May 27, 2009

Review of Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor

Back in January, PBS's NOVA science series aired an episode titled Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor. It's the story of how explorer Roald Amundsen mastered the Northwest Passage 58 years after Sir John Franklin's expedition failed:Unsupported by naval might or government funding, a 29-year-old Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, set out with improbably slim resources: six men and a tiny, shallow vessel, the Gjoa, which he presumed could slip through channels that endangered larger ships. Caught by the winter ice, Amundsen did what the earlier Franklin crew had been unable or unwilling to do: he turned to the native Inuit to learn their ancient skills of Arctic survival. What they taught him--seal hunting, building igloos and handling dog teams--not only ensured the success of his voyage but were crucial training for his conquest of the South Pole in 1912. "Nova" retraces Amundsen's triumphant voyage, taking viewers to the Canadian Arctic where his name is legendary among the native people.Arctic PassageThe second hour re-creates Roald Amundsen's voyage of 1903, in which he finally became the first to sail the entire Passage, thanks in part to the small size of his ship, the Gjøa, and to his crew. Amundsen is played by Norwegian star Kåre Conradi, while Gustav Wilk, Amundsen's right-hand man, is portrayed by Christian Pedersen. The experts who speak on-camera include Tor Bomann-Larsen, Bard Kolltveit, and Benedict Allen; Peter Irniq, then the Commissioner of Nunavut, is also interviewed about Inuit culture and society. A highlight of the Amundsen segment is the re-creation of his winter's stay in a settlement near the harbor he dubbed Gjoa Haven, which is now a Canadian Inuit settlement of the same name. Numerous Gjoa Haven residents appear in the film; many also worked on the set.Arctic Passage (official site)

The Native aspects

At Gjoa Haven, Amundsen encountered the Netsilik band of Inuit. He initially considered them Stone Age savages who couldn't do much more than make fire by rubbing sticks together.

In his first winter there, he learned how to wear caribou furs, build ice huts, and hunt seals through ice holes. He came to appreciate the indigenous lifestyle.

Amundsen's crew wanted to leave in the spring, but he wanted to stay another year. He prevailed and learned how to do dog-sledding. The trick was to ice the runners so the sled would glide over drifts.

With his claim that he could do extraordinary things at a distance (i.e., shoot a gun), he became a kind of king to the Inuit. Sadly, he realized he was bringing the 20th century to them. He understood he was beginning a process that would lead to the destruction of their culture.

A quote, possibly made up, demonstrates his belief:I believe the Eskimo who live absolutely isolated from civilization are the happiest, healthiest, and most honorable. My sincerest wish is that civilization may never reach them.After the Northwest Passage, Amundsen joined the race for the South Pole. Explorers Scott and Shackleton came close, but failed--partly because they were hauling sledges with thousands of pounds of gear. Traveling light and fast like the Inuit, Amundsen reached the South Pole first.


Anyway, Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor is good. A few quotes from the NY Times review give you the idea:The presentation is standard-issue television history, part re-enactment and part talking heads, but the two explorers' stories are fascinating.

Often in science and exploration, as with the space shuttle disasters, for instance, pat-sounding testimonials are heard about one generation's failed heroics being a springboard for new discoveries, but the Amundsen expedition offers evidence that these are not platitudes after all.

The expeditions chronicled in "Arctic Passage" have a suicidal courage to them that's hard to fathom in our cellphone-packing age.
For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.


dmarks said...

Many books have been written about the Franklin expedition. "The Terror" is a recent one. It is by Dan Simmons. It has major "Native elements", including the explorers' dismissal of Inuit ways of survival in the North, and their rather haughty racial attitude overall.

Rob said...

The first part of this two-part episode was about the Franklin expedition. My local station didn't show it this time, but I may see it and review it eventually.

dmarks said...

I doubt you will find much in the actual Franklin Expedition history to connect it to "Newspaper Rock" topics.

The Iniut element in the novel "The Terror" is rather enhanced due to additions/creations by the author. It's a novel, not an actual historic account.

Rob said...

Don't be too sure that I won't be able to find a connection. For more on the subject, see The Doomed Franklin Expedition.