by Charles Enman, Ottawa Citizen
Roy “Fritz” Koerner was one of Canada’s most respected glaciologists and a veteran of one of the most daring expeditions that ever took place in the Far North.
Mr. Koerner and three other men trekked by dog sled across the Arctic Sea to become the first people to ever make the complete traversal. Along the way, they may well have been the first people to ever reach the North Pole by foot.
Including periods of encampment, the trek took 16 months, beginning on Feb. 21, 1968, from Point Barrow, Alaska, and ending on May 30 of the following year, when they landed on a small Norwegian island, Vesle Tavleoya.
The team, headed by British explorer Wally Herbert, had reached the North Pole on April 4, 1969, a day of so cold, -45C, that the four men could only plant a Union Jack and have the most muted of celebrations, a meal of beef stew.
Were they really the first to reach the Pole? Probably. Explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary had made the same claim 60 years earlier, but later examinations of his diary and other evidence has led researchers to suspect he was never closer to the Pole than eight kilometres and probably much further.
For work he had earlier done on a British expedition in the Antarctic, Mr. Koerner had already received the Polar Medal, given by the Queen for participation in any Polar expedition. With his triumph in the Arctic, Mr. Koerner was one of a mere handful of people to receive clasps for expeditions at both Poles.
Even as far back as the Arctic expedition, Mr. Koerner was already taking ice-core samples to determine how long the periods of summer warming had been over the past 11,000 years of climate history. He was one of the originators of this technique, and his research, from the beginning, became part of the data climatologists used to chart climate warming (it was referenced in the recent reports of the International Panel on Climate Change).
Mr. Koerner, 75, died on Monday after a brief bout with colon cancer.
Born in the British naval port Portsmouth on July 3, 1932, he was always fascinated by people coming and going from all over the world and resolved as a child to do his share of travelling. At a Christmas party in 1956, when he was 24, he heard of a chance to join the British Antarctic Survey as a meteorologist. That began his lifelong interest in glaciology.
In 1968, he joined the Polar Continental Shelf Project of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, where he worked on ice-core analysis.
In 1979, after years of research production, he was named head of the Geological Survey of Canada’s glaciology group, where he continued to work until his formal retirement in 1999.
But Roy Koerner never retired. As an emeritus scientist, he continued to go into the office every day and still went on annual field trips. In fact, only a few weeks ago, he was on his final field trip when his recent sense of unwellness suddenly worsened and he was flown home to Ottawa, where the cancer was diagnosed.
He had been advised not to go on that field trip, but Mr. Koerner had important business at hand – initiating a younger colleague into the intricacies of taking ice-core sample on the glacier circuit he had visited every summer for decades.
“Fritz was one of those people who are perfectly matched to their work,” his colleague of 30 years, Dave Fisher, said. “His work was his life and passion, and his colleagues were his friends. He even took his children to the Arctic.
“Fritz will remain an inspiration to all of us, not only as a friend and colleague, but as an inspiration about how to live a life.”
In the last decade, Mr. Koerner spent a lot of time teaching young people about glaciology and climate change. He was a lecturer with Students On Ice, an award-winning organization led by Gatineau environmentalist and educator Geoff Green that offers young people learning expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. He lectured with an irreverence that appealed to young people and a direct simplicity that put him entirely on their level.
Mr. Koerner had been a fitness buff from his youth. He was an excellent cross-country skier and only a few months ago was still jogging regularly.
He was a dedicated family man. His late wife, Anna, was often ill, and many times he had sole charge of their four children.
His daughter, Eva, described him as “a wonderfully warm, gentle and humorous man who had somehow seemed invincible.
“He taught us always to find something in life that you’re passionate about and just live life to the fullest – and in that sense, he was a real example of how everyone should lead their life.”
Besides Eva, he is survived by daughters Davina and Kristina and his son Justin.