I was on the hunt for Polar Bears while I was up North, I was also on the trail of Roald Amundsen.
As you might recall from high school geography or history classes, Amundsen was the first man to reach both poles. In fact, he was the first man to reach each of the Poles independently. The South Pole in 1911 with four companions on dog sled and skis, the North Pole in 1926 aboard the Italian airship “Norge” (created and captained by Umberto Nobile). On both trips he was accompanied by his fellow explorer Oscar Wistig so technically he shares the honor. Though Wistig is mostly considered an historical footnote (along with the first African American polar explorer Matthew Henson who accompanied Robert Peary on 7 voyages over 23 years including Peary’s now disputed first arrival at the Geographic North Pole in 1909).
Amundsen is a great hero in Norway. Which is hardly surprising for this great seafaring nation. I spent a day enjoying four great nautical museums on the outskirts of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nautical Museum and, the icing on the cake, the Fram Museum. All of them provided important clues for my understanding of Amundsen.
The Viking ship Museum was the obvious starting point and a pilgrimage in its own right. I have wanted to view the Oseberg and Gokstad ships since I first saw images of them (in National Geographic perhaps?). What incredible works of functional craftsmanship. They still provide the most revealing evidence of what viking ships were actually like. Prior to their discovery in the late 19th century, the only clues came from the oral sagas, carvings on a few extant standing stones and the Bayeux Tapestry (AD 1077?).
Both ships are believed to have been functional (one a luxury yacht and the other a trade ship) prior to their use as funerary vessels. They had been looted and were shattered and degraded when they were discovered in the late 1800’s but thanks to an amazing restoration effort they now seem ready to sail again.
The carving work is beautifully restored and preserved and both ships have a wonderful patina that comes in part from their age but primarily from their preservation in tung oil and creosote – a finish that I might pursue myself!
I enjoyed savouring the long and culturally layered history of the seafaring vikings. I’m from viking stock myself, as are most folk who have Britain in their ancestry, and my family name was created for a Norman lord who was one of the invaders in the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
The Norman conquest was taught in my grade school books as an invasion from France but it was actually a mingling of related folk from across the English Channel. The “Normans” were named so because of their northern (i.e. Viking) roots. And by the time of the “conquest” the vikings had been living amongst the ‘native’ britons for almost two centuries.
I couldn’t help but imagine the fabled viking raider of Britain and France, Ragnar Lodbrok (“hairy breeches”) moodily perched on the prow looking out to sea for new conquests.
My favorite vessel was one of the small tenders found with the Gokstad ship. I could imagine myself at the prow of this one!