The Gjøa Expedition (1903-1906)

    Roald Amundsen’s expedition with the Gjøa was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage north of the Canadian mainland on one expedition and one ship. In 1903-06 Amundsen accomplished this with six companions. Two years were spent on the way in Gjoa Haven when the then-location of the North Magnetic Pole was established, proving that the Magnetic Pole moves over time.
    The Gjøa Expedition (1903-1906)

    The Northwest Passage is the sailing route north of Canada’s mainland coast which joins the northern Atlantic Ocean with the northern Pacific Ocean. From as long ago as the 16th century Europeans were taken up with the belief that there must be a quicker route this way to the rich trade areas of China and the Far East. The search later developed to be based on purely geographical exploration and then gradually the Passage acquired an almost mystical aura, on par with the North and South Poles.

    The difficulty of finding a route through the archipelago north of the Canadian mainland was due to several factors: primarily the ice which even today is an obstacle that is not easy to overcome. In addition the region is a maze of islands, sounds, bays and channels that were not relatively-well charted before the early 20th century. A lack of maps and any particular idea of what the area contained of land and sea, combined with fog and ice, meant that it was not surprising, for example, that a ship could sail through the broad Hudson Strait, into the huge expanse of Hudson Bay and believe that this must be the open sea on the other side, or turn at the entrance to Lancaster Sound in the belief that it was only a large bay.

    It was after Sir John Franklin’s expedition disappeared in 1845-47 with a total of 129 men on the two ships Erebus and Terror on yet another attempt to find the Passage that exploration of the region accelerated. So many expeditions were sent out to try to find Franklin and his men that most of the region south of 75° N was known by the 1860s, and several possible passages had been defined. Robert McClure’s expedition in 1850-54 was the first to traverse the entire region from west to east, but he had to abandon his ship halfway and sledge to meet a ship that had sailed in from the west.


    Roald Amundsen’s preparations for the Northwest Passage

    Roald Amundsen decided at an early age that he would be a polar explorer. His mother wanted him to become a doctor and out of loyalty to her he started studying medicine. After her death, however, he quickly gave this up and took his mate’s exam instead. He was given the chance to realise his childhood dream when he, 25 years old, was given the position of first mate on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition ship the Belgica under the leadership of Adrien de Gerlache. The expedition lasted from 1897 to 1899.

    Amundsen had read all the published accounts of the Northwest Passage expeditions and the fate of the Franklin expedition, and it was a complete navigation of the Northwest Passage that was his great ambition. After his return from the Belgica expedition he considered himself experienced enough to start preparations for realizing this boyhood dream, but first he had to get the support of his hero, Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen not only approved the plans, but in years to come gave advice freely whenever Amundsen asked for it and repeatedly helped to straighten out Amundsen’s tangled finances. Nansen’s eminent scientific ability and his enthusiasm for expanding scientific knowledge of the Arctic must have exercised a considerable influence on Amundsen’s thinking and must have strengthened his wish to get acquainted with different methods of observation so that he, though no scientist himself, could collect accurate data for others to analyse.

    One important scientific problem presented itself: the relocation of the north magnetic pole, which had been visited first in June 1831 by James Clark Ross. In order to make himself familiar with magnetic measurements, Amundsen went to Hamburg where he presented his plans to Dr. G. von Neumayer, at that time the foremost expert in the field of terrestrial magnetism, and asked advice regarding instruments and methods of observation. Neumayer received Amundsen most cordially, encouraged him and instructed him for several months in all the details of precise observations.

    The next step was a search for a suitable ship. It had to be small, sturdy, and inexpensive because Amundsen hoped to finance the expedition himself and he had only a small inheritance at his disposal. After thorough examination Amundsen bought the small sloop Gjøa of only 47 tons, which had been built in 1872, the year Amundsen himself was born, and which was still as sound as he. In the next summer, 1901, he took the Gjøa on a cruise to the East Greenland waters, partly to get acquainted with the handling of the ship and partly to undertake oceanographic observations in which Nansen was particularly interested. The following two years were spent in carefully selecting and testing equipment and provisions and in assembling the small party that could be accommodated on board the ship.

    It soon became clear that Amundsen’s own funds were quite insufficient to cover all expenses, and much against his wishes he had to ask for support from various sources. He did this reluctantly because he hated to talk about plans and preferred to keep away from all publicity until he had reached his goal. He retained this characteristic through life, but in later years he became too much of a public figure to stay out of the limelight. There is, however, no doubt that his reluctance to discuss plans, which was often considered a special form of conceit, had deep roots and that by nature he was a lonely man who preferred action to words.


