BISMARCK, N.D. — On Nov. 22, 1999, Stanton native Art Mortvedt landed his 1980 model Cessna 185 at the South Pole. On April 6 this year, he flew the same airplane, a bright orange single-engine craft dubbed the “Polar Pumpkin,” across the North Pole, making him the first pilot to cross both poles in the same single-engine airplane.
Mortvedt, 63, who with his wife, Damaris, owns and operates Peace of Selby Wilderness Lodge in the Brooks Range of Alaska, is apparently a bit of an adventurer. But he prefers to be called curious.
A member of the Explorer’s Club of New York and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London, Mortvedt has flown more than 20 scientific missions to Antarctica.
He’s logged more than 6,000 hours of flying, which includes six expeditions to Greenland.
His recent crossing of the North Pole was his third attempt since 2011. He was turned back by the weather on his first two attempts.
Mortvedt said he grew up a “farm kid” on the site where the Leland Olds Station now sits along the bank of the Missouri River.
He says he comes by his curiosity naturally, thanks to a number of mentors who sparked his interest in science and nature.
“My dad (Alfred) was the biggest influence,” he said. “He was interested in everything.”
Then there was George Sagehorn, who worked at the courthouse in Stanton. Sagehorn was a local expert on the Knife River Indian Villages, the home of Sakakawea.
And there was Martin Schow, who owned the first airplane and airport in Stanton. Schow’s daughter, Geneva Schow Oleson, recently became the first woman inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.
After graduating from high school, Mortvedt attended Dickinson State College, earning degrees in math and chemistry.
Martin Schow had since died, but Mortvedt said it was through Schow’s family he received a scholarship to learn to fly.
“It’s with many thanks to their family that I am flying today,” he said.
A man on a mission
When he landed at the South Pole in 1999, Mortvedt said, he had a passing thought of how cool it would be to fly the same airplane to the North Pole.
He said it wasn’t as much a personal goal as it was one to demonstrate the value of a light aircraft in conducting scientific research.
On his mission to the North Pole, Mortvedt and the Polar Pumpkin carried specialized equipment, including an aethylometer, an instrument that measures, in real time, the concentration of optically absorbed aerosol particles in the atmosphere.
The absorption, normally due to black carbon particles released by the burning of fossil fuels, can’t be seen but absorbs energy from the sun.
And like anything that absorbs sunlight, it heats up and could be adding to global warming and climate change.
“That data is being processed now at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks,” he said.
One of the main reasons he wanted to incorporate science into his expedition is to further the concept of “citizen scientists,” he said.
Mortvedt told the Alaska Dispatch one of his goals is “to show that all of us with a humble education, but a strong passion, can make worthwhile contributions to scientific knowledge.”
While at the South Pole in 2008, Mortvedt was part of an expedition that discovered what are called extremophiles, organisms survive and thrive in conditions that would be detrimental to most forms of life on Earth.
An example would be thermophiles that produce bright colors at geysers in Yellowstone National Park.
One of the discoveries, about a half mile beneath the surface of an Antarctic lake, was a variety of cyanobacteria. Subsequently, Mortvedt said a fossilized form of the same bacteria was found that dated back 3.5 billion years.
Mortvedt said his Polar Pumpkin is modified to fly in cold weather, including an on-line satellite-aided tracking system by which his wife can follow his progress and a satellite phone to talk to his wife when conditions allow.
After bringing the Polar Pumpkin from Antarctica to California for an overhaul, Mortvedt recertified and reregistered the airplane with the new tail number “N90SN.”
For him, it symbolizes the journey from pole to pole, with 90 representing the latitude of the poles.
He said the successes in his 40-some years of flying have been the result of help from a lot of people, many of whom he has never met.
Along the cowling and under the wings of the Polar Pumpkin, the names of some of those people are inscribed.
Fortunately, conditions were right for a satellite-phone call as Mortvedt neared the North Pole.
The first call he made as he crossed the North Pole was to his wife.“I wanted to talk to her as I flew over the pole,” he said. “She was such a big part of this and all of my expeditions.”
Mortvedt had this entry in his journal about his wife. “Her voice and spirit were there in the cockpit with me — for which I am very grateful.”
Mortvedt said when he reached the North Pole, the ice was too unstable to risk a landing, so he landed at Ice Station Barneo, a camp manned by Russian scientists about 20 miles from the actual geographic pole.
Normally, Mortvedt said, he can fly about six hours in the Polar Pumpkin. But modifications to carry extra fuel were needed.
From takeoff to landing, he said, flight time was about 7½ hours.
Mortvedt was in Bismarck last week on his way to Wisconsin via Chicago for the Oshkosh air show later this month.
While in Chicago, he said he was invited to attend graduation at Rickover Naval Academy, a college preparatory high school that had been following his North Pole adventure.
During his career as a bush pilot, Mortvedt has been a national park ranger, a fisheries technician and a teacher in an Eskimo school.
On one of his adventures in Namibia, he said he found himself sitting in a mud hut in a Ovahimba village with two women.
He said they were preparing a meal — kernel by kernel — “just like they have been doing for hundreds of years.”
It was in many respects, he said, an “aha” moment, bringing full circle what we can learn from the world in which we live.
“I was honored to be there at that time with them,” he said.
It’s the message he has for all people, particularly youth: Stay curious.
“It’s a big world out there,” he said. “And there are millions of possibilities.”