October 3 – Free Ice!

Today’s factismal: The first successful crossing of the “northwest passage” started in 1903 and took three years.

Ever since sailors found that there was money to be made transporting spices from India to Europe, there have been sailors looking for a shorter path to those riches. Christopher Columbus famously mis-calculated the size of the Earth as part of his search for a shorter route to India, leading him to sail across the Atlantic and wash up on the shore of North America (which he thought was India). James Cook, Henry Hudson, and countless other adventurers sought to find a path through the ice cap that covered the Arctic regions, known as the Northwest Passage. Though they mapped vast swaths of the North American coastline (and lost vast numbers of ships in the ice), it wasn’t until 1903 that a sailor and a ship with the right constitution made it through.

The Gjøa in Oslo harbor (Image courtesy Image courtesy Galleri NOR)

The Gjøa in Oslo harbor
(Image courtesy Image courtesy Galleri NOR)

Roald Admundsen was noted explorer. He had spent decades searching the icy fjords and bays of Scandanavia, learning both what survived there and how to survive there himself. At the turn of the century, he had taken part in the Belgian expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula that provided much of the nomenclature that we use today. Based on his experiences, he decided that there must be a way to traverse the Northwest Passage. Using his inheritance, he bought an old sloop built with an extra thick hull, outfitted her with a crew of six, a paraffin engine, and enough food for a winter. He knew that the trip would take several years, but planned to live off the land. And, after a last minute donation from Norway’s king, he and his crew set off.

On June 16, they sailed from Oslo to Greenland, and then on over to Baffin Bay. By September, they had made it to King William Island, nearly 1/3 of the way across Canada’s northern coast. There they moored the ship to wait out the winter. During the time that they were iced in, Roald made friends with the local Inuit and learned many of the survival tricks (such as using animal skins instead of wool for parkas) that would later keep him alive on his famous trek to the North Pole. They spent two years stuck there, building up a larder of caribou meat and attempting to locate the North Magnetic Pole. In 1905, the ice receded enough for them to motor past Victoria Island’s treacherous straights and reach Herschel Island in the Yukon where they were once again iced in for the winter. While his crew waited with the ship, Roald skied 500 miles to Eagle, Alaska, to report their travels thus far, then turned around and skied back to the ship. When the ice finally released them on July 11, 1906, they sailed to Nome, Alaska, and arrived on August 31. They had made the first successful traverse of the Northwest Passage.

The Gjøa reaches Nome, Alaska, after traversing the Northwest Passage (Image courtesy Image courtesy Frank H. Nowell)

The Gjoa reaches Nome, Alaska, after traversing the Northwest Passage
(Image courtesy Image courtesy Frank H. Nowell)

In addition to the magnetic readings that his crew took, they also kept detailed records of the weather. Today, those records, along with those from other Arctic explorers are a valuable resource to people studying climate and weather patterns. Unfortunately, most of htose records are handwritten, available only as scans – which makes them very hard to enter into a computer. And that’s where citizen scientists come in! By transcribing weather records from old expeditions, you can honor the explorers of old and empower the researchers of today. To take part, head over to the Old Weather website:

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