    To Gjøa Haven

    The financial support that Amundsen was able to obtain for his first expedition was still inadequate, and when he was ready to sail in June 1903 he found himself considerably in debt. He himself tells that, when one of his creditors threatened to hold the Gjøa back as security until payment was made, he decided to sneak away after having informed the crew of his plans. According to another source Nansen himself undertook the responsibility for the departure by promising Amundsen to see to it that his creditors were satisfied. Be that as it may, the Gjøa left Oslo around midnight on 16 June 1903, and the creditors were paid when the Northwest Passage had been conquered.

    After having studied all available accounts of earlier expeditions, Amundsen had decided to try the straits between the Canadian mainland and the southern islands of the Canadian Archipelago. The Gjøa first called at Godhavn, Greenland, to take 20 dogs on board and next at Dalrymple Rock to obtain supplementary provisions and kerosene from Scottish whalers. From there Amundsen continued past Beechey Island and then turned south into Peel Sound and Franklin Strait. Storm, fire in the engine room and near shipwreck on a submerged rock threatened to bring the journey to an early end, but superb seamanship and quick action prevented disaster on each occasion.

    It seems possible that the Gjøa could have sailed through the Northwest Passage in one season, because Simpson Strait was free of ice when the eastern entrance was reached on 9 September. However, the navigation of the Northwest Passage was only part of the programme, the relocation of the north magnetic pole and continuous recordings of the magnetic elements during at least one full year were equally important. Since the recordings should preferably be made at a distance of about 100 miles from the magnetic pole, Amundsen was on the lookout for a suitable wintering place when approaching King William Island and was delighted at the discovery of the nearly closed and completely sheltered little bay that now on all charts carries the name Gjoa Haven. After a careful survey of the bay the Gjøa sailed into it, anchored, and stayed there for two years.

    Besides Amundsen the party consisted of the following six men: Godfred Hansen, lieutenant in the Danish Navy, second in command, navigator, geologist, and astronomer; Anton Lund, first mate, with much experience in ice navigation; Peder Ristvedt, meteorologist and engineer; Helmer Hansen, second mate and also an experienced sealer; Gustav Juel Wiik, magnetic observer whom with Amundsen would be responsible for the magnetic observations; and Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm, the “polar cook”, who had been cook on the Second Expedition in the Fram from 1898 to 1902 and now served in the same capacity on the Gjøa.

    It was not economy alone that was responsible for Amundsen’s selection of a small ship, which could not accommodate a large party. The choice of vessel was also based on the one principal thesis to which Amundsen subscribed on this and every other of his subsequent expeditions: a party should be the smallest possible consistent with the purpose of the enterprise. Only by adhering to this rule would it be possible to keep each man fully employed and to make him feel that his personal effort was all important to the success of the expedition. Amundsen considered it his duty as leader to see that none of his men had an opportunity to loaf or become demoralized because he felt that he was wasting his time on useless assignments. On the Gjøa expedition Amundsen had little difficulty in discharging the duties of leader because the party was so small and was composed in such a manner that each man had to be given more than one task for which he must be responsible.

    Wiik and Ristvedt built their magnetic observatory on shore and added a shack where they lived for nearly two years, collecting a wealth of data that was taken over by the Norwegian government and later distributed to specialists for analysis and publication. The continuous meteorological observations at Gjøa Haven added much to the knowledge of the climatology of that part of the Arctic. After two shorter trips in March 1904 to establish caches, Amundsen and Ristvedt started on 6 April on a sledge journey to Boothia Peninsula in order to take observations close to the magnetic pole. A series of stations was occupied and the observations showed that the pole was located in 1904 in a slightly different location to that where James Clark Ross had first found it 73 years earlier.

    From 2 April to 23 June 1905 Godfred Hansen, also accompanied by Ristvedt, explored the east coast of Victoria Island between latitudes 70° and 72° N and mapped this previously unknown coastline. There were no Inuit at Gjøa Haven when winter quarters were established, but in November the first arrived and from then on the contact was permanent and evidently mutually beneficial. Amundsen and his party obtained prepared reindeer skins as well as complete outfits of clothing and learned how to build igloos. On subsequent expeditions Amundsen used Inuit-type clothing and footgear with some minor modifications, but neither he nor any of his companions became such experts in building igloos that they could discard their tents. The Inuit, on the other hand, received needles, knives, empty tin cans, and many other useful articles from the visitors. All the different groups that visited the Gjøa had had very little contact with western civilization; they were practically lacking iron and steel and had little knowledge of firearms.

