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Polar explorer/scientist Fred Roots. (Martin Lipman/Students on Ice)
Polar explorer/scientist Fred Roots. (Martin Lipman/Students on Ice)

Fred Roots was modest, brilliant and a legend of polar exploration Add to ...

Modest, brilliant and plainspoken, Fred Roots was a much-honoured explorer with a mountain range named after him in Antarctica (the Roots Range), a scientist whose unstinting, often dangerous field research on polar ice caps inspired climate change policy around the world, an impassioned mentor who inspired bureaucrats, scientists and students right up to the end.

Yet, he was largely unknown outside the scientific community.

“Much of his work in building Canada’s reputation was gritty and thankless,” said his friend, Dr. Henri Rothschild, the president of the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. “Science, geography, geology, exploration are either below the radar screen of popular culture or mythologized in our psyche – heroes, adventurers like Indiana Jones. And Fred would have recoiled at the notion of being called a hero.”

Once, when he gave a lecture on plate tectonics at Princeton University in the late 1940s, Albert Einstein was among his audience of rapt listeners. And during a trip last August with Students on Ice, a program he’d been involved with since it began in the late 1990s, there he was at the age of 93, firmly stepping from a ship into a Zodiac bobbing on choppy seas, hiking through the tundra of Greenland and sharing stories of rock formations, wolves and dandelions with teens from around the world. He relished the chance to pass on his knowledge to a new generation, to impress upon them the importance of the polar regions to the health of the planet and show them that nothing was impossible if you put your mind to it.

“Last August, we had a wonderful student from Nunavut who had cerebral palsy, and Fred extended his hand to escort her up a steppe in Greenland,” said Geoff Green, the founder of Students on Ice, who first met Dr. Roots when he pitched the idea to a federal committee. “They slowly appeared over the ridge holding each other up and we all gave them a standing ovation.

“It was pure Fred,” Mr. Green continued. “He was chiseled from a lifetime of being an explorer, a dog musher, a man consumed with learning about the land and humanity’s relationship to it. In the last year or two, if you tried to help him, he’d refuse. He still had the firmest handshake of anyone you’d ever meet. We thought he’d never stop.”

On Oct. 18, after a beautiful day spent in his garden, Dr. Roots died in his sleep at his home in East Sooke on Vancouver Island. He was 93. It was exactly how he would have wanted to go, said Dr. Rothschild: quiet and efficient.

“Fred hated causing a fuss,” he continued. “He was the only person I knew who understood profoundly what it meant to be a Canadian; that we live in a magnificent piece of geography that includes one of the two poles and we have a duty to understand and take care of it on behalf of the planet.”

His daughter, Jane Roots, noted that throughout his life, her father was wont to say: “It’s not who did it. It’s what got done.”

Ernest Frederick Roots was born in Salmon Arm, B.C., on July 5, 1923, the second of Ernest and Margaret Roots’s three children. The family lived there until young Fred, as he was known, was a toddler, when his father, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was appointed chief engineer of the Banff Springs Hotel.

The family loved living in the Rockies, spending time skiing, hiking and rock climbing. But tragedy struck when the little boy was eight, for his father contracted typhoid and died, leaving his mother to raise the children on her own. Fiercely independent and a woman ahead of her time, she instilled in them the kind of strength that made them practical and fearless. Once they all left home, she got a job with Procter and Gamble, travelling throughout Southeast Asia to promote the benefits of contraception.

In high school, Fred got a job as an assistant meteorological observer for Banff National Park. No matter the season, he would climb to a remote station at the summit of one of the park’s mountains to change the charts and measure the flow of water.

The experience helped form his passion for the land and its history, and was good training for what was to come.

He completed his final years of high school at what was then called Vancouver Technical College. He went on to do both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in science at the University of British Columbia.

