It's fitting that Dr. Fred Roots, renowned Canadian geologist, adventurer, polar explorer and educator — who died last week at 94 years old — doesn't have just one mountain bearing his name: he's got a whole range.

The Roots Range in Antarctica effectively represents a lifetime of accomplishments, most of them done in far-off places and largely out of the spotlight.

Roots was part of the pioneering Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic expedition of 1949-52 (the first by an international team of scientists); he helped establish the Polar Continental Shelf Program; and he was a science adviser to the Canadian government for decades. He has written hundreds of scientific papers and helped draft the Antarctic Treaty.

Roots has also been decorated by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and earlier this year went to New York City to receive a medal from the historic Explorers Club (past recipients of the medal include Neil Armstrong, Roald Amundsen, Jane Goodall and Sir Edmund Hillary).

Fred Roots

Undated photo of a young Fred Roots at the drafting board. (Submitted by Students on Ice)

And once, in 1949, Roots gave a lecture at Princeton University and saw Albert Einstein sitting in the front row. 

Despite all that, Roots is hardly a household name in Canada.

"He's like many Canadians of that calibre," said Andy Williams, who, as the longtime manager of Yukon's Kluane Research Station, which researches the Arctic, got to know Roots well. "He's very self-effacing, very quiet, hugely competent, and respected internationally — no question about that.

"Fred's reputation as a traveller and explorer in the high Arctic and Antarctic were phenomenal."

Roots was born in Salmon Arm, B.C., and died in East Sooke, B.C., but in between, he spent a lot of time in Yukon, researching and exploring the mountains in the territory's southwest.

He helped establish and support the Kluane Research Station, and his son — the late Charlie Roots, another renowned geoscientist — made Yukon home. 

"[Fred] did tell me his interest in geology was largely because it involved climbing mountains," Williams recalled.

The spirit of Fred

"To me, he's a real unsung Canadian hero," said Geoff Green, executive director of Students on Ice, an organization that takes students on educational trips to the polar regions.

He first met Roots 20 years ago at a meeting of the Canadian Polar Commission in Ottawa. Green was pitching the idea for Students on Ice and "Fred was the guy that said to me, 'This is a great idea, we should do this.'

Fred Roots

Roots with a Students on Ice group. 'I think he really enjoyed passing on his enormous amount of knowledge to young people,' said friend Andy Williams. (Alex Taylor/Students on Ice)

"Right from the beginning, he was one of the founding fathers of that program, but he became a dear friend and a  mentor, and mentor to hundreds and hundreds of students around the world." 

Roots stayed involved with Students on Ice even into his final months; his last trip with the organization was to western Greenland in August.

Green says students always responded to Roots' intellect and "this just genuine spirit that Fred had."

According to Williams, Roots' "principle love was as an educator."

"I think he really enjoyed passing on his enormous amount of knowledge to young people."

Green describes a hike Roots took with the Students on Ice in August onto Greenland's ice shelf.

"He did the whole hike, but he didn't just do the hike. He helped one of these students, who was 80 years younger than him, but had cerebral palsy, and he held her hand the whole way.

"Since the news of Fred's passing, there's literally been hundreds of messages just pouring in from around the world from these students that Fred touched."

'Loved far and wide'

Green sees Roots' passing as nothing less than "the end of an era." 

He was a living link to a heroic age of polar travel and research, before the Arctic and Antarctic regions became the playgrounds of moneyed tourists and would-be Amundsens.

Fred Roots

Roots helped draft the Antarctic Treaty, which established that the continent would be used for 'peaceful purposes only' and co-operative scientific research. Fifty-three countries have signed onto the treaty. (Lee Narraway/Students on Ice)

The 1949 Antarctic expedition, for which Roots was hired as chief geologist, was truly pioneering. It was the first to that continent by an international team of scientists, and it established that Antarctica's glaciers, like others observed elsewhere on the planet, had once been bigger. 

Roots later described it as the first evidence of global (as opposed to local) climate change.

He also set a record in Antarctica that's never been beaten — for the longest unsupported dogsled journey on that continent — 189 days.

"The belt that Fred wore to hold up his pants, almost everyday of his life, was made from the leather of the strap from his lead dog, Rachel, from 1949, which said so much about Fred and his connection to the past," Green said.

"When he represented Canada, which he did on so many issues and so many committees, often the chair of the meeting — if it wasn't Fred — would refer to Canada as 'Fred', because he just had that kind of presence and that kind of respect."

Green considers himself fortunate for having travelled with Roots earlier this year to receive his Explorers Club Medal.

"There was Fred, on stage at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, and he got two standing ovations from the crowd of 1,800 people. It was a remarkable testament to Fred.

"He was loved, far and wide."

Fred Roots

'Fred's passing represents the end of an era, I think, for many, in many ways,' said Geoff Green. (Lee Narraway/Students on Ice)

with files from Sandi Coleman