Roald Amundsen: The Last Viking . . .

In the Globe and Mail of Nov. 17, our hero reviews the new biography of Roald Amundsen, called The Last Viking. Author: Stephen Bown. Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre . . .

By Ken McGooogan

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

McGoogan has written four books on Arctic exploration. Dec. 1, his talk
at the Explorers’ Club in NYC will be Return to Rae Strait.

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