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Gjøa, 1903
Gjøa, 1903
As of 1900, the only pole on earth that had been reached was the north magnetic pole, by James Clark Ross in 1831. Whether or not this pole was still in the same place was the subject of much debate both in scientific circles and on the Belgica. Amundsen decided that a resolution of this question would give his dream of sailing the North West Passage some credibility. The first step on such an enterprise was to get Nansen's blessing, for by now Nansen was the de-facto world expert on Polar matters. Nansen was also a Ph.D. in zoology and would therefore be more sympathetic towards expeditions with scientific merit. He approved, and at that moment Amundsen felt that the first expedition of his own had begun. Because he knew he could not locate a magnetic pole with a hand held compass, Amundsen spent about 2 months in Germany learning about specialized instruments from the world's leading authority on terrestrial magnetism. Then he went to northern Norway and bought a small, 47 ton fishing boat called Gjøa (pronounced y-eu-a, but not quite!). He went on a training cruise with the previous owner who was an extremely experienced arctic seaman. Amundsen was always learning, and it saved his life many times.

Adolf Lindstrom, 1903
Adolf Lindstrom, 1903
Food, sledges, tents, fur clothes, and crew members were selected with characteristic rigor. Amundsen could not, and would not follow the British Navy model of exploration with crews sometimes numbering in excess of 100. There are simply not enough resources in the arctic regions to support large groups of people in the instance of a shipwreck, and to Amundsen there was no better example of that than the fated Franklin expedition. Instead, he followed the ideas first espoused by Dr. John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company of Canada. In the early 1800's, with only 1 or 2 companions, Rae carried out some of the most fantastic Arctic trips of all time, charting 1100 miles of Canadian Arctic coast line, living off the land with the Inuit (called Eskimo at the time), wearing native clothing, and even wintering in an Igloo. These were the methods later refined by Leopold McClintock, Nansen, Peary, Cook, Sverdrup and Amundsen. Otto Sverdrup had just returned from the second expedition of the Fram, having charted 300,000 square Km of the Canadian high arctic. Sverdrup described all he could about dog driving, and gave Amundsen a team of dogs. To top it all off Amundsen acquired the services of Sverdrup's cook and handyman, Adolf Lindstrøm. Amundsen had no doubts that the most important person on an arctic expedition was the cook. Good food was not only important for morale, but also to fend off scurvy. In particular, fresh meat (like seal) had to be undercooked and still taste good. Lindstrøm was the master.

Ristvedt, G. Hansen, Lindstrøm, Amundsen, Lund, H. Hansen and Wiik onboard Gjøa. Oslo 1903.
Ristvedt, G. Hansen, Lindstrøm, Amundsen, Lund,
H. Hanssen and Wiik on board Gjøa. Oslo 1903.
The crew totalled only severn men. In addition to himself and Lindstrøm, there was:

Amundsen now had his Masters certificate and would be ships captain as well as expedition leader. There was no doctor or scientist. Previous expeditions, most notably many American ones, often suffered from divided leadership where the doctor or the chief scientist would decide they were more capable than the official leader and become mutinous. Amundsen had no time for such nonsense, and from the beginning took control of all aspects of the expedition. At this point Amundsen had amassed significant debt from re-fitting and stowing the Gjøa. Creditors were getting nervous, and the possibility of Gjøa being impounded became real. With help from Nansen and the Amundsen family, enough funds were raised to stave off the most aggressive creditors. On a rainy June 16, 1903 Gjøa cast off at Midnight with no fanfare. There would be time for that when the deed was done. Amundsen was now in his element, away from society and business dealings, leading a small group of professionals into the unknown. He served glasses of rum all around.

