National Geographic : 1949 Oct
Milestones in My Arctic Journeys BY WILLIE KNUTSEN I HAD JUST come back to Boston from one of my Arctic trips when a casual acquaintance invited me to dine. On my dinner plate, with other delicacies, was a yellow-green mound of wax beans. I lifted a forkful of the vegetable to my mouth. Without thinking, I mumbled half-aloud: "Mmn-mm! Tastes just like seaweed." My host arrested his knife, halfway through a slice of beef, and glared at me. "What did you say, Mr. Knutsen?" His tone was icy as a Greenland glacier. Confusion flushed my face, for I knew he was offended. Following the maxim that the best defense is a strong attack, I boldly repeated in a firm voice: "I said these beans taste just like seaweed." "That's what I thought you said." Conversation lagged for the rest of the meal. Actually, my remark had been a compli ment. I like raw seaweed very much, and not just because it's "good for me." It is perhaps the best antiscurvy food that's widely available in the Arctic. Seaweed is to me just as palatable as-well, as wax beans! As the saying goes, "It all depends on the point of view." I've found there's nothing that broadens the point of view so much as 12 years in the Arctic. New Weather Posts Stud the North Last year I was executive officer, a civilian post, at one of the new Canadian-United States weather stations that stud the Arctic islands of Canada. My location was Prince Patrick Island, in latitude 76° 30' N. Prince Patrick is next to-most-westerly of the huge chunks of land composing the Arctic archipelago of North America. Like stones in a stream, those islands cause swirls and eddies in the ice-jammed ocean currents which ebb and flow between Baffin Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Never before has attention been so sharply focused on the air and sea frontiers of the circumpolar "land crown." * There Eurasia and North America face each other across ice-locked seas. Until recently the rigors of those wastes have held at a distance all but ex plorers, adventurers, and a few Daniel Boones of science. My assignment to Prince Patrick Island was only the most recent milestone on the long, long trail of my 12 years in the far north. I hope that when I come to the end of that trail, I'll look back on that experience as one of my earlier Arctic adventures! That wish reveals my plight: I am hope lessly-and happily-caught in the siren toils of the North. The Arctic is tremendous. So far, men have made no more impression on it than would a mouse nibbling at a whale. One still can travel a thousand miles in the far north and never see a trace of human activity. New Island, Nearly as Big as Connecticut An island 4,100 square miles in area (nearly as big as Connecticut) was discovered just last year (1948)! Prince Charles Island was found, not in remote high latitudes, but in Foxe Basin, just north of Hudson Bay. Yet in this "backward," almost unpeopled Arctic, I've sat with tawny Indians, just off the trap lines, on swivel chairs in an Army post exchange. We were drinking Cokes and sodas, not black tea or hot deer fat. Between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole jeering "cat" skinners have clattered past me, as I thrust along on skis, in vehicles ranging from huge tractors to nimble snow mobiles. I've watched Eskimo in Baffin Island shuf fling contentedly around a juke box. They had no trouble keeping time to music written to tempt terpsichorean talent in Hollywood and Harlem, not in snowy wastes north of the Arctic Circle. Between dances they ate pop corn and ice cream. In my wildest boyhood dreams I would never have tolerated the thought that one day I would do military duty in the North as "Officer in Charge of Pigs"! A Norwegian Born in Brooklyn To hear me talk-in accents of the Hansens, Olsens, and Nilsens-you'd never guess I was born in Brooklyn. But I was, within a har poon's throw of Prospect Park. Both my parents were Norwegians (page 544). When I was a year-and-a -half old, my mother took me back to her home in Troms0, north of the Arctic Circle. That's where I spent half my young life, among the fjords, tundra, and stark mountains of Europe's attic. My earliest travel experiences were among the colorfully clad nomad Lapps. As a boy I visited their summer camps near Troms0. In 1932 I made a summer crossing of Lap land from the Norwegian coast, through Finn * See "Top of the World," page 524.