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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 28, 2006


Arctic Passage homepage

The greatest geographical prize of its day was the search for the fabled Northwest Passage through the island maze of Arctic Canada. In 1845, Great Britain mounted an all-out assault with a lavishly equipped expedition that was never heard from again. Then in the early 1900s, a little-known Norwegian adventurer set forth in a secondhand fishing boat and succeeded beyond all expectation. This two-hour special answers the riddle of why one failed and the other made it.

Hour one provides new details on the Franklin expedition, whose fate was one of the great mysteries of the 19th century. Even today, the manner of the expedition's demise is an ongoing detective story, with clues and new interpretations still emerging over 150 years after the explorers inexplicably disappeared. Hour two tells how Roald Amundsen rewrote the book on Arctic exploration by stressing simplicity and adaptability, and in the process completed the first crossing of the Northwest Passage exactly 100 years ago. (To follow the paths of both expeditions, see Tracing the Routes.)

For centuries, explorers were convinced that a route could be found through the islands and ice floes of northern Canada that would cut months off the arduous sea voyage between Europe and the Pacific. But every time someone tried, ice blocked the way. Determined to succeed, the British Navy refitted two warships and assigned its most experienced Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, to command. The vessels were stocked with every convenience and a three-year supply of food, much of it canned—a relatively new technology.

Departing England in 1845, the 129 men seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. In 1848, the Navy dispatched the first of many search parties, which eventually found the site of Franklin's first wintering camp on Beechey Island in the High Arctic, including the graves of three seamen. Modern tests show that the sailors died of tuberculosis but were also suffering from lead poisoning, probably caused by the solder used to seal their tinned food. The finding suggests that the entire crew may have been affected to varying degrees by excessive lead, which causes fatigue, confusion, and paranoia.

Over the years, more searching has turned up a strange collection of further clues (see, for one of the most telling, The Note in the Cairn). These point to an expedition trapped in the ice, slowly dying off, desperately devising strategies to escape, and finally resorting to cannibalism. Ironically, as Franklin's men were perishing, they had periodic contact with native Inuit, who subsisted quite well in the High Arctic thanks to their small numbers and highly evolved hunting and survival skills. There is no evidence that the Franklin party adopted any Inuit methods.

This lesson was not lost on Roald Amundsen, a young Norwegian whose study of the Franklin disaster led him to an entirely different approach. Instead of treating Arctic exploration as a siege, in which a fully modern world is transported en masse to an unforgiving place, Amundsen determined to travel light and live like the Inuit as much as possible (see My Life as an Explorer).

Where the Franklin expedition comprised over 100 men, Amundsen's consisted of only seven; where Franklin commanded deep-water ships, Amundsen piloted a battered, 30-year-old sealer that had proven its worth at moving nimbly though shallows and ice floes; where Franklin's men dragged a provision-filled lifeboat across the snow when they had to go overland, Amundsen used an Inuit-style sled and dogs.

Success came in August 1905, after two years battling the ice and weather, when Amundsen encountered a whaling ship sailing from San Francisco. (He overwintered once more before completing the Passage in 1906.) Amundsen had proven that a path, albeit a difficult one, existed across the top of the world—for anyone bold enough to take it.

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Sir John Franklin (left) and Amundsen

Sir John Franklin (left) and Roald Amundsen took completely different approaches to tackling the Northwest Passage, with widely divergent results.

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Arctic Passage

Back to the Arctic Passage homepage for more features on the Franklin and Amundsen expeditions.



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