Video | Northwest Passage

Top of the World: Amundsen's Success

The first European to sail the infamous Northwest Passage, Roald Amundsen took a remarkably different approach than other explorers at the time. Watch to learn about the lessons he took from Inuit along the way, and how they were instrumental in his successful passage and his later expedition to Antarctica.

Video Transcript

The search for the Northwest Passage is riddled with mystery and failure: ships disappearing, men lost in the Arctic, legends of cannibalism, and the stories go on.

After centuries of failure and disaster, many thought the idea of sailing the passage was impossible. But one explorer, a Norwegian by the name of Roald Amundsen, realized the problem wasn't the passage, but the methods being used to try to conquer it.

European explorers at the time believed their own technology and methods were superior to anyone else's. Amundsen realized this wasn't the case and decided to work with the people who called the Arctic their home.

As a boy, Amundsen was always fascinated by Sir John Franklin's failed Northwest Passage expedition of 1845. Despite this and his family's maritime roots, Amundsen studied to become a physician, as his mother had wished. But after her death, Amundsen dedicated himself fully to his true calling: exploration of the polar regions.

After gaining some experience in polar conditions on a voyage to Antarctica, Amundsen set sail in 1903—with his specially designed ship, the Gjoa—for the Northwest Passage. Originally Amundsen said his goal was to find out if the magnetic North Pole had moved since 1831, when it was first discovered.

But to keep both his rivals and predators at bay, the Norwegian explorer kept his real intentions quiet: to be the first to sail the Northwest Passage between the north Atlantic and north Pacific Oceans.

The success of the expedition was planned long before Amundsen and his crew ever set sail. Amundsen had a much smaller ship, the Gjoa, at just twenty-one metres long (ten metres shorter than Franklin's ships).

The Gjoa's rounded design made her resistant to pinching by sea ice. Amundsen always believed a crew should be as small as possible and sailed with a crew of just six men. This also saved him money on wages and provisions.

The Gjoa set its sails in June of 1903 and made its way across Baffin Bay, and eventually anchored in Erebus Bay near Beechey Island on August 22. Amundsen then followed Franklin's probable route, before veering to the south of King William island. There he anchored in the "perfect little harbour" that would soon be known as Gjoa Haven.

For the next two years, this area would become home to the expedition. While there, Amundsen and his crew studied the magnetic North Pole. By the end of October, they had met a small group of Inuit who had approached the harbour. Soon an Inuit camp was established nearby.

Recognizing their superior skills and knowledge of the polar environment, Amundsen worked hard to establish a relationship with the Netsilik Inuit. Amundsen and his crew tried to learn their language, Inuktitut. They traded knives, matches, tools, needles, and food. In exchange, the Netsilik taught Amundsen and his men how to make igloos, work sled dogs, and dress for the cold weather.

The groups would often work together on hunting trips, and they frequently visited each other's camps. The two years Amundsen and his men spent at Gjoa Haven with the Netsilik, learning and practicing their polar skills, gave Amundsen and his men the edge in polar exploration.

On August 13, 1905, Amundsen and his crew left Gjoa Haven, sailed through Simpson Strait, and reached Cambridge Bay four days later. They had completed the missing link of the Northwest Passage! Amundsen and his crew had finally found the sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Later, Amundsen would write, "The Northwest Passage was done. My boyhood dream. At that moment, it was accomplished."

Amundsen went on to become the first to reach the South Pole, using dogs and sleds and animal skin clothing, as he had learned from the Netsilik Inuit. Their willingness to teach Amundsen and his men about survival in the Arctic made the journey a success.

Amundsen learned how to exist in the Arctic, rather than try to conquer it. An excellent planner and leader, he was also a lifetime learner. He sought to connect rather than to conquer. His respect for his Inuit comrades—and the lessons learned from them—helped make Amundsen the greatest polar explorer of them all.