Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities

Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities

by Maxine Snowden


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Heroism and horror abound in these true stories of 16 great explorers who journeyed to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, two exquisite and unique ice wildernesses. Recounted are the exciting North Pole adventures of Erik the Red in 982 and the elusive searches for the “Northwest Passage” and “Farthest North” of Henry Hudson, Fridtjof Nansen, Fredrick Cook, and Robert Peary. Coverage of the South Pole begins with Captain Cook in 1772; continues through the era of land grabbing and the race to reach the Pole with James Clark Ross, Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton; and ends with an examination of the scientists at work there today. Astounding photographs and journal entries, sidebars on the Inuit and polar animals, and engaging activities bring the harrowing expeditions to life. Activities include making a Viking compass, building a model igloo, making a cross staff to measure latitude, creating a barometer, making pemmican, and writing a newspaper like William Parry’s “Winter Chronicle.” The North and South Poles become exciting routes to learning about science, geography, and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556525001
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/28/2003
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 11.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.38(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

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Polar Explorers for Kids

Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica with 21 Activities

By Maxine Snowden

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 Chicago Review Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-263-1


Erik the Red Reaches Greenland, 981 or 982

You might think that the first person to lay claim to land in the majestic Arctic would be a gallant hero — a nobleman in search of glory for his king, maybe, or a scientist on a quest for discovery and knowledge. That is not the case, however. The person credited with first settling territory in the Arctic was actually a bloodthirsty killer who discovered Greenland, a part of the Arctic, while running for his life.

Erik the Red was a Viking. The Vikings were an aggressive group of Scandinavian explorers and warriors who plundered the coasts of Europe in the eighth to tenth centuries. Even by Viking standards, Erik the Red was considered a particularly nasty person, and he was exiled from his native country of Norway after committing murders, according to the Graenlendinga Saga, a medieval Icelandic chronicle. Upon his exile, Erik settled in Iceland with his father, Thorvald. But his taste for blood didn't stop. He murdered two more men in Iceland, which earned him a three-year sentence of outlawry. In the 900s Iceland had no prisons; the punishment for murder was banishment from "civilized" society. Those who were outlawed were forced to surrender their farms and most of their other possessions and run away to far-off places, where they tried to hide until their sentence was up (according to the law, anyone who could find them during the years of their sentence could kill them). Some outlaws left Iceland only to sneak back into mainland Scandinavia. Some hid out in caves or secluded sheds on small, uninhabited islands, but the long winters took most of their lives. Erik the Red decided to find a new country instead.

The year was either 981 or 982 — historians are not sure of the date. After his sentence, Erik the Red quickly found a temporary hiding place on Oxen Island, a very small island in one of Iceland's west-coast bays. He chose this place because the dangerous tidal whirlpools that surround it can swallow a small boat, and he thought that they would protect him from those seeking revenge. Here, with a few allies, he gathered supplies, readied a sturdy boat, and made plans to head off to uncharted territory.

As far back as the early 800s, the Vikings were masters of shipbuilding, and they used their boats to conduct pirate raids upon coastal farms, towns, and churches all over the northern world and as far away as Russia and Turkey. The knörrs, or boats, they built were made of wood. The planks of the knörrs were caulked and treated with animal hair or wool, which was heated until it was almost like tar, then smeared onto the wood to seal it. The keel (the main structural part of a boat, which extends down into the water from the boat's bottom) of a Viking ship was not only long, but was made of one piece of wood so that it was especially strong. This made the ship easier to steer, as did the steerboard, a rudder that extended out from the right side of the ship. (The modern word starboard comes from this word.) The Vikings' boats had sails, but they were also outfitted with oars to use as a backup. The ships were about 76 feet long and about 17 feet across at the widest point. They required only six feet of water in order to float, making it easy to approach close to shore. Each boat carried a crew of about 35 people on warfaring voyages, but the ships carried more people on journeys of exploration such as Erik the Red's. A Viking ship could also carry 30 tons of cargo. Every night a tent was strung up over much of the boat so that people could sleep under a shelter.

Viking explorers such as Erik the Red had no maps of their routes, no charts of ocean depth or ocean currents, and no compasses to aid them on their journeys. Yet the Vikings navigated all over the northern world and beyond.

