In 1905, when he was preparing to sail out of Gjoa Haven in Canada’s High Arctic, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen buried a few artifacts beneath a cairn. Those artifacts, among them a photo of a scientist who had taught him how to locate the moving North Magnetic Pole, are now held at a museum in Yellowknife. And visitors to the Inuit settlement of Gjoa Haven, so named by Amundsen in honour of his ship, the Gjoa, can see the remains of the observatory sites from which Amundsen took magnetic readings.
The explorer spent two winters based in that harbour on King William Island while becoming the first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage across the top of North America. He belongs crucially to the history of Canada’s Arctic exploration, and yet, as Stephen R. Bown remarks in The Last Viking, most books treat Amundsen almost exclusively in the 1911 context of the “race to the South Pole.”
That so-called race, which found Amundsen becoming the first to reach the Earth’s southernmost point, while British explorer Robert Falcon Scott died trying, makes for an admittedly gripping story. And Bown does it justice here. But he also demonstrates that, as a polar explorer, Amundsen achieved more in the north than he did in the south. He not only led the way through the Northwest Passage, but traversed the Northeast Passage along the Russian coast, and flew an airship over the North Pole.
Bown surmises that Amundsen is not better known in the English-speaking world because much written material was available until recently only in Norwegian. In The Last Viking, he fills in many empty spaces. Who knew, for example, that Amundsen enjoyed lingering love affairs with three married women? He was about to marry one of them, recently divorced, when in 1928, at the age of 55, he flew north to help rescue an Italian explorer, and was never seen again.
Amundsen emerges from these pages as an obsessive, lonely figure: idiosyncratic, principled, misunderstood. Bown admits that he could be arrogant and impatient, but usually turns up mitigating circumstances and makes a good case that the explorer deserved better treatment than he received.
The author shows that Amundsen succeeded in reaching the South Pole because of what he learned in the north. As a boy, he became enthralled with his fellow Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who made the first crossing of the Greenland icecap and then traversed the Arctic by exploiting the drift of the pack ice. From his native Norway, Amundsen also took up skiing, honing his abilities as a youth by undertaking ambitious (and dangerous) cross-country expeditions.
From the Inuit, with whom he shared many adventures while based at Gjoa Haven, Amundsen learned above all how to travel across ice using dogs and dogsleds. This expertise he brought to his South Pole expedition. Comparisons may be odious, but really: Scott could barely ski, brought ponies to the Antarctic instead of dogs (!), and was driven to man-hauling sledges, known to be killing work.
Bown notes that, thanks to some trick of the British psyche, Scott became a romantic figurehead, the embodiment of heroic but doomed struggle, “the man who snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Half a century before, the same magic convinced the world that John Franklin and his men, tragically lost in an impassible region of the Northwest Passage, had somehow “forged the last link with their lives.” Amundsen proved otherwise.
Bown never does explain how the Norwegian learned what route to follow through the labyrinthian passage, though the explorer himself credited John Rae with pointing the way: “He discovered Rae Strait, which separates King William Land from the mainland. In all probability through this strait is the only navigable route for the voyage. … This is the only passage which is free from destructive pack ice.”
Throughout, Bown writes from the lofty, distancing heights of the fair-minded historian, eschewing creative non-fiction. As a result, The Last Viking does not transcend its genre. Yet the work is sharp-eyed, thorough and convincing, and constitutes a significant addition to the Arctic canon.
Ken McGoogan has written four books on Arctic exploration. Dec. 1, his talk at the Explorers’ Club in NYC will be Return to Rae Strait.