Dialogue and negotiation can pave the way forward in the Norwegian-Canadian dispute over the arctic shipwreck Maud.
One of the greatest ironies in life occurs when people who care passionately about someone or something get into a disagreement over who loves or cares more, or who has a better idea about the welfare of the target of their affections. We see it all the time in family custody battles, and the irony is that, at times, dueling parents harm their offspring in their fight to do what they deem best for the child. Canada and Norway have the potential to do just that right now in an international tug-of-war over a Norwegian-Canadian immigrant named Maud. Maud is not a child, but a shipwreck – and a significant one, at that. In the last few months, a well-publicized effort to repatriate Maud back to Norway has been met with determination from the Arctic community of Cambridge Bay, Canada, to keep her exactly where she has rested, partially out of the water, for the last eight decades.
I know the issue well, and, apart from those who built the ship in 1917, and those who lived and worked on it from 1917 to 1930, I probably know Maud better than anyone. In 1996, I led an expedition to Cambridge Bay, with the support and assistance of the community, to conduct a detailed archaeological examination of the wreck. That work under water was followed by research in Norwegian and Canadian archives, a detailed study of many photographs, plans, and drawings, and I returned in 2000 to do additional work by conducting a detailed sonar scan of the hulk. My work at that time also led to many discussions with friends in Norway and Canada about Maud – in particular, the two Norwegian icons best associated with the ship, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen and Oscar Wisting. Amundsen had Maud built, and Wisting commanded her through her most difficult years locked in the Arctic ice. Through my discussions with these, and other, individuals, I gained a strong sense of Maud’s importance to Cambridge Bay and to Canada.
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The ship, even as a wreck battered by the elements and locked into mud and ice, is now a symbol and icon. It is a historical site and an archaeological resource, as well as a memorial to Amundsen, and it is a heritage tourism asset for Cambridge Bay. Maud is also the design inspiration for a famous Canadian polar ship, the RCMP’s St. Roch, which is now a national historic site, preserved ashore at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Maud’s egg-shaped hull and internal structure was copied by naval architect Tom Hallidie when he designed St. Roch not long after he refitted Maud in 1926. If St. Roch has a mother, her name is Maud.
Maud was built so that Amundsen could test his theory that a strongly built ship could freeze into the icepack and drift, with crew safe and sound, to the North Pole. While Maud never reached the Pole, stuck instead for three years off the coast of Siberia, it did serve as a laboratory for scientific research. Freed by a thaw in 1920, the ship journeyed to Nome for another attempt. In the end, however, Maud was auctioned off to satisfy Amundsen’s debts, and entered into Canadian ownership in 1925 as a supply ship for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Refitted and renamed Baymaud, the ship sailed north under the command of veteran Canadian Arctic skipper Gus Foellmer in 1926. She ended her days afloat as a warehouse and wireless radio station at Cambridge Bay, sinking in the winter of 1930/1931 when a leak in the propeller shaft flooded the hull. She has remained there ever since, stripped of masts and superstructure, dynamited open in 1939, and slowly pressed into the mud and chewed on by the ice that covers the bay each winter.
It is the circumstances of that icy grave that have compelled the Norwegians to launch their initiative to raise the wreck and return it home to a specially built Maud Museum. It should be noted, in fairness, that the Norwegians are the legal owners of the wreck, having bought it from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1990. Time and the environment have not been kind to the ship: Back in 1996, we found that it was starting to collapse in as massive deck beams were breaking, and that, at the same time, it was beginning to open up at the keel – the ship’s backbone – and split apart. At that time, I thought the hull would break up within a matter of a few years, but the staunch construction that enabled Maud to survive for this long is apparently tougher than I thought.
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That said, it will not last forever. Back then, addressing the ship’s future, I recommended that government and those who cared in the private sector pursue a series of options, including bracing the hull and improving tourism access. I also suggested that they engage in a dialogue with Norway about Maud – a ship whose significance is bound not to one, but two nations, and which is internationally important for all who care about the Arctic and its history, as well as its environment (which Amundsen studied from those now-sunken decks).
Now, I renew the call for dialogue and negotiation to find a positive future for Maud. From whatever common ground emerges, however, full funding must then follow. Because of the significance of the wreck, Canada, as a responsible steward of the past, should insist on nothing less than comprehensive planning and proof of adequate finances, as well as a written plan on what will be done to address the needs and concerns of Cambridge Bay if it agrees to the ship’s departure. If Cambridge Bay does not agree to let the ship go, and if Canada denies an export permit, then Canada, Nunavut, and Cambridge Bay should take proactive steps to maintain the integrity of the wreck – bracing it, and doing more to share its story with tourists and the rest of the world through an interactive exhibition online. That means funding, too.
Archaeologists prefer leaving shipwrecks where they are, maintaining their context as wrecks. If recovery is envisioned, both international and national archaeological guidelines, as well as common sense, dictate that plans not only be laid, but also fully funded in all aspects before a single plank is disturbed. In the case of Maud, decades of immersion in the sea means that “conservation” must take place. Conservation is a lengthy and expensive process to treat saturated timbers, as well as to address metal corrosion and salt saturation that, if left unchecked, will lead to irreversible damage. The processes for treating metal and wood are separate and mutually destructive.
Ultimately, as in any custody case, whatever happens with the wreck of Maud should be focused, as it is with a child, on what is best for Maud. Passion is laudable, but let the discussions that follow be focused on the head as well as the heart.