Franklin, Bellot and Belcher memorial on Beechey Island, August 1903.
Franklin, Bellot and Belcher
memorial on Beechey Island,
August 1903.
Amundsen's route through
the North West Passage
After a few stops, Godhavn (Greenland) for dogs and other Eskimo equipment, Dalrymple Rock to pick up a prearranged stash of supplies, and Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound where there stands a memorial to Franklin, Gjøa disappeared into the mists of the Canadian arctic. Beechey Island was sacred ground for Amundsen. The route beyond was not obvious, there were numerous possibilities, Amundsen and Wiik set up a declination needle (specialized device for measuring the earth's magnetic field near one of its poles) on Beechey Island and let the needle choose the expedition's direction. The needle chose South West, through Peel Sound which was largely uncharted. After an onboard fire and some altercations with rocks which twice grounded Gjøa, forcing supplies to be tossed overboard, they reached the south coast of King William Island and found a protected bay in which to winter.
Gjøahavn, Sept. 14 1903.
Gjøahaven, Sept. 14 1903.
The bay was called Gjøahaven, which means haven for Gjøa, and the name stands today. It is often stated that Amundsen was forced to winter there and was frozen in for 2 years, but this was not the case. When Gjøa entered Gjøahaven, the waters of Simpson Strait were clear, and the Northwest Passage was just waiting to be conquered, but Amundsen had a responsibility to locate the magnetic pole, and carry out his scientific measurements. The Passage would have to wait.

The men now set about stockpiling fresh Caribou meat to fend off scurvy over the winter, and building a magnetic observatory using packing cases specially designed with copper instead of iron nails. Amundsen, a lover of all animals, preferred not to hunt and made himself useful by transporting the carcasses to the ship. This was his first taste of dog driving. He found it frustrating to say the least. On October 29th the first group of Inuit descended upon Gjøahaven. These were Netsiliks, the most isolated of Canadian Eskimos. In the previous century their ancestors had encountered British explorers, but this group had never seen a white man before. Amundsen immediately made friends with them. They taught the Norwegians how to make sledge runners slide at very low temperatures, how to make igloos, the art of warmly dressing in loose furs, how to pace yourself and not sweat, and most of all how to drive dogs. Although not a professional ethnographer, Amundsen was fascinated with these people and their incredibly deep cold survival skills. His records and collection of artifacts are today recognized as a major contribution to polar ethnography.
Netsiliks on the move, 1903.
Netsiliks on the move, 1903.

The winter was spent preparing for the trip to the magnetic pole in the spring and practicing polar travel. Helmer Hanssen turned out to ne a natural at dog driving. A huge collection of parlor games were stowed on board to alleviate boredom over the arctic winter, but they were used only by the Netsilik! The crew spontaneously found their own work projects. On March 1st, 1904, Amundsen, Godfred Hansen, Ristvedt and Helmer Hanssen began sledging towards the magnetic pole, about 90 miles away, but temperatures were still too low: the dogs could not pull and man- hauling was attempted, but abandoned. In three days they made 6 miles of progress and then came back to ship. It was one of many "too early" false starts in polar history. Nansen had done the same on the drift of the Fram. This was one of the extremely rare instances of a mistake that Amundsen would repeat. At this point Amundsen also realized that the plan of travel must be centered around the dogs so that man hauling was avoided. He had enough dogs to pull supplies and equipment for two people, no more.
Magnetic observation hut made form packing cases.  From a cracked glass slide.
Magnetic observation hut made form packing cases.
From a cracked glass slide.
All future outings were therefore limited to two people. Two weeks later when the weather warmed, Amundsen and Helmer Hanssen set out again on a depot trip, encountering more Netsilik in the James Ross Strait. After spending some days with the Netsilik, and watching them drive their dogs, they returned Gjøa. For the third time he left, this time for the pole, with Ristvedt who was trained on the magnetic instruments. On the way they had great difficulty getting the dogs to pull properly, until Amundsen realized that the dogs needed someone out front to run towards. Dogs do not like advancing into a completely white landscape. Amundsen went ahead on skis, and with the dogs nipping at his heels they made speedy progress. On April 26 they reached Cape Adelaide on Boothia Felix peninsula, the position of the magnetic pole as reported by Ross in 1831. The instruments indicated it was now somewhere to the north. This was one of the landmark discoveries in terrestrial magnetism. This was proof that the core of our planet was not solid. However at the time Amundsen was more concerned with the condition of the dogs and the weather. Amundsen had little capacity for, as we would say today, marketing his achievements.

