Samuel Balto (1861 — 1921)
At a time when Sami and other indigenous peoples were taken to big cities to be displayed as exotic objects for the bourgeoisie to wonder at, Fridtjof Nansen did the opposite and brought two Sami men to more or less desolate areas. He invited them along, not to exhibit them, but to make use of their long experience with winter mountains and skiing. They were in fact recruited by Nansen to participate in what was to be the first documented crossing of Greenland.
One of these Sami men was named Samuel Johannesen Balto, and the year was 1888. The 27-year-old Balto was from Karasjok (Northern-Norway), where he had worked with reindeer herding, forestry and fishing.
The idea that it could be smart to take a Sami on a skiing expedition to Greenland, Nansen had learned from the Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Nansen had great faith in the Sami skiing skills, and in the Norwegian edition of his book The First Crossing of Greenland he writes that he believes it was the Sami who first introduced skiing in Scandinavia.
According to plan, the expedition participants were to be set ashore on the east coast of Greenland, and then cross the island on skis. The expedition turned out to involve more than just skiing when the participants ended up on a 12-day involuntary voyage on an ice floe, to mention just one example of their hardships.
Balto is described by Nansen as talkative and lively, and his cheerful character proved to be a strength for the expedition. Keeping spirits high on board was very important for the motivation in the group. Under the iconic motto «West coast or death», the expedition participants traveled over 600 km before reaching Godthåb on the west coast of Greenland. The motto was not chosen at random, because they knew that no one would come looking for them on the east coast — they had no choice but to cross Greenland. In Godthåb, they learned that the last boat for the season had already left, and they therefore had to spend the winter with the locals. When the winter season was over, Balto traveled with the rest of the group to Kristiania — the city that became Oslo in 1925. By his standards, he there experienced lavish parties and events.
In his book Med Nansen over Grønlandsisen i 1988: min reise fra Sameland til Grønland [With Nansen across the Greenland Ice Cap in 1888: My Journey from Sápmi to Greenland], he writes: «Safe and sound back home I recounted everything I had seen and heard, and described the big parties where we had dined with elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen. The Sami who listened to me would not quite believe what they heard.» (Our translation.)
In 1898, Balto traveled to Alaska to start reindeer farming. The reindeer were used to transport mail and goods from Nome to remote settlements of gold diggers. Later, he also worked as a gold digger himself, and he lived in Alaska until his death in 1921. His name would live on even after his death, through the dog Balto. The dog was named after Samuel Balto and was the lead sled dog on the final stretch of the so-called Serum Race in 1925, where dog teams were used to transport medicine to the diphtheria-stricken Nome. A statue of the dog Balto has been erected in Central Park in New York.
Balto got to travel to places and see things that few of his contemporaries could dream of, but interestingly, in his story he also highlights his many encounters with other people and the bonds of friendship that were formed on his journeys.
- Drivenes, E. A. og Jølle, H. D. (red.), Norsk Polarhistorie : 1 : Ekspedisjonene. Vol. 1. Oslo: Gyldendal, 2004.
- Balto, Samuel J., Med Nansen over Grønlandsisen i 1888 : Min Reise Fra Sameland Til Grønland. Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget, 1980. (www.nb.no)
- Dag og tid, 28.09.2012: 24–25 (polarhistorie.no)