Jan Wanggaard and Dag Leslie Hansen feared they were entering hostile territory when they landed in the Nunavut hamlet of Cambridge Bay this summer.
The two Norwegians are tasked with determining how to raise a ship called the Maud from the Arctic harbour where it sank more than 80 years ago and return it to Norway to become the centrepiece of a new museum.
"We were of course a bit worried about the reception here," acknowledges Mr. Wanggaard, the project manager for Maud Returns Home. Many of the locals are less than enthusiastic about the Norwegians' quest.
The Maud was designed and built for famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen of Norway who tried – but failed – to take it to the North Pole. With a portion of its starboard side still poking out of the water, it has become a landmark and a tourist attraction. And a vocal group of Cambridge Bay residents is determined to keep it where it is.
But Mr. Wanggaard and Mr. Hansen, a photographer, were still greeted warmly when they arrived to survey the ship and determine the best way of transporting it back to their homeland.
"We understand there are a few people who wish the ship to stay," said Mr. Wanggaard in an e-mail written between dives. "But our experience is that the man on the street is mainly supporting us."
Some of the elders even apologized for scavenging the Maud for building materials more than a half century ago, Mr. Wanggaard said. "I excused them for that on behalf of Roald Amundsen himself, who I am sure would have thought that would be the right thing to do,"
The Maud was purchased by the community of Asker, just west of Oslo, for $1 from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1990. The retailer had bought it after it was abandoned by Mr. Amundsen in 1925. It is now up to the federal government to decide if the Norwegians will be allowed to remove the ship from Canadian waters.
In addition to determining how best to raise the Maud from the harbour floor, Mr. Wanggaard is conducting a public-relations exercise. He met last week with members of the Cambridge Bay municipal council and hopes to have another public meeting before he leaves, either this week or next. So far, the response has been mixed.
"A lot of us believe that, if she's moved, or they try to raise her, they're going to break her up and we don't want to see that happen," said Syd Glawson, mayor of Cambridge Bay.
"We listened to them at council meeting and their plan seems logical," he said. "But it doesn't relieve our concerns that they will destroy her."
Mr. Glawson and some of the other residents of Cambridge Bay would prefer that the Norwegians build a replica of the Maud, much like was done with the iconic Bluenose Schooner in Nova Scotia.
That way, said Mr. Glawson, the ship could travel between Norway and his community giving people a chance to experience what it was like to sail on the Maud as well as to see the original wreckage.
But the Norwegians have not expressed much interest in that idea. "It seems to me they are dead set on taking it home," said Mr. Glawson.
In the end, he said, it will be Ottawa that decides whether the Maud can be taken to Norway. "If they give them a permit to move it then there's nothing we can do, unless we take up arms, or maybe have a curling game for it."
If Mr. Wanggaard and his group are successful in persuading the Canadian government to let the Maud go, the Norwegians will return with a tug boat and a submersible barge next summer and the ship will be on its way home before the autumn of 2012.
Mr. Wanggaard said he is optimistic about what he is seeing below the water's surface. The wood and the structural state of the Maud both seem to be in good condition, he said.
"When I swim around the ship at the level of the seabed, the ship looks overwhelming and tremendously big. There is a lot of Norwegian oak still left in this ship," said Mr. Wanggaard.
As for the reluctance of some Cambridge Bay residents to say goodbye to the wreck, Mr. Wanggaard said: "We wish more than anything to somehow join forces to make this project their project as well. Something to be proud of for everyone."