From UBC, he moved on to Princeton University, where he completed a PhD in geology; part of his fieldwork was surveying more than 18,000 square kilometres of previously unmapped terrain in northern B.C. for the Geological Survey of Canada. While doing this, he uncovered fossils that helped explain the geologic structure of the mountain ranges in the area; one of the fossils, which dates back about 575 million years, now carries his name, Protophoreta Rootsi.

In 1949, Dr. Roots was asked to be the lead geologist of the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition. It marked the first time that an expedition was organized around an international team of scientists, which was tasked with finding out if climatic fluctuations previously observed in the Arctic were also occurring there.

The men were dropped off and for three years were left to their own devices. They measured and mapped, took photos and samples and wrote constantly in notebooks.

When one of the team members developed an infection after getting a rock chip in his eye, they followed instructions sent via Morse code to remove the eyeball, fashioning tools out of tin cans and anesthetizing the patient with copious amounts of whisky. Then, they all kept going.

“Fred was so matter of fact,” said Mr. Green of Students on Ice. “About the eyeball, he said it was a lot bigger than he thought it would be.”

During the expedition, Dr. Roots set out alone on a six-month dogsled journey – a record that still stands as the longest solo such journey in the world.

To his dying day, he wore a scuffed brown leather belt that had been fashioned from the harness of Rachel, the husky that had been his lead dog on the journey.

After the Antarctic expedition, his long and illustrious curriculum vitae includes participating in the first comprehensive geological study of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian Arctic and leading Operation Stikine, a geological investigation of the northern Cordillera mountains.

In the late 1950s, he proposed and then organized the Polar Continental Shelf Program, serving first as its coordinator and then as director until 1971. Under his watch, it became the major Canadian comprehensive scientific program in the Arctic, connecting and cooperating with other circumpolar countries.

And as science adviser to the environment department in the 1970s and 80s, Dr. Roots used his talent for straight talk steeped in science to help transform it from a little-respected entity that had little influence on big political decisions into the powerhouse it is today as Environment and Climate Change Canada. Few others, if any at all, could have done the same, Dr. Rothschild said.

“Governments are like a human immunology system where you have to go through lots of barriers to change things, and to achieve what he did was remarkable,” he continued. “Fred had the same beautiful articulation whether he was talking to a kid he just met or to a cabinet committee.”

Although he “retired” in 1989, Dr. Roots would remain as special adviser emeritus to the department until 2003.

It was during a research fellowship at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University in England that Dr. Roots met the woman he would marry and with whom he would have five children.

June Blomfield had a master’s in geography and a passion for sailing, had worked during the Second World War as a nurse and had landed at the institute as a librarian. In 1955, they married and moved to Ottawa, where Dr. Roots was employed at what was then called the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys.

He was absent much of the time for his work, including summers, doing what he needed to do to understand the world. June Roots, matter-of-fact and discreet, remained behind to care for the kids.

“My mother was incredible – and incredibly strong,” Jane Roots said. “In the summers, she used to drive us all by herself – five kids – from our home in the Gatineau out to wherever my father was working. We’d camp.”

Along the way, Dr. Roots collected a slew of awards and honours, including the Massey Medal from the Royal Geographical Society of Canada in 1979, the Order of Canada in 1987, Polar Medals from a number of countries and, in a ceremony this past March in New York, the Explorer’s Club medal – the highest honour the organization bestows. Past recipients include the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, the primatologist and activist Dame Jane Goodall, and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

In the video that was played to introduce him at the gala, Dr. Roots was shown speaking to young people on a ship during a Students on Ice expedition.

“We all live on a planet where nature has designed the playing field and nature sets the rules of the game, no matter what we think,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary. Don’t be afraid to take a chance but at times your verve and your nerve must serve in a game where you take your chance.”

When he stepped onto the stage, he was given a standing ovation.

Dr. Roots leaves his wife, June; his daughters, Jane, Frances, Hannah and Robin; five grandchildren; and his younger brother, Walter. His son, geologist Charlie Roots, died last summer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

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