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Students of Polar Ecology Course from the University of South Bohemia  in Svalbard © CPE Archive
Photo: Students of Polar Ecology Course from the University of South Bohemia in Svalbard © CPE Archive

Czech footprints in the Arctic

 

 

Czech institutions, associations and clubs with a connection to the Arctic


ARCTOS MU

Centre for Polar Ecology

Julius von Payer Institute for Arctic and Subarctic Research (only in Czech)

Klub islandských fanatiků (Icelandic Fanatics Club – only in Czech)

Czech Translators of the North

Nordic Society

Skandinávský dům (Scandinavian House – only in Czech)

 

Czech cultural festivals, scientific seminars and other similar events with a connection to the Arctic


Arctic Festival

Severský filmový klub (Nordic Film Club – only in Czech)

 

Czech footprints in the Arctic

The Czechs, a nation from Central Europe that is not even surrounded by the sea, might seem not to be very interested in what is happening in distant parts of the globe, moreover beyond the Arctic Circle. The opposite is true, as is known from the information documenting important Czech activities around the world, whether of an exploratory, cognitive, informative, scientific or sports nature. Find out more about Czech footprints in the Arctic from the first visit to Iceland in the early 17th century and a mission of the Moravian Brethren in Greenland in the first half of the 18th century to current research projects of Czech scientists in Svalbard.

Daniel Strejc Vetter (1592–1669), a Czech printer, writer and traveler, member of the Church of the Moravian Brethren, made a trip to Iceland with Jan Salmon-Podhorský in 1613 and wrote the book Islandia  (1638 in Polish and Czech, 1640 in German).

Christian David (1692–1751) from Ženklava, North Moravia and cousins Matthäus (Matthew) Stach (1711–1787) and Christian Stach (1711–1739) from Mankovice, North Moravia were the first Moravian Brethren missionaries to Greenland in the 18th century. All of them spoke German, but always one of their parents was of Czech nationality. They worked in Greenland from 1733 and in 1747 they built their mission station of New Herrnhut (Noorliit in Greenlandic) or New Moravia, which is now part of Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. By 1900, almost all Greenlanders had been baptized, and the Moravian Brethren therefore handed over their missionary activities to the Danish Lutheran Church. The New Moravia building first became a museum, in the years 1984–2008 it was part of the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik) and today it houses the Greenlandic Ombudsman.

The botanist Thaddäus Xaverius Peregrinus Haenke (1761–1816 or 1818) was the first person from the Czech lands to visit the territory of present-day Alaska. After studying at Charles University in Prague, he settled as a prominent scientific researcher in Vienna, from where he in 1789, on the recommendation of Emperor Joseph II, set out on Admiral Alejandro Malaspina’s expedition along the American coast to the north. At each landing, Haenke collected botanical specimens for his herbariums. In Yakutat Bay, Alaska, however, the vegetation seemed so similar to the European one that he preferred to focus on local culture, especially music. Several artifacts he received from the Alaskan Tlingites in 1791, such as a unique hat with a drawing of a beaver, are now part of the collections of the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures in Prague. An uninhabited islet and a glacier in Yakutat Bay, which is off the southern Alaskan coast, were named after Haenke.

Julius Payer (1841–1915), born in Teplice-Schönau in a German speaking family, was the greatest Arctic explorer from the Czech lands and the most famous painter of Arctic landscapes. He realized many dangerous first climbing ascents in the Tyrol Alps and, together with Karel Weyprecht, he was the leader of the Austro-Hungarian Expedition to the North Pole in 1872–1874, in which he discovered the Land of Franz Joseph. Other participants from the Czech lands were Ota Kříž (Krisch) (1845–1874), Gustav Matouš Brosch (1844–1924), Eduard Orel (1841–1892) and Josef Calasanzský Pospíšil (1850–1943). “Admiral Tegetthoff” expedition ship was permanently trapped in ice four months after leaving, drifting uncontrollably in the Arctic Ocean for more than two years by the force of winds and sea currents. After the second winter, the decimated expedition members set out on foot, sleighs and boats along the thawing sea to the south, where they were rescued off the coast of the Novaja Zemlja archipelago by a Russian fishing boat. Payer documented the expedition with several dozen pen drawings and several oil paintings. He also created a few monumental canvases called the Franklin Polar Cycle, focusing on the tragic fate of Sir John Franklin’s polar expedition from 1845. Julius Payer was promoted to a nobleman with the title of “von”and in 1915, he was buried in an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Julius Payer House in Longyearbyen, named after this man of many professions, is the most important part of the Czech Arctic Research Infrastructure – “Josef Svoboda Station” in Svalbard.

