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Follow in the Footsteps of the Great Arctic Explorers


Follow in the Footsteps of the Great Arctic Explorers

The story of Arctic exploration involves countless people and many nations.

By Dan Wiencek, A&K Staff Writer | October 10, 2023

What motivated the earliest explorers to brave bitterly cold waters? From the era of the Vikings through times of the great Elizabethan navigators, the quest for the Arctic was driven predominantly by commerce, be it a faster route to China’s riches of or the belief that gold was waiting to be unearthed beneath the ice. But like other lands Europeans dubbed the “New” world, large swaths of the Arctic were already inhabited, whether by the Sami of Lapland or the Inupiat, Inuit and Yupik of North America.

In time, the urge to conquer new territory became a matter of personal and national pride. The British quest for a navigable “Northwest Passage” became a national obsession in the 19th century, and the United States was similarly driven to reach the poles. Nevertheless, it was the Danes and Norwegians — who simply were cut from a different cloth — that set the earliest expeditions apart.

Let’s take a look at a condensed history of Arctic exploration, the forerunners of the Arctic expeditions we embark on for pleasure today.


5000 BC

Canada’s Arctic coasts and islands were first explored starting about 5,000 years ago by the Sivullirmiut (Palaeo-Inuit), who are believed to have set out from Siberia across the Bering Strait. Arriving in the Arctic archipelago, they encountered the Norse.


AD 800–900

Vikings sought new land to settle on, reaching and colonizing Iceland, likely in the second half of the ninth century, making them the first Europeans to reach North America. Later settling along Greenland’s southwestern coast at the end of the 10th century, groups of Norse ventured further to the eastern edge of Canada’s Arctic in search of new land and trading partners.


16th Century

English expeditions under the command of Richard Chancellor and Hugh Willoughby first tried to find a sea way to China along the north coast of Eurasia: the Northeast Passage. While failing to reach their goal, they nonetheless mapped the western fringes of the Russian Arctic and established trade links with the Muscovites.



In 1845, John Franklin set out to conquer the Northwest Passage on a famously doomed expedition that left his crew stranded in the ice-choked sea. The Irish explorer Robert McClure joined the search for him and eventually discovered the passage himself in 1850-51.



Two explorers, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, both claimed to reach the North Pole in this year on separate expeditions, though both claims are highly disputed and generally not accepted by polar historians.



The first expedition confirmed to reach the North Pole actually travelled by air — Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen flew over the pole by airship.



While many claimed to have gotten there first, the Soviet Union’s Sever-2 expedition is widely acknowledged as the first corroborated instance of human beings standing at the North Pole. (Like Amundsen, they arrived by air.)



American explorer Ralph Plaisted and his companions reached the North Pole by snowmobile, aided by supplies dropped from a turboprop plane. This feat was topped the next year when Ralph Plaisted and his team reached it on foot, having been forced to spend the winter in the dark, frozen wilderness while waiting for drifting sea ice to open a route for them.


Today, Abercrombie & Kent is leading its first luxury expedition to the North Pole alongside renowned explorers, scientists and photographers, revealing this vast land of polar bears and sea ice in incomparable fashion. Learn more about Arctic journeys here.

A&K Luxury Expedition Cruises to the Arctic