On 5 December 1905, Norwegian Roald Amundsen arrived in Eagle, Alaska, having just battled the elements along a 700-mile sledge journey from Herschel Island, Canada, to send a telegraph back to civilisation to report that he had become the first person to successfully navigate the North-West Passage. It was the culmination of a dream he had had for over a decade, having been a devout fan of John Franklin and his lost expedition since his youth. This week, a team replicating his journey arrived in Eagle, becoming the first people in 111 years to traverse the route.
‘In fact, even on his return journey he went a different route,’ laughs expedition leader Tim Oakley. ‘He said in his diary that the route he had taken was far too difficult. It is a little shorter than the return route but there’s a good reason why everybody used the other way.’
Having completed several dog sledge journeys in the past, including spending five weeks in Spitsbergen in 2013 and making the first crossing of Norway unassisted in the winter from east to west above the Arctic circle in 2009, Oakley was drawn to Amundsen’s story and the challenges the expedition presented along the way.
‘The first river has got a lot of canyons and gorges, and class four rapids in it,’ he explains. ‘So, to travel with dog sledges on that, once you’re into those gorges, you are committed. There is no other way around the situation. That river gave us nothing, we spent six days on it, moving forward at around 15 miles a day. Where you have the rapids, all the ice has collapsed and broken around it, so you’re trying to get sledges up 60 degree slopes of “glare ice” – very highly polished ice. We had a couple of times when we got stuck and just had to wait it out. Of course, when you come out of the water with your boots in those temperatures it immediately freezes, then you have to use an axe to get your boots off, which can take half an hour. It was pretty difficult.’
Just like Amundsen did, Oakley and his team – Graham Burke, Wayne Hall, and Earl Rolf – started on Herschel Island, off the north coast of the Yukon in Canada, with three sledges and 22 dogs. As Oakley explains, it was a very different scene to when Roald Amundsen would have visited in the early years of the 19th century. ‘In Amundsen’s time, Herschel Island had a big whaling industry and 1,500 people living up there,’ he says. ‘There was a big fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company was up there operating, there was gold prospecting. There was a lot of trade going on, and so there were a lot of trails. All of that has gone now.’
All this activity meant that Armundsen would have found it relatively easy to find a guide to take him on his treacherous course south, first to Fort Yukon, where he hoped to find a telegraph, then onwards to Eagle, where he knew there was one. However, Oakley reports that his team didn’t see any people until they reached Fort Yukon, making their modern day satellite phones and GPS invaluable in place of a local guide. ‘By and large, I use map and compass anyway,’ he adds.
The expedition received the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) 2015 Neville Shulman Challenge Award, awarded to those aiming to ‘further the understanding and exploration of the planet: its cultures, peoples and environments, while promoting personal development through the intellectual or physical challenges involved in undertaking the research and/or expedition.’
‘We’ve been incredibly lucky that we have had the support of the Royal Geographical Society,’ enthuses Oakley. ‘I’m a fellow at the RGS-IBG and it has been hugely supportive. On my return I will be writing a short paper for the Society looking at the comparative data between then and now.’ The data in question is that which the team collected about the surrounding environment during the expedition, tracking how climate change has impacted on the region since Amundsen’s day. ‘He was normally a meticulous diary keeper, but on this occasion he was just trying to get to a telegraph to tell his sponsors,’ explains Oakley. ‘But he did keep diary notes. I’ve also made notes as to what temperatures he was experiencing. Our timeline was actually very similar to his, although we went at slightly different times of the year.’
As well as the physical challenge, and the study of regional impacts of climate change, the expedition also had a strong educational element, encouraging cultural exchanges between schools in several connected countries. ‘That was one of the big motivators,’ continues Oakley. ‘I spoke to the kids in Eagle, I spoke to the kids in Norway and also up in Canada.’ The schools involved worked together on projects related to the protection of the Arctic environment and the Inuit and Athabaskan communities who still reside in the region. ‘The Inuit and the Athabaskan are no longer nomadic – since the late 1940s and early 1950s they were encouraged into villages, and many of them can’t speak their own language anymore,’ he explains.
While Tim Oakley speaks passionately about the educational work undertaken during this expedition, he admits the physical challenge of the trip remained an equal motivation for the journey. ‘I love working with the dogs, I love being out there in those environments,’ he recalls. ‘You’re very exposed, there’s just nothing there now. It is just a vast country.’ He signed off their final blog post: ‘At the beginning I thought we only had a 50/50 chance of achieving the journey, not achieved since 1905. It has been interesting and hard but we’ve had good dogs, a good team and the careful planning paid off. We are looking forward to coming home.’