The waters of Prince Regent Inlet were as flat as a table—a perfect mirror image of the soft skies of the Arctic sunset—a scene in which it became nearly impossible to discern where earth stopped and the sky began. An almost full moon rose slowly from the south, glowing in stark contrast to all other features on the landscape.
Peaceful summer twilight near Prince Regent Inlet and Somerset Island, deep in the Northwest Passage. Ethereal and otherworldly sea and skyscapes are often found in the Arctic’s high northern latitudes.
(Photo credit: Daven Hafey)
Such settings, in total silence with scenes of indescribable tranquility, often lead to reflections of a different sort. Reflections on a life lived, of both our own and those lives who have come before us. It was in such a setting that I found myself on the outer decks of the Ocean Adventurer, fully present in the feeling of my own life somehow intersecting with the most prolific explorer the polar regions have ever known: Roald Amundsen.
For polar travelers, adventurers, explorers and historians, the name Amundsen is nearly mythological. Trained in medicine, Amundsen abandoned the life of a doctor early in his twenties in pursuit of raw adventure. He set off for Antarctica on his first polar voyage in 1897, at age 25, aboard the RV Belgica. It was the first voyage ever to overwinter in the Antarctic. That’s a unique story in and of itself, but there is no doubt that the men aboard the Belgica, (Amundsen included), engaged with life in ways more intense, demanding, and rewarding than many of us will ever know. They ended up iced-in on a ship entirely surrounded by one of the most powerful wildernesses on earth. The expedition and its members overcame challenges that exhausted them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but Amundsen undoubtedly learned many lessons about perseverance, resourcefulness, and the power of the human spirit throughout the experience.
Fourteen years later, Amundsen returned to Antarctica, leading the first expedition not only to reach the South Pole, but more importantly, to return alive.
On this particular night in Prince Regent Inlet, I couldn’t help but think about a 31-year-old Amundsen who, 113 years prior, was near this very same spot. In 1903, the young Amundsen set sail from Oslo, Norway (then Christiania and in union with Sweden) with a crew of six, on a quest to do what had never been done before: to join the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean via a northern sea route: the “Northwest Passage.” Ever since Marco Polo returned to Europe from Asia—bringing riches and tales of otherworldly peoples, languages, landscapes, and goods—the respective European powers sought a shorter, easier, and more lucrative route to the East. Armies, mercenaries, and merchants developed overland routes across the Silk Road. Sailors pioneered routes from Europe to the East around the southern tips of Africa and South America. But the north eluded all of them. And not without great expense–of financial investments, property, and lives.
The Gjoa, originally used as a fishing vessel off the coast of Norway. Roald Amundsen and his small crew of resourceful men used this vessel to become the first ever to traverse the entire Northwest Passage.
(Photo: The Fram Museum, Norway)
Nearly 400 years passed without finding a navigable route through the Northwest Passage. Names as infamous as Cortes, Drake, Hudson, Cook, Vancouver, Ross, and Franklin all sought the passage without success. Monarchs and financiers poured vast sums of money into the effort, and hundreds of men lost their lives. But after the disastrous Sir John Franklin expedition of the 1840’s and subsequent search and rescue expeditions for him, his ships Erebus and Terror, and his 128 men, the highly sought-after passage was, for the most part, put to rest.
More than fifty years later, Amundsen revitalized the goal of connecting the two major oceans via a Northwest Passage. In stark contrast to the sizeable missions before them, the team of seven set off in a 21-meter-long vessel named the Gjoa, which until that time had simply been used as a herring fishing boat off the coasts of Norway. The small vessel and smaller crew sailed across the North Atlantic and Baffin Bay, and made it deep into Canada’s Arctic Archipelago of islands, where they found a snug and protected natural harbor for the purpose of overwintering. They were in a foreign world, a world without a familiar language, familiar cultural customs, or familiar foods. A long and unspeakably frigid winter night, with nothing for hundreds of miles in any direction but the raw, unforgiving wilderness.
Trained in medicine, Roald Amundsen (bottom left) preferred a life of adventure and exploration. His crew of hand-selected men helped him and his ship, the Gjoa, connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Arctic. (Photo: Encyclopedia Brittanica)
Numerous expeditions had been in similar situations, overwintering in Canada’s Arctic. Many of those previous expeditions spent their winters aboard their iced-in ships, eating tinned meats and vegetables, staving off lead poisoning, scurvy, and insanity, doing all they could to hold on until the return of the summer sailing season. Yet Amundsen had a different idea. Rather than simply try to “hold on” all winter, he sought out the local experts—the Inuit—who called the region home. This was indeed their home—a place where they thrived, where they knew intimate details of the landscape and sea ice, of animals and hunting strategies, of appropriate winter clothing and dog sledge construction, of not just survival but also of art, storytelling and merriment. Amundsen learned all he could from these people with generations’ of accumulated local knowledge. In fact, he learned so much in his first winter with the Inuit, that he made the decision to overwinter a second time and continue his Arctic education while living among experts.
By 1903, most Inuit in the Central Canadian Arctic had yet to encounter people from the Western world. Amundsen quickly realized the specialized knowledge these families had accumulated over generations, and spent two winters with them near the modern day village of Gjoa Haven, learning all he could about surviving and thriving in extreme polar conditions.
(Photo: Amundsen Expedition 1903 – 1905, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
Amundsen and his crew aboard the Gjoa finally pulled anchor in 1905 and sailed westward, ultimately navigating the uncharted waters of Simpson Strait, Coronation Gulf, and Dolphin and Union Strait. They made it to Herschel Island (in the Yukon Territory) that year, and ultimately all the way to Nome, Alaska in the Bering Sea by 1906. They became the first expedition to ever traverse the Northwest Passage by sea.
I couldn’t help but think of my age (the same age as Amundsen was during his amazing journey across the top of the world), and where on earth I happened to be in that moment: right smack in the middle of the Northwest Passage and in conditions as peaceful as are earthly possible, with a silence so pure you could practically hear it. The nearest community of Gjoa Haven was more than a hundred miles away, with nothing in between but total wilderness. Caribou, musk ox, polar bear, belugas, and migratory birds of all shapes and sizes lived in this area. I was seeing these lands with fresh eyes.
Hearing and smelling and feeling the world around me in a way so pure it’s hard to put into words. I felt alive.
More than 100 years ago, a young Roald Amundsen likely felt alive as well. Every day of his expedition was a bona fide adventure—at the end of their journey, they accomplished what no one before them had done.
It's in these moments that history becomes more than just accounts found in books. History becomes a sense of connection to those who carved the path before you. A recognition that they were humans, just like us, who pushed their own limits and comfort levels to achieve extraordinary things. It’s in these moments, under an August Arctic sunset, that you realize you are seeing the same landscapes, hearing the same silences, smelling the same ocean smells, and perhaps even feeling the same feelings that were likely experienced by those early explorers.
Sea ice conditions aren’t as extreme today as they were when the Gjoa sailed these waters. However, the Canadian Coast Guard still deploys icebreakers, like the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent (seen here near the Boothia Peninsula) to the region every year. (Photo credit: Daven Hafey)
Traveling through the Northwest Passage isn’t only an opportunity to visit another world filled with wild landscapes and wildlife. It’s also an opportunity to travel back in time, and to connect with a timeless resonance that lives within us all.
For further reading on Roald Amundsen and the Northwest Passage, consider “The Last Viking” by Stephen R. Bown.
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