Sunday, October 13, 2013

Professor shares ancestor's tale
Ruzesky's great-grandfather's cousin was Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole
Julie Chadwick / Nanaimo Daily News
October 11, 2013

VIU professor Jay Ruzesky will speak about his experiences in Antarctica and his famous ancestor Roald Amundsen in a presentation at the university on Oct. 18

It was out on the bow of the Polar Pioneer headed for Antarctica, that Jay Ruzesky got a peculiar sensation.

The vast, inscrutable landscape was stunning, said Ruzesky, and in its presence he struggled to understand his accompanying emotions.

The closest he could come to describing it was that he felt he was home.

Though it was a completely foreign locale, Ruzesky may have been picking up on an ancestral affinity: His great-grandfather's cousin was Roald Amundsen, famous for being the first explorer to go to the South Pole.

"Lots of families have their claim to fame, whatever that might be," said Ruzesky. "That was kind of our family's fame story, was that we were related to Amundsen the explorer."

On Oct. 18 Ruzesky will share the tale of his ancestor, as part of VIU's Arts and Humanities colloquium series.

In his presentation, Amundsen Then and Now: The End of the Age of Heroic Exploration Ruzesky will look at his own 100th anniversary expedition to Anarctica and analyze how exploration has drastically changed in the last 100 years.

It was on Dec. 14, 1911 that Amundsen arrived at the South Pole in a five-person, 16-dog expedition team.

Plunging a Norwegian flag into the frozen ground, the acheivement was the culmination of years of fundraising and planning.

Some of those funds were raised through North American speaking tours, one of which had stopped in Claresholm Alta., where Ruzesky's ancestors lived.

It was at that time that Ruzesky's grandfather received a watch as a gift from Amundsen, a keepsake that remains in his family today.

Amundsen was initially inspired by the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

"One of the things he said in his autobiography was that he read about polar exploration when he was a young man," said Ruzesky. "When he was 14 years old he read Franklin's accounts of one of his expeditions in the North. .. it was a horrible expedition and all of the men spent a couple of weeks barely surviving to get back from where they'd been. They ended up eating the leather from their shoes because they had no food. So it was horrible suffering, but what he says in his autobiography is that he read that and was attracted to it, and thought, 'Wow, I'd like to go suffer for a cause too.'" Amundsen's experiences in turn served to inspire Ruzesky.

"That idea of polar exploration, of going to the ends of the earth to these stark, cold, lonely places which was where he really spent his life - that reaches pretty deeply into the imagination," he said. "I was told those stories from pretty early on."

However, travelling to far-flung places means a very different experience for the modern explorer, he added.

Ruzesky's own expedition to Antarctica in December of 2011 - which he detailed in his memoir In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage - highlighted these changes.

"One goes in rather a different way now. I was not as interested in suffering, as he seemed to be," he said.

"It's a very hostile and challenging landscape. .. but it's also a place where modern clothing and transportation can take a lot of the risk out of it and make it a lot more comfortable."

In his talk Ruzesky details how he came to terms with his own romantic notions of exploration - his visions of frostbitten cheeks and dogs howling into the wind - to come away with an appreciation for what remote places like the Antarctic can offer to one's perspective.

Ruzesky's talk is free and will be held in VIU's Malaspina Theatre from 10-11:30 a.m. on Oct. 18.

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