    Amundsen made extensive notes of their customs and brought back a large collection of Netsilik clothing and various equipment. Amundsen’s views on cold-weather clothing are stated or implied in a number of his writings. The essence is found in the chapter “Towards the Magnetic Pole”, which is the fifth chapter of Volume I of the English edition of “The Northwest Passage”. “We were ready to leave on the first of March. The thermometer showed -55°C (-63°F). But through the month of February we had become so accustomed to the cold that it did not bother us much. We were also very well dressed. Some of us wore complete Eskimo costumes, others partly civilized clothing. My experience is that in these parts in winter the Eskimo dress is far superior to our European clothes. But one must either use it alone or not at all. Any combination is bad. Wool underwear gathers all perspiration and will soon make the outside clothing wet. Dressed entirely in reindeer skin, like the Eskimo, and with the clothing loose enough on the body to let the air circulate between the layers, one will as a rule keep the clothing dry. If one is working so hard that the clothing becomes damp in spite of everything, skin dries much easier than wool. Also wool clothing becomes dirty easily and loses its warmth. Skin clothing keeps nearly as well without washing. A further great advantage of skin is that you feel warm the moment you put it on. In woollen things you have to jump and dance like crazy before you get warm. Finally, skins are absolutely wind-proof, which is of course a very important point.


    Through the Northwest Passage

    In the summer of 1905 the Gjøa was made ready for continuing her journey and if possible completing the Northwest Passage. On 13 August she left the now ice-free Gjøa Haven and set her course toward the unknown west. Ice, fog and shoals endangered the progress, the sounding lead had to be used continually and often there was barely a foot of water under her keel. However, the Gjøa advanced and on 17 August she dropped anchor at Cape Colbourne, the easternmost point that had been reached in these waters by any ship coming from the Bering Strait. The Northwest Passage was completed.

    A few days later, on 26 August, the first ship coming from the west was sighted, the Charles Hansson of San Francisco, commanded by Captain J. McKenna, who was the first to congratulate Amundsen on his success. Amundsen, of course, hoped to reach the Bering Strait and civilization that year, but ice conditions were bad. As early as September 2 progress was stopped at King Point, near Herschel Island, and within a week it was evident that another winter had to be spent in the Arctic. This time the Gjøa had much company because no fewer than 12 ships had been caught at Herschel Island.

    The magnetic recordings were continued at King Point, and during the winter Amundsen travelled to Eagle City, Alaska, in order to send telegrams from the expedition to the outside world. He made the trip in company with the skipper of the shipwrecked Bonanza, Captain Mogg, of whose accomplishments as a traveller by dog team Amundsen had a very low opinion. After Amundsen returned to King Point Gustav Juel Wiik became ill and he died 1 April. He was buried in the magnetic observatory.

    By the middle of August 1906 the Gjøa could resume her journey. She reached Nome on the 31st, where she was given a reception worthy of the adventurous and boisterous gold seekers who at that time were making Nome famous. From there on the trip back to Norway was a triumphant journey that brought Amundsen full compensation for his worries and difficulties during the trying years of preparation.

    The Gjøa did not, however, return to Norway for some years. She was presented to the city of San Francisco and was in 1909 placed in Golden Gate Park. She deteriorated badly, but was restored in 1947-49. In 1972 she was returned to Norway, where she is displayed on land outside the Fram Museum. In 2012 she will be housed in a new extension to the Fram Museum.


    THE ROUTE OF THE GJØA 1903-06:

    16 JUNE 1903

    Kristiania (Oslo)


    Godhavn in Greenland


    Dalrymple Rock


    Franklin Strait via Beechey Island


    King William Island


    Arrival Gjøahavn - stayed here two years

    17 AUGUST 1905

    Cape Colbourne


    Stopped by the ice at King Point near Herschel Island. Amundsen went to Eagle City

    31 AUGUST 1906



    The Gjøa was donated to the City of San Francisco.


    The Gjøa was restored.


    The Gjøa was transported to Bygdøynes in Oslo.