How did Erik the Red navigate his way without getting lost or going in circles? He used several subtle techniques. To avoid getting lost on the trackless ocean, he always tried to sail in a straight line. On clear days, the Vikings used the sun to accomplish this. In the northernmost part of the world, mid-May through mid-August has always been the favorite time to undertake explorations, because during this summer season it never gets dark. For this reason, the region is called "the Land of the Midnight Sun." Icelanders used this to their advantage on journeys. They also knew where the sun was positioned in the sky at noon in their homeland, and they used that knowledge to steer their ships, keeping the sun at that same height and adjusting their course every day at noon.

On cloudy days the Vikings looked for land-dwelling birds to guide them to shore. If there were any such birds in the vicinity of the boat (the Vikings knew which birds lived on shore and which lived out on the open ocean), the Vikings could follow them to land as they flew home each evening. This method has its limits, however; it only works relatively close to land, and it does not work at all in the spring and fall migration seasons, when shorebirds do not fly back and forth to land daily. But the Vikings were natural observers of their environments, and they knew that on cloudy days they could also look for iceblink, a faint yellowish or greenish haze that appears on the underside of clouds in the far distance. A yellowish haze was the reflection up onto the clouds of a vast area of snow or ice; a greenish haze was the reflection of land. Spotting iceblink requires keen attention, but once the greenish haze was seen, the Vikings could steer toward it.

At night, Erik the Red used the North Star to navigate, again using the principle of staying on a straight route over the open ocean. This is the only star in the northern hemisphere that does not appear to move from our vantage point on Earth: all the other stars in the constellations appear to swing in a circular pattern, slightly shifting their positions each night. The Vikings, knew where the North Star was located in the sky above Iceland, and they looked to it to keep to their course. Storms could blow them hundreds of miles off a straight course, and it often took many days to get back to where they wanted to be, but they always knew in what direction to head. In the process, they often found lands they would not otherwise have come across.

Embarking on his quest to find the mysterious land he'd heard so much about, Erik the Red decided on a single navigational method: keeping the Snaefellsnes Glacier, on Iceland's west coast, directly behind his ship. This very tall glacier is shaped like a cone and reflects light well, making its iceblink distinct for at least 100 miles. It is still used to help determine direction today.

After sailing for about 500 miles across the North Atlantic, Erik the Red reached the east coast of an unknown territory. Finding no good place to land, Erik continued around the southern tip and up the west coast, and eventually sailed into one of Greenland's many fjords. A fjord is a narrow, deep inlet of the sea that runs between cliffs or glaciers. As Erik the Red glided through the fjord he saw that, although a glacier stretched high on both sides of the fjord as far as one could see, sloping up to it were large, beautiful green fields. The fjord itself was rich in fish, seals, and walruses. Erik liked what he saw, decided to stay, and immediately named the fjord after himself: "Eiriksfjord."

The first thing Erik and his crew did was unpack extra sleeping bags, which were made out of animal skins. They'd need to sleep with the furry side close to their bodies if they wanted to stay warm — and alive — in this vast, chilly, and empty place. Although other northern people created similar devices to stay warm, the Vikings are credited with having invented the sleeping bag, and they used them on ships as well as on land.

Erik's next step was to name the country. He chose to call it Greenland — a deliberate advertisement. He wanted his fellow Icelanders to think about the land's green fields, so that some would want to settle there with him. (Those who eventually did were surprised to discover that 95 percent of Greenland is actually white, as it is covered in snow and ice.) Erik's plan was to explore the new land during his period of outlawry and then, once his three-year sentence was up, to go back and recruit Icelanders to join him in claiming the territory and settling in Greenland.

It's not clear whether the Inuit, who are native to the Arctic, inhabited this southern part of the land during this time or later migrated to Greenland from the north; if they were in the area, however, they certainly hid well. During the three winters and two summers that he explored Greenland while waiting out his sentence, Erik the Red apparently saw no native peoples on the land. As far as he was concerned, this "new" land was free for the taking — and he intended to take as much as he could. When his sentence was over Erik returned to Iceland. He described Greenland in glowing terms, and he found families looking for new land. His own family, including his son Leif Eriksson (who would later discover America — about 400 years before Christopher Columbus), joined him in moving to Greenland. In 25 ships an unknown number of people loaded their tools and other possessions, including their sheep, cows, goats, and pigs. The ships set sail in the spring of 985 or 986. Fierce storms battered them along the way. Several ships sank; others turned around and headed back home. Only 14 of the 25 ships reached Greenland. They held about 450 people, including Erik the Red.

