foundry in Oslo, with the idea of commemorating Amundsen’s successful five-day polar flight aboard the Norge airship.
One bust was placed in Ny-Alesund on Spitzbergen, where he began his trip. The other was donated to the Town of Nome, Alaska, close to where he and his Italian pilot Mobile landed in 1926.
In 1988, Pederson raised enough money to have a third bust cast, and this time it was donated to the city of Hobart, Australia to commemorate the 76th anniversary of Amundsen’s voyage to the South Pole, since it was to this Tasmanian port community that he first sailed upon his return in December, 1911.
When the municipality of Tromso, Norway sought to have its own bust made in 1994 to commemorate the town’s bicentennial, the foundry suggested it would be cheaper to cast two replicas at once than to do them separately, and Pederson’s interest was once again piqued.
It would be another two years before the fifth and last bronze Amundsen bust would finally find a home. Pederson had a location in mind.
In 1996, Ron Sheardown, a Canadian pilot and a friend of Pederson agreed to fly the bust from Oslo to a small village in Nunavut, Canada — a site where Inuit had taught Amundsen and his crew some of their most valuable lessons about surviving in the polar environment.
It was, of course, Gjoa Haven.