Amundsen Expedition

The first explorer to conquer the Northwest Passage was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In a three-year journey between 1903 and 1906, Amundsen explored the passage with a crew of no more than six. Amundsen, who had sailed just in time to escape creditors seeking to stop the expedition, completed the voyage in the converted 47-ton herring boat Gjøa. Gjøa was much smaller than vessels used by other Arctic expeditions, but Amundsen intended to live off the limited resources of the land and sea through which he was to travel, and reasoned that the land could sustain only a tiny crew (this had been the cause of the catastrophic failure of John Franklin’s expedition fifty years previously). The ship’s shallow draught would help her traverse the shoals of the Arctic straits.

Amundsen set out from Oslo in June 1903 and was west of the Boothia Peninsula by late September. The Gjøa was put into a natural harbour on the south shore of King William Island; by October 3 she was iced in. There the expedition remained for nearly two years, with the expedition members learning from the local Inuit people and undertaking measurements to determine the location of the North Magnetic Pole. The harbour, known as Gjoa Haven, has become the only settlement on the island.

After completing of the Northwest Passage portion of this trip and having anchored near Herschel Island, Amundsen skied 800 kilometres to the city of Eagle, Alaska, and sent a telegram announcing his success. Amundsen then skied 800 kilometres back to rejoin his companions. Although his chosen east–west route, via the Rae Strait, contained young ice and thus was navigable, some of the waterways were extremely shallow (3 feet, or 1 meter, deep) making the route commercially impractical.