Tent pitched near the Magnetic North Pole, 1904.
Tent pitched near
the Magnetic North Pole, 1904.
The next three weeks were spent attempting to hunt down the exact location of the magnetic pole. On the way to Victoria Harbor, where Ross had wintered, and from where they expected to box in the pole, they found one of their depots plundered. Having only just enough food to get home, they gave up going to Victoria Harbor, and returned to Gjøa. The trip was 7 weeks in all. By all standards Amundsen was now a master in traditional polar travel. And just in time too, as mechanical aids such as areoplanes, tractors, etc. were being developed somewhere much further south, and would soon be ready to take over. Gjøa spent one more winter at Gjøahaven ostensibly to take more magnetic measurements, but Amundsen really wanted to practice skiing and sledging, and spend more time with the endearing Netsiliks.
Blowup showing Amundsen's
sledging route to locate
the north magnetic pole.
(Click to enlarge)
For Amundsen the relationship was completely platonic, and he gave strict orders that the crew should not partake in any Eskimo comforts, for fear of contracting venereal disease. Most of the men (but not all) obeyed. The next spring Amundsen relinquished his privilege to participate in all expeditions, and allowed Godfred Hansen to lead a trip to explore the last uncharted coast on Victoria Island. This was very generous, as Amundsen really wanted to use the dogs for another crack at the magnetic pole.

In mid August 1905 they pulled up the anchor and sailed out of Gjøahaven, and passed the southernmost tip of King William Island, where two of Franklin's men were buried. The flag was at half mast. They were traveling in virgin waters, and the petrol motor was used for improved maneuverability. Four days later they reached a point that Collinson, coming from the west, had charted fifty years before. On August 26 they encountered a ship bearing down on them from the west, and with that they were through the passage, It was a masterpiece of seamanship and planning, a larger ship would not have survived. From Amundsen's diary

The North West Passage was done. My boyhood dream - at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn - it was weakness in me - but I felt tears in my eyes. 'Vessel in sight' ... Vessel in sight.


Captain McKenna, of the whaler Charles Hansson out of San Francisco, congratulated Amundsen on his brilliant success.

Amundsen relaxing in Eagle City, January 1905.
Amundsen relaxing in
Eagle City, January 1905.

The next step was to get the news to the Times of London which was willing to pay good money for the exclusive story. But Gjøa was then stopped by ice and beset for another winter off Herschel Island near the Yukon/Arctic coast. The nearest telegraph office was in Fort Egbert outside Eagle City, Alaska which was a 500 mile sledge trip away over the Brooks range of coastal mountains. From Eagle City, Amundsen sent a long telegram to Nansen costing over $700, but he had to send it collect, as the conquerer of the North West Passage had no money. As a result, a Major Glassford of the US signal corps decided it was his right to divulge the contents of the telegram to the local press in in Seattle. The scoop was lost, and the Times refused to pay the much needed fee for the story. Nansen also refused to pay the telegraph fee on account of Glassford's violation of trust. This was Amundsen's welcome back to the real world. This mistake, as we shall see, was not repeated.

While in Eagle City, Amundsen boarded with the Frank Smith family, who lived in the Northern Commercial CO. mess house. He gave speeches for the residents and waited for mail from home, before returning to Gjøa. The main street in Eagle City is now named Amundsen Avenue. On March 12 1906 he arrived back at Hearshel Island, having traveled over 1000 miles by ski and dog sled. He brought news to the men of Norway's new found independence and adoptive King. At this point Wiik was seriously ill, apparently with pleurisy (or appendicitis), and died a few days later. In August they rounded Point Barrow at the top of the American continent, and stopped at Nome Alaska, then reaching San Francisco in October. Smith again helped Amundsen by finding a storage place for Gjøa in San Francisco, where it remained for many years. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, wrote of visiting the Gjøa at Golden Gate Park during the 1914 world's fair. Frank Smith was awarded an honorary Knighthood of St. Olav, by King Haakon of Norway, for his assistance to Amundsen. It took until 1972 to get the Gjøa back to Norway, where she now rests under a tarp outside the Fram Museum on the Bygdenes Peninsula in Oslo. Amundsen donated his collection of Netsilik artifacts to the ethnographic museum in Oslo, where today they can be viewed by the public. The magnetic measurments collected by the expedition were so extensive that it took terrestrial magnetism experts until 1929, a year after Amundsen's death, to finish analyzing the results.

Amundsen and crew in Nome Alaska, 1906.
Amundsen and crew in Nome Alaska, 1906. I leave as an excercise to reader
to pick out Amundsen, Linstrøm and Helmer Hanssen.

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Copyright © 2000 Jan N. Reimers; about framheim; about the author