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


 
Scientists and crew alike apparently have time to read, however, including The Hungry Ocean and The Lobster Chronicles, nonfiction books by Linda Greenlaw '83. Greenlaw "is read very well" on the polar ships, Martin said. "It's a big name in Arctic circles."

Amundsen spent 19 months on King William Island making magnetic observations in the vicinity of the North Magnetic Pole. On April 6, 1909, the U.S. Navy's Robert Peary became the first to reach the geographic North Pole, and Amundsen, the North Pole conquest lost to him, headed to the Antarctic instead. In 1911 he became the first to reach the South Pole, edging out by a few days Britain's Robert Falcon Scott, who perished on the return.

Mention the South Pole and Martin is surprised to acknowledge that his first polar voyage,to the South Pole in 1948 as a 20-year-old Navy journalist,contrasted with his Healy expeditions almost as much as with Amundsen's.

"There were no satellites, of course," he said. "We operated by Morse code and sent stories back by shortwave radio to the States. The biggest story had to do with the chief cook cooking seal flipper for the crew. Food papers picked it up." Today, he said, "It's crazy. You can stand at the North Pole and cell phone home. Communication is a whole new game."

For nearly 50 years he hadn't reflected much about that first polar voyage, Martin says, but in the mid-1990s while on a business trip he visited the Arctic Center at the airport in Christchurch, N.Z. During the December to March austral summer, personnel and supplies fly from the Arctic Center to McMurdo Station, the largest year-round U.S. scientific base in Antarctica. From McMurdo, flights head to the Amundsen-Scott scientific base at the South Pole.

"I was smitten," Martin said. "An axiom about polar exploration: once you've been to a pole, you yearn to go back, if only to confirm what you saw there so spectacularly. It haunted me to go back. Images of icebergs, glaciers, seals, penguins." And mountain ranges, including the 12,000-foot Mt. Erebus, an active volcano at McMurdo Sound.

Those haunting images set Martin on a course toward the Healy.

Back in the States, he canvassed various branches of the National Archives and Records Administration in the Washington, D.C., area. Working by phone, fax and Internet, he got through to the Naval Historical Center, where he obtained logs and diaries from Operation Windmill, a 1947-48 expedition conducted by Edisto and Burton Island, two icebreakers in the Coast Guard fleet,Martin served on both,when they mapped half of the uncharted regions of the Antarctic coastline. From the Special Media Archives Services Division and U.S. Antarctic Resource Center he obtained photos of the expedition and the vessels, which penetrated the Antarctic ice pack dozens of times, landing geographers on the continent at a dozen geodetic sites hundreds of miles apart.
 
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