Prague native Heinrich W. Klutschak (1848–1890) was an adventurer and explorer, who as a draftsman and surveyor partook in an 1878 American expedition headed by Frederick Schwatka. Klutschak set off north from Hudson Bay at the behest of the American Geographical Society in order to look for written records thought to have been left there by members of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition. Klutschak failed to find the documents, nevertheless, he described his journey from the years 1878–1880 in his book written in German, Als Eskimo unter den Eskimos.

In 1897, the gold prospector Václav (William) Štípek (1869/70?–1952), a native of the village of Sedlice near Kutná Hora, set out for the Klondike region of the Yukon and from 1905, he was a stationery dealer in Nome, Alaska. One of his daughters, Karolína/Caroline Stipek (1895–1973), known in Alaska as Carrie McLain, founded a Gold Rush Museum bearing her name.

The daughter of Czech parents, Frances Sedlacek (1870–1944) of Wahoo, Nebraska can also be counted among the legendary pioneers of Alaska. Later going under the married name of Fannie Quigley, in 1897, aged just twenty-seven, she traveled to Klondike in the grips of Gold Rush fever and she became a legend there. Despite never having shot an animal prior to her arrival in the far North, Frances Sedlacek nonetheless became a legendary and resilient hunter, known across all Alaska. She spoke in a coarse foul-mouthed manner, full of English-language mistakes, and wore unkempt men’s clothing. In addition, Sedlacek also gained notoriety as a prolific drinker. She spent the rest of her years alone, dying in 1944 in her hunting lodge.

In 1898, a small group of gold prospectors made their way to Alaska at the behest of Czech merchant František (Francis) J. Korbel (1831–1920) of California. Today, the company Korbel established has become one of the most renowned US producers of champagnes and sparkling wines.

Jan Welzl (1868–1948) from Zábřeh na Moravě was the most popular Czech in the Arctic and the most famous Arctic traveler from Central Europe, an adventurer, hunter, gold digger, Chief Justice in the New Siberia Islands and writer. He is also known under the pseudonyms Eskymo Welzl, Moravian Eskimo, Arctic Bismarck or Bear Eater. The area of ​​his business activities allegedly stretched from the Land of Franz Joseph to Alaska and northern Canada, where he supplied hunters, gold diggers and polar explorers with food, medicine, ammunition and other necessary goods. He allegedly also delivered mail with a dog sled. He reportedly had a friendly relationship with Indigenous Inuits and Indians in Canada and Alaska, but his contacts with the indigenous people of the far North are difficult to prove. Based on Welzl’s narration, the book Třicet let na Zlatém severu (Thirty Years in the Golden North, 1930) was published, which has so far been published in Czech in more than 70,000 copies. Welzl died in 1948 and is buried in Dawson City.

Aleš Hrdlička (1869–1943), born at Humpolec, was a noted Czech anthropologist and archaeologist, with a particular interest in Alaska. In 1882, the entire family immigrated to the United States. From 1926 to 1938, he completed several pioneering anthropological expeditions to the Alaskan rivers, to Kodiak Island, to the Aleutian and Commodore Islands, and to Siberia. He collected a huge number of artifacts, including mummies, and proved anthropological relatedness between Asian Chukchi and Eskimos and between the morphological types of Neolithic Siberians and today’s types of some modern American Indians. On the other hand, he found fundamental anthropological differences between the Aleutians and Eskimos, which was important in mapping the migration of their predecessors from Asia.

Ladislav Heger (1902 –1975), a translator from Germanic languages, including Old Norse, paid special attention to Old Germanic literature, including Old Icelandic sagas and Nordic ballads. Professor of Nordic Studies, Helena Kadečková (1932–2018), followed in his footsteps.

Václav Marek (1908–1994), born at Sadská in Central Bohemia, was a Czech traveler, writer, publicist, expert, translator and researcher of the Sami languages. In the 1930s and 40s, he lived in the Susna River Valley in Norwegian Lapland. He organized a collection of Sámi legends and fairy tales Noidova smrt  (The Noid’s Death, 2000) and wrote the book Staré laponské náboženství (2009), a study on the Old Sámi religion.

