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CHAPTER XXXII.

AMUNDSEN'S DISCOVERY OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.

A modest Norseman, Roald Amundsen by name, performed in 1905 one of the few remaining great feats of Arctic exploration by sailing a ship for the first time in history through the northwest passage and charting new land in the region where the gallant Franklin and his companions lost their lives. Others had crossed on sledges the archipelago that lies to the north of the American continent, and so bridged the gulf between the two oceans; but Amundsen was the first to sail a boat from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Amundsen was one of those Norwegians who, as soon as their boyhood mentality begins to dawn, feel their blood stirred by the call of the sea. He was a student of the Franklin tragedy, and his latter-day hero was Fridtjof Nansen. He tells of his enthusiasm when he saw Nansen returning triumphant from his march across Greenland. And it was Nansen who was largely instrumental in enabling Amundsen to venture on the trip that was to succeed where Franklin, Parry, Sir John Ross and others had failed. Amundsen also received the material and moral aid of the king of Norway. By this powerful backing he was able to get a ship, and he gathered around him six sturdy Norwegians, like himself. The small but compact and sympathetic band of explorers started June 16, 1903, from Christiania in the motor-yacht Gjoa, a tiny vessel of 47 tons. It seemed almost a toy ship, when it came to ocean travel and Arctic storms, but its very smallness no doubt had much to do with its success in riding over shoals and escaping ice complications.

A quick trip was made from Norway around the lower coast of Greenland and through Davis Strait to Godhavn. This point was reached July 5, 1903, and stores of all kinds were taken in. Then the Gjoa pushed northward in Baffin Bay, making for Cape York, which was the northernmost point to be reached in that part of the expedition. Cape York was sighted August 14, but not till after dangerous ice had been encountered in Melville Bay, often a perilous spot for explorers.

Telling of this ice, Amundsen says:

"To the east the whole interior of Melville Bay lay before us. Right inside, in the farthest background, we could see several mountain tops. An impenetrable mass of ice filled the bay; mighty icebergs rose here and there from out of the mass of ice. When we at last looked back, we saw the fog out of which we suddenly slipped, lying thick like a wall behind us. Such a sight is one of those wonders only to be seen in the never-to-be-forgotten seas of ice."

Melville Bay was not to be a sticking-point for this lucky party, however, and Cape York was made with ease. There Amundsen met members of the so-called Danish Literary Expedition to Greenland, led by Mylius Ericksen, and including Knad Rasmussen, one of the strongest supporters of Dr. Frederick A. Cook. Felicitations and advice were exchanged, and the Amundsen party proceeded through Lancaster Sound to Beechey Island, which was the point where Sir John Franklin had his last comfortable winter quarters. Amundsen, always an admirer of Franklin, gives vent, in his account of the trip, to his feelings on their putting in at the spot where the sturdy Britisher quartered himself while still in health and hope. It was there that the scurvy, which was to scourge the crews of the Erebus and Terror most fearfully, first made its appearance.

After a short stay the Gjoa was turned south in Franklin Strait and plunged into a region of mysteries and possible perils. As the point of the magnetic pole was approached, the compass began to show signs of being in a strange country. It vacillated furiously, and before the eyes of the anxious mariners veered gradually until it pointed southwest. The magnetic pole was at hand.

What lay before the party, with the ice accumulations always a danger, and with a "nervous" compass, they could not foretell. But they sailed the Gjoa on along Somerset Island. Between that island and Prince of Wales Land Amundsen encountered what he feared was the long-dreaded ice-barrier. They saw what they took, he says, in the mirror-like glitter of the calm sea, to be a compact mass of ice extending from shore to shore. "It seemed evident to me that we had now reached the point whence our predecessors had been compelled to return the border of solid unbroken ice. Happily we were mistaken, as, in fact, we were several times afterward under similar circumstances. With the sunlight on the glassy surface of the sea, with pieces of ice scattered over, these may easily present the appearance of one solid, continuous mass. This optical illusion is also enhanced by the *ice blink' constantly occurring in the Arctic sea. This ice blink magnifies and exaggerates a small block of ice to such an extent that it looks like an iceberg; especially when looking at it through a telescope at short range you may easily imagine you are facing a huge ice-pack. But on the Arctic sea you can never rely on what you fancy you 'see,' however distinct it may appear."


And now the compass failed them altogether. Off Prescott Island in Franklin Strait, Amundsen says, "the needle of the compass, which had been gradually losing its capacity for self-adjustment, now absolutely declined to act. We were thus reduced to steering by the stars, like our forefathers the vikings. This mode of navigation is of doubtful security even in ordinary waters, but it is worse here, where the sky, for two-thirds of the time, is veiled in impenetrable fog. However, we were lucky enough to start in clear weather."

