“We passed Liston and Sutton Islands and ran out the Dolphin and Union Strait. My relief over managing the last difficult hole in the Northwest Passage was indescribable,” writes adventurer and polar explorer Roald Amundsen in his notes from 21 August 1905. Dressed in sealskin, Amundsen gazes upon the open sea. Three years in the ice is slowly disappearing behind him. Three legendary years through the passage in the northern island areas of Canada. Three magical, cold, explorative, adventurous – and at times dangerous – years on the expedition vessel Gjøa.
The Arctic Sea is still there. Home of the Inuit. The wildlife, the birds, the rich oceans. The bay where the explorers went ashore and spent their winter. The ice-covered landscape where they caught seals and learned to build igloos. How about a journey of your own?
Curiosity and mystery
The Northwest Passage is the sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It runs via the Arctic Archipelago in northern Canada, and is without a doubt the shortest sea route connecting east and west. It is about 12,000 miles shorter than around Cape Horn and about 7000 miles shorter than the route through the Panama Canal.
The Northwest Passage is polar explorers, adventurers, scientists and cold. It is mystery, hope, curiosity and determination. Life and death. Ships have disappeared, people have disappeared, and for a long time the passage was merely a theory among scientists and navigators. It was an idea of an easier way. But no one was certain. The areas in the north were not well enough mapped out at the time. Today we know that the old navigators were right. Today we know where there is land, islands and ice. Today we know that the Northwest Passage exists.
"Circumnavigating the mainland of North America has, without contest, been the task in polar exploration that humanity has been most preoccupied with,” said Amundsen after the Gjøa expedition.
John Cabot was the first to set sail. The year was 1497, and the expedition marks the start of what would be a series of expeditions. The pursuit of the legendary passage stretches through the Renaissance, The Protestant Reformation, colonisations, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution and onward into the modern era. Amundsen was right: The Arctic area was like a magnet.
Hurtigruten’s voyage through the Northwest Passage is a voyage through historic waters. We will visit many of the same polar points that the adventurers saw. We will see whales, belugas, caribou, seals and polar bears. We will experience the beautiful contrast between the magnificent arctic landscape and the small, colorful Inuit communities. We will let MS Fram drop anchor, and take smaller boats in towards land. Just like the explorers did.
Nansen the great
Roald Amundsen has joined Fridtjof Nansen as being one of the most important adventurers in Norwegian history. He decided early to become a polar explorer, being 17 years old when Nansen and his five comrades returned to Norway after crossing Greenland on ski in 1888-1889. Over 60,000 people, including Amundsen himself, came to greet and celebrate the explorers. People were wild with enthusiasm.
Four years later, Nansen has a new destination. He will be the first person to reach the North Pole, this time on the ship Fram. Young Amundsen is only 20 years old, too young to join him. During the following years, he therefore works hard to become strong enough for his own expedition. He drops out of medical school, takes a job as second mate on the expedition vessel Belgica, and completes his first Antarctic expedition during the years of 1897-1899. All this time, the Northwest Passage is his real destination.
The turning point
There is a dramatic chapter to the story of polar exploration. On 19 May 1845, the two English ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus cast off from London’s harbor. Tens of thousands of people send the sailors off, led by John Franklin. The ships are reinforced with extra lumber and iron plates in the bow. Captain Franklin and his crew will sail for three years, and rumour has it that the ships are so loaded with books and food that even the many shops in London were put to shame. A year passes. Two years. Then three years. Not a word from the ships. In London, they are becoming more and more concerned, and a series of rescue operations are initiated. During the following years, until 1869, as many as 26 ships set sail in hopes of finding them. As a consequence, new areas and islands are discovered in the polar waters. Today, we know what happened to the Franklin expedition. The ship was too large and too heavy, and so they were stuck in the pack ice and sank. The crew of 126 people died of cold, starvation and disease.
Despite an increasing number of rescue operations, the Northwest Passage remains a mystery. “The polar fiasco”, the English newspapers write. People start to doubt whether it is at all possible to sail through the passage.
Amundsen, however, did not pay the headlines any attention. Instead, he read scientific accounts and reports from northern Canada. He had a strong feeling that the Northwest Passage would be his breakthrough, and his way into the history books.
On 25 August 1903, he prepares the expedition ship Gjøa for its voyage. On his crew, he has with him Godfred Hansen, Gustav Wiik, Helmer Hansen, Anton Lund, Peder Ristvedt and Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm. Gjøa is originally a herring boat that has been rebuilt for sealing and for polar expeditions. She is much smaller than Franklin’s heavy, fully loaded ship, and glides elegantly across the sea. Every night, Amundsen writes in his diary. With Helmer Hansen in the crow’s nest, Gjøa is navigated into the Rae Strait, east of King William Island, where the crew will stay for 23 long months. Many think that Amundsen fairly easily could have navigated Gjøa through the passage in one season. But the Gjøa expedition is also of a scientific nature: Amundsen wanted to show that the North Magnetic Pole moved over time, and he did.
The land of the Inuit
During the course of two long winters, Amundsen and his crew become familiar with the local indigenous people, the Inuit. They trade goods with them. The sailors are dressed in sealskin and learn to build igloos. The Inuit acquire knives, sewing needles and other useful tools. The knowledge from the Inuit and the warm sealskin clothes stay with Amundsen through his long life of exploration, and have likely been partly responsible for his great success.
A new land
Meanwhile, great things are happening at home. Norway is being emancipated from Sweden through the dissolution of the union between the two kingdoms. Norway now has its own royal family: King Haakon and Queen Maud. The Norwegian identity is being built, and a national hero like Amundsen is just what the free nation needs.
When the telegram arrived saying that Amundsen had managed what no one else had – to find the way through the Northwest Passage – there was immense celebration in his home country. In his diary, he writes: “The Northwest Passage was resolved. My boyhood dream – in that moment, it had come true… I burst into tears".
Norway is to this day known as a polar nation. A nation of adventurers and curious scientists. When he came home, Amundsen became a national hero and received the medal of the Order of St. Olav.
A new journey
The first era of expeditions is over. Today islands, ice and shallow waters are mapped out. Today we know that the magnetic pole moves over time. And we know what happened to Franklin’s lost expedition.
But now, the modern era of expeditions begins. The sea route is still young and adventurous. The passage is still a rare destination, iced over and inaccessible for most of the year. It wasn’t until 2007 that the European Space Agency could report that the Northwest Passage was ice-free, and this year the first cruise ships of modern explorers sailed from east to west, from Greenland to Canada.
With Hurtigruten and MS Fram we sail in the wake of Roald Amundsen. We pass historical land and ancient icebergs. The Fram Fiord, Baffin Island and Gjoa Haven. Maybe you will hear the echo of the first explorers? Maybe you will see the same sights that Amundsen saw from the crow’s nest of his ship?
Are you tempted to go on this journey?
Text by Ingvild Telle