Botanist and ecologist Emil Hadač (1914 –2003) was the leader of Czechoslovak expeditions to Iceland (1936, 1937, 1948) and Svalbard (1939). In 1994, he became the first laureate of the Award of the Minister of the Environment of the Czech Republic “for a lifelong work in ecology and botany“.

The most famous Czech radiologist, a well-known polar researcher and writer with a long-standing interest in the Arctic, František Běhounek (1898–1973), was the first Czech to reach the North Pole. As a cosmic ray specialist, he participated in Umberto Nobile’s expedition to the North Pole on the airship Italia in 1928. The subsequent shipwreck on the return from the pole, a several-week stay on an ice floe and rescue by the Soviet icebreaker Krasin was described in Běhounek’s book Trosečníci na kře ledové (Castaways on an Ice Floe, 1928), later published as Trosečníci polárního moře (Castaways in the Arctic Ocean) – the book has been published in Czech since 1955 to this day in at least five editions with a total circulation of 200,000 copies. It has been translated into many languages.

Rudolf Krejčí (aka Rudolph W. Krejci, 1929–2018), born in the village of Hrušky near Břeclav, fled to Austria in 1949. He started working at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska where he remained for the rest of his life. There he founded Philosophy and Humanities Programmes. Among his personal pursuits were an effort to preserve and enable public access to the literary works of Jan Welzl.

Josef Svoboda (born 1929), Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto and since 2021 an Officer of the Order of Canada, is a significant Czech-Canadian Arctic tundra botanist and ecologist. In the former Czechoslovakia he was a political prisoner (1949–1958). The Czech Arctic Research Infrastructure in Svalbard is named after him.

Jiří Komárek (born 1931) is a Czech algologist who began his scientific career with pioneering work – the first measurement of the primary production of snow algae in the High visiting professor he worked at universities in Japan, Canada and Mexico. He significantly participated in the Czech polar programme and the construction of Czech research stations in the Antarctic and Svalbard.

Stanislav Chládek (1937–2020), the world champion in wild water canoeing, emigrated to the USA in 1969. He made several sea kayak expeditions to the Aleutian Islands, where he studied the culture of the local population. He is the author of a notable Czech work Po stopách lovců velryb v severním Pacifiku – Kronika ztraceného světa aleutských kajakářů (In the Footsteps of Whale Hunters in the Northern Pacific – A Chronicle of the Lost Worlds of the Aleutian Kayakers, 2016).

Věra Komárková (1942–2005), born in Písek and living from 1968 in the United States and Switzerland, was an important botanist and avid pioneer of women’s mountaineering. She received her doctoral degree in plant ecology from the University of Colorado, and her colleagues called her “the greatest phytosociologist in the United States”, but she did not gain official recognition until later in life. In 1976, she was the first Czech woman to conquer Denali, North America’s highest mountain, and in 1984, she became the first woman – together with another Slovak climber – to reach the top of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain.

Vlasta Jankovská (born 1942) is an important Czech paleoecologist who studies the history of the relationships of living things and their environment in the past. She works with geomorphologists, geologists and climatologists and has carried out research in the High Artic, in the subarctic regions of Scandinavia and Russian Eurasia.

Miroslav Podhorský (born 1945) of Havlíčkův Brod emigrated in 1968 to Germany and the US. Returning to his native land after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he began publishing travelogues and popular educational works. During the past fifty years, he has made repeated trips to Alaska, traversing its waterways by kayak and canoe. He has written several publications about Alaska, including the historical work Dějiny Aljašky – země na východ od slunce: Ruská Amerika 1732–1867 (The History of Alaska – A Land to the East of the Sun: Russian America, 1732–1867, 2018).

Over the past two decades, the travelogues of Choceň native Leoš Šimánek (born 1946) have found particular favor with Czech readers. Šimánek has authored more than thirty books, most of which are devoted to Northern Canada and the US – the country to which he fled following his escape from communist Czechoslovakia, subsequently spending considerable time traveling there.

The climatologist Professor Pavel Prošek (born 1940) took part in three scientific expeditions to Svalbard in 1985–1990 and in nine expeditions to the Antarctic in 1994–2007. He became the spiritual father of the first Czech research polar station on James Ross Island.

