Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

A century after Roald Amundsen's voyage in the search for a Northwest Passage, Alvo Martin '51 followed the same spectacular route on a Coast Guard icebreaker and research ship.

By Robert Gillespie

Amundsen, a tough nut himself, was confined for three winters either on his boat or in Eskimo igloo villages. The doughty explorer turned out to be something of an ethnographer as he and his men lived like the native inhabitants. For one thing, they adopted Eskimo clothing, especially caribou skins. Martin's article recounts how Amundsen "once negotiated with an Eskimo for his caribou undergarments. The Eskimo was so flattered that he offered to immediately exchange the underwear he was wearing. The transfer was made in front of the Eskimo's entire family." The wife "showed complete indifference," wrote Amundsen, adding that he nevertheless "veiled my charms as well as I could."

The explorer lamented the near decimation of the bowhead whale species solely for the use of whalebone to reinforce women's corsets. Following his expedition, Amundsen wrote, "A ladylike figure is an expensive thing. . . . I think that, after my experience as a polar resident, I would vote in favor of dress reform."

During two winters on King William Island (today called Gjoa Haven), Amundsen formed The Society, whose object, Martin writes, quoting Amundsen, "was to taste 'all the productions of the land.' Arctic fox steak was deemed 'one of The Society's finest dishes.' Frozen caribou tongue 'which melted in the mouth' was another favorite." Typical fare included "frozen caribou meat and salmon served with small squares of seal blubber. This might be topped off with frozen caribou marrow as dessert. The fat around seal flippers, cooked or warmed over a blubber oil lamp, got high marks from the explorers."

"It is an invaluable quality in a man on such an expedition," Amundsen concluded, "that he be able to eat anything."
The route of the Healy from Greeland to Alaska, following near the route taken by the explorer Roald Amundsen from 1903-1906.
center%The Healy's cooks offer fare gastronomically if not geographically worlds apart from Amundsen's. Martin serves up one day's sample menu, beginning with a breakfast of fresh chilled fruit, grilled eggs to order, bacon, home fries, French toast and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. For lunch, shipmates dug into chicken fajitas, chuck wagon-blend vegetables, a nacho bar and salad bar. And for dinner the chefs presented beef Wellington, fried shrimp, oven-roasted potatoes, clubbed baby spinach and assorted desserts. The mess is open 24 hours a day to accommodate the visiting scientists and marine science technologists, who work around the clock when the ship is engaged in polar research.

Polar icebreaking was shared by the Navy and the Coast Guard from the end of World War II until 1966. The Coast Guard's Polar Star and Polar Sea entered service in 1976, and Healy was launched in 1997 and entered service in 2000. All three serve as scientific platforms, but the Healy, the largest and most sophisticated of the fleet, provides comfortable accommodations for the ship's crew of about 80, which includes pilots of its two helicopters and as many as 50 marine science technologists on any given voyage. It's rustic, Martin says, but automated to the hilt with navigation and propulsion systems and computer connections, including e-mail. Designed specifically as an icebreaker/research vessel, the ship is equipped with six bio-chem, electronics, meteorological and photographic science laboratories.
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