Erik and his family settled at Brattahlid, the name he gave to his farm on Eiriksfjord, where they built a sturdy house made of thick rocks covered with sod, and a barn that held 40 cattle. Some of the people who had traveled to Greenland with Erik claimed land in the same area and built 189 other small farmsteads. The rest of the Viking group continued almost 200 miles farther up the west coast and established a second settlement in an area that Erik had explored earlier. Here there was room for 90 more farms on the coast, before the land became completely covered by the layers of thick ice and snow called the Greenland ice pack.

The Viking civilization in Greenland flourished from the late 900s until the late 1100s, with Erik the Red and his descendants thriving on his original fjord. At its peak, the two Greenland settlements had 3,000 inhabitants. They grew grasses for hay, and the livestock they had brought with them provided meat as well as milk, cheese, and other dairy products. But they needed to trade with Iceland and other northern European countries to get wheat and other grains, metal, and tools.

During their time in Greenland, the Vikings continued to explore the Arctic and sub-Arctic, often looking for timber and other materials to trade. (Iceland, their trading partner, has almost no trees.) Among them two explorers stand out: Leif Eriksson (Erik's son) and Bjarni Herjulfsson. As described in the medieval Icelandic sagas, Leif explored the Arctic and sub-Arctic, perhaps as far west as Maine or Nova Scotia (a place they called Vinland because of the wild grapes that grew there), but certainly into Newfoundland, where a Viking base camp has been excavated by scientists. Now called L'Anse aux Meadows, this settlement on the shores of northern Newfoundland includes eight Viking houses. Evidence indicates that the area was inhabited until about 1014. In the course of their Arctic explorations, the Vikings also reached close to 76 degrees north, a record that lasted about 250 years.

Until the 1100s, ships sailed to and from Greenland without encountering much ocean ice or many icebergs. But, by the end of the 1100s, the climate started to grow colder. The Greenland ice pack grew thicker and wider, coming closer to the Vikings' homes. The ice on the fjord didn't break up until midsummer. Fall came earlier and spring came later, shortening the growing season for hay. This meant that less livestock could be supplied with enough of it to survive the very long winter. Fewer ships from Europe sailed through the now-dangerous iceberg obstacle course. No one wanted to risk pushing his ship's wooden hull through the deadly pack ice (sea ice that has formed into a large mass) near the shore.

This climate trend continued. By the 1200s it was even colder, and even fewer ships arrived with supplies. Then, in 1349, the Black Death plague that had already blanketed Europe hit Bergen, Norway. Spread by the fleas on rats, this plague caused ugly swellings, and its victims usually died within a few days of becoming infected. One-third of the entire population of Bergen was wiped out, and trade between the two countries stopped. This was catastrophic for the Vikings; the major Norwegian port had been Greenland's primary trading partner, and its king, who by then had a rich monopoly on trade with Greenland, refused to let any other country attempt trade with the Greenland Vikings. The last known trade ship from Bergen visited Greenland in 1367.

As Greenland's climate changed, the Thule Inuit ("too-lay in-you-it"), native Arctic peoples who had resided in the north, began to migrate farther south in search of warmer climes. They were not happy to encounter the fierce Vikings, and the two groups frequently battled. The Thule Inuit were hunters, not farmers, which gave them an advantage over their new neighbors, since the Vikings' livestock, like the Vikings themselves, increasingly did not have enough to eat. They were also good fighters, using "bombs" made of moose bladders to knock the Vikings down in battles. The Vikings had no guns and were weakened by malnutrition. In 1379 the Inuit killed 18 Vikings and took two boys captive. By 1410 both Viking settlements faced extinction as deaths continued to mount.

Although the Vikings were clearly the first group of people to find the New World, they did not permanently colonize it. By 1500, the Viking civilization of Greenland had weakened so much that it simply vanished. Visitors today can still see the ruins of Erik the Red's house on the west Greenland fjord.


