Norway brings Roald Amundsen photo exhibit to Gjoa Haven
Community honours Norwegian explorer’s two-year visit
People in Gjoa Haven celebrated the achievements of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen this past weekend with drum-dancing and a feast honoring the two years Amundsen spent near this Nunavut community more than 100 years ago during his successful attempt to make the first crossing of the Northwest Passage.
While the anniversary of Amundsen’s Northwest Passage transit was celebrated in Gjoa Haven five years ago, the community is now welcoming the arrival of a photographic exhibit on Amundsen, a gift from the Fram Museum in Oslo and the Norwegian government.
Those watching the flags of Norway, Canada, Gjoa Haven and Nunavut during a flag-raising at a commemorative cairn Aug. 23 included visitors from Norway: the director of the Fram Museum, Geir Klover, and Norway’s deputy ambassador to Canada, Jo Sletbak.
The two came to Gjoa Haven to personally deliver the exhibit on Amundsen called “Cold Recall.”
This exhibit contains 48 separate panels showing Amundsen’s photos and texts of his voyage through the Northwest Passage, which were shown at the Fram Museum and other museums, and will eventually be set up in Gjoa Haven’s new community centre.
While in Gjoa Haven, Klover and Sletbak also visited schools to talk about the historic link between Amundsen and Gjoa Haven.
Amundsen’s time is just small portion of their history— “but it is their history,” Klover told Nunatsiaq News in an Aug. 23 interview.
But he could explain, for example, why his ship was called the Gjoa— pronounced “U-ro” in Norwegian.
In 1903 Amundsen’s sloop, the Gjoa— named after the wife of the shipbuilder—wintered in the natural harbour of Uqsuqtuuq on King William Island, in a place his men ended up calling Gjoa Harbour.
Weighing 47 tonnes, the Gjoa boasted a 13-horsepower engine, enough food and supplies for five years, and carried a crew of seven, including Amundsen, who were all experienced Arctic sailors.
During the nearly two years they stayed in Gjoa Haven, they built snow-banked observatories equipped with high-precision instruments.
Their studies, which established the position of the magnetic North Pole, at that time about 120 kilometres from Gjoa Haven, were of such precision that experts on polar magnetism based research on them for years afterwards.
Amundsen also learned from Inuit he met how to drive dog teams. He observed their clothing and food and used this knowledge later when he was in other polar regions.
In August, 1905, the Gjoa finally resumed its course through fog and drift ice. After three weeks they spotted a whaling ship that had set out from California: the Gjoa had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage.
The Gjoa reached Nome, Alaska, on Aug. 31, 1906.
Amundsen had also 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 he was the first man to reach the South Pole.
In June 1918, Amundsen returned to the Arctic in his ship the Maud. The wreck of the Maud— which later sailed by the Hudson Bay Co.— lies outside the community of Cambridge Bay where it sank in 1930.
Amundsen was the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926 in the airship Norge. Two years later his aircraft disappeared after taking off from Tromsø in northern Norway.
Today Amundsen remains a big hero in Norway.
“He’s also the most accomplished explorer from any region. He was the first through the Northwest Passage, the first to the South Pole, the first to cross the Arctic by airship. He had incredible success, because he respected the people he met here,” Klover said from his hotel room in Gjoa Haven, fittingly called The Amundsen.
Amundsen always kept photos from Gjoa Haven in his house, Klover added.
He and Sletbak are leaving behind a collection of Amundsen’s photos on CDs and memory sticks, as well as DVDs and books on his life and expeditions.
There were many photos that people on Gjoa Haven hadn’t seen previously and yet “they knew who was who,” Klover said.
“I showed them photos which show how important his two years in Gjoa Haven were to his future career, everything he learned here about dog-sledding and clothing, to prepare runners for the snow, to deal with the cold. He learned everything and used it in his effort to reach the South Pole a few years later,” Klover said.
Unlike earlier explorers like Sir John Franklin, whose attempt to travel the Northwest Passage ended in disaster, Amundsen sailed in a small ship with only a few experienced crew and carried hunting and fishing equipment.
While in Gjoa Haven, Klover also planned to show photos to elders to discuss the kinds of clothing and equipment that Amundsen learned to use from Inuit.
Within a few months, thanks to the results of DNA testing in Gjoa Haven and Norway, people will also be able to know whether Amundsen left descendants in Gjoa Haven.
But there were six other men on the ship, Klover points out.
“It’s always the head of the expedition who’s rumoured [to have left descendants],” he said. “Never the cook or the first mate.”
Klover plans to head to Cambridge Bay at the end of this week to see the Maud.
The connection between his Fram Museum and Gjoa Haven will continue with a visit to Oslo next September by a youth group as part of the 100th celebration of Amundsen’s trip to the South Pole.
There are also plans to repatriate some of the artifacts Amundsen collected from the Nattilik.
Sletbak from the Norwegian embassy in Ottawa said the link between Amundsen and Gjoa Haven underlines the close relationship between “two Arctic countries” which share common interests and history.
“We learn about Amundsen and his trip to Gjoa Haven— all of that is important to us,” Sletbak said. “We’ve been received tremendously up here, and it’s been a lot of fun.”