Oleg Ditrich (born 1953) is a parasitologist at the Centre for Polar Ecology at the Faculty of Science of the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice and at the Department of Parasitology at the same faculty. Together with Josef Elster, he is co-founder of the Czech Arctic Research Infrastructure, “Josef Svoboda Station” in Svalbard.

Professor Josef Elster (born 1958) is a polar microbiologist and ecologist and the founder of the Centre for Polar Ecology at the Faculty of Science of the University of South Bohemia. He was the main researcher of the project of establishing the Czech Arctic Research Infrastructure, and – together with Oleg Ditrich – he is the founder of “Josef Svoboda Station” in Svalbard. At the beginning of his scientific focus on polar microbiology, he worked for three years in the laboratory of Professor Josef Svoboda on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. He participated in 38 scientific polar expeditions to various regions of the Arctic and the Antarctic. He also participated in the project of establishing the Czech Antarctic Station J. G. Mendel on James Ross Island. With the help of the British Antarctic Survey and together with Dr. Zdeněk Venera from the Czech Geological Survey, he proposed a site for the establishment of a Czech Antarctic station. In 2012, he led the Czech Republic and Czech science to membership in the International Arctic Science Committee, in which the Czech Republic has been represented since 2012; in 2012–2021, he participated in the work of the Terrestrial Working Group (TWG) and chaired this working group in 2019–2021.

Among the Czech extreme athletes in the Arctic, we can mention, for example, Radek Jaroš (born 1964), the first Czech to climb all fourteen of the world’s eight-thousanders, incl. Denali without the use of oxygen, or the winner of the traditional 1100-mile race of Iditarod through the Alaskan wilderness in the category of cyclists Jan Kopka (born 1963). The well-known polar explorer Miroslav Jakeš (born 1951), who was also the first Czech to get to the North and South Poles and cross the Greenland ice sheet on skis, also crossed the track of the Alaskan Iditarod race on foot. The Czech-American Misha Wiljes (born 1968) lives in Alaska and runs the Iditarod race. The scientist Jan Lukačevič (born 1992), who works at the Department of Space Physics of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, also participates in Alaskan expeditions with dog sleds. His team is developing experiments that are part of major missions by the European Space Agency and NASA.

Vojta Novák, born in the village of Morávka in the Beskydy Mountains, has been working in Alaska since 2000. He is the owner of Alaskan Fisherman and the Czech guarantor of salmon fishing in Alaska.

As for Czech film in the Arctic, it is worth mentioning the documentary filmmaker, director and photographer Milan Maryška (1943–2002) and cinematographer, director and photographer Petr Volf (born 1940), the authors of acclaimed “Arctic” documentaries from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s of the 20th century, eg. the six-part cycle Jenisej, člověk a řeka (Yenisei, Man and River) and the four-part cycle Sibiř – země žalu, země naděje (Siberia – Land of Sorrow, Land of Hope), but also several documentaries from Svalbard (since 1985). Ladislav Moulis Sr. (born 1960) has been presenting, promoting and popularizing Alaska for almost thirty years. Martin Ryšavý (born 1967) is an important screenwriter and director of films from northern Siberia. Ladislav Moulis Jr. (born 1988) belongs to other Czech “Arctic” filmmakers, together with Tomáš Mähring, Jiří Hočička, Jakub Frey, Martin Vrbický (born 1986), M. Petrov and many others.

Zdeněk Lyčka (born 1958), who, among other things, took part in the Arctic Circle Race on skis and crossed the Greenland ice sheet on skis, systematically deals with the promotion of “Arctic” authors, the translation of their works into Czech and, in part, with the teaching of Greenlandic. He is the spiritual father and main organizer of the traditional Arctic Festival, focused on the promotion of Czech-Arctic scientific projects and Arctic culture in the Czech Republic.

Michal Kovář (born 1974) systematically deals with the promotion of Sámi authors, the translation of their works into Czech and the teaching of Sámi at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague.

 

Our New Generation

We are very proud of the number of young Czechs who have shown an interest in Arctic studies. Since 2008, there have been 136 students (of which about 54% women) enrolled in Arctic Ecology Courses given at the University of South Bohemia in Česke Budějovice and doing research in Svalbard. The graduates (of which more than 50% are women) continue their further scientific careers in the Arctic.

 

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