John Davis Dances with Inuit and Explores the Davis Straits and Labrador, 1585–1587

The English explorer John Davis (~1550–1605) explored the Arctic at an exceptionally exciting time in European history. The so-called Dark Ages had already given way to the Renaissance, a period when arts and ideas flourished across Europe from the mid-1300s into the 1500s. After the Renaissance came the Age of Discovery, when European explorers mapped areas of the world from the Azores to the Americas. Davis lived during this period under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603 — a very long time for one person to rule a country! Queen Elizabeth I was very much interested in exploring and claiming new lands. The Spanish and Portuguese were far ahead of England in the race for discoveries, and England badly wanted to catch up. Under the queen's authority, Francis Drake circumnavigated (circled by ship) the entire globe, and Martin Frobisher explored Baffin Island west of Greenland. On the island, he found a dead narwhal (an arctic sea mammal whose males have a long, twisted ivory tusk), and delivered its tusk to the royal court, along with some ore that he thought was rich in gold (it was not). Frobisher had also brought several Inuit back to England as curiosities for the Queen and her court, all of whom became ill and died soon after arriving.

John Davis wanted to explore new lands as well, both for his own satisfaction and to win favor with the queen. As a boy, Davis had loved to sail boats — any boats. He was mesmerized by stories of voyages and adventure (one of his childhood friends was Walter Raleigh, a colorful explorer who would later be knighted by the queen and become Sir Walter Raleigh). By 1583 Davis felt that he was old enough and knowledgeable enough to set sail on his own adventure. His primary goal was to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route that was said to connect Europe and Asia, although no one had ever seen it. If it did exist, however, the person who found the passage would win great riches and attention, because England would be able to use it to increase its trade with Asia. Only one previous explorer, John Cabot, had officially sought the Northwest Passage. His first attempt, in 1497, was not successful, and his second, in 1498, was even less so: he and his five ships never returned home.

Rumors of a Northwest Passage had persisted ever since Europeans had begun mapping the Arctic. There was much disagreement on where, exactly, this passage was. Whalers, who spent much of their time out on the water, thought that the larger expanses of Arctic waters might lead to the Pacific Ocean. In England, the route considered most likely was northwest (through what is now Canada), but some thought that the passage lay in the northeast (over what is now Russia). By focusing on exploring the northern regions of the world, the English faced less competition than they would have in the warmer, more hospitable southern regions. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers, for example, went south, rounding the tip of Africa or South America to reach the Orient. The French had established a vigorous fur trade in areas that are now part of the northern United States and southern Canada. And anyone going over the land through the Middle East toward Asia had to pay money to Turkish merchants along the way as a bribe for passage across their lands.


Excerpted from Polar Explorers for Kids by Maxine Snowden. Copyright © 2004 Chicago Review Press. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents


Part I The Arctic Arctic Exploration Time Line,
1 Erik the Red Reaches Greenland, 981 or 982,
2 John Davis Dances with Inuit and Explores the Davis Straits and Labrador, 1585–1587,
3 Henry Hudson Ventures Northwest and Northeast in Search of a Passage, 1607–1610,
4 William Parry Explores Lancaster Sound and Beyond, 1819–1820, 1821–1823, 1824–1825, and 1827,
5 John Franklin Leads Arctic Exploration's Biggest Disaster, 1845–1847,
6 Fridtjof Nansen Travels "Farthest North," 1893–1896, and Roald Amundsen Discovers the Northwest Passage, 1903–1906,
7 Robert Peary and Fredrick Cook Race to the North Pole, 1908 and 1909,
8 Gretel Ehrlich Explores Greenland's Nature and Its Native Peoples, 1993–2000,
Part II The Antarctic Antarctic Exploration Time Line,
9 Captain James Cook's Three Voyages to Antarctica's Edge, 1768–1775,
10 James Clark Ross Explores Antarctica by Ship, 1839–1843,
11 Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen Race to the South Pole, 1910–1912,
12 Ernest Shackleton Attempts to Cross Antarctica, 1914–1916,
13 Admiral Richard E. Byrd Is First to Fly Over the South Pole, 1929,
14 Scientist Bill Green Studies Antarctic Lakes, 1980–1994,
Selected Answers,
Web Sites,
Photo Credits,

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