Next day all Amundsen's fears for the time being were dissipating in a manner he describes graphically as follows:

"I was walking up and down the deck in the afternoon, enjoying the sunshine whenever it broke through the fog. * * * As I walked I felt something like an irregular lurching motion, and I stopped in surprise. The sea all around was smooth and calm. * * * I continued my promenade, but had not gone many steps before the sensation came again, and this time so distinctly that I could not be mistaken; there was a slight irregular motion in the ship. I would not have sold this slight motion for any amount of money. It was a swell under the boat, a swell a message from the open sea. The water to the south was open; the wall of ice was not there."

Winter was now approaching, and the Gjoa was hard put to it. Once the little ship was nearly burned when a quantity of petroleum, used as fuel for the motor, took fire; but the courage and coolness of Amundsen and his men averted a disaster. Another time the Gjoa ran aground, and was floated only by throwing overboard all the stores that were piled on deck. But King William's Land was reached in safety, and on the southeastern part of the island the Gjoa made port in what one of the party described as "the finest little harbor in the world." This was ninety miles south of the magnetic pole as located by Ross.

The whole party now entered upon a long period of investigation the work for which they really had come, rather than to navigate unknown seas. Their duty was to observe the region of the magnetic pole, to observe its variation and make a study of the magnetism of the earth.

The magnetic pole is very little understood. Many suppose the north pole to be the point toward which the compass points. Not so.

As Amundsen describes it, "if we fit up a magnetic needle so that it can revolve on a horizontal axis passing through its center of gravity (exactly like a grind-stone) the needle will, of its own accord, assume a slanting position, if its plane of rotation coincides with the direction indicated by the compass. * * * At the magnetic north pole, the dipping needle will assume a vertical position, with its north point directed downwards; at the magnetic south pole it will stand vertically with its south point downwards."

The Gjoa as anchored in the "fine little harbor," which they named Gjoahavn September 12, 1903, and remained there until August 13, 1905. A house was built, in which two of the party pursued scientific observations, acquaintance was made with the Eskimos of the region, and much exploratory work was done. A trip was made to Boothia, where the magnetic pole is situated, and two of Amundsen's men made a sledge journey along the eastern coast to Victoria Land, charting much new land, and traveling 800 miles. But these pursuits came to an end, and when the season for propitious travel was fairly on, the Gjoa was headed westward for the climax of the journey. She was maneuvered successfully through the narrowest portion of the passage, south of King William's Land, and pushed on into channels whose navigability was yet to be tested. On through Deas Strait and Coronation Gulf the little motor-vessel held her course, and scarcely a mishap marred the successful journey.

Describing the most "ticklish" part of the trip, Amundsen says:

"The channel now ceased and branched off in the shape of a narrow sound between some small rocks. The current had probably formed this channel. The passage was not very inviting, but it was our only one, and forward we must go.

"As we turned westward, the soundings became more alarming, the figures jumped from seventeen to five fathoms, and vice versa. From an even, sandy bottom we came to a ragged, stony one. We were in the midst of a most disconcerting chaos; sharp stones faced us on every side, low-lying rocks of all shapes, and we bungled through zigzag, as if drunk. The lead flew up and down, down and up, and the man at the helm had to pay very close attention and keep his eye on the lookout man, who jumped about in the crow's nest like a maniac, throwing his arms about for starboard and port respectively, keeping on the move all the time to watch the track. Now I see a big shallow extending from one islet right over to the other. We must get up to it and see. The anchors were clear to drop, should the water be too shallow, and we proceeded at a very slow rate. I was at the helm, and kept shuffling my feet out of sheer nervousness. We barely managed to scrape over. In the afternoon things got worse than ever; there was such a lot of stones that it was just like sailing through an uncleared field. Though chary of doing so, I was now compelled to lower a boat and take soundings ahead of us. This required all hands on deck, and it was anything but pleasant to have to do without the five hours' sleep obtainable under normal conditions. But it could not be helped. We crawled along in this manner, and by 6 p. m., we had reached Victoria Strait, leaving the crowd of islands behind us."

On August 17 they anchored off Cape Colborne, after having sailed the Gjoa "through the hitherto unsolved link in the northwest passage."

On August 26 at 8 a. m., Capt. Amundsen was asleep below, when he heard a rushing to and fro on deck. A few minutes later came the cry "A sail!" It was a whaling vessel, and it meant that the Gjoa had reached navigable waters in the western side of the passage.

Says Amundsen: "The northwest passage had been accomplished my dream from childhood. I had a peculiar sensation in my throat; I was somewhat overworked and tired, and I suppose it was weakness on my part, but I could feel tears coming to my eyes. 'Vessel in sight!' The words were magical. My home and those dear to me there at once appeared to me as if stretching out their hands. 'Vessel in sight!' "

The Gjoa reached King Point August 29, 1905, after a journey of only sixteen days from King William's Land, and there made a second winter quarters. That winter was saddened by the death of one of the members of the party, the scientist Wiik. The rest pushed on to the end, and arrived in Nome, Alaska, September 3, 1906.

Amundsen was established at once as one of the great explorers of the world, and none received with greater enthusiasm the news of the north pole discovery than did he.


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