He Opened up the Arctic

“You don’t just sit and wait for adventure to come,” famed polar explorer Knud Rasmussen liked to explain. “You go out and make it happen!”

by Allen Rankin Published Jun 24, 2024 17:28:43 IST
He Opened up the Arctic Photo: Alamy

Time and again, during that winter of 1923 to 24, members of some isolated Eskimo* tribe, peering from the entrances of their snug igloos, could hardly believe their eyes. Through the deadly cold, the howling wind and lashing snow, came a man—a white man.

Ignoring any weapons aimed at him, the stranger flashed a grin and joked in fluent Eskimo language. “Now, is that any way to greet a friend who has come so far to see you? What are we having for dinner?”

Thus, Knud Rasmussen, the inimitable Danish explorer and ethnologist, forged and charmed his way steadily westwards across the whole bleak and stormy roof of North America. When he reached Nome in mid-1924, he had completed the longest, most remarkable sledge journey in Arctic annals. The winding course he had followed in order to seek out hundreds of tribal villages scattered from Hudson Bay to the Pacific had taken him, in three years, some 32,000 kilometers.

The feats of this master explorer are still relevant today. Thanks partly to Rasmussen’s wanderings, his native Greenland, once a precariously claimed Danish colony, is now undisputedly Danish territory. Thus, little Denmark holds sway over a 217.5 million hectare area, 50 times the size of herself, and not quite as large as India.

image-93_061024064121.jpgGreenlandic–Danish explorer and ethnologist, Knud Rasmussen is often called the father of Inuitology. Photo: the Royal Library

The outpost of Thule [now called Qaanaaq], Greenland, founded by Rasmussen, is still the northernmost major settlement on the globe** as well as the site of the free world’s largest ballistic missile centre and early warning station. Today, Rasmussen’s writings remain the leading authority on the more primitive Eskimo tribes.

Born in 1879 in the village of Jacobschaven [now known as Ilulissat] on Greenland’s Central West Coast, Rasmussen got a head start on other Arctic explorers of his generation. Before he was six years old, he was accompanying his father, a Danish missionary, on sled trips among the local Eskimos. At eight, he was driving his own dog team; at 10, joining the native men in hunts. The local schoolmaster complained that the parson’s son was truant too often, but Knud was developing a powerful physique and acquiring an intimate knowledge of the Eskimo’s language, customs and legends.

Far over the mountains, went one myth, in the dark “Kingdom of the North Wind himself, right at the end of the world,” there lived a ferocious race of people who wore polar bear skins and ate their enemies. The tale became a challenge to the boy.

The year Knud was 12, the Rasmussens moved to Denmark. Although he felt caged up there, he struggled through Copenhagen University. But the urge back towards the Arctic was strong in him. At 23, he wangled a job as scout for a Danish expedition, which planned to explore the Cape York region of north-west Greenland, part of the fabled “Kingdom of the North Wind”.

The ‘ferocious’ Cape Yorkers, it turned out, were Eskimos like the others he had known. But never before had they known a visitor like Knud who spoke their language and threw himself into their hunts, feasts and the dances. Kununguak, (Little Knud), they called him, and “Kununguak danced with me!” became the boast of women of all ages. Hunters snatched bits of his fur clothing for good-luck charms; and nearly everyone poured out to him thoughts and stories that no white man had ever heard before. Knut eagerly recorded them.

Back in Copenhagen, Knud wrote a popular book, The People of the Polar North, which, published in 1905, gave the world its first well-rounded picture of these valiant and colourful primitive tribes. The same year, he married Dagmar Anderson, an elegant Danish débutant. They had two daughters and a son.

The government turned a deaf year to Rasmussen’s plea that it establish trade with the fur hunters of Greenland’s north half. This vast ‘no man’s land’ was then barren and unclaimed. So in 1910, Knut set up a private trading post on the coast near Cape York, which he named Thule. Knut personally went out and recruited workmen, nurses, even a doctor for his settlement, and eventually a small church, school and a six-bed hospital sprang up there.

Soon, Norway and other countries began to covet this region. They were too late. Knut had unofficially claimed the land for Denmark. Rasmussen invested his profits from this northernmost shop in the world into further exploration of the Arctic. Over a period of 21 years, he launched seven major expeditions.

image-95_061024064200.jpgKnud Rasmussen (fourth from left) with other members of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Photo: the Royal Library

One thing marred the joy that Rasmussen took in this strenuous outdoor life. He was frequently in pain from a spinal injury received in a motorboat crash at age 30. In 1912, three years after the accident, Knud and Peter Fruygen, the Danish naturalist and author, were crossing 1,125 kilometers of inland ice to map Greenland’s northeast Coast. When a glacier blocked the way at Cape Schmelck, Knud, with a harness strung across his forehead, painfully pulled his big, heavily loaded sledge for seven hours over the sheer 1,000-metre ice barrier. 

News of such feats reached Copenhagen. Returning there in 1913, Knud found himself a celebrity, greeted by cheering crowds and honoured by torchlight parades. The Rasmussen legend continued to grow, and he kindled in everyone some of his own enormous enthusiasm him for life. “You don’t just sit and wait for adventure to come,” he liked to explain. “You go out and make it happen.”

At age 42, Rasmussen was ready to meet the challenge for which his earlier expeditions had prepared him. In June 1921, the fame-bound Fifth Thule Expedition to Arctic North America, sailed out of Copenhagen. It consisted of Knud and five scientists, plus a handful of Eskimos. For two years, they headquartered on Danish Island, south of Canada’s Melville Peninsula, and fanned out on explorative treks in all directions. And then, Knud began his major mission, the main lap of his Great Sledge Journey to the Pacific. Watching him depart that morning of 11 March 1923, his colleagues wondered if they’d ever see him again. With him, there were only two Thule Eskimos and two six-metre sledges, each drawn by 12 Huskies.

There was danger in every new meeting with wild, roving Eskimo bands, some of whom had never seen a white man before. Often, the expedition was greeted with threats, sometimes with warning shots. Knud smiling, would walk boldly up to his challengers. “I have come to see what you are made of,” he joked. Invariably, all tribes accepted him as one of their own.

To Rasmussen, rushing to record the ways of these people before advancing civilization could change them too much was the height of excitement. He saw in them a “witness to the strength and endurance and wild beauty of human life.”

On the Kent Peninsula, the small task force was joined by Leo Hansen, a Danish cameraman who documented the rest of the journey with historic films. By November, each day held only an hour and a half of light, and in the minus 50 degree cold, the camera froze every five minutes.

About 17 months after being swallowed up by the wilderness, Rasmussen’s expedition emerged on Alaska’s Pacific Coast. Then, to meet tribes still farther west, he chartered a ship and crossed the Bearing Street to Siberia. He wanted to mush home via Northern Europe, but startled Russian officials sent him back to North America.

image-96_061024064251.jpgRasmussen (left) with Mrs Arnalulunguak and Mr Meetek, Inuit hunters who were part of the Fifth Thule Expedition crew. Photo photo: National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

In daring to realize his dream, Rasmussen made several discoveries about the Eskimos: that all their tribes, many of them isolated from each other by thousands of kilometers, and for perhaps thousands of years, speak basically the same language, and that most of them, along with some Indian [Native American] tribes, share similar customs and myths. Thus, he offered important confirmation of a now generally accepted theory: All Eskimos, as well as the American Indians, came from Asia and migrated to America across the Bering Strait.

Somehow, Knud had managed to collect—and ship home—some 15,000 ethnographical and archaeological objects, ranging from small ambulates to kayaks and entire tents of wood and skin. This treasure, lodged at Denmark’s National Museum in Copenhagen, remains the largest and most complete collection of its kind. Furthermore, Rasmussen offered mankind a complete and unique description of the Eskimo’s intellectual culture.

Rasmussen was honoured at home and abroad, but glory was tempered with regret. The man of action wanted to go on exploring. Yet he knew that if his experiences on the Great Sled Journey were to have full value, he must record them for posterity, and so he spent the next five years writing Across Arctic America: The Eagle’s Gift, one of his best collections of Eskimo folk tales and several more technical works.

In 1932, at age 53, Rasmussen topped off his career by going before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to argue against Norway’s long disputed claim to East Greenland. Denmark was granted complete sovereignty over the land of his birth.

Knud seemed indestructible, but time was fast running out for him. On an expedition to East Greenland in 1933, he contracted a rare meat poisoning. When his ship docked at Copenhagen in November, he was fatally ill. He heard the cheers of the waiting throng and forced himself to get up from the stretcher. Proud and erect, he walked on the gangplank and managed his old confident grin before being driven off to a hospital. When he died seven weeks later, all Denmark joined Greenland in mourning.

Today, on the road north of Copenhagen, a massive 30-ton statue stands looking out to sea. The familiar face that springs from the granite has a look of cheerfully boyish expectation. The inscription from an Eskimo song reads:

“Only the spirits of the air, Will know what I shall find beyond the mountains,Yet I will urge my sledge dogs, Forward, forward, forward ...”



*The term ‘Eskimo’ is still prevalent but fading from popular use. ‘Inuit’ is currently the more accepted term to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

**Today, Alert, in Nunavut, Canada is the world’s northernmost permanent settlement.


First published in Reader